LSE guards the globe, and the ossified world order it represents

Angus Paget

Editors: Phoebe Beckett Chingono and Maria João Tralhão Dolan

The London School of Economics recently unveiled a controversial new sculpture by Mark Wallinger, entitled “The World Turned Upside Down”. The Turner Prize winner’s work, which is a 4-meter diameter globe and ‘political map’, hovers imposingly outside of the LSE Students’ Union in the epicenter of the university’s public space. The globe is “turned upside down” to make the global south face North. In one casual gesture, the worlds power structures are supposedly inverted.

As soon as this artwork was unveiled, students immediately highlighted inexcusable faults with the mapping, as well as the entire existence of the artwork. To name a few, currently, the globe doesn’t include any reference to the existence of the Gaza Strip, and marks Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; the globe doesn’t recognize the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir; the contested border between north and south Sudan is marked without a dotted line; and regional states in the USA are labelled, whilst neighboring countries have no regional labels: marking a clear bias towards the United States as the center of the world. This is clearly Trump’s world map. Arguably, the inversion hasn’t changed much at all; Europe is at eye level on the map, making all states and delineations readable and accessible. If this map is based on the UN, then it’s biases well reflect the dysfunctional domination of the UN by the world’s major imperial powers at the expense of everyone else.

Students frustrated by the omissions of the map, seemingly overlooked in the 5-year planning phase, tried to open an artistic dialogue between those affected and the sculpture commissioned by management. Students wrote on the sculpture in pen, and stuck post-it notes over areas of the globe that failed to acknowledge national struggles for self-determination: important, and contentious issues to many within our diverse student body. 

In a typical top-down, anti-democratic response, students who made amendments to the Globe were labelled vandals and a security guard was posted around the artwork to preserve this frozen world. For a period, the LSE removed the announcement from their website in clear embarrassment but have since updated the website with extra qualifiers trying to pass responsibility to the UN. Mark Wallinger said: “The UN is the authority as to the names and borders. This is the world, as we know it from a different viewpoint. Familiar, strange, and subject to change”. The question remains: if Wallinger acknowledges this subjectivity, why produce a piece of public art that both erases the diachronic and disputed nature of abstract political boundaries and validates the UN as a neutral, objective international authority?   

Other than the numerous struggles for national self-determination erased by the sculpture and its borders (incorrect even by UN standards- e.g. the hard border between South/North Sudan), the globe is a valorization of the violence of colonially imposed and imperialist borders. Borders are an essential structure of global inequality and maintain the boundaries of neo-imperialism. Every day, migrants die trying to cross borders, people are locked out and excluded from the wealth and security their labour generates for the ruling classes, land is stolen from the people who have lived and worked it for generations, whilst violent wars over national boundaries have caused an immense loss of life and human suffering.

When we consider how difficult it is for students from low-income backgrounds and students of the global south to study at LSE - crossing often violent borders to get here - and when we consider also the infiltration of Prevent and the Hostile Environment policies into the university, which govern, surveil, and suppress students on Tier 4 visas, can we really call the LSE a global inclusive institution? There are many ways in which the university and the city of London can be inaccessible to the majority, policing space, time and identity in favor of the wealthiest and their economic productivity. When for some of us there feels such an urgent need for radical change, how can this globe represent our vision of the world and the universities role in it?

This sculpture is insulting and represents all that is wrong with how elite ideology imagines the world: a vulgar glorification of the international establishment. This corporate style commission undoubtedly cost hundreds of thousands and it is demonstrative of the undemocratic nature of the university that there was no consultation process when commissioning public art that is supposed to represent the university as a whole. Sadly, it is not surprising that such a sculpture was commissioned by the LSE. In, almost poetic irony, the sculpture well represents the true nature of the institution.

As Minouche herself said, “This bold new work by Mark Wallinger encapsulates what LSE is all about”. The LSE likes to market itself as a global, diverse and inclusive institution, working hard to change the world, whereas in reality the LSE is an institution of global elites- many of whom come to the LSE to receive expert training in how to maintain the international establishment with the instruments of finance, governance, neo-liberal management, development and the Knowledge-Power Nexus. Much of the knowledge produced at the LSE perpetuates the same old systems of exploitation, inequality, environmental destruction and elite power. If the LSE is really committed to changing the world, why commission an art-work that eternalizes the world and its structures, frozen by imagined objectivity? This discourse legitimizes the abstract and constructed North-South Dichotomy whilst simultaneously validating all the means by which this binary is maintained. Until the University can drop the façade of these empty slogans, the LSE can never create the global change they market themselves as striving for. As students and potential agents of political change, we should be encouraged to reimagine the world as it stands from the ground up, not simply forced to accept the authority of the powerful and the established way of doing things. This globe is a multi-layered symbol that hopefully can trigger continuing critical reflection on the practices and organization of institutions like the LSE.

A group of student activists, NotPartofLSE, has been protesting the Globe’s appearance and the LSE has met separately with representatives of affected student groups. It seems the university is trying to open dialogue with affected students and claims to be willing to make some amendments, but members of NotPartofLSE have stated that:

“Correcting” or altering some of the labels and lines on this globe is not a solution. Conforming to UN resolution is not enough. Not all people fighting for self-determination have had (or will have) such an institutional way of justifying their recognition. Such struggles are constantly shifting; as new ones arise and gain mainstream recognition, the demands to redraw the borders would have to be put forward again. The problem is not the placement of the borders, the problem is the violence of their existence”

It has to be recognized that the nation state system is politically important to those seeking national recognition, but in practice the nation is imagined, always contested and dependent on who is invoking it: rather than the immutable system of borders and nations, that inevitably obscures some nations whilst prioritizing others, that is presented in permanence in this sculpture. 

Therefore, NotPartofLSE are Demanding,

“For the sculpture to be removed or transformed into a model without borders, such as a relief map or one based on satellite images. If the sculpture is sold, the funds should go to help students that are struggling to cross borders to come study at the LSE. We believe that would be a better effort towards making LSE a “global university”.

If these demands are not met, students will be publicly protesting for the removal of the globe on Monday 29th of April, at 13.00 around the globe and all of those committed to truly changing the world must stand in solidarity.