Terra Incognita, writing by Nicolas de Oliveira and Nicola Oxley for the vinyl record and the exhibition Or an Island or a Boat (SE8 Gallery, London)

Terra Incognita

A voice speaks and rolls words through the air; speech fills the room, words reverberate off the hard walls, the ceiling and floor, becoming broken and ragged, before settling as gently moving accretions in some corner. Once named, words acquire material form, they become things. The voice that speaks them describes a place, not here, but over there, faraway. Sentences serve to evoke actions and location not present but imagined. Consider that every travelogue, every story of a journey, no matter how closely observed and truthfully told, as a fiction. But we insist on listening for information, for content, that would lead us to become lost in that place, entirely forgetting, that the instrument that carries the message, the voice, is entirely located. Here, the sound is mediated, changing shape as it is transformed: transmitted from the speaker’s throat into a microphone, mixed as an audio file, then cut into the grooves of a vinyl record that can now be seen spinning on a turntable, and finally released from the cone of a speaker into the space. The voice is not primarily a transmitter of messages, but a place.

Cartographers in the 15th Century adorned their maps with drawings of mermaids, monsters and other mythic creatures; these maps were the direct outcomes of individual sea voyages undertaken by explorers. The particular narrative of the voyage – the route and newly discovered places – took precedence over the completeness of the map itself, with uncharted land appearing as a blank space described by the term Terra Incognita. Michel de Certeau makes the distinction between a map, in which a location is instantly shown in its totality, and a tour, where a place appears as a descriptive sequence. While the map is presented as a topographical fact, the tour relies on a chronicler whose directions unfold sequentially and are the product of recalled experience. Thus the maps of the navigators are barely instruments but personal accounts. The traveller must be wary of accepting instructions given by an unreliable narrator unless they consider the journey a matter of getting lost.

The gallery begins as a blank space, a territory, to be inscribed by the artist. It is not the space that is being written on, but its history of display conventions; adding to its story is to unpick its structure, to discover fissures between the ranks of serried text, each letter and utterance a sentinel seemingly guarding its canon. The space is already entirely written. But the words are not solid or immutable; they form an accretion, a silted-up ground, a palimpsest. When something is complete, brim-full, when we perceive no space for further addition, it is on the cusp of crisis, it is almost empty. Dialectics tell us about the conflict between opposing forces that leads to turning points and change; one thing overturns and eclipses another while boundaries, clearly staked out one moment, are dissolved, certainties are revealed as doubt. The space of the gallery is written and cannot be unwritten. Instead, we must overwrite it – in the knowledge that this too will be overwritten by others.

A film is made of light and deepest shadow; the story is illuminated, while the cut or dissolve – representing a movement from one place or time to another – plunges us into momentary darkness. But though the darkness acts as frame and mechanism for the action, it receives neither notice nor commendation. This blind spot, this black interval might be called the terra incognita of film, an unknown and unknowable place, a moment without which the explicit plot would be senseless.

A certain writer claimed that the void cannot not be described other than by what surrounds it, by depicting its emptiness entirely in the negative, through what it is not. The void is of course an impossible place, since it contains nothing and no one and fulfils no purpose. Since we can neither fill, inhabit nor traverse it, it resonates as a non-place; all we may do is skirt around the abyss, like a mariner without a craft stranded on the shore of an inland sea. We might pick our way along its coastline, charting as we go in search of a linear map. Better to put something in its stead, to substitute it with something that can be pictured, a placeholder. This representation, however, can only ever be partial, and will never fit, unlike the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Representation is what we use to tap on the thin pane of glass that lies between us and our desire.