I used to be a huge fan of maps. A little attention turns up wondrous anomalies: the patch of the Dutch-Belgian border where a couple of villages of the one country are an exclave that exists completely surrounded by the other country, a condition that doesn’t much matter in Baarle and Hertog but matters very much in places like the Republic of Mountainous Karabakh, where a good many Azerbaijani (or is it just Azeri?) and Armenian soldiers took bullets over which country got to control which ethnicity.
I suppose this was also related to my childhood bewilderment with the multiple entities to be found in Scott’s Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue or even more in the baffling map to be found in vintage stamp albums; not only were there countries that didn’t exist any longer, but their boundaries overlapped two and three and four times, even worse than the maps of Europe in which the countries as well as the boundaries shifted with monotonous regularity. I loved realizing that Europe had been a different continent in terms of countries as recently as 1939, but my eyes glazed over when I tried to contemplate the fact that neither Italy nor Germany had existed as single countries as recently as seventy-five years or so before that. It took me decades to figure out that if the Far Eastern Republic was an offshoot of the Russian civil war (easy), the mysterious Republic of Hatay was basically a handoff mechanism for transferring Antioch and its surrounding sanjak from the French protectorate of Syria to the Republic of Turkey in 1938-39.
Later on this fascination fed into my obsession with knowing what was going on in every single country on earth, and my annoyance at how hard the job was (and still is). I have given up wondering what’s new in the Netherlands Antilles, or whether wi-fi has come to Wallis and Futuna, or even whether Mauritius got its own wireless network to stretch across the side of the island with all the sugar cane fields, but every so often I feel guilty that I no longer care as much about it. (Some of it matters. A lot. Look at the labels on your clothes and contemplate which countries have graduated from being suppliers to the bins of Ross Dress for Less.)
And while USA Today gave us the illusion of being comprehensive a generation ago, presenting a single snippet of news daily not only from every state of the U.S.A. but from its associated territories, today the illusion of being comprehensive has vanished from newer media; one can browse not only Google News but even the BBC websites without finding news of more than a fraction of the countries that march past in the Olympics opening ceremonies. (It used to drive me crazy that the network cut away to a commercial just when my favorite national entities were about to send their handful of athletes past the camera.)
“All Things Considered” is another globe-spanning enterprise, intermittently offering reports from insufficiently recognized parts of the planet. But there are only so many minutes in the day, and even the newer program “The World” is less than fully worldly.
So it is excellent that Kathryn Refi’s exhibition at Solomon Projects has set out to map this omission for us, recording over the course of some months the place names mentioned on the National Public Radio program, and showing us just how many things are unconsidered.
Refi’s maps of the month give us the red dots of the mentions on a map minus the map, and geography freaks have already had what felt like hours of pleasure trying to figure out where the coast of Korea stopped and Japan began, what the islands were that seemed too far south to be Hawaii but too far west to be the Galapagos and too far east to be the Marquesas, and so forth. It comes as a shock to realize that parts of the world are hundreds of miles distant from the longitudes and latitudes where you had placed them.
But the only way we can puzzle some of this out from Refi’s works is by looking for the clusters of dots that signify Baghdad in most months, or the State of New Hampshire in the 2007 run-up to the presidential primaries. Not only are all parts of the world not equal, they are not equally newsworthy.
So every so often we find out that thousands of people have been dying in places other than Darfur or Anbar province, and we didn’t know a thing about it. (And some of us old-timers then sing to ourselves the closing verses of Bob Dylan’s “Black Diamond Bay.”)
Refi’s dot clusters actually indicate what a good job “All Things Considered” is doing in reminding Americans that places remote from them exist; it just reminds them very selectively (or not at all) of the locales that are neither natural headline makers nor popular tourist spots. The greater part of the Russian Federation (or whatever they call it these days) remained blank throughout on each of Refi’s monthly mappings; one month brought a tour of Siberia by an NPR roving reporter, but the Finno-Ugric Republics remained a great void for anyone who didn’t read the unrelated online Eurozine that reported on an art show about them that was staged in Estonia.
And even Eurozine’s roundup of the contents of the continent’s news magazines is singularly selective. Moldova is entirely out of luck for the most part.
I once met a man at an Atlanta art opening who was the sole North American importer for Moldovan wines (or was at that point of 2005 or 2006) and realized it was the first time I could recall having met anyone with direct connections to Moldova. I doubt if I thought much about the country again until I picked up a tiny aluminum coin from Moldova on an arrival ramp at the Istanbul airport in 2007.
The Palestinians reportedly tell a joke about a survey asking Americans their opinion about some social condition in the rest of the world that failed because the Americans couldn’t understand the meaning of “the rest of the world.”