The artist as cartographer

I have come to realise the ideas behind my experiments on Desire Lines are related to the idea of the traces of travellers passing through time and space – memories, footprints linking past and present, real and virtual. This is also an idea around mapping, although not as literal as the ‘tactile maps’ as representation of a real space that Poy and I are looking at in the collaboration project. For both pieces of work, I thought it useful to capture a few random thoughts I’ve had so far:

“Mapping denotes a process that takes place every time a map of any kind is created – a drawing scribbled on the back of an envelope, a sequence of places or events etched in one’s memory…or a projection prepared by a team of professional cartographers. The environment to be mapped encompasses both the immediate, physical often urban surroundings in which we walk, our own actions and perceptions as pedestrians and the cultural or ideological filter through which we view this experience.” [1]

For my own work I don’t just want a map to be the outcome of a walk in a physical or imagined space, but also the method by which to create it. The situationists worked like this, creating maps to highlight “psychogeographical contours” or “articulations” of the modern city. They described the “constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones. [2] The situationists through the experience of the dérive, imagined an art which resembled architecture. Walking structures experience; we perceive ourselves and our environment in interaction as we walk along the path. We shape the space as we go.

The idea Poy and I have for our collaboration project is to each create a tactile map based on a walk in two places – a walk from our house front door into our everyday supermarket. My walk I know very well but will be new to Poy, and vice versa for me walking in Poy’s neighbourhood. What difference in mapping will we see between the known place and the new place?

“The stumbling block for people who are familiar with an area is a selective gaze that ignores everything but what is necessary for the task at hand. We see only what we expect to see.” [1, p5]

Yoko ono (1962) has a deceptively simple approach to looking at places which have become too familiar:



Maps are not just of physical places we see with our eyes either – looking at the idea of cognitive maps, sort of like a journey through a memory palace, gives us the idea of structuring and storing spatial information. According to neuroscience we visualise our physical environment in turns of shapes and relationships [1, p112]. A cognitive map is an embodied map – Merleau-Ponty asked “is not to see to see from somewhere?”

There is a fascinating history of pre-lierate navigational methods across the world which include ideas around cognitive mapping. I came across the idea of the dreaming tracks, or songlines, of the indiegenous Australians, which is a fusion of navigation, myth, storytelling and place-making,

“In Aboriginal mythology, a songline is a myth based around localised ‘creator-beings’ during the Dreaming, the indigenous Australian embodiment of the creation of the Earth. Each songline explains the route followed by the creator-being during the course of the myth. The path of each creator-being is marked in sung lyrics. One navigates across the land by repeating the words of the song or re-enacting the story through dance, which in the course of telling the story also describe the location of various landmarks on the landscape (e.g. rock formations, watering holes, rivers, trees)….Songlines often came in sequences, much like a symphony or album today. By singing a song cycle in the appropriate order could navigate vast distances, often travelling through the deserts of Australia’s interior” [3]

Richard Long often uses the idea of toponyms in his work to describe the specific qualities of the places he travels in (although never sung as far as I know!). “It is literally the same stones and the same surfaces of the world that people have always walked over and used. All the place names are like layers of history and different cultures. My work is just another layer on the surface of the world that has been shared by all these different generations, so it’s really about continuity”. [4]


[1] Karen O’Rourke, Walking and Mapping
[2] Guy Debord, Theory of the Derive
[4] Richard Long, No Where


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