Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘maps’

18 AUGUST, 2014

An Atlas of Alternative Maps by Tim Berners-Lee, Ed Ruscha, Yoko Ono, Damien Hirst, John Maeda, Kevin Kelly, John Baldessari, and More


“Maps are errors to arrive at truth.”

For all the spiritual benefits of getting lost, we humans are habitually driven to orient ourselves to the world and find our place in it. It is no surprise, then, that maps captivate our imagination so powerfully. We’ve found in cartography a tool of propaganda and a springboard for philosophy, a canvas for art and a vehicle for idealism. We’ve applied it to everything from understanding time to ordering the cosmos.

Just when it might seem like the world doesn’t need another book about maps, Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies (public library | IndieBound) — a magnificent compendium envisioned and culled by legendary curator Hans Ulrich Obrist — proves otherwise. With more than 130 maps by a wide-ranging roster of luminaries spanning art, science, technology, literature, architecture, film, and more — including John Baldessari, Tim Berners-Lee, Louise Bourgeois, Yoko Ono, Kevin Kelly, Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, John Maeda, Sean Carroll, Douglas Rushkoff, and Marcus du Sautoy — the book offers a living reminder that rather than objective representations of reality, maps are invariably projections in both the literal and the metaphorical sense, projecting onto the world the mapmaker’s subjective, abstract, psychoemotionally charged ideas about what is real and meaningful.

Carved atlas by artist Étienne Chambaud

(Image courtesy of Étienne Chambaud)

The volume’s greatest gift and highest point of differentiation is, in fact, precisely the sensibility for which Obrist is known and celebrated — the bold cross-pollination of disciplines, which invites the various fields to enrich one another, a beacon whose aggregate beam illuminates the landscape of the unknown. Obrist remarks on this approach in a companion essay titled “You Are Here”:

Dialogue, conversation and exchange between different fields is the only way we can chart a course through the increasingly complex terrain of contemporary life… Maps produce new realities much as they seek to document current ones. Maps are always a going-beyond the space-time of the present.

In 2009, Wired magazine founding editor and digital culture sage Kevin Kelly asked people to draw a map of the internet as they pictured it, illustrating what he had in mind by drawing his own map.

(Image courtesy of Kevin Kelly)

(See more of Kelly’s Internet Mapping Project here.)

'Map of the Future' by designer John Maeda

(Image courtesy of John Maeda)

'Wen Out for Cigrets' (1985) by artist Ed Ruscha

(Image courtesy of Ed Ruscha)

Obrist points to the particularly appropriate situationist concept of dérive — a term from psychogeography connoting an unplanned, wanderlust-driven journey through an urban landscape — citing his conversation with the Belgian writer and philosopher Raoul Vaneigem:

The dérive is not merely a spatio-temporal drift through urban landscapes, but a drift through the spaces of the imagination in order to arrive at an invention of reality. This is why Joyce’s Ulysses takes the simultaneous form of a dérive through the environs of Dublin and a drift through the mind of Stephen Dedalus. Wandering and drifting can be a geographical and a psychological movement, a migration across borders. Maps are errors to arrive at truth. To paraphrase the words that Joyce gives to Dedalus, these “errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

Obrist touches on this element of psychological wanderlust in the opening chapter:

Maps are often an abstraction of the physical or conceptual world — a symbolic depiction of a space or idea that allows one to understand and navigate an unfamiliar topography or complex topology. But while most conventional charts, plans and diagrams claim to offer an accurate, even objective picture of the world, each one is bound by the specific agendas of its creators and users… Cartographies can be altered endlessly to reflect different priorities, hierarchies, experiences, points of view, and destinations.

'Flight Patterns' by artist Aaron Koblin, a visualization based on airplane location data.

(Image courtesy of Aaron Koblin)

'18th Century Königsberg' and '21st Century Kaliningrad' by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy

(Image courtesy of Joe McLaren)

The prominent Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy points to the unsolvable 18th-century puzzle “The Seven Bridges of Königsberg,” a groundbreaking “map in mathematics” asking whether it’s possible to cross all seven bridges only once, as a kind of metaphor for how maps reflect multiple dimensions of cultural change:

Rather than the physical geometry of the city, it was the way the city was connected together that was important. Topology was born. Topological maps are essential in navigating the plethora of networks that map the modern world: from the London Underground to the Internet, from neural networks to social networks. Although the eighteenth-century version proved an impossible puzzle to solve, it turns out that in modern-day Königsberg, or Kaliningrad as it is called today, you can cross the seven bridges that currently span the Pregel River once and only once.

'Map of Media Power Over Time' by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff

(Image courtesy of Douglas Rushkoff)

Artist Yoko Ono contributes a textual piece, originally published in her 1970 gem Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings by Yoko Ono:


Draw an imaginary map.
Put a goal mark on the map where you
want to go.
Go walking on an actual street according
to your map.
If there is no street where it should be
according to the map, make one by putting
the obstacles aside.
When you reach the goal, ask the name of
the city and give flowers to the first
person you meet.
The map must be followed exactly, or the
event has to be dropped altogether.

Ask your friends to write maps.
Give your friends maps.

1962 summer

Artist Pae White admits to a chronic difficulty in reading maps and writes, 'Shapes don't automatically register as places, and cropping or figure/ground ambiguity only makes things worse. For me, a void is also a place.'

(Image courtesy of Pae White)

Computer scientist and World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee's 'mapping analogy for explaining to people the mingling and evolution of influences in the World Wide Web technology' (2007)

(Image courtesy of Tim Berners-Lee)

Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies is a stimulating delight in its entirety. Complement it with Umberto Echo’s chronicle of the greatest maps of imaginary places and E.F. Schumacher’s superb vintage guide to philosophical maps, then revisit Obrist’s compendium of famous artists’ instructions for art anyone can make.

Images courtesy of Thames & Hudson

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

17 FEBRUARY, 2014

Legendary Lands: Umberto Eco on the Greatest Maps of Imaginary Places and Why They Appeal to Us


“Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself.”

Celebrated Italian novelist, philosopher, essayist, literary critic, and list-lover Umberto Eco has had a long fascination with the symbolic and the metaphorical, extending all the way back to his vintage semiotic children’s books. Half a century later, he revisits the mesmerism of the metaphorical and the symbolic in The Book of Legendary Lands (public library) — an illustrated voyage into history’s greatest imaginary places, with all their fanciful inhabitants and odd customs, on scales as large as the mythic continent Atlantis and as small as the fictional location of Sherlock Holmes’s apartment. A dynamic tour guide for the human imagination, Eco sets out to illuminate the central mystery of why such utopias and dystopias appeal to us so powerfully and enduringly, what they reveal about our relationship with reality, and how they bespeak the quintessential human yearning to make sense of the world and find our place in it — after all, maps have always been one of our greatest sensemaking mechanisms for life, which we’ve applied to everything from the cosmos to time to emotional memory.

Eco writes in the introduction:

Legendary lands and places are of various kinds and have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief.

The reality of these illusions is the subject of this book.

Saint-Sever World Map, from the 'Saint-Sever Beatus' (1086), Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France

T and O map, Bartholomaeus Angelicus, 'Le livre des propriétés des choses' (1392)

Tobias Swinden, 'En Enquiry into the Nature and Place of Hell' (1714), London, Taylor

Section of the 'Tabula Peutingeriana' (12th-century copy)

Map of Palmanova, from Franz Hogenberg and Georg Braun, 'Civitates orbis terrarum' (1572–1616), Nuremberg

Eco considers the allure of utopias as a tangible manifesto for the possible:

Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself. Out of a hope in a possible future, many people are prepared to make enormous sacrifices, and maybe even die, led on by prophets, visionaries, charismatic preachers, and spellbinders who fire the minds of their followers with the vision of a future heaven on Earth (or elsewhere).

Anonymous, 'Jain Cosmological Map' (c. 1890), gouache on canvas, Library of Congress

'Ulysses' Journey Was Far from Home' | M.O. MacCarthy, 'Carte du monde d'Homère' (1849), New York Public Library

Map of the world according to Hartmann Schedel, in 'Liber chronicarum' (Nuremberg Chronicle), Nuremberg (1493)

Woodcut map of the island of Utopia on frontispiece of the 1st edition of Thomas More's 'Utopia' (1516), British Library

There is, however, an inevitable dark side to utopias, whose very presupposition of perfect happiness can itself become a burdensome form of oppression. Eco writes:

We would not always want to live in those societies recommended to us by utopias, because they often resemble dictatorships that impose happiness on their citizens at the cost of their freedom. For example, [Thomas] More’s Utopia preaches freedom of speech and thought as well as religious tolerance, but limits them to believers and excludes atheists, who are barred from public office, while it warns that “if someone takes the license to wander far from his own district and is caught without the pass issued by the supreme magistrate … he is severely punished; if he dares to do so a second time, he is condemned to slavery.” Moreover, utopias have the quality, as literary works, of being somewhat repetitive, because in wishing for a perfect society, we always end up by making a copy of the same model.

Illustration for Jules Verne's 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869-1870)

Abraham Ortelius, 'Map of Iceland' (16th century)

Above all, however, Eco sees in the imaginary a counterintuitive assurance of reality — fictional narratives, in a strange way, is the only place where we can become unmoored from our existential discomfort with uncertainty, for in fiction everything is precisely and unambiguously as it was intended:

The possible world of narrative is the only universe in which we can be absolutely certain about something, and it gives us a very strong sense of truth. The credulous believe that El Dorado and Lemuria exist or existed somewhere or other, and skeptics are convinced that they never existed, but we all know that it is undeniably certain that Superman is Clark Kent and that Dr. Watson was never Nero Wolfe’s right-hand man, while it is equally certain that Anna Karenina died under a train and that she never married Prince Charming.

The Book of Legendary Lands is magnificent in its entirety. Complement it with Codex Seraphinianus, history’s most beautiful encyclopedia of imaginary things, and Where You Are, a wonderful case study in cartography as wayfinding for the soul.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

17 DECEMBER, 2013

Where You Are: Cartography as Wayfinding for the Soul


Mapping the human experience based on disposition rather than position.

Humanity has had a long and obsessive relationship with maps as sensemaking tools serving such diverse purposes as propaganda, imaginative interpretation, emotional memory, and timekeeping. Far from the precise navigational tools they once were, maps have now blossomed into masterworks of artful subjectivity, from Denis Wood’s narrative atlas to Paula Scher’s stunning typographic cartography — but nowhere more so than in Where You Are: A Collection of Maps That Will Leave You Feeling Completely Lost (public library) by Visual Editions. Consisting of sixteen maps by sixteen different artists and writers in a beautifully designed boxed set of booklets and fold-out maps, including contributions from Alain de Botton, Geoff Dyer, and Olafur Eliasson, this remarkable and unusual compendium places people rather than geography at the heart of the compass to construct a provocative new conception of cartography as wayfinding for the soul, not the body.

Indeed, in the age of GPS and sterile, data-driven cartographic precision, how delightful to consider mapping the human experience based on disposition rather than position, on the subjective rather than the capital-O Objective, on the symbolic, metaphysical, and abstract rather than the literal, physical, and concrete. From Geoff Dyer’s bullet-pointed locational autobiography to Sheila Heti and Ted Mineo’s love letter to chance in a six-hexagram miniature of the I Ching, these imaginative and irreverent personal cartographies expand the conception of a map as a flat reflection of geography and reclaim it, instead, as a living, breathing, dimensional expression of the human spirit.

Novelist Joe Dunthorne offers an illustrated map of “the mess of influences, anxieties, past failures, hopes, enemies, distractions and stimulants [of] each writing day”:

In an essay contemplating the delights of old maps, at once so misguided and so brave, philosopher Alain de Botton (yes, him — and him — also him) observes:

The pleasure of contemplating the world on a map might be likened to that of reading certain novels. In both cases, we are placed in a privileged position vis a vis a reality which we usually only glimpse from a limited perspective. With a world map, we rise above the constraints of our segment of land so as to hold the globe in our gaze, much as with novels, we may be granted intimate access to minds beyond our own.

But of course, like a novel, a map can only ever be a model and reduction of reality. The journeys we make through the landscape look precariously unlike the lines we trace on a map — and it is here that the lost motorist moans. However, it seems we cannot do without abbreviations of complexity in order to make sense of our world, in order to get to our destination.

In a poetic piece playing on Alice in Wonderland and titled A Map of Six Impossible Things, Iranian-born, Paris-raised, New-York-based writer Lila Azam Zanganeh, author of The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, imagines:

The impossible city is a city made of all cities. It is neither a city of the future nor a city of the past. It is a longing for the city. A city of stone and a city of glass. It is a city of spires and transparent abysses. A city of rivers streaming into an expanse of blue. It is a city of dubious beauty. Yet also a city of staggering beauty. A city of belfries harried by the screams of seagulls. A city of evergreen hills and lucid water. It is a city of children running down heaps of garbage. A city of drowsy bays and flying men and opal lakes. It is a city of sand and dunes, a city where the first and last human are covered in dust. It is a city of convents, fig-scented gardens and singing mounts. A city of redbrick castles with wide-open arms. It is a city of stone churches smelling of green water at sunup. A city of saints. It is a city of connecting islands. A city with only one weeping willow hunched over a promontory. It is a city of minarets and violet towers. A city of dreams long gone and lingering still. It is a city stippled with gold and yearning for the sun. It is all the cities you have seen and never seen. And it is the last city standing on the edge of the world, a second before the sun slips into the water.

Canadian artist, designer, and graphic novelist Leanne Shapton explores cartography through her Tablescapes project — paintings of the topography of her desk or tabletop:

Pitcher from antique store in Lewes, pear, two pencils, watercolor palette, box of watercolor brushes, vintage bikini, cup of coffee, plum, paper napkin, three jars of ink, two sketchbooks, plastic cup of water, plastic bottle of water, ashtray from Forte dei Marmi, an unwrapped chocolate, small china plate.

Two mugs of tea (one warm, one cold), bag of shelled pistachios, shoebox of photocopies, letter envelopes, bottle of cologne, seven postcards, week-old newspaper.

Sketchbook, ten jars of ink, ten sample pots of house paint, small vase of roses, book on trees, two books on swimming, three paintbrushes, paper towel, set of watercolors, scented candle, tube of moisturizer, packet of sleeping pills, bag of granola.

Fried plantain bananas, paper towel, two napkins, two placemats, Toronto Star mug.

It is rare that a book’s companion site would be anything other than an afterthought or a gimmick, but this one is something else entirely — an experience wholly different from, yet entirely complementary to, the analog artifact. Yet the charisma of Where You Are remains its unapologetic humanity, the palpable physicality with which it counters the digital despotism of the devices we seem to have so irreversibly embraced as we navigate the world — an implicit paraphrasing of Carl Sagan, reminding us how a map is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.