Relational Possibilities Beyond the Horizon Line
March 26, 2019
By Gianna Samms, Vassar College.
“[The horizon line] defined the limits of communication and understanding. Beyond the horizon, there was only muteness and silence. Within it, things could be made visible. But it could also be used for determining one’s own location and relation to one’s surroundings, destinations, or ambitions.” — Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen.
In Approaches, Fausto Ortiz overlays his black-and-white photograph of an oceanic horizon with lines that form a geometric bridge connecting the observer to the horizon line. The dual function of the horizon offers multiple interpretations; it is both a limit and a possibility. At its most definitive, Approaches establishes a clear notion of isolation and connectivity through its imagery, demonstrative of the post-colonial networks of globality about which Éduoard Glissant writes. In referencing the shore, Ortiz’s bridge to the horizon speaks to the inherent boundaries and isolation of the island as well as the ability to broach these distances and confines.
Flores and Stephens expand the understanding of the Caribbean and its network of connections in Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago:
A vision of the archipelago as assemblage centers the insular Caribbean not as exclusive, isolated, bounded sites but rather as unique vantage points from which to view relational patterns that extend outward in multiple directions, horizontally linking island to island, island to continental mainland, island to ocean and sea, islanders to each other across far-flung waters and shores.
Applying Flores and Stephen’s conceptualization of the Caribbean to Approaches, Ortiz’s construction of a path to the horizon challenges the isolation of the island and presents a bridge into the unvisualized distance. It situates the Caribbean within a relational geography “that deliberately imagines the connectivities of the region,” rather than the discourse of the core and the periphery. Art is set into the very landscape. In doing so, Ortiz’s Approaches addresses, in the words of Glissant, “the inextricably intertwined world,” in which “Works of art […] have indeed remained full of the realization (of the totality) of the quantities of differences.” Approaches reveals the continuity of experiences shared by various regions of the world and the possibilities of their connections despite—and perhaps because of—their respective localities.
Hito Steyerl’s essay “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective” traces the predominance of perspectival space as a construction of Western visual culture. The foundation of perspective took for granted the stability of the horizon line, an assumed universal visual element. At first utilized for navigational purposes, the horizon line supported the development of a number of mechanical instruments and accessories that determined one’s location and orientation in space, culminating in the formal use of linear perspective in Renaissance visual production. Linear perspective is rooted in “the idea of space and time as systematic constructions.” Furthermore, the usage of one-point perspective privileges the individual spectator in its determination of a single vantage point remaining fixed in the composition—a vantage point associated with impossible notions of scientific truth and inherent objectivity. The spectator’s presumptive control of the visual field underlies their ability to construct a “truthful” image. Steyerl describes that in the fixed composition, “the whole paradigm converges in one of the viewer’s eyes, the viewer becomes central to the worldview established by it. The viewer is mirrored in the vanishing point, and thus constructed by it. The vanishing point gives the observer a body and a position” whose subjectivity is complicated by the fact that their individual vision ultimately is not central to the image but instead relies on the presumed objectivity of scientific law and universalities. The significance of the spectator to the image and, in turn, the image to the spectator establishes a relationship in which they each bear the responsibility of constructing one another. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, then, one-point perspective depends not on a vanishing point but on the viewer.
However, the stable horizon line on which all these technologies stand has never actually existed. Steyerl argues that linear perspective’s mode of visual production is in upheaval because the premise of a stable horizon is actually untenable. Citing the paintings of J.M.W. Turner as exemplary historical turning-points for this phenomenon, she observes: the spectator is no longer able to navigate the composition of the painting from the privileged position granted by one point perspective. Neither time nor space is fixed. The horizon is blurred, unclear, and indifferent to the viewer; it is the kind of horizon that accompanies the groundlessness of free-fall which Steyerl finds emblematic of our present condition.
The state of free-fall disrupts these traditional modes of visualization, resulting in the loss of balance and allowing for the production of multiple perspectives and visualities. What results is a potentially-freeing disorientation, as seen in the modes of montage, cinema, and aerial views, which break with the limits of linear perspective in terms of time and space. The dissolution of the horizon in this state of free-fall allows other representative techniques to open up a realm of visual and sensory expression: “While falling, people may sense themselves as being things, while things may sense that they are people. Traditional modes of seeing and feeling are shattered. Any sense of balance is disrupted. Perspectives are twisted and multiplied. New types of visuality arise.” The laws of perspective and horizon lines are upended. Falling, Steyerl theorizes, signals “the departure of a stable paradigm of orientation, which has situated concepts of subject and object, of time and space, throughout modernity.” The shifting optics of perspective within art history give rise to a multiplicity of visions of the world in which the colonizing logics of linear perspective are disrupted and representation is revealed as a systematic construction.
In Ortiz’s Approaches, what lies beyond the horizon line is unknown, yet rendered imaginable—even accessible—through the instance of a literal bridging. Approaches harks back to the navigational purposes of the horizon line: determining one’s location through a relational process. In this, the work is in line with Glissant’s imagination of a world in which defining or constructing identity takes place relative to difference:
We no longer conceive of the elementary particle of identity within the same but as a play of differences, while we are astonished to discover that our identities play the game of these differences at least as much as they base themselves on the imminence of identity. In this new region of the world, differences do not oppose, they connect.
Despite the inherent assumptions—mastery, control, and subjecthood—that attend to the individual viewer in linear perspective, Approaches gives the sense of direction to something more: the possibility of encounter, the possibility of another self. Like Steyerl and Glissant, Approaches looks forward to the potential offered by the collective entrance to “new” worlds not solely determined by traditional linear perspective or states of coloniality. No longer will these modes define or limit existence; relations beyond the horizon line can be made visible, according to Glissant, when “recognising ourselves situated within our open and uncircumventable places, we hear the world sing. The colors of the landscapes enter into our words and into our gestures, and all of a sudden these landscapes relate to and recognize one another.” Read through the lens of Glissant and Steyerl’s writings, Ortiz’s work offers entrance into a new visuality: one in which the stability of dominant colonial perspectives give way to an expanded visual field of difference, multiplicity, and bridged localities.
Flores, Tatiana and Michelle A. Stephens. Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago. Long Beach: Museum of Latin American Art, 2017.
Glissant, Édouard. “A New Region of the World.” Translated by John Goodman. Lecture, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, March 26, 2007.
Steyerl, Hito. The Wretched of the Screen. E-flux Journal. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012.