Mapping the Terrain

Photo0440 Ways of mapping seem to have become a potent area of consideration recently. Ever-changing urban environments and technologies that facilitate new ways of comprehending them perhaps constitute the background to a range of recent projects that probe the ‘lost dimension’ of space and our place in it. According to some, the ordering principles of maps offer a possible antidote to the trauma of displacement.  Forms of mapping create potential ‘trajectories of becomings’ where certain ‘modes of knowing’ enforce a boundedness in a world of potential boundlessness. Cone One the one hand maps generate new perspectives on the known, on the other they allow a voyeuristic take on the unknown. Everest base camp, Angor Wat and the Great Barrier Reef have all become recent ‘internet tourist destinations’ on Google Street View where ironically mapping has become interchangeable with walking. Morphed from Google Maps which in its turn has expanded to treks to remote sites (indeed the 15 cameras necessary to create the panorama of images to simulate a virtual site is known as the Trekker), the viewer clicks through a series of images and virtually ‘walks’ through the Grand Canyon, Disney World or Red Square from their living room.047

Walking according to others, though is synonymous to a form of belonging to place and space.  Artist Emma Smith, founder of The School for Tourists is concerned about relationships between walking and the experience of place. She sees walking as an act of agency. In an age of alienation, a range of strategies to establish ‘realms of coherence’ in relation to ‘mapping the self’ have evolved through walking. American writer Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: a journey from lost to found (2012) documents her struggle for self-respect after suffering ongoing bereavement, divorce and childhood abuse. Walking the Pacific Crest Trail on the west coast of the United States alone, over the crests of 9 mountain ranges, with little previous experience of the demands of long distance walking, she overcomes fear, isolation, pain and countless setbacks over many months until she completes the journey of over 2,000 miles from California to Oregon. The film version of the book is one of several recent biographies of endurance where extreme walking maps an odyssey of lost (and found) identity.

049Mapping is bound up with experience and there is an interchangability between maps and journeys – literal or metaphorical. Photographer Annie Leibovitz’s recent project Pilgrimage was a form of mapping. Photographs of still lives and interiors and the material traces of her subjects – letters, clothes, pressed flowers, beds  – belonging  to, amongst others,  Emily Dickinson, Georgia O’Keefe, Eleanor Roosevelt and Virginia Woolf were photographed in natural light which gives the images an eerie presence. Began, she admitted ‘as a way to save my soul’ following the trauma of the death of her partner Susan Sontag and her parents soon afterwards, she embarked on a trail which followed a series of connections between one subject and another and which subsequently revealed other networks. We are reminded that Julia Margaret Cameron was Virginia Woolf’s great aunt; that she lived next door to Tennyson; that Martha Graham choreographed a dance about Emily Dickinson; that Barbara Morgan’s photographs of Graham represent a turning point in the representation of dance. In the book, an image of Annie Oakley’s Native American blankets are seen adjacent to an account of Leibovitz’s journey to O’Keefe’s studio in New Mexico; and Darwin’s garden in Kent follows on from an image of the interior of Freud’s study in London.Busstop

Revealing the hidden is arguably part of the task of the map-maker. Other forms of connections are formed between Leibovitz’s subjects in her photographs of their objects not normally on view: Emily Dickinson’s dress is kept away from her house in a museum; Elvis Presley’s TV set and record player are in the storeroom of Graceland; Martha Graham’s props are packed in boxes in a cramped New York warehouse.

Part of the process of map-making is piecing together fragments which then become part of a comprehensive whole. Travelbydrone harvests material made by amateur drone pilots and its thousands of edited videos cover areas from Nova Scotia to Namibia to the Arctic Ocean. The potential for tourism is obvious, but the technology could genuinely change the way in which we see and comprehend the world through a series of aerial moving images. In digital artists Aaron Koblin and Ben Tricklebank’s forthcoming installation, Light Echoes to be held in the Curve, Barbican, visitors will enter a dark environment where the tracks of the disused Eagle Mountain Railroad in the Mojave Desert, filmed by a drone, will be ‘mapped’ onto the gallery floor frame by frame. 028 Japanese photographer Sohei Nishino creates intricate map-like photocollages of London, Tokyo, Paris, Istanbul, Delhi and Berlin and many other cities by collaging together thousands of detailed images from various perspectives that he made by walking through the cities’ streets and re-photographing the result. These thousands of fragments come together to form panoramas which evoke the naïve flat perspective of medieval maps or cubism whilst constituting the extraordinary detail of 21st century cities. The minimalist glass towers of Canada House, Canary Warf and the City soar above the melee in London whilst patches of sky recorded over time appear in painterly palettes of greys.031

George Georgiou’s photographic series Last Stop can be seen as a visual map of London made by images taken from windows of double-decker buses. He called it a way of knowing the city after  his 10 years absence, where he felt disorientated by so much urban change. Random events are held together through the predictable nature of bus routes which coalesce the fleeting and the intensities of human interactions. 022

The continuous redevelopment of urban space on a global scale has created an immersive emphatic, authoritative environment.  The city is an ever- expanding interpellation – a regulated space of authority and privilege, where, subject to long-term infrastructure projects or large-scale building developments, pedestrians are continually re-directed and re-routed through space that is privately policed, picking their way through corridors of billboards between prohibited areas, edging through dangerous conduits of the new.026

The simulated leafy ivy-clad hoardings of Crossrail beyond which thousands of tons of earth are being removed to be replaced by poured concrete, create a simulacrum of space where truth and fiction merge. Projected streets are populated by avatars in space smoothed out from the chaos of long-term transport construction in the heart of the city. There’s no time to become familiar in such provisional spaces where builders’ boardwalks and temporary billboards proclaim access to new iconic squares and architectural privilege. Where it doesn’t join up, the awkward spaces that remain are filled with leisure sculpture. New forms of orientation will be required to negotiate between the blandly universal and the nostalgia of the known (and lost). The map has become an archive. An A-Z of London published before 2012 will not include the Emirates-funded cablecar, King’s Cross will be obsolete, streets around Crossrail  hubs will have disappeared, be re-drawn or re-named and the Elephant and Castle (in central southeast London) will be missing landmark postwar buildings and historic spaces of human interaction. These pre-modern A-Zs will become historical documents or collectors’ items.

034 Perhaps new approaches to mapping are called for in such changing times. In 2013, The Folkestone Centipede Project was a site-specific artwork funded by the European Regional Development Fund and developed by staff and students of the MA Fine Art, Canterbury. Apparently the installation, in an abandoned shipping container, was a reconstruction of a 1970’s research project which developed a ‘Nonlinear Para-Spectrometry detector’ to find unknown archaeological sites, and which claimed to have identified an ‘area of magnetic dissonance’ in Folkestone Harbour, South East England. Various instruments had mapped a ‘transitory structure’ resembling a massive spoked disc ‘levitating’ over the Folkestone ferry terminal which was observable for 4 minutes a day. Researchers at the time, according to the catalogue of the work, had proposed that this and similar objects were remnants of a technology lost ‘during the last interglacial period’, whilst others were somewhat skeptical of the basis and findings of the ‘research’.


It has been noted that mapping gained whole new sets of perspectives and possibilities when poststructuralism came along. As Marcus Doel proposes via Dr Seuss, ‘like a gust of fresh air, the Cat in the Hat’s antics sweep through the sedentary…With a wave of his paws everything that appeared to be settled and fixed into places become once again mobile elements in a delirious movement of immanent and expressive creation…’ (M. Crang, N. Thrift eds. 2007). So many critical topologies / multiple diversities / trajectories of becomings / productive entanglements / heterogenic spaces /spaces of experience / constellations of affects / performative knowledges / modes of knowing – all generating ever-new perspectives. 051 Further Links:, The School for Tourists, Light Echoes, George GeorgiouCats, Glunks


1 thought on “Mapping the Terrain

  1. wonderfully insightful piece. and fabulous photographs (i especially love the tangle of red and blue ties and cables in the second picture. so mysterious yet so pregnant with potential connections and disruptions, intention and accident scrambled together)

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