Friday, October 10, 2014

Passaic, Google, and Agustín Fernández Mallo's Bird's-Eye View

Fall semesters are tough.

However, there are things one can do to make them a bit more enjoyable. Like teaching things one really loves, such as the short story "Mutaciones" by Spanish writer, Agustín Fernández Mallo, included in the now sadly disappeared El hacedor (de Borges), Remake.

"Mutaciones" is a three part story based on Borges' shorter story (almost poem) "Mutaciones," about the inevitable change that objects and symbols suffer through time:
Cruz, lazo y flecha, viejos utensilios del hombre, hoy rebajados o elevados a símbolos; no sé por qué me maravillan, cuando no hay en la tierra una sola cosa que el olvido no borre o que la memoria no altere y cuando nadie sabe en qué imágenes lo traducirá el porvenir (Borges "Mutaciones")
Part I of Fernández Mallo's story, "Un recorrido por los monumentos de Passaic 2009," elaborates on this concept, describing a reenactment of Robert Smithson's journey through the city of Passaic, New Jersey. Smithson's 1967 photographs of the so-called "Monuments of Passaic" elevated the concept of urban architecture and its ruins to a poetic level, rethinking the nature of art in a spirit close to Debord and Wolman's dérives and détournements. Half a century later, Fernández Mallo, in what he renames "viaje psicoGooglegráfico" ("Mutaciones" 76) pushes our understanding of traditional objects through a recontextualization of contemporary technologies of travel and mechanical memory. Fernández Mallo's narrator visits Passaic without ever leaving his living room, exploring the changes in space and time through the bird's-eye view of Google Earth and Maps.

Imposing, or maybe catalyzing, the traveler's subjectivity through the machine perspective of Google's satellites, the writer cleverly exposes the multiple transformations of historical symbols and meaning. From the absolute exterior projection of contextual interpretation, the ontology of all photographed objects and monuments is challenged and exposed in its true mutating essence. Flattened by screen shots, highly pixelated, the reality captured by Fernández Mallo's text is constructed with a paradoxically complex texture. The gaze of the writer is combined with that of the reader and Google's machines, emphasizing the sort of cyborg subjectivity we take on when exploring the world through Internet browsers. In "Mutaciones" a new reconceptualization of the world itself arises.

Thinking about the illuminating poetics of this peculiar use of Google made me remember Manuel Portela's spoken word performance on Google Earth, also a work about the world as a representation of itself (from a parodied capitalist perspective) and the video The Wilderness Downtown directed by Chris Milk featuring Arcade Fire's "We Used to Wait," an interactive film that superimposes the viewer's memories to those created by Google Earth and the melancholic imaginary of the Canadian indie rock band. We watched this video in class, and we commented on the eeriness of seeing your past told by machine banks of memory, and the powerful effect of locating personal memories in photographed maps.

Cross, rope, and arrow. Urban monuments, personal memories and maps, reduced or elevated to symbols recorded in the electric mind of the machine. Tricky, but definitely a cool class that got me thinking.


Borges, Jorge Luis. "Mutaciones" El hacedor. 1960. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2003

Fernández Mallo, Agustín. "Mutaciones" El hacedor (de Borges), Remake. Madrid: Alfaguara, 2011

Milk, Chris, dir.  The Wilderness Downtown. Interactive Multimedia Film. 2011. Web. 10 Oct 2014

Portela, Manuela. "Google Earth: A Poem for Voice and Internet" Spoken Word Performance. 24 Sept 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2014

Situationist International: Anthology. Ken Knabb Ed. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981