Becoming Geographer-Artist…

Terible Karmas installation in the fitting room of an abandoned womens fashion store, the venue for Splash! - the official after party of Western Canada Fashion Week

Although unfortunately unable to attend in person, slide-shows documenting 2 creative projects I have instigated and collaboratively created and curated are being shown in a session entitled “Geographer- artists: creative practice as research tool?” at the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers happening in Seattle today.

The aim of this session is “to explore the use of creative practice as geographical research method, critically engaging with the entwining of research and creative sensibilities”. The four panels that make up the session have the different focuses of:

  1. ‘Collaborating’
  2. ‘Audiencing’
  3. ‘Participating’
  4. and ‘Reflections’

While each session has a slightly different focus all four sessions will broadly consider the possibilities creative practices offer when applied as geographical research methods (and vice versa) and will critically engage with the politics of production and consumption that arise through art-geography collaborations. The session therefore seeks to reflect on the practice of geographer-artist projects, their varied audiences and the politics involved in their knowledge production.

The papers across the four sessions engage with elements of the production, consumption and circulation of creative practices, themes for the sessions include, but are not limited to:
·        The methods and practices and experiences of ‘creative geographies’:
·        The settings for these intersections of art and geography, their production, consumption, audiences and impacts
·        The challenges of critical creative practices

What is slightly telling about this session, however, is that almost all of the participants are funded or supported by university funding bodies and structures in some way. The only presenter who appears to be unconnected with university funding and support structures is Neal White of the Office of Experiments.

In a paper entitled “Radical Knowledge Production” Neal talks on behalf of the Office of Experiments (represented by himself  as Director of Experiments – UK and artist Steve Rowell Director of Independent Research- International – USA). The paper will discuss the critical role of emerging marginal organization’s in relation to new forms of cultural production within a framework of geography.

Office of Experiments traces its origins to a tradition of ‘institutional critique’ within arts discourse. Situating their practice in the context of radical and marginal institutions, they ask how can experimental approaches to fieldwork, informational databases, photography, participatory research and collective engagements, represent new alternative realities?

The issue of marginality in relation to institutional settings is an important one and I am glad it is being raised at this session. I have spent the last year attempting to become a geographer-aritst while being unaffiliated with a university institution and without university privileges. This has involved me taking on part-time jobs at arts institutions in the city (jobs which I came to see as part of my research into the creative industries in Canada) to fund the creative projects I have initiated and collaboratively created and curated in my ‘spare time’, notably the audio-visual installation Terrible Karma: Reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (entirely self-funded) and the exhibition Fashioning Feathers: Dead Birds, Millinery Crafts and the Plumage Trade (funding for the production costs of staging the exhibition is being provided by the University of Alberta History and Classics department).

Thomas Jellis, presenting to the title of ‘Geographer-artists: artist-geographers raises an important question in this regard:

  • what kind of spaces generate the conditions in which geographer-artists come into being, not as distinct figures but rather as temporarily shared trajectories?

My questions in connection to this would be:

  •  is it possible become a geographer-artist? can one commit to this practice full-time?
  • while there are many notable examples of artists becoming geographers or artist-geographers (i.e. Trevor Paglen, Perdita Phillips, Angela Last, Amanda Thompson, Steven Rowell, Hillary Ramsden, Neal White, Amanda Rogers etc) there is less in the way of academically trained geographers committing to becoming geographer-artists (i.e. practicing full-time in this capacity).
  • To reiterate Jellis’s question what kinds spaces exist which generate the conditions for this possibility?
  • What funding bodies/structures/residencies are open to geographer-artists outside university structures/funding bodies?
  • Is being a geographer-artist a sustainable practice in the long-run if you are confined to marginal and experimental spaces outside institutional structures?
  • or do these more marginal/experimental spaces offer the conditions for more ‘radical’ knowledge and art production?
  • in other words, do they create the conditions for other ways of being geographer-artists?

While there are a number of practicing aritist-geographers presenting in the session (Angela Last, Hillary Ramsden and Neal White being of note) the majority of the other speakers are academic geographers reflecting on collaborations they have been involved in with artists and other creative producers and institutions.

While I fully support the relevance and import of art-geography collaborations and their outcomes (though some are more interesting/successful than others), it appears to me that what is missing from many of the presentations in this session are the voices of the artists and creative practitioners that the geographers have been working and collaborating with.

This may have something to do with the price of attending the AAG (it costs between $390-$435 to attend as a non-memeber) but also may be due the the fact that the audience and discourse is not of sufficient interest to artists and creative producers… in other words what would be in it for them? The American Association of Geographers Annual meeting is, after all, a meeting about communicating geographical research and practice to other geographers. This issue prompts the following questions:

  • what politics of power are involved when conversations about the import of art-geography collaborations are told from the geographer’s perspective and are confined to the disciplines institutional spaces like the AAG?
  • also if geographers are not involved in the making of the art what kinds of politics and power-relations are involved in the appropriation of artist’s (often poorly funded) work to exemplify academic (mostly well-funded) arguments and to strengthen their own geopolitical careers?
  • and finally is it possible become a geographer-artist? Is this a sustainable practice in the long-run? or must you always be an academic geographer first, creative practitioner second in you own time? Is it possible to marry the two?

To give the chairs’ of the session (Dr Harriet Hawkins and Dr Phil Jones) credit they are aware of the issues I have raised above and were very accommodating to accept a proposal to contribute to the session remotely.


These slideshows have been uploaded here to further remotely engage with this session:

This slide show documents a collaboration between two geographer artists: Adeola Enigbocan and myself.

Description of the work:

Terrible Karma: reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was a mobile audio-visual installation exploring the global reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (in which 146 garment workers, mostly young immagrent women, were killed) on its 100th anniversary: March 25th 2011.

It brought together photographs detailing working conditions of garment factories at the time of the Triangle fire and oral histories of Triangle fire survivors with audio recordings of mega-scale garment factories in Qingyuan, China and protest cries and songs of present-day garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia to invoke the contemporary and global resonances of the Triangle fire.

The title – Terrible Karma – refered to both the title of a protest song sung by Cambodian female garment workers at a union rally in Phnom Penh (July 2010 – click for translation) and to the idea that events of the garment industry past continue to haunt the present, that they are always coming back.

The work arose out of experimental geographers – Adeola Enigbokan and Merle Patchett’s – mutual desire to mark the centenary of the Triangle factory fire whilst also exploring the constraints and conditions in which garment workers continue to work, live and die.

The first installation ‘took to the streets’ on March 25th, 2011 when the audio-visuals were projected out of a UHAUL truck parked in downtown Manhattan locations associated with the events of the Triangle Fire. Passers-by were invited inside the back of the truck to experience the work from within its claustrophobic confines. In the back of the truck urban areas like New York, Qingyuan, Dhaka and Phnom Penh folded into each other as we traced the rhythm of the needle’s stitch over a century.

The the work was then installed at Splash! – the official after party of Western Canada Fashion Week Spring 2011. Splash! took place place at 10507 109 Street, formerly Donovan’s Fashions (a high-end women’s fashion outlet in Edmonton). A re-worked version of Terrible Karma was installed into the fitting rooms area, in tune with the works previous commitment to site-specificity.

This slide show documents some of the research and curatorial work conducted by myself thus far for the exhibition Fashioning Feathers: Dead Birds, Millinery Crafts and the Plumage Trade I am co-curating with Liz Gomez at the FAB gallery, University of Alberta. This exhibition arises out of research carried out by myself on taxidermy and millinery crafts and collections and pre-existing collaborative curatorial relationships between myself and the artists Kate Foster and Andrea Roe.

The exhibition develops upon work produced by Foster, Roe and myself for the 2007 show Out of Time: an exhibition inspired by the arts of taxidermy at the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.

To apply this work to a Western Canadian context and Clothing and Textiles Collection new collaborative working relationships were sought and developed between myself and Dr Liz Gomez (who has expertise in Western Canadian visual and performative culture) and staff at the University of Alberta’s Material Culture Institute and Clothing and Textiles Collection.

Exhibition Description:

“Feathers fascinate, feathers are fetishized, feathers are very much back in fashion. This exhibition takes us back to a time when the wings, bodies and heads of birds were used to adorn hats.

Fashioning Feathers… explores the complex geographies of collection, production and consumption behind the making of such ‘feather fashions’. From the hunting and killing of birds in their natural habitats, to their processing in metropolitan plumage sweatshops and crafting by professional and amateur milliners, to their becoming adornments on the heads of women in Europe and North America.

With all these human designs on bird feathers Fashioning Feathers… enlists the artwork of contemporary artists Kate Foster and Andrea Roe to help engage our curiosity to wonder at how birds use their feathers – and what we do to birds in the process of fashioning them.”

This entry was posted in art in place and the place of art, Creativity in the City, Cultural Geography, Curation as Spatial Practice, Curatorial Concerns, Events, Presentations, Happenings etc., Exhibitions, Experimental Geographies, Geographer-artists, Public Art, Sound Art, Spatial Encounters, Spatial Theory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Becoming Geographer-Artist…

  1. Brian Rosa says:

    I’ve been struggling with these questions a lot.

    It seems that having advanced degrees carries some sort of cultural cache in the art world, especially with the emphasis on research-based practice and the theoretical nature of relational aesthetics. However, if it’s hard to make a living as an academic, it’s even harder to make a living as an artist.

    Then you have the question about what art, and especially images, ‘do’. I’d like to think that a work of art can make an argument which is just as sophisticated and nuanced as an academic paper. However, the visual in research is nearly always relegated to illustration or diagram, rather than a form of argumentation within itself.

    It seems that in geography departments, creative projects (whether they be artistic or methodologically innovative) are encouraged, but with caution. Even if they raise the profile of the department, or provide the “outreach” essential to departmental assessment, creative work does not fit neatly within the formulaic rubric of research assessment. As departments are looking to be somewhat innovative, yet still tick all the boxes, it seems that experimentality will remain in the margins.

    But maybe that’s where it belongs. I am not sure that if the role of the artist-geographer was institutionally legitimated, that would be an entirely good thing.

  2. Merle says:

    Hi Brian and thanks for your comment.

    I totally agree that if it’s hard to make a living as an academic it’s even harder to make one as an artist. Which prompted me to ask the question if you ever could make a career as a committed full-time geographer-artist apart for an institutional setting? I don’t think there is an example of a geographer-artist working independently of an academic setting, except for perhaps Perdita Phillips.

    Personally I think that I will need to secure a full-time academic position and then do geographer-aritst stuff on the side and in the summer break to sustain my career. One possible option is to work an art-geography project into a post-doc funding application, but as you point out it would need to tick the boxes of “outreach” essential to funding body and departmental assessment.

    And I agree that experimentality should remain in the margins, as the further ingrained you become in an institutional setting (academic or artistic) the less potential there is for radical or experimental actions as you don’t want to rock the boat or lose your job.

    Nice to feel part of a discussion!

    Cheers, Merle

    • Annie says:

      I think that there are many invisible artist-geographers practicing art/life projects c/artographies – both consciously and unconsciously. The reason I think this is that I only realised that’s what I’ve been doing for years through context-led arts practice that is responsive to socio-spatial processes and knowledges. But it was through doing a doctorate (just submitted) that led to a more geo/graphic realisation, thanks to a hunch that I needed a supervisor in human geography on board. That started the ball rolling, so in relation to making a living, the vocation is immanent in the practice – a modus vivendi – to exist as an artist without compromising ones practice requires doing whatever to have the time needed (often without the certainty of a wage packet) – hence the marginality in terms of institutional recognition…meanwhile on the arts front ‘practice-led’ doctorate debates question the validity of art as knowledge production. In my recent experience geographic insights offer really exciting potentials for creative exploration and collaboration

      • Merle says:

        Thanks for adding your thoughts Annie.

        Great to make the point that there are many people working in and around this area and that it’s best kept as malleable as possible.

  3. James Filton says:

    Hi Merle,

    I’m struggling to come to terms with your lengthy review and questioning written in pre-emption of the conference sessions on geographer-artists. Anticipation is one thing, but some of your comments hasten a foreclosing of the discussions actually had at the conference. Whilst I sympathise that monetary and logistical concerns preclude some, if not many, from attending, I don’t think this pre-emptive blogging is productive.

    For completeness, Neal White was unable to present, and I did not notice your slide-show being exhibited.

    • Merle says:

      Hi James,

      thanks for your comment in response to my musing on what kinds of spaces create geographer-artists.

      My interest in debate around art-geography collaborations goes well beyond one conference session and I was using the event of the session (and the fact that I was supposed to be contributing) as a vehicle to pose some wider questions regarding how geographers-artists come into being to my wider readership (which includes subscriptions from artists, designers, fashion designers, museum professionals, geographers, sociologists and environmental psychologists).

      As the comment from Brian Rosa (another geographer-artist not attending but interested in the issues surrounding the sustainability of being one) highlights, there are other academic/artists who are struggling with the notion of what being a geographer-artist entails (its possibilities and problematics) who did not attend the conference but are actively involved in both producing academic commentary on such issues but also, importantly, artistic works.

      I understand why you might question my engaging with conference papers I was never going to hear (particularly given abstracts don’t always reflect what is actually presented and often speakers pull out). This said, for those not attending the conference but interested in the issues being raised the only thing to go on was the conference abstracts. As entities in themselves, the two that I cite above happened to be the ones that posed the most interesting questions to me and which provoked some of my own questions, questions I would have posed directly had I been attending.

      Far form foreclosing debate I had hoped, by posing some questions of my own, to extend debate and bring up issues I felt weren’t being reflected in the abstracts as they stood. Of course these may well have been covered in the actual event of the sessions and perhaps as an attendee you could fill me in in this regard. The fact that you were provoked by my blog to make a comment suggests not a foreclosing but rather an opening up of discussion.

      I wonder if you could also suggest how one might go about engaging with a conference session remotely, beyond speculating on what the session descriptions and abstracts state? People have many reasons for not been able to attend a conference, including on monetary, geographical and ecological grounds. I personally think conferences should be doing more to encourage remote participation – through posters, exhibits, skype presentations and web and blog posts.

      Did you record the proceedings in some way on paper, audio or video? If so I would love to hear your account of the debates raised. Perhaps you could write a short review of the proceedings so that you can share your experience of the events with others unable to attend but still interested.

      I wonder if you could also tell me a bit about your own interest in art-geography collaborations? Are you involved in their production? If so I would love to hear about it and would be very happy to post a link to your work on my blog. Part of the goal of my blog is to create a space of engagement for those academics, artists and other interested parties (which going by other comments posted so far have included geography teachers, cartographers, poets and environmental activists) interested in practice and spaces of ‘experimental geography’ in its broadest scope.

      Writing a blog and keeping it up-to-date does take a bit of effort and eventually I would like to have other contributors writing about their practice either as geographer-artists or experimental geographers. If you are interested in contributing something – especially a review of the AAG Geography-Artist panels – that would be great.

      Best wishes,


      P.s. Just as well I did post my slide-shows here otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to view them.

    • Merle says:

      Dear “james filton”,

      it appears you don’t exist. You have no web presence and the email you left is bogus.

      If you didn’t want to author your comment then ‘anonymous’ would have sufficed.

  4. cityperson says:


    Thank you for posting this. As I was not able to attend the session, this an excellent way to open and extend the conversation to those of us interested in the material practice of working as geographer-artists. Thus far, I am not aware of other online forums which raise these issues, and in such detail.

    As Brian points out, “creative” projects are often viewed warily, or at best interesting diversions to real work, in geography (and other environmental social science) departments. As someone working to incorporate creative methods and practices into design of my doctoral research and writing, I can say that it has been a struggle, and for the variety reasons you and Brian point out.

    One of the clearest arbiters of academic taste, especially at the pre-doctoral level, is funding. I can attest to the fact that the majority of funding sources for doctoral research and writing in the social sciences tend to require research methods and topics to be framed within strict disciplinary bounds. This has the effect (much more than any amount of blogging could, I assure you) of “pre-emptively” short-circuiting conversation among students and supervisors about the creative potential for our work, and the possibilities for expanding our research methods.

    Adeola Enigbokan

  5. Hi Merle,

    Thanks for getting in touch and flagging up your blog post on the ‘Geographer-artists’ sessions at the AAG annual meeting – sorry it’s taken me a while to respond. It’s hard to believe it was already a month or so ago! I appreciated your remote engagement – as you put it – which raises a number of questions about the relationships between art and geography. I would like to make three main points in response, which centre on becomings, institutions and engagements.
    What I was trying to get at with my paper was that rather than think of the geographer-artist as a figure or (funding-) category, we might think of it as a trajectory, or a becoming. The notion of becoming is one I borrow from Deleuze, and I often return to a passage in his co-authored book Dialogues:

    “To become is never to imitate, nor to ‘do like’, nor to conform to a model, whether it’s of justice or of truth. There is no terminus from which you set out, none which you arrive at or which you ought to arrive at. Nor are there two terms which are exchanged. The question ‘What are you becoming?’ is particularly stupid. For as someone becomes, what he is becoming changes as much as he does himself.” (Deleuze & Parnet, 2006: 2)

    For Deleuze then, a becoming is a tendency which is always on the move. By drawing on this term, I wanted to get away from the idea that there are notable ‘examples’ of artists doing geographical work, or vice versa, as these end up as being like the ‘heroic figure’ of much art history, and in particular of the avant-garde; often portrayed as an intrepid character who transgresses boundaries. What my paper suggested was that whilst attention has been paid to the new or alternative methods that art offers to enliven geography, rather less work has been done to think through the spatialities of these collaborations. I want to propose that we think of geographer-artists not as pre-existing categories or figures, but as temporarily shared trajectories. I briefly provided some examples of the spaces in and through which these shared trajectories might be facilitated. These examples explored techniques for conditioning more-than-disciplinary spaces, and the potential for a sharing of practices.

    After reading your blog post, it seemed like there was some tension between wanting to escape institutions, yet at the same time wanting to be re-admitted under a new label of ‘geographer-artist’. So perhaps I should say a bit about institutions. What is telling, you remark, about the session, is how “almost all of the participants are funded or supported by university funding bodies and structures”. I’m not quite sure what you were expecting from an academic conference. Just because someone is working outside of institutions does not make that work more or less interesting. I understand that you are currently unaffiliated with a university, but unless I’m mistaken, you were a funded doctoral student at Glasgow. Another example would be Neal White, who spends part of his time at Bournemouth University and the rest on projects under the banner of the Office of Experiments. This work is fascinating and it was shame he was unable to present at the session in Seattle. It’s very hard to ‘step outside’, so to speak, of these funding structures, and perhaps we are as well placed to produce minor changes from the inside, as from the outside (immanent critique). Related to that, is your disappointment that there were very few artists in attendance. Perhaps it was due to the admission fee – I agree that the price to attend was far too much, even the student rate – but I don’t think we need to be worried that the audience or discourse is not of sufficient interest, it’s a geography conference after all. We have our own disciplinary concerns. Indeed, the notion of temporarily shared trajectory that I offered, more than with Deleuze’s becomings, has a vague sense of associated points of departure.

    Without having read my paper – which had you emailed me to ask for, I would have happily sent – it is perhaps hard to tell from the abstract that drawing on Brian Massumi and Erin Manning,  I explore making as already a thinking-in-action, and conceptualisation as a practice in its own right. In this sense, my paper elides the binary that you establish between the artists and academics. Moreover, your suggestion that artists’ works are appropriated to exemplify academic arguments struck me as a misplaced fear. I’m sure it does happen, but it isn’t guaranteed to work. Moreover, we might do well to remember that it’s not one-way traffic. Some artists are better read in social theory or philosophy than those academics who try to engage with them!

    Thanks again for asking me to respond, and for having taken the time to look over the sessions and my abstract.

  6. Merle says:

    Hi Thomas,

    thanks for your post and could I ask now for a copy of your talk – why didn’t I think of that? Probably because when I give a talk it’s always just a rush of notes and never a coherently written paper.

    I really like the quote and the idea of becoming as not imitating. Some of my artist friends have been a little perturbed by the use of the term geographer-artist as it suggests a kind of Dilettantism without perhaps a full appreciation for the hard work that goes into the thinking, making and aesthetics of artwork (and again it goes the other way for artists drawing on academic work).

    There are however many geographers who have had sustained artistic training of some kind and are committed to sustained practices of making (whether in their academic or artistic guises). And this is where your ‘shared trajectory’ analogy comes into great effect. I do think disciplinary and institutional boundaries can be unhelpful in the creation of art-geography or simply art-academic projects and this is where the ‘spaces of experiment’ like the sense lab you have engaged with offer really exciting possibilities. Have you written anything on this yet – if so I would love to read it.

    Ha! and yes I was a funded doctoral student at Glasgow. To my mind its at this stage (if you are funded) that you have the most freedom to experiment with methods and actually initiate and DO collaborative art-geography projects. It’s after the PhD and the stage of trying to secure and sustain a ‘career’ of some kind that it becomes more difficult to initiate these happenings unless you manage to work it into a post-doc. Since finishing my phd I have attempted to sustain my involvement in art-geography collaborative projects. This has included Terrible Karma with Adeola Enigbokan and Fashioning Feathers with the artists Andrea Roe and Kate Foster. TK was entirely self-funded project and FF had a modest, though gratefully received, budget to cover production costs only.

    Obviously I initiated and worked on brining these projects into production because I was passionate about them and enjoyed working on them and with the other people involved. But they certainly didn’t contribute to ‘paying the bills’. My point was is it possible to have a career trajectory (shared or otherwise) in this vein or at least can involvement in these types of project make you more employable as a geographer/artist/cultural producer.

    In the present academic job market these types of self-funded projects don’t seem to hold much sway – they want to see published papers, success with post-doctoral grant funding and teaching experience. So my big question was really are these types of practices sustainable in the long term? Or as an academic first are these always going to be happening on the margins? And perhaps and Brian points out this is actually a good thing and where they belong.

    And of course it’s not a one-way street. Much of my phd ‘learning’ came in the form of mentoring form environmental artist Kate Foster. She, as much as my supervisors, helped to shape my work both in the phd and subsequently as a geographer, curator and cultural producer.

    I suppose my irk is with the exclusiveness of academic conferences more generally. I recently had to pull out of a panel session I really wanted to contribute at the Association of American Anthropologists as the registration fee alone was going to be over $500 (you had to become and member($160) of the association and then register ($360)). And then as an ‘independent scholar’ it’s difficult to to secure conference grants.

    I will be attending the RGS this year though – a 30th birthday present from my mum! – so hopefully i’ll see you there…

    Thanks again for your thoughts – always enlightening.


    P.S. you wont by chance be going to the following event as i’d really like to hear a recording of her talk as a largely unpaid curator:


    ‘Critical Perspectives on Creative Labour’

    Professor Angela McRobbie
    Media and Communications, Goldsmiths

    This lecture will discuss Professor McRobbie’s work on the ‘new culture
    industry’ that will appear in 2011 as a book entitled Be Creative:
    Precarious Labour in Art and Cultural Worlds, London, Berlin, Glasgow. This
    book undertakes a theorisation of precarious labour drawing on the work of
    Michel Foucault. It examines the world of freelance, casualised creative
    work in three cities, paying particular attention to micro-enterprises of
    creative labour including fashion design, art- working, multi-media,
    curating, arts administration, and so on.

    Thursday, 30 June 2011, 5:30pm
    Peel Lecture Theatre
    School of Geographical Sciences
    University Road
    University of Bristol
    BS8 1SS

    This lecture is part of the ESRC Feminism and Futurity seminar series,
    Theme 6: Resistance/Resilience/Reworking: Reflections on Feminism and
    Futurity, hosted by the School of Geographical Sciences at the University
    of Bristol. For further details of the seminar and other events in the
    series, visit the series website at

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