Tag Archives: cartography

The Map is not the Territory: Re-imagining Place, Reweaving Story

Natalie Mitchell, a first-year MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, shares insights from Professor Marina Warner’s lecture that took place as part of the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Birkbeck joining the University of London.

City of women map by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, ‘City of Women 2.0’, 2019. Courtesy: the artists

Professor Dame Marina Warner took her audience on a fascinating journey through the role of mapping in storytelling and memory, in her lecture, which forms part of the 100 Years of the University of London lecture series. Using Alfred Korzybski famous axiom ‘the map is not the territory’, which suggests that a map cannot encompass the true quality of a place, Professor Warner considered the re-imagining of place and how mapping can become a rebellious act.

She began the lecture considering the many roles of cartography in territory making, defining borders, resources, military and governance, and how this informs our memory of place. The map attempts to ‘actualise history’ through naming, marking and dividing, but the construction of history is a type of narrative. A point Professor Warner emphasised through the words history and story, which are the same in many languages. As such, mapping can control the narrative of a place and becomes an important tool for colonisers, although it may bear little resemblance to the reality of a place by its indigenous people.

Adam Dant – Shoreditch as New York – 2018

The activity of creating maps can also realise fiction, such as the detailed fictional maps in the novels Gulliver’s Travels and The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, star maps give mythical gods a presence in reality through the stargazer’s eye and theme parks and Disney castles parody real locations through the child’s imagination. In this way, the fictional locations of stories can become real locations; these narratives ‘folding back’ onto the actual.

Professor Warner went on to suggest that the map can function in time as well as space, making the past present. This was particularly notable in Emma Willard’s mapping of aboriginal tribes in America and her Progress of the Roman Empire, charting time using the course of the Amazon river. These reworkings of maps can also perform a ‘historical resistance’ as seen in Layla Curtis’ NewcastleGateshead collaged map of all the places renamed after those cities, which highlights the colonial activity of claiming places through naming. Such use of cartography revealed the potential rebellious nature the renaming of maps can perform.

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease - Monarchs and Queens - 2010

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease – Monarchs and Queens – 2010

This type of resistance was expanded further by Professor Warner through many recent examples of the renaming and reworking of maps and places. In Paris in 2015, Osez le Feminisme flyered the city’s street signs, renaming them to notable women from history. Artists have also reimagined places via the redrawing of maps, such as Rebecca Solnit’s and Adam Dant’s maps, which create a visual narrative, questioning the authority of the map and returning to a cartography blending art and science. Similarly, Simon Patterson’s iconic reworking of the London tube map in his work The Great Bear renamed the stations after a myriad of famous and forgotten figures from history. Through each of her examples, Professor Warner showed how the reimagining of the map ‘makes the familiar unfamiliar’ and how a sense of place can be reclaimed by those in situ.

Simon Patterson - The Great Bear - 1992

Simon Patterson – The Great Bear – 1992

Professor Warner’s lecture was bookended by her recent work with a collective of young migrants in Palermo, Sicily, through the Stories in Transit workshop project Giocherenda. These workshops involved the young people developing stories of the city using the figure of The Genius of Palermo, a 15th century icon who has become a synonymous symbol of the city. The workshop took place around the city, where the young people placed the historical figure in different locations. Through this, they could develop their own sense of their new home in Palermo, but through the use of the city’s history. She expressed how it was the children who wanted to use mapping in their story creations and in doing so created a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar place.

Professor Warner concluded her lecture by emphasising the importance of continuing to create stories. Storytelling is an action and a way of history-making and in the days of fake news and big data, it is even more paramount.

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Eila Campbell Memorial Lecture 2019

Ben Hughes, an MA Social and Cultural Geography student, shares insights from this year’s Eila Campbell Memorial Lecture given by Professor Laura Vaughan on her recently published book, ‘Mapping Society: The spatial dimensions of social cartography’.

Some people just love maps. Whether it be well thumbed road maps, atlases coloured by finger marks tracing mysterious routes, the rain-stained Ordinance Survey maps so beloved of ramblers, or big wall maps of the world – often with places of specific interest pinpointed, all maps tell a story. As fascinating and important as these physical maps are, they don’t capture – or reflect – the complexity of human existence. Addressing this is what lies behind social ‘cartography’, a technique first developed in eighteenth century to illuminate social issues. As a tool social mapping has grown in importance as a means of highlighting the spatial realities of a multitude of social and human features such as health, class, wealth, race and migration and the spatial distinctions they create.

Building on material from her recently published book, Mapping Society: The spatial dimensions of social cartography, the theme of Professor Laura Vaughan’s Eila Campbell Memorial Lecture spanned the most ‘recent’ 200 or so years of social mapping. She took us on a journey starting with a rare map of yellow fever in eighteenth-century New York to Charles Booth’s famous maps of poverty in nineteenth-century London; from an Italian racial zoning map of early twentieth-century Asmara, to a map of wealth disparities in the banlieues of twenty-first-century Paris.

Reflecting her background in architecture and her current role as professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture, Vaughan brought to life the spatial realities of social divides and inequalities that lie behind the concept of the divided city – a contemporary and timely area of study for human geographers. Drawing on current day human challenges such as climate change and (forced) migration, Vaughan identified the value of some of the emergent open source software packages such WorldMapper and GIS that are increasingly used in social media-led commentaries, around the social polarization of space.

The discussion highlighted many of the specific spatial issues that relate to social cartography. From the practical complexity of reflecting height vs breadth vs depth to ownership, and the inevitable power held by those controlling the production of maps, and so the stories that are portrayed, objectivity, recognizing that maps tend to be built on assumptions, perspectives or ideologies – e.g. is the UK really that big? Why are western nations often colored in calming pastels, when much of Africa and Asia is depicted as dangerous through use of stronger reds and oranges?

Also highlighted was the evolution of ‘non-literal’ maps, used to powerful effect by social geographer Danny Dorling and writer Rebecca Solnit, who sought to reflect human feelings and knowledge of place through maps that, in depicting social rather than physical actualities, result in distortions to the scale and shapes of physical places that we are all so used to.

It was telling that the discussion concluded with reflections on the increasing dominance of multi-national corporations such as Google, who through deployment of new satellite technologies are increasingly powerful in gathering data that is open to misuse and manipulation. With current algorithms able to instantly track and reflect your personal profile, Vaughan concluded with a note of both warning, that there is undoubtedly potential for an invidious market control, and hope, that these same technologies offer potential for counter-mapping to re-balance this.