18 AUGUST, 2014
By: Maria Popova
“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.
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: