Web Informant #299, 16 September 2002:

Where in the world is Afghanistan




I don't know about you, but I am 9/11'ed out. I watched enough hours of mediocre TV last week to convince me that I knew far too much about the melting point of structural steel, the pounds of gear carried by your average NYC firefighter, and the other odd facts. This isn't to diminish the pain and anguish that I (and probably you too) still feel about the events on that day. I still am hurting about the friends and others that were lost that day. Just that I have had enough, for now.


One of the shows I caught was a project by a filmmaker and a middle school student that was simplicity at best. The two carried around a world map and asked people in I think the New York area to circle where in the world was Afghanistan and to name the terrorist organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The answers were filmed and edited for the TV show. A surprising number of people, even whom I thought would be well-educated people (such as elementary school teachers and other professionals) missed one or both questions.  And missed them by several continents (such as circling France, Brazil, and Australia -- yes, Australia! How can you confuse Afghanistan and Australia?) Maybe not so surprising, given how geographically challenged most Americans are.


To me, that show just drove home how insular we are. This is more than "Carmen Sandiego" parlor tricks -- most of us aren't interested in anything beyond our border, and probably beyond a 50-mile radius of where we live. It is pretty pathetic that most of us can't even figure out what country is what on a world map, and a pretty big one at that. Granted, I would have trouble distinguishing all the various bits and pieces of the former Soviet republics, or those sub-Saharan countries that have changed their names a few times since I learned where they were in fifth grade (or whenever that was). But I would have thought Afghanistan and al-Qaeda would have been an easy question.


There is some help, in the form of an art project that Golan Levin has put together, largely on the inspiration of our president's speech about an "evil axis."  Go to this URL:




Click on any three countries (that is the accepted definition of what constitutes an axis, such as the WWII Axis powers of Japan, Italy and Germany) and you'll see what they have in common. This could be almost as much fun as Pictionary. When I clicked on Niger, Honduras and Angola I got the only thing they had in common: they were all heavily in debt and poor countries.


Behind this relatively simple world map is a lot of code: in fact, as part of the Whitney Museum's Artport/CodeDoc series, you can actually download the code that was used to assemble this project. True to the spirit of open source, combined with the freshness of an artist's perspective, with a soupcon of geopolitics mixed in. How much more new millennium can you get?


I am not saying that Levin's map is going to cure this insularity. But it might stimulate some interesting discussions among you. And I am glad that the Whitney is taking the lead once again on web-based art projects, combining the spirit of open source to boot.


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David Strom
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