Maps to Get Lost In: Visual Editions’ Where You Are

November 27, 2013 | 2 books mentioned 1 5 min read

Thirty satellites orbiting the earth at a height of 12,550 miles make up the Global Positioning System, what artist and technologist James Bridle describes in “You Are Here” as “a celestial superstructure that we all live inside.” His resulting map shows Earth in the constant conical spotlight of these orbiting beacons. Though the benefits have been countless, we may never be lost again, writes Bridle, and “future generations will grow up not knowing what it means to be truly lost.”

Projection of the GPS constellation within the six orbital planes – James Bridle

coverSo, in a world with no unknown lands, where the finger tap of a smartphone locates us in the centre of our Google mapped world, is it still possible to get lost? This is the question posed by Where You Are, an anthology of sixteen maps by an eclectic mix of writers, artists, and thinkers that delights in leading the reader astray by blowing up the conventional conception of the map. Tao Lin offers a playful and ironic rendering of a future lunar hamster colony, Valeria Luiselli charts through words and Polaroids the “Swings of Harlem” and her relationship with her young daughter; there’s a map of impossible things, an ode to childhood atlases and a meditation on a South African road trip anaesthetized by a GPS with the voice of Kate Middleton.

Created by London-based Visual Editions, the anthology is striking and texturally sensuous. (The free digital version is its own curious interactive and communal experience.) But the physical object, the individual, hand-folded maps blooming out in endless variety, re-instills the pleasure of the paper map. The result is an exploration of the map as a storytelling form, one that questions how stories create meaning and offers up possibilities to navigate the more ethereal terrain of day-to-day life.


View of Planisphere, Giovanni Contarini, in Alain de Botton’s “On the Pleasure of Maps”

While many of the anthology’s works contain recognizable cartography – Google’s Creative Lab assisted the project – these maps have more in common with the metaphysical and spiritual interests of the Medieval mappa mundi, which showed sinners the way to heaven and hell.

On the surface, Geoff Dyer’s plotting of his childhood in Cheltenham, England is the most conventional.

The Boy out of Cheltenham by Geoff Dyer

Dyer often performs autobiographical dissections in his essays, but rather than a contained whole this is a sprawling collage of youth filtered through forty years of hindsight. In mapping the homes and haunts, the sports, sex, trouble, and death of his youth, patterns emerge. For instance, there’s the link between geography and lust with Shane, an American girl that lived a few doors down – “First mouth kissed, breasts fondled, and (just once) first vagina touched.”

There is no single way to read this map – starting from the appendix or the grid or leaping through the cross-references – and as a consequence narrative time collapses. His mother is both dead in 2011 and alive playing badminton, while sex with Janice Adams unwinds to their original meeting at the model shop where they both worked. Maps contain all times: the past record, our present location, and future daydreams of movement.

It’s an interesting exercise plotting the past that does not correlate to the satellite map of the present. His childhood has been torn down and infilled. Dyer says of a certain abandoned lot that now has homes on it, “The space has been used, the past has disappeared, been built over – but it’s still there, in my memory.” Memory is what truly is being mapped here, Dyer’s and also our own, because you can’t help but plot your own childhood mistakes, the first joys and first losses.

This relationship between memory and the map is precisely what is at stake in Denis Wood’s “The Paper Route Empire.” In it, he attempts to map his childhood paper route decades later.

The Paper Route Empire by Dnnis Wood

Several iterations follow, including two conflicting maps by friends who also worked the route. What results is a palimpsest of memories with no original ground. And yet the deeper truth for Wood is that there is no shared objective base; each of their experiences warps the landscape to their own point of view. Being a geographer himself, he finds inspiration (and solace) in J.K. Wright’s 1947 concept of “geosophy,” which studies “geographical knowledge from any and all points of view… Indeed, even those parts…that deal with scientific geography must reckon with human desires, motives, and prejudices.”

In novelist Chloe Aridjis’s short story “Map of a Lost Soul,” our own desires and prejudices are prodded. A combination of maps, photos, and text documents a homeless woman’s daily routine around a Mexico City neighborhood. Given our surveillance society, the story reads like a tracking dossier, the metadata of what and how but never the why of her actions. Because the third-person narration never punctures the carapace of her consciousness, the reader is left to question how we extract and create meaning from mapped content.  The facts, clear and quantified, defer deeper truths that can only arise from individual interpretation.

Leanne Shapton’s “Tablescapes” offer a similar test as both she and the reader try to bore into her daily existence through the objects on her desk and table at the end of each day. These painted topographies operate as Rorschach tests; the blobs, smears, and smudges of paint abstract the objects and demand the viewer to graft on their own daily detritus.

Tablescapes by Leanne Shapton

Many of the anthology’s works start from this exterior point to reveal the individual, but others deal directly with the formless landscape of interior life. Joe Dunthorne’s “Ghost Pots” illustrates “the mess of influences, anxieties, past failures, hopes, enemies, distractions, and stimulants that make up the map of each writing day.”

A Literary Landscape by Joe Dunthorne

Anyone who writes will recognize themselves in the features of this island. What Dunthorne’s map captures so brilliantly is the collapsing of time that occurs while writing: the literary wrecks of the past and the “Bonfire of the Exes” exist with the nattering judges ringed around the gladiatorial coliseum while daydreaming “Big Thoughts” of matching your literary idols. These are Dunthorne’s waypoints expressed.

But how to navigate the ineffable? What map is there to inner peace or the moral decision? For Sheila Heti, the I Ching, a book of ancient Chinese wisdom and philosophy, has been such a map in her life. “How to be Good When You’re Lost,” a collaboration with illustrator Ted Mineo, is a contemporary interpretation of six of the I Ching’s sixty-four states. Mineo’s ink drawings are instantly recognizable: the natural elements are contained in human objects and yin-yangs are found in a car crash, donuts, and a spectacular multi-page die-cut drawing of a park.

Yin & Yang by Ted Mineo

Heti’s accompanying interpretations mix the enigmatic and metaphoric maxims of Eastern philosophy with her own succinct, sharp prose. Like a good horoscope, the general leads to our specific. But the underlying pulse of each state is a call to the present. When the world is collapsing be still and stop thinking, she writes, “and notice: how during a time of avalanches, there is something real that persists and shines amid all the rubble.”

Collapse by Ted Mineo

The I Ching, in Heti’s experience, has revealed to her that “the universe is more manifold, more complex, more paradoxical, and more everything that we limited creatures who move forward in time can ever fully appreciate or experience. We can intuit this manifold, but we still have to respond to the world in one way.”

The subjective explorations of art and literature intuit this vastness and “perforate your everyday navigational maps,” as artist Olafur Eliasson puts it. Though no unknown lands remain, there is the varied terra incognito of memory, imagination, and emotion, each requiring its own map. In a world where knowledge is colonizing all, when the depths of the Amazon or the corridors of the Louvre can be simultaneously visited from a computer, it behooves us to remember there is much left to explore.

is a writer in Toronto. His work has appeared in, amongst others, The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, Maisonneuve Magazine, and Reader’s Digest Canada.

One comment:

  1. We’ve just begun carrying this at the bookstore where I work and it’s taken unspeakable amounts of restraint not to purchase it (yet).

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