A Map of the World, Pau Waelder

In 2012, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) registered thirty-one million aircraft departures worldwide, carrying approximately three billion passengers1. Considering that on average more than four hundred thousand passengers are flying at any given moment2, it can be estimated that 0.006% of the world's population dwells at thirty thousand feet above the ground. Of course, we are not talking about a group of half a million people who inhabit the flying island of Laputa, from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. This percentage refers to the temporary Laputian citizenship of every person who spends a certain amount of hours on a plane every day, month or year. Flying from one city to another is now a commonplace activity for many people in the more developed countries (MDC), a tendency that will increase as the number of holiday tourists and frequent flyers grows around 4.4% each year, doubling the current figures by 20303. Almost two decades ago, Rem Koolhass already saw airports as the future replacements of cities, stressing the fact that they contain populations of millions and are becoming substitutes for the city itself4. Today, more and more of us are transitory Laputians, a condition that is clearly defined by the physical boundaries of airports and airplanes, as well as the procedures that take place inside them.

Once inside the airport, a person becomes a passenger as she proceeds through the security checkpoint: a rite of passage is performed as belt, shoes and metallic objects are removed and placed alongside other belongings on a tray to be scanned by X-Ray. The person herself is screened by a metal detector and at this point, if approved by the corresponding authority, turns into a passenger, free to roam the secure area of the terminal. What used to be waiting rooms are now full-fledged shopping malls, in which travel leaves room for leisure. The stress caused by fear of arriving late, not being able to check-in or being charged for excess baggage starts to fade, as the passenger lapses into consumerism. Among the overwhelming amount of products being offered at every inch of the terminal, only one element reminds the passenger of her purpose for being there. The departure board displays constantly updated information about the next flights leaving the airport: the time of departure, flight number, destination and boarding gate are usually shown in yellow and white characters over a black background. Passengers regularly check the panel to make sure their plane is on time and sometimes glance at other destinations, the name of a particular city probably bringing up memories or the desire to board on a different plane. In fact, the departure board represents travel itself (be it the adventurous journey to an exotic destination or the quick business trip to another city) in the austere form of an endless list.

A vertically mounted forty-two inch LCD screen hangs on the wall of the gallery. In the form of a flight departure board, it displays information about all flights taking off from all international airports in the world, in real time. The departure time (in UTC), city of origin, code number and destination of each flight are placed in a row that moves up as a new flight is added to the list. Every five seconds, two or three rows disappear at the top of the screen as the list moves up. Several hundred people have switched off their electronic devices for take off. Thousands of others are already flying. Departure of All (2013) is an artwork by Martin John Callanan that continues the artist's exploration of the systems that shape our daily lives. The relatively simple act of catching a flight involves the coordinated work of hundreds of people in a complex system that requires the performance of specific procedures, which include (as previously described) the passenger herself. This dynamic is observed on a planetary scale and reduced to the succinct information displayed on the screen. While the origin and destination cities speak of a network of connections that reaches almost every corner of the world, the fast-paced progression of the list illustrates the excesses of a society characterized by dispersion and speed. The hypermodern society described by Gilles Lipovetsky, in which all limits are surpassed by moving faster and further away5, is aptly represented by this real time, worldwide departure board. Air travel reduces the world to a few nodal points, and even eliminates the notion of travel: according to Paul Virilio, when we travel we are going nowhere, rather abandoning ourselves to “the void of speed”6. He describes the airport as “nothing but a projector, a site of accelerated ejection”7 in which the individual is just a simple particle, and embarkation as “nothing but a «one-way ticket»”8. In this sense, the flight information board can be read as a symbol of the real meaning of travel, as an endless succession of departures, continuously happening in a void. At some point, origins and destinations seem to matter less, and it is the uninterrupted procession of flights that gains relevance, not a list anymore but a flow, an overwhelming flow of data.

Data is the raw material of a series of works by Martin John Callanan, in which he shapes it in formally austere but meaningful forms, their apparent simplicity hiding a complex and painstaking process that usually takes years to develop. The collected data can be presented as finite list which nevertheless generates a continuous process, as in International Directory of Fictitious Telephone Numbers (2011), a collection of several hundred thousand telephone numbers designated for use in film productions and a telephone that automatically dials the numbers in the directory at random. It can also be an unfinished list, such as the register of armed conflicts that have taken place in the world since Callanan's birth, printed in the form of a newspaper under the title Wars During My Lifetime (2012). The data can also flow endlessly on a screen in front of the viewer: just as Departure of All tracks flight departures, I Wanted to See All of the News from Today (2007) collects the front pages of over six hundred newspapers from around the world as they are published and displays them in a continuous grid. Although All of the News is more visually saturated, both works suggest an overwhelming amount of information, an excess that negates the possibility of completeness implied in their titles. Callanan consciously plays with the need to exhaustively map, collect and classify the world around us, and by doing so demonstrates how this turns out to be a Sisyphean task.

Futility is an aspect of the artist's work that adds a strongly critical vein to his interpretation of each subject. Birmingham New Street Station (London) consisted of a live audio transmission of the automated Customer Information System in Birmingham's railway station, that could be heard in real time in London between 9 and 15th June, 2005. Somewhat similar to Departure of All, this transmission also resulted in providing an information that was not useful to its new audience and finally became, as Callanan describes it, “ambience” and “excess”9. In these works information is separated from its original location but provided in a similar way, therefore generating a contradiction that leads to question its purpose and meaning. Departure of All can be confused with the usual flight information board at any airport, but actually none of these display the departures from every airport in the world, nor update the list so rapidly. Additionally, it is not located inside a terminal but in an art gallery, which is in a sense as much a non-place as any airport. A space of transition, the gallery is a temporary location for the exhibited artworks and creates a relatively neutral environment that is similar to every other art gallery in the world. In this way, it provides an adequate context for an artwork that collects and displays the activity in hundreds of non-places. As the immense archive of photographs of the floor in over two thousand locations from the ongoing series Grounds (2003-) shows us, we increasingly experience the world as a collection of non-places that define our daily surroundings and that we also encounter when we travel. As Marc Augé points out, “supermodernity produces non-places”10: wherever we go, we transmit similar, interchangeable spaces, and in this sense it may be true that, as Paul Virilio states, we are actually going nowhere. In an age of ubiquitous information, travel is more about departing our daily routine than about seeing something new. While airports continue to replace cities, locations become less important than the act of moving to and from them. Places give way to flows: the circulation of information, goods and people shapes the human geography of our planet. In this sense, if we must learn to look at the world we live in (as suggested by Augé 11), an accurate map may not be found in the standard Mercator projection, but rather in the endless list of flights on a real time, worldwide departure board.

  1. ICAO Facts and Figures.
  2. FlightAware airborne flights.
  3. ICAO Facts and Figures, ibid.
  4. Rem Koolhass and Bruce Mau, S,M,L,XL. Rotterdam/New York: 010 Publishers/The Monacelli Press, 1995, 1252.
  5. Gilles Lipovestsky, Les temps hypermodernes. Barcelona, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, 2007, 9.
  6. Paul Virilio. Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy. London-New York: Continuum, 2006, 42.
  7. Paul Virilio. ibid. 98.
  8. Paul Virilio, ibid. 104.
  9. Martin John Callanan, Birmingham New Street Station (London).
  10. Marc Augé. Non-places. Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London-New York: Verso, 1995, 78.
  11. Marc Augé, ibid. 35.

Download the publication from Noshowspace exhibition, includes A Map of the World eassy by Pau Waelder and an interview with Domenico Quaranta

Pau Waelder is an independent art critic and curator, researcher in new media art. PhD Candidate in Information and Knowledge Society, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC).