Mind the Map
Kunstlicht, Volume 34 (2013), no. 4
For centuries the map was an instrument beyond question. Scientists and explorers forced the terra incognita into confinement, and cartographers tamed new worlds using nothing but a ruler and compass.
A shift took place during the twentieth century. It has since been said that the map covers (Jorge Luis Borges) or even replaces (Jean Baudrillard) the terrain, while others have argued that topography (literally: place writing) does not only describe our world, but writes it into existence. ‘Critical’ or ‘radical’ cartography shifted the focus from the map as an arrested status quo to ‘mapping’ as a performative and political act. In anthropology, cartography is by now a conventional instrument to measure the subjective experience of everyday space, and beyond the walls of academia terms such as ‘story maps’, ‘narrative cartography’ and ‘soft atlas’ frequently arise. Popular novels, too, are nowadays inhabited by geographers, cartographers, or artists with a cartographic obsession, such as in Daniel Kehlmann’s Die Vermessung der Welt (2005), Michel Houellebecq’s La Carte et Le Territoire (2010), and the recently-published Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes (2013). It begs the question, would a popular-science book such as Simon Garfield’s On the Map. Why the World Looks the Way it Does (2013) have been a bestseller ten or twenty years ago?
These developments are reflected in the visual arts. Works such as Stanley Brouwn’s This Way Brouwn (1961) already alluded to an alleged link between cartography and the individual experience of space long before it became commonplace in anthropology. Walter Benjamin’s wish to graphically express the ‘bios’, the Raum des Lebens, on a map, has taken curious shape in, for example, the psychogeography of Guy Debord and his fellow Situationists, the ‘hiking maps’ of Richard Long, and the cartographic diaries of On Kawara (I Went, 1968-1979). In her essay ‘Farewell to Modernism’ (1979), Kim Levin considers the map an ‘emblem’ of Postmodernism. For Levin and her contemporaries, the map symbolized the urge to look outward, and in doing so escape from the self-reflexivity of the artwork as sanctioned by Modernism.
Art that incorporates cartographic material is no longer a rarity. On the contrary, it seems almost ubiquitous. This publication explores the exceptional renaissance of the map in the visual arts. How can we explain artists’ attraction to the map? And should we speak of a unilateral influence, or can cartography in turn learn something from the visual arts?
The latter question is answered with a resounding ‘yes’ by political geographer Henk van Houtum. In an op-ed that kickstarts the issue, Van Houtum introduces a number of themes central to (critical) cartography, and suggests that art can offer an alternative to the positivist cartographic claim of neutrality. In his opinion, cartographers should form alliances with video artists, illustrators, and designers. The next author, Karl Whittington, returns to an era in which art and geography amicably rubbed shoulders – the Middle Ages, but also focuses his attention on contemporary developments of the canon. With the thirteenth-century ‘Psalter Map’ in hand, he demonstrates how certain maps are too easily considered as representative of an entire era or world view, and advocates instead for the use of ‘messier’ examples.
Cultural historian Robert Verhoogt shows us the world from above, as seen from a hot air balloon. In his contribution, Verhoogt explores the rise and heyday of balloon aviation, and reflects on the sheer amazement this new perspective on the world brought to the nineteenth-century. Moving into the twenty-first century, Andreea Breazu describes the latest revolution in cartographic thinking, which is perhaps just as meaningful for our view of the world as the invention of the balloon. Nowadays we use Google Street View to stroll through a photographic facsimile of the world, all whilst sitting at the computer. Breazu shows us how artists have appropriated Street View in order to enact a kind of digital psychogeography.
Christopher Collier offers an extensive analysis of the classic example from psychogeography, Guy Debord’s The Naked City (1957). According to Collier, the work is primarily a critique on commodity exchange, and only secondarily is it an attack on the supposed objectivity of the map. This faux objectivity is also addressed by Roel Griffioen and Martijn Stronks. In ‘Het reliëf’, designed by Merel Schenk, the human body becomes a map, while the map acquires a body.
Joram Kraaijeveld reconsiders Alighiero e Boetti’s famous Mappa del Mondo (1971-1994), perhaps a contemporary equivalent to the Psalter Map in its discursive user-friendliness. He juxtaposes Boetti’s maps with the less conventional case study of Gravesend (2007) by Steve McQueen: two complementary imaginings of geopolitical space. In the final essay, Steyn Bergs shows how the aesthetic of the fictional artist Jed Martin, the protagonist of the aforementioned novel by Michel Houellebecq, can be summed up with the aphorism ‘the map is more interesting than the territory’, and argues that this statement not only applies to Martin, but also to other Houellebecqian characters – and perhaps to the writer himself.
Mind the Map begins and ends with contributions by visual artists. At the very beginning of this publication you will find the work of Pia Louwerens. Louwerens was involved with this issue from an early stage, and brought its various textual layers together in three drawings – consider it a legend to Mind the Map. The publication concludes with an appendix filled with artists’ contributions. From Lado Darakhvelidze’s recent project Mapping the Caucasus with you, multiple images are shown. The artist paints large maps based on childhood memories – sometimes his own, sometimes those of people from the regions and states of the conflicted Caucasus, whom he meets through chat rooms and online forums.
Annesas Appel focuses on the cartographic representation itself. What does it entail, what forms does it yield, and are other representations possible? Appel presents, among others, her latest, ongoing mapping project, View on the World Map. In Julio Pastor’s contribution, cartographic notions are stretched even further. Pastor combines images and text in order to show how maps diagrammatically represent space. Elian Somers introduces the remarkable story of California City, the city that refuses to become one. Somers shows that the discrepancy between the map and the terrain feels larger here than it does anywhere else. How different is the work of Michael Wolf, who uses the map to find his way around a new city. Through explorations in Google Street View, the photographer tried to appropriate his new hometown, Paris.
The appendix with artists’ contributions is not the only visual contribution in Mind the Map. In collaboration with Lida Ruitinga, curator of the map collection of the VU University Amsterdam, Kunstlicht composed a collection of extraordinary details from old maps in the VU-collection. The color-printing of these images, as well as of the artists’ contributions, was made possible thanks to the financial support of the Barent Langenes Foundation and the journal Caert-Thresoor.
In conjunction with Mind the Map, Kunstlicht curated Alternative Exactitudes, an exhibition displaying artworks that open up our understanding of cartography, raise new questions and formulate unexpected answers. Alternative Exactitudes will be on view at P/////AKT, Platform for Contemporary Art. For more information and a print-on-demand catalogue, please visit tijdschriftkunstlicht.nl.
Furthermore, we wish to acknowledge the departure of our designer Edwin de Boer. We would like to thank him for his commitment to Kunstlicht and for the excellent designs he has delivered. Mind the Map marks the debut of our new designer, Merel Schenk, and it gives us every reason to confidently look forward to a fruitful partnership. The editorial team also welcomes Harmen Brethouwer and Emily Hale, proofreaders, and Joris van Huët, who will, among other things, provide Kunstlicht with technical support.
On behalf of the board of editors,
Roel Griffioen and Docus van der Made