Just outside of Lima, Peru, the shantytown of Ventanilla stands at the foot of a gigantic sand dune. The village's small, colorfully painted shacks are dwarfed by the dune's imposing monotony. In 2002, the Belgium-born, Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs chose Ventanilla as the site for "When Faith Moves Mountains," a huge-scale community-based art project that brought 500 people, armed with shovels, to move the dune.
A video projection, "The Making of Lima," documents the event as a part of Experimental Geography. The show of artistic responses to geographic study, curated by Nato Thompson, chief curator of the public-art organization Creative Time, is now at the Miller Gallery.
Alÿs' project displaced the dune only a few centimeters, but that's not the point: After the shoveling, the participants are yelling and crying in joy, their shovels held high like warriors' swords. Alÿs says this day will be passed down in the oral tradition, a story of the day 500 people joined to move the mountain.
Similar gestures run throughout Experimental Geography, albeit sometimes in more obscured tones. It's also one of the most important ideas in contemporary art: In today's world of mass migration and telecommuting -- of stark political boundaries and information sans frontiers -- what does it mean to be somewhere? To understand, or impose oneself upon, a dot on the map, GPS coordinates or a daunting mountain?
The most successful of Experimental Geography's psychogeographic and cartographic works are documentary or archival in nature. They're projects that demand an irrevocable change, no matter how small, in how we perceive our political or physical boundaries. For its installation "The Road Map," transnational collective Multiplicity took two trips along the same latitude in Israel: one with a guide who carries an Israeli passport, the other a Palestinian. The dual-video, cartographic and textual evidence shows two different worlds that exist in the same place -- a dystopian world in which the map literally changes based on where your papers say you were born.
Deborah Stratman's "Park" consists of photographs of her portable parking-lot attendant's booth in various locations around Chicago. The change this effects in the urban landscape is palpable, and inspires rethinking how some authoritative signage changes our perception of a space that once seemed public.
Similarly, Brazilian Alex Villar's "Upward Mobility," a video of the artist climbing different facades in New York City, builds a strange and ephemeral street art. Just by imposing his body on phone booths, walls, even private homes, often in ways that are silly or even embarrassing, Villar makes us look at cities in a way that's less geographically stratified and more open to interpretation.
Other pieces in Experimental Geography prove less inspiring. For "Micromobilia: Machines for the Intensive Research of Interior Bio-Geographies," transnational collective Spurse displays its archives from microscopic examination of buildings. The concept -- which adduces research tools and reference books, petri dishes and test tubes of dust, insects, even air -- is to look at a single building, or even room, as a geography in itself, with its own micro-habitats.
But Spurse's contribution seems cold when juxtaposed with the more visceral majority of the show. In some cases, that palpability is facilitated by use of a particular medium, like the constant panting of Catherine D'Ignazio's "It takes 154,000 breaths to evacuate Boston," an audio installation of the artist running all of that city's post-9/11 evacuation routes. But even more static pieces -- like Yin Xiuzhen's bulbous and colorful suitcase-housed fabric sculpture of Singapore ("Portable Cities: Singapore") -- emit similar liveliness.
The most exciting aspects of Experimental Geography inspire visitors to seek new ways of looking at their own surroundings, and to re-examine their place in the world. We live in a time when borders can disintegrate and reintegrate in changes both slight and tremendous, and in which mapping becomes less a means to an end than a launch-pad for new ideas. Through Experimental Geography, we can see some of the world's most important contemporary artists taking just such liberties.
Experimental Geography continues through Jan. 31. Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. 412-268-3618 or www.cmu.edu/millergallery