Tag Archives: Alternative Maps

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
[3] http://basementgeographer.com/songlines-how-indigenous-australians-use-music-to-mark-geography/
[4] Richard Long, No Where

The Collaboration Project

Before the summer we were tasked with joining forces with one of the other MADM students to work on a short ‘collaboration project’. The aim is to show us the advantages and methods for working in a creative collaboration. I paired up with Poy, an architect turned designer who is looking into a concept very closely aligned to mine – that of memory and nostalgia in relation to places we have been.

We were asked to put together the objectives of the project:

  1. Knowledge: seeking to gain an understanding of a specific sub-question aligned to my project, looking at the nature of the map; what different methods of cartography can express locality?
  2. Skill: seeking to gain an ability to work directly with someone else to critique ideas and challenge my concepts; looking to gain additional working methodologies or ideas on creative problem solving
  3. Attitude: seeking to gain a better conception of what it is like to work in a creative collaboration and be more willing to share and work on art ideas in a group setting;

So now to work! We have an initial concept we have been thinking about individually over the summer break. I want to look at what is a map and Poy wants to understand how we react to a new place the first time we experience it. This gives us a great synergy in actually doing some live action creative cartography – looking to ‘map’ both a new and a familiar place.

Poy showed me a link to these amazing tactile maps made in Inuit communities.

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A great extract here from a paper by Peter Whitridge on the significance of place-making in relation to the Inuit maps.

Human spatialities are every-where complex and heterogeneous, at each historical moment articulating embodied actors with a simultaneously symbolic, social, and biophysical world. Place is regarded here as the effect of a general movement of thought and practice that imbricates the real and the representational at complexly layeredsites, and along heterogeneous seams. The investment of particular locations with meaning (place-making) is a ubiquitous social and cognitive process. Lookingmore closely at the archaeologically and ethnographically well-described Inuit case, networks of places and paths can be discerned at a host of spatial scales, from the vast expanses of the arctic landscape and sea ice to the intricate topologies of houses, bodies, and tools. Homologies, however fragmentary, between these toposemantic arenas point to a eld of circulation of representations that can be labelled the imaginary”, and its regional networks “imaginaries”. A place can be thought of as a spatialized imaginary, a nexus of imaginary signications at the site of its intersection with the real. 

Landscapes, Houses, Bodies, Things: “Place”and the Archaeology of Inuit Imaginaries
Peter Whitridge

Anyway, this is at the root of our idea to create a tactile map which documents our experiences of new and familiar places, showing how we respond to the subtleties in the place. We are going to do some tests on deciding the form of our final map-object (although we have decided it will be 3D) and then off to conduct our psychogeographic expeditions.

Nearly show time

The day for the interim show opening draws nearer, and it’s all a bit manic in the show space as last minute preparations continue. I think I am pretty much done now, having spent most of the last two weeks working on two new experiments for the show. I have decided to go with three pieces.

(Calico, found steel wires, wild flowers, graphite)
My rust dyeing and drawing experiment. I think this nicely captures the ideas of microcosm-macrocosm and using local materials with non-local symbolism.

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You Were Here
(Steel cable, out-of-date GB road map)
The first of my basketry experiments, using steel cables to echo the importance of iron to human life, both on a micro-scale (human society itself) and a macro-scale (the core of the earth and the core of the dying stars). I like the way the map is out-of-date – showing you a place which does not physically exist, only now an impression of place shaped by memory and experience. The twining was a lot of fun, but making the map yarn took a lot of time. I have the technique sorted now at least!!

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Show me the way to go home
(Steel cable, out-of-date GB road map index)
A follow-on from the first twined piece, making more of the connection between the steel and the earth’s magnetic field. The form of the basket was inspired by a compass rose, where the human impression of place, signified here through a twined yarn made of place names, is what we overlay onto the physical world in order for us to understand it.

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This is my final text for the show guide:

How do we understand our sense of place in the world beyond the constraints of community and culture?  These works explore different aspects of the interaction of local and non-local, the physical and the meta-physical; I use steel wires as a physical manifestation of a material critical in human, planetary and stellar lifecycles. Upon this core, I am experimenting with different weaving and drawing techniques.

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Private View this Thursday night (16 July) at 6pm, Camberwell College of Arts!!

Contemporary Cartography

Looking back over the last couple of weeks making and essay research, I have begun to develop more of a focus on exactly what aspect of “place” I want to explore.  In my last reflective post I said:

I could look at place its most grandest incarnation – how we make sense of our place in the vast unknowable depths of the universe? Moving past the awe and mystery into tangible, physical understanding.

Meaning: looking at a sense of place beyond borders, beyond cultures.  So! I have started a new set of experiments. Going back to some of my experiments from January, I am returning to the idea of basketry – and weaving more generally, after the delight I found in the frame weaving we did with Alice Fox last week. I am also returning to the idea of hand making paper yarn using old out of date maps (which I first tried in March and promptly abandoned!). I like the symbology of using an old map as a physical record of a point in space and time which no longer exists – as our memory of place also does. We take our interaction with places and twist and warp them through our own mental filters, creating our own personal map of the world.

This was my first construction test:

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Test 1: Steel cable, paper yarn, handmade vintage map yarn (1976 Bartholomew Map Dorset)

A few obvious things to change to make this better (including getting rid of the commercial paper yarn and making my own finer map yarn), so test 2 is now underway.

Although there is an obvious connection between map and place, this seems like a good time to explore fully the extent of meaning about working with maps.

What is a map?

Cartographic language is intrinsically linked with identity and the spaces we inhabit. Every map is framed within our representation of the world, defined by ourselves, our communities, our nations, our planet and beyond. Mapping allows us to locate ourselves in the world both physically and psychologically, the map of ‘imagined’ just as potent as the map of the ‘real’. Maps can be a simple scientific tool leading to familiar or unknown destinations, or to home or displacement, be turned upside down and inside out, connect to an interior mind or an exterior world.

Every map however is a projection, a representation. Maps produce new realities as much as they document existing ones. Projections are constructed, configured and underpinned by various assumptions about people – about place. A map, like a place is seen from the inside, with all of the inner workings of its visual field laid bare. But how can you know the full extend of any territory without surveying the entire space from beyond its borders? How can we know the size of the universe without stepping outside it?

Tom McCarthy [Mapping it out, 2014], described the Kafkaesque challenge of seeking to free yourself from the boundaries and see yourself from the outside as cartopsychosis: “I propose this is the truth not only of geography but also of identity tout court – that is, of Being. We live in the gaps, the oblique, morphing interzones between perspectival regimes that themselves are anything but stable

A slightly less oblique view comes from Maddy Rosenburg, Curator of the Central Booking Art Space in New York, who said the following about art-maps: “We are accustomed to looking at maps in attempts to find direction, our relationship to a physical interpretation of the land. But that land can be more than a city or country, it can help us to navigate our bodies, to understand our environment beyond its physicality into the realm of cultural space, and to grasp an understanding though the visceral. Cartographers can tell us more than just the routes from one point to another, they can map terrains of landscape or psychological space, that amorphous state that adds up to a sense of a place beyond mere cataloging. They can also reduce all to the basic, the pure essence of line and plane. We may glide across the surface but there always seems to be a rumble below it, roaming around a skin that is, as skin is, porous and organic.” 

Artists working with maps

There are a lot of different approaches to working with maps and map forms across applied and fine art. I searched for some people looking at the map as a way to explore place, predominantly sculpturally. First up, Shannon Rankin. Her work explores the relationship between physical place and intangible experience. She describes her use of maps by the following

Maps are the everyday metaphors that speak to the fragile and transitory state of our lives and our surroundings. Rivers shift their course, glaciers melt, volcanoes erupt, boundaries change both physically and politically. The only true constant is change.

Using a variety of distinct styles I intricately cut, score, wrinkle, layer, fold, paint and pin maps to produce revised versions that often become more like the terrains they represent. These new geographies explore notions of place, perception and experience, suggesting the potential for a broader landscape and inviting viewers to examine their relationships with each other and the world we share.”

Her work is an array of different sculptural and diagrammatic works using manipulated maps. These were some of my favourite pieces from her portfolio

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Second is one of my essay references Chris Drury, who uses maps as a way of making comparisons between places and as a way of exploring a place through which he has walked in a more reflective way. He uses maps in various ways, including cutting the maps of two places into strips and weaving them together to give both places a common context.



From anyplace to no-place

Take a chance at changing how you think. This was one of the key thoughts I took away from my mid-point review last month. You can only change what you do on the surface if you never change the way you think underneath. I have been taking the opportunity of the off-site study break to try a new way of working – focussing on doing some sketchbook work to explore my question in depth rather than ‘the answer’.

Following on from the thoughts which surfaced during the wilding the edges walk, I have been mulling over the idea of the anyplace and the no-place: the worlds which we create from our own personal places, our own stories intermixing with the narratives of the people and places we pass by.  In considering how to tackle this from the perspective of my practice, I have uncovered the idea of the alternative map, which a range of different artists have looked at from different angles.

First up, Emma McNally who I came across at the Mirrorcity exhibition back in autumn. Emma McNally describes her works as a “Visualisation of complex systems, as a ‘visual thinking’ around questions of emergence.” Her drawings at first look appear to be scientific maps of geological formations and constellations, but they are in fact made intuitively from Emma’s imagination.
Emma describes her practice as “an experimental venture in tune with a world in a perpetual state of flux: there is an ongoing feedback loop between her drawing in carbon on paper and the space of digital manipulation where a different nature of spatial thinking is possible.” Interesting interview can be found here.

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Next Grayson Perry, who has also created a number of drawn maps mixing imagined and cartographic process over his career. The one I have picked out is the ‘self-portrait’ Map of Days (2014) which I thought was the highlight of the “Who Are You?” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery earlier this year.grayson-perry-a-map-of-days

I spent almost an hour staring at this map which has the last piece in the exhibition’s winding trail around the gallery. It is a visual metaphor of the nature of identity and the self, using the premise of a walled city, dependent on the landscape it sits in, in the same way our identity is shaped and co-created by those around us. It reminds me of one of my favourite books, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, which also contains an imagined world within a walled city created as part of the protagonist’s identity as he slowly loses his grip on reality.

“How can the mind be so imperfect?” she says with a smile.

I look at my hands. Bathed in the moonlight, they seem like statues, proportioned to no purpose.

“It may well be imperfect,” I say, “but it leaves traces. And we can follow those traces, like footsteps in the snow.”

“Where do the lead?”

“To oneself,” I answer. “That’s where the mind is. Without the mind, nothing leads anywhere.”

I look up. The winter moon is brilliant, over the Town, above the Wall.

So what does this all mean to my practice? While reserving the right to change my mind, my current thought is to better understand the four tenants to my personal interpretation of place – the anyplace, no-place, the haunted place and the marker point. Materially, I have been working on capturing the ideas of the haunted place through mark-making and stitch – this is coming on well (update soon). However, I think I also need to understand its antitheses in order to more fully understand itself. The map of Grayson Perry to me is one of the anyplace. A location which could be anywhere with any person’s narrative projected into it, yet any of us would understand and relate to it in some way. Conversely, the maps of Emma McNally speak to me of a mapping of the no-place, an image which acts as a Foucaludian mirror; the place without place, at once both empty and occupied. I imagine this link is what had positioned her work so well within the Mirrorcity exhibition – which itself was named after the Foucalt’s ideas on Heterotopia, with the mirror as the example of a real place which stands outside of known space.