FIELDWORKING | Defining terms

Posted on 14/10/2012


“The field is no longer where one extracts data, but almost [always] a place where one produces meaning.”
Yann Calberac

As I mentioned earlier, it is my intention to address methodology in this project – fieldworking – as it relates to public art making. Public Art, I believe, is an expansive field in which myriad practices merge, co-exist and pool. It is useful if I start defining terms – topography and topology. I have established two pathways for this inquiry, for which I will initially undertake a dictionary/Wikipedia definition approach to delineating them. It’s not my intention to be drawn into the complexity of this terminology. Rather, I am using them as ideas or notions to establish a tension in my inquiry.

“Topologies, unlike topographies, do not map discreet locations or particular objects.”
Everywhere and Nowhere: The Exception and the Topological Challenge to Geography
Oliver Belcher, Lauren Martin, Anna Secor, Stephanie Simon & Tommy Wilson
Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, Volume 40, Issue 4, pages 499–503, September 2008


I take Topography to mean the shape of the ground and territory. It is strongly associated with ideas of survey and landform.

Topography (from Greek τόπος topos, “place”, and γράφω graphō, “write”) is a field of planetary science comprising the study of surface shape and features of the Earth and other observable astronomical objects including planets, moons, and asteroids. It is also the description of such surface shapes and features (especially their depiction in maps). The topography of an area can also mean the surface shape and features themselves.

An objective of topography is to determine the position of any feature or more generally any point in terms of both a horizontal coordinate system such as latitude, longitude, and altitude. Identifying (naming) features and recognizing typical landform patterns are also part of the field. A topographic study may be made for a variety of reasons: military planning and geological exploration have been primary motivators to start survey programs, but detailed information about terrain and surface features is essential for the planning and construction of any major civil engineering, public works, or reclamation projects.


I take Topology to mean field, concerned with the twists, continuities and relations.

Topology (from the Greek τόπος, “place”, and λόγος, “study”) is a major area of mathematics concerned with the most basic properties of space, such as connectedness. More precisely, topology studies properties that are preserved under continuous deformations, including stretching and bending, but not tearing or gluing … Topology developed as a field of study out of geometry and set theory, through analysis of such concepts as space, dimension, and transformation.

Also, to consider Nicolas Bourriaud from The Radicant (p. 79):

The major aesthetic phenomenon of our time is surely the intertwining of the properties of space and time, which turns the latter into a territory every bit as tangible as the hotel room where I am sitting right now or the noisy street that stretches beneath my window. By means of the new modes of spatialising time, contemporary art produces forms that are able to capture this experience of the world through practices that could be described as ‘time-specific’–analogous to the site-specific art of the 1960s–and by introducing figures from the realm of spatial displacement into the composition of its works. Thus today’s art seems to negotiate the creation of new types of space by resorting to a geometry of translation: topology.

See also:


I’ve written about fieldwork on a couple of occasions. Part of the reflexive, iterative and recursive element of this is to enable a fieldwork method in the development of the texts.

Field research or fieldwork is the collection of information outside of a laboratory or workplace setting. The approaches and methods used in field research varies across disciplines. For example, biologists who conduct field research may simply observe animals interacting with their environments, whereas social scientists conducting field research may interview or observe people in their natural environments to learn their languages, folklore, and social structures.

Field research involves a range of well-defined, although variable, methods: informal interviews, direct observation, participation in the life of the group, collective discussions, analyses of personal documents produced within the group, self-analysis, results from activities undertaken off- or on-line, and life-histories. Although the method generally is characterized as qualitative research, it may (and often does) include quantitative dimensions.

Another text that I have enjoyed reading about is Experimental Geography – there are some learnings here.

Experimental geography means practices that take on the production of space in a self-reflexive way, practices that recognize that cultural production and the production of space cannot be separated from each another, and that cultural and intellectual production is a spatial practice. Moreover, experimental geography means not only seeing the production of space as an ontological condition, but actively experimenting with the production of space as an integral part of one’s own practice. (More in Trevor Paglen’s essay Experimental Geography: From Cultural Production to the Production of Space.)

Further, he writes:

Instead of asking “What is art?” or “Is this art successful?” a good geographer might ask questions along the lines of “How is this space called ‘art’ produced?” In other words, what are the specific historical, economic, cultural, and discursive conjunctions that come together to form something called “art” and, moreover, to produce a space that we colloquially know as an “art world”? The geographic question is not “What is art?” but “How is art?” From a critical geographic perspective, the notion of a free-standing work of art would be seen as the fetishistic effect of a production process. Instead of approaching art from the vantage point of a consumer, a critical geographer might reframe the question of art in terms of spatial practice.

So for me, the challenge here is to design a critical and creative methodology for fieldwork in order to carry out the topographic and topological inquiries that I believe will give this project momentum. Much of this will be concerned with discourse and I have been considering some threads, including:

  • Conflict and controversy
  • Celebrate and cherish
  • Change and currents
  • Commons and context
  • Continuity and crisis

And then, to inspire myself and remind myself about a kind of ‘storying’ for which writing is always about and does more:

I can’t help but dream of the kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. I t would multiply not judgements but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes – all the better. A ll the better. […] I t would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightening of possible storms.
Michel Foucault
1997, ‘The masked philosopher’. Trans, Hurley, R. et al. in Rabinow, P. (ed.), Michel Foucault – Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (London:
Penguin), 321-328. 1997a, p. 323

Posted in: art, fieldworking, writing