Nowhere Collective #3
October 2019
“Traveling Salesman”
Katherine C.M. Adams

This project takes its title from the ‘Traveling Salesman Problem’, a mathematical problem that is notoriously difficult to solve. The question the problem poses is: given a series of locations, what is the shortest route via which each place is visited exactly once? It so happens that this problem has so far proven mathematically intractable—which is to say, there is no general solution; this ‘traveling salesman’ scenario is insoluble by any general algorithm. Esther Hovers’s work is unique in that it is partly inspired by problems of a mathematical or algorithmic nature, yet these problems do not serve merely as a kind of cipher for her works. It would be easy simply to appropriate a problem at its point of breakdown and proceed to map the consequences of the chaos induced by the resulting failure—such a process supplies a sort of algorithm for generating something ‘critical’.

By contrast, what Hovers captures goes ‘beyond the map’—but also beyond thefailedmap. Hovers probes past the point at which the order promised by technological calculation simply fails to capture a real experience. She moves beyond this point of mere incalculability to present us with scenarios that show a true human experience of technology and its pressures—ones where, in spite of our intellectual capacity to eschew the promises of perfect comprehension, we nevertheless navigate the world with a kind of wish for algorithmic orientation of our experience. We see this nuanced tension sustained throughout her works in this series, which has been inspired not only by the Traveling Salesman Problem but by the figure of the modern flaneur, a figure who in the nineteenth-century became a symbol for the modern, leisured observer wandering urban streets. The goal of the flaneur was formally similar to that of the mathematician’s “salesman”—he wanted to take in as many sensations and to experience as many ‘sites’ as possible.

Hovers’s series tracks the path of a man who in gesture and mien seems determined, as though he were indeed following a map that had been provided for him. Yet the source of this map’s authority is unclear. Hovers captures the affect—for the main protagonist, at once numb and yearning—that stems from the continuing trust in something that might (but actually, can’t) solve a compelling question of efficiency. There is a quiet dislocation that we as viewers experience in mapping for ourselves, as we look at Hovers’s work, the terrain that emerges from the photographic traces of the journey of the man who is the main character of this series. What imaginary map might this path correspond to, which sees him pass through not only crucial hubs of transit such as Grand Central but also through backstreets, and causes him to take awkward paths that reject the straightforward parallels of New York streets?

Hovers shows how our continuing belief in, or desire for, the figurative algorithmic solution is sustained partly through the soft but omnipresent power latent in certain kinds of public, urban space. We see the contemporary ‘salesman’, a kind of flaneur, both at moments of apparent clarity—at perfect profile on an escalator; from an aerial view as he crosses the street with an unhalting stride—and at moments where he is totally dwarfed by a visual clarity generated by sharp angles that highlight urban passages yet blur his own face. Passing under the shadows of a broad street, whose name is visible for our cartographic reference, he seems eerily unaware that he is being totally eclipsed.

In placing a flaneur at the center of the scenario opened up by the Traveling Salesman Problem, Hovers explores the psychogeography of the contemporary city. Hovers illuminates not only the city’s implicit maps and pressures, but also causes us to question how we reproduce and experience this power on an individual level. The contemporary flaneur Hovers captures is caught between the desire to see and visit everything—to, in effect, capture the city through traveling, movement, and image—and the desire for the optimal cartographic heuristic at which to take in all one’s surroundings—the desire for an efficiency that will meet the demands of his modern life. A heuristic is something that enables us to solve practical problems quickly and efficiently. Two concomitant movements or processes are captured by this idea—on the one hand, an abstract process, which pursues the possibilities of understanding something more globally; on the other hand, an empirical response to knowledge gained through one’s experience of a local environment. Insofar as it promises a shorthand for navigation, the Traveling Salesman Problem is by extension a problem of heuristics. The salesman-flaneur’s predicament has to do as much with his physical movement as with the figurative calculation that one can imagine charts his path. Hovers’s rendering of this scenario explores how the way we think consider problem that would seem abstract—the map and the city–provide models (heuristics of a sort) for how we as individuals navigate more local ‘territories’ of space and image.

Hovers captures the uncertainty in a traveler whose very movement should, in ‘theory’—in the fantastic tale of the heuristic—be as certain as the direction of a vector on a graph. She captures the moment of disorientation at the core of a restless efficiency that cannot, contrary to the promise of the algorithm, find footing in a resolvable calculation. To this photographic capture of the flaneur’s halted progress Hovers supplements the poetic demonstrations of what we can imagine as imaginary cartographies for the salesman and his flaneur foil. In these searching iterations we receive something like an informational climate or visual score to the rest of the piece. From an experiment devised to reveal complete efficiency and certainty, Hovers extracts playfulness. The artist’s camera takes perspectives that both expose and evade, expressing a poetry that emerges around the figures in her works, even when they themselves seem at odds with it. Her visual techniques present an ideal ofpoetic clarity that ends up displacing algorithmic clarity. For the illusory clarity offered by the algorithm Hovers substitutes the true clarity of a poetic excavation of information, and a revelation of the infinite uncertainties lurking beneath what seems easily located in a territory.

Traveling Salesman by Katherine Adams, published in Nowhere Collective Zine #3 - Download it here.

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