The map is not the terrain


I wish you would keep my name in mind for the sake of Balwhidder,' said I, 'and I will keep yours for the sake of my lucky day.'

'My name is not spoken,' she replied, with a great deal of haughtiness. 'More than a hundred years it has not gone upon men's tongues, save for a blink. I am nameless like the Folk of Peace. But Catriona Drummond is the one I use.'

Catriona, Robert Louis Stevenson

The description of an art work--any art work--can be viewed as a description of the work's creation. The art work seen as deed or act. These notes represent a preliminary proposal for a project for the Gemeente Oosterhout. Apart from providing the necessary background to the work, these notes give, I hope, an indication of the 'double nature' of the act involved. What I am offering is an idea while simultaneously, like Catriona in her reply to David Balfour, questioning the idea's roots, its history and its propriety.

The difference between committing an act and committing an act in order to call the act into question is very subtle. This difference lies in intention. What I propose here is a speculative activity or an operation similar to exploratory surgery, a probing of what is pre-assumed to be ill terrain. But in Oosterhout there is another, perverse, side to the operation. We do surgery. Our interest rises because it is far from sure what might turn up. Our interest also rises with the awareness that surgery might not be called for.

The naming of a new insect

The proposition...

The proposition itself seems simple, for the idea can be described in a single sentence: As an art work we will name a new species of insect after Oosterhout. This simplicity, however, is deceiving, for as I will try to show, the implications of this work are such that a full description and the tracing of all its possible relationships threatens the encyclopaedia. But to name an insect Oosterhout is the fundamental principle. An act of naming to honour the 'gemeente'.

But why name a species after Oosterhout?

For Oosterhout, this is an honour that lies outside its usual territory. Questions are asked, eyebrows raised.

"An insect species?"

"And where does this species come from?"

Perhaps, to begin, some definitions are in order.

A definition of species

Species should be thought of as life's most basic unit or building block. A species is a group of organisms that are similar enough genetically that they can breed and continue to bare fertile offspring. The category is such that it spans racial differences within the group. All races of men, for example, belong to the single species called homo sapiens. Likewise, although there are many different varieties of dog demonstrating a great deal of physical variation, they all belong to the species Canis familiaris. It is important to understand that as far as realising the goal of perpetuating life, the concept of species supersedes that of the individual.

The estimates concerning the number of species

Over the last centuries the species of man has identified, classified and given a name to about 1.4 million species of living organisms, ranging from bacteria to blue whales. We know, however, that there are many more species on earth not yet "discovered". Scientific estimations, until about 10 years ago, placed the total number to be about 5 million. Today, based upon samplings done in the South American rain forests and other locations that sustain a high degree of diversity this number has been substantially re-estimated to be 30 million or more. Many of these species are restricted to specific habitats and biomes that are very small--often less than a kilometre square. This endemism, or narrowness of range, makes them extremely vulnerable.

Speciation is something that occurs over millions of years

Species do not arise overnight. Evolutionary processes involve millions of years of genetic selection. A species maintains its uniqueness through its sexual and genetic isolating mechanisms. A species becomes more and more specialised through its struggle to optimise its reproductive chances.

Biodiversity: the importance and significance of species

The position of the world's biodiversity was a major agenda point at United Nations conference that recently took place in Rio de Janeiro.

Biodiversity is the term used to describe the great variety of life forms found upon earth. Because of factors introduced by the presence of man, such as climatic changes and the destruction of the world's rain forests, a mass extinction is now occurring which poses a grave threat to the continuance of much of the life on earth. The implications of this loss can be perceived in a number of different ways:

  1. As a loss of an important economic resource. This appears to be the primary political motivation for protecting biodiversity and the main point of disagreement between us, the First World and them, the Third World in the signing of a treaty. Who should have right of use, those who have developed the utilitization technology or those on whose land the resources exist?
  2. As a loss of pure scientific information, representing massive amounts of unique genetic data. Involved here is the notion that although some of this information might not be of practical use and economic importance now, it might very well be in the near future. Information is a commodity and this information represents an investment. Our future is something that no one can predict.
  3. As a loss whose repercussions could threaten our own existence. Ecosystems and biomes depend upon each other. Contrary to popular belief, man depends upon other life to survive. A crash of a few key ecosystems can easily precipitate a domino effect.
  4. As a loss of something that deserves to exist for its own sake. A purely aesthetic loss where we experience a sense of shame seeing how our needs are forcing many life forms, which have lived on the planet for millions of years, to disappear.

How the naming is done

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them; and whatever Adam called every living creature that was its name.

And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to all fowl of the air, and to all the wild beasts; but for Adam there was not found a helper that was equal to him.

Genesis 2: 19-20

That we have not named all the species is due to the fact that most of life on earth lives in largely unexplored and not easily accessible areas. Naming is a double edged sword. We name in order to classify and label, to build a body of knowledge. But a name can also become a human blind spot, the act of naming an act of control...

The science of naming

When we propose naming a new insect we mean to name and classify scientifically as opposed to giving a species a common name. Common names differ from language to language, place to place or even household to household (in this latter case we can think of secret words, the names given by children and magical names). Common names are flexible and non-precise, often the same names are used for different things. On the other hand, scientific names are unique, fixed and regulated by international convention. This makes for a universal language that everyone can agree upon. It also provides a structure for the classification of organisms. The practice of classification is called taxonomy.

The technical process

The steps involved in the taxonomic procedure are time consuming, involving careful observation and research and the preparation of a technical paper. Most marked in this paper is the extremely thorough description of the morphology (the physical structure) of the candidate organism. It is important that the material (another name for the samples on which the classification is based) be individually specified and listed together with the names of the institutions from which the material was borrowed so that other scientists can check the taxonomic process. Comparisons with similar species are made and by these comparisons the new organism is named and placed within a category. Finally, before the name and the classification are accepted by the world scientific community, the paper must be published in a recognised journal or other publication.

Why should a biologist name a species after Oosterhout?

Which name is actually given to a new species is the prerogative of the biologist who writes the paper for publication. The name itself is usually Latin or latinised with an appropriate suffix and follows other standard rules of form. The etymology of the name is generally stated at the end of the paper and is usually one of the following:

  • The organism is named after its discoverer or classifier.
  • The organism is named after the location where it was found.
  • The organism is named for one of its more distinctive morphological features.
  • The organism is named in honour of an individual who has made important contributions to the field.

"Why should anyone name a species after Oosterhout?", is a question I have been asked and have asked myself many times. I don't know. A new species is never named after a town with which it has nothing in common.

Entering Oosterhout

The invitation to make an art work in Oosterhout has been put forward as an inquiry: how can the art work 'function' within public space?

Responding to this, I made some intuitive decisions at the outset, which I think pretty well reflect my attitude. The first was my rejection of the 'art object' as an entity with any future within Oosterhout. This follows a personal distrust in the algebra of such 'objects'--what I tend to see and group together as brave kunstwerken. I believe Oosterhout is much better off without yet another of these objects.

In addition, it seemed a pointless exercise to have to hunt for 'public space' wandering within the boundaries of Oosterhout's streets. I did not want to look for some specific physical feature or activity and transform it into an excuse in which to evolve a work. I felt this would be taking the first step in the wrong direction.

The trouble with myths

To borrow a euphemism from the police, this initiative to sponsor an exhibition can be described as a 'situation', involving what I see as several 'undesirable' elements, namely: art objects, public space and Oosterhout.

These elements are essentially mythic structures. Mythic structures consist of hearsay and mannerisms that are handed down, like inherited suitcases, from generation to generation. Over time the suitcases gain authority and become 'monumental'. These myths or monuments OF code become 'undesirable' when they turn into monuments TO code. The transition from one to the other is devious. Through force of habit we hardly notice the change. Fairy tales and instructional stories, taxes once introduced as temporary measures, emergency procedures and hypothesises, all become law.

The elements of this 'situation' in Oosterhout, indeed 'Oosterhout' itself, are precisely such monuments or authorities. Examined carefully we see that each term was formulated long ago in different circumstances, circumstances that have changed beyond recognition. (During the last years we have travelled, in the most unimaginable ways and at the most unimaginable speed, into new territory. If we measure change we can see that we are still accelerating. Why then are we unable to adopt views which accept our built-in obsolescence as inevitable? Will we ever be able to replace our inanimate models with models endowed with intelligence and their own purpose?)

The authorities are overdue for questioning. Unfortunately the suspects, the 'art object', 'public space' and 'Oosterhout' are strong forms, with a lot of support. Many of us depend for a livelihood upon their continued existence which means they can only be questioned and not completely eliminated. Even if we do temporarily manage to damage them, our hands are empty; we lack other models, other paradigms, there is nothing to replace them. Nevertheless, blind engagement in their use amounts, at this time, to a gross navigational error. Instead, we feel by taking them apart we might open a space for more accurate or more interesting myths.

Reflecting on the myth of Oosterhout

As we are trying to establish a link between Oosterhout and the naming of an insect species, let us for the moment put aside a lack of faith in the 'art object' and the 'public space' and try to point out signs that would attest to seeing Oosterhout as a myth.

Name and appearance

Oosterhout goes by its name. A name that has persisted for more than 700 years. The name designates a particular place but we feel that it also designates a certain character, an identity. Or that it did once upon a time. Today this character is difficult to characterise. Oosterhout on the outside seems no different from other gemeentes in the region or, for that matter, many similar communities in Nederland.

We are reminded, in the facelessness of Oosterhout, of a trend we see inside the supermarket and the pharmacy, that of the no name brand, the generic consumer product. When we step outside, no matter where we are, we see the same winkelstraat, with the same stores.

So if we were to describe Oosterhout in terms of a geography of shopping or a geography of trade--which we are told was one of the main stimuli, together with the preparation for warfare, for the historic rise of the human settlement--we could not say that the physical character of the geography was unique. The same holds true for Oosterhout's housing policies, the layout of its public recreation areas and its other features.

Now the question is: If it is not to specific external features that Oosterhout owes its name, to what does Oosterhout's name refer?

Name and the law

To a large extent what actually defines Oosterhout is its civil organisation. It is the government of the gemeente that defines its borders, attracts its industries, and controls its streets. In the stadhuis, laws, rules and timetables are specifically tailored to regulate the life of the community. But this also seems a reason to hold the unique identity of Oosterhout suspect. The basic political structures underlying Oosterhout's government were not formulated yesterday but in another century and for another world. And our comparisons show that today's specifics seem to vary little from gemeente to gemeente. Everywhere the same form exists to serve the same purpose.

So does Oosterhout have an identity? Is not an identity implied in Oosterhout's name?

Oosterhout as ultimately an 'invention' of peoples minds

Oosterhout's existence, its identity, seems ultimately a matter of psychology, an internal matter. To use the name Oosterhout is purely habit, the idea that the name represents something--an invention.

Following this logic it would appear the most appropriate way to think of Oosterhout is in terms of its psychotopology, the place Oosterhout holds in people's minds.

The proposed art work explores and maps this psychotopology.

Mapping Oosterhout as an organism

I hope that the preceding notes indicate the mental background surrounding the project to name a new species of insect after Oosterhout. I suggest this new species be an insect for reasons both pragmatic and aesthetic. Insects are by far the largest single class of life on earth and will probably remain so in the future. According to the estimates, more than 80% of the unclassified species in the rain forest are insects. Most risk the same extinction as other species but a few varieties have shown extreme adaptability to the nastiest environments that mankind can create, a reason that many scientists believe that these organisms will be the ultimate inheritors of the earth. Pragmatically, there is considerable unclassified insect material available. It isn't necessary to go hunting.

Aesthetically, I am attracted to the idea that most people--including myself--don't particularly find insects--with the possible exception of butterflies--beautiful. One of the difficulties in drawing the public's attention to the issues of biodiversity is that the majority of species aren't as large and sentimentally appealing as whales and panda bears. Who is moved to action or tears by the threat of extinction to a cockroach or a worm? It has crossed my mind that the ideologies of deep ecology, especially voluntary restraint and life for life's sake, seem in some way to mirror our 19th century art model of aesthetic disinterest, the notion of art for art's sake.

My proposal, this 'exploratory surgery', is a chance to expose in a small way Oosterhout's presence to itself and within the world. That it uses the naming of a species as an operating procedure to achieve this purpose is complex and perhaps even ethically unscrupulous. This is the "committing of an act in order to call that act into question" that I referred to at the beginning of this outline and which for me is an intrinsic aspect to this art work. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, explorers travelled the world in wooden ships, naming every geographical feature they found, for the republic, for their benefactors and sponsors, for the King and Queen. Naming has always been a form of conquest and exercising power. Much of our human difficulty to reconcile ourselves with nature seems to stem from our 'will to conquest'.

How to present this work within the context of a temporary exhibition dedicated to transforming public space? One idea would be to continue tracing the peripherals, a few of which I have mentioned: the global threat to biodiversity; the economics of genetic resources; the right (ethics) of man's power and control over evolutionary processes and the significance of the new genetic technologies; onomastics and study of the name and the named (signifier and signified); the history of man as classifying organism and the limits to that classification; the story of Rumpelstilskin and the role of magic in naming; the changing understanding of public space and the artists role within that space; the morphology and life cycle of a species of insect as model for the identity of a community; public space versus the temporary autonomous zone and so on, and synthesise their relation to Oosterhout in the form of a new atlas. An atlas that maps these myths and discourses one on top of the other. A special book-work--designed perhaps as a school textbook or a children's book--with the following dedication: Changing your thoughts, changes your world.

Korzybski has said that the map IS NOT the territory. By this he means we shouldn't confuse the representation with the reality, mix up the name of the object with the object it signifies. This is fairly healthy advice--it was no accident that Korzybski placed his theory of General Semantics in a book he called Science and Sanity. Taking a step further, the deconstructive project has argued that the map refers only to other maps and there is no ultimate signified, the territory itself does not exist. If we accept this understanding we are disoriented and left chilled, the land again becomes no-mans-land, the animals disappearing leaving only their names. But what happens when we name something that had no name before? Could we not, in Oosterhout, say the map IS the territory when, by our mapping, we bring a new reality into being?

Paul Michael Perry
June 1992

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