Sunday, 19 March 2017

On Maps - The Art of Locating Yourself and Others, on Finding What's There and What Isn't.

Some time ago, I visited the 'Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing The Line' exhibition at the British Library.  The exhibition focused on maps from the 20th century.  A century rife with creation, war and social upheaval.  I guess you could say the same about any epoch where humanity is concerned, yet the development of technology and new forms of engineering did radically alter peoples' lives and made the need to locate oneself more pressing.

In the exhibition, the maps on offer illustrated many interesting facts about the concept of maps. They can be used to illustrate spatial scale, which is clearly of unique importance during times of war, but they can also break down the social make-up of a community.  One of the most striking maps on offer was a small cut-up map which had been attached to a rifle in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, marking up the roads whose inhabitants were primarily Catholic and those roads where the residents were Protestants. This brutally brought home the point that maps are not always neutral, they have agendas.  In this case, a soldier would refer to her/his rifle to get a sense of bearing and to learn whether s/he would soon be entering a 'hostile' area.

When maps were in their formative stages; the days when explorers were still finding and conquering new areas, many sections of the maps were marked with expressions such as 'uncharted territory'. The unknown has always been a subject that piques the interest and/or paradoxically, scares the life out of people.

Within the exhibition, the maps of the fictional worlds of the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien were particularly interesting, his map of Middle Earth enabled him to think in terms of geographical distance between places, which is a primary feature of maps.  Scale informs our understanding of how long it will take us to get from one place to another.  Indeed, Tolkien apparently referred to his map quite a bit as a way of getting to grips with narrative events and getting characters around his world.

The map of Disneyland, which was also on display further emphasised how the imaginary needs to be structured for people to locate themselves.  Although, Disneyland is a real place, the concept behind it clearly stems from the world of the imagination.  I can imagine Walt Disney in an almost stream of consciousness state defining the territories that children of all ages would be traversing, possibly for centuries to come.

I have always had a liking for the Situationists and also the psychogeographers, those people who play with location, memory and emotion.  The many journeys undertaken by those explorers who haphazardly stumble upon new locations by applying the wrong city map to the wrong city, using this as a starting point for bizarre adventures.

This ties neatly in to those of us who get lost regularly and for whom maps are merely a guide.  I will follow a map for awhile, get disorientated and end up slightly deviating from my original course, before retracing my steps.  Urban and city planning is quite often the cause for so many people losing themselves and others in sprawling metropolises that are never totally completed.  In particular, London gradually encroaches upon an ever increasing space.  The 'Green Belt' tightens.  The only place I have ever comfortably negotiated is Barcelona with its grid like street structures, providing long roads with the same names and intersection roads.  The majority of the roads are quite straight.

Compare this with the area around the City of London and marvel that anyone ever finds what they are looking for.  I love the Barbican but even the City of London Corporation (and anyone else responsible for managing the area) are aware of how hard it can be to find the main Barbican Centre and other locations, so many signs and indeed, markings on the walkways in the main Barbican Estate help with the act of direction.

As a concluding point, maps and topographies are not always used to define space but also ideas. This was touched on above with the work of the psychogeographers with their interest in histories, both real and imagined.  The myths that define a culture.  The 'Sweeney Todds' and 'Spring-Heeled Jacks' who occupy a bizarre intersection point between the imagined and the real.  Does the imagined become real when enough people believe in the myth?  Think also of the concept of 'mind maps', those squares and rectangles etc into which we can break up the components of an essay or project or even our lives..  Write 'What makes me happy?' in a box in the centre of a page of A4 paper and send spidery tendrils out to other boxes.  Redefine your personal perimeters.  Maps and topographies are about establishing order or the pretence of order.

By now, as I set off on a new journey, |I implore you all to look at the maps that surround us with new eyes.  One of my favourite maps appears on the cover of Radiohead's album, 'Hail To The Thief''.  A composition called 'Pacific Coast' by Stanley Donwood.  The artist used a map of Hollywood and littered the map with words and phrases he saw as he gazed upon the advertising that he saw around him in Los Angeles.  When viewed it breaks down human preoccupations and emotional states etc, into fragments and buzzwords.  The breakdown leading to the commencement of a new journey, one that starts from within, a questioning of needs and let's all be perfectly honest, all good and bad journeys begin within.

                                                                                               Barry Watt - 18th March 2017.


The 'Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line' exhibition at the British Library has sadly finished but it lives on in my mind and I recommend future exhibitions at the British Library to you:

J.R.R. Tolkien was responsible for many renowned works of fantasy fiction, most notably, 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings' published by many publishers over the years including Harper Collins.  The detail concerning Tolkien cross-referencing his map in order to keep on top of his narratives and the progression of his characters, I read at the British Library.

Disneyland is the trademark of Disney and my opinions of Disneyland and its creation are my own. Although, I will add that Walt Disney was a genius in my opinion.  After all, his legacy continues to grow.

For more on the Situationists, please take a look at the following Wikipedia entry:

To explore the ever growing and exciting world of the psychogeographers, go out of your front door and walk the wrong way with a sense of incoherent purpose but seriously, there are as many ways of experiencing psychogeography as living your life but for a basic rundown of the key figures (at least, they key literary and I guess academic figures etc), take a look at:

The Barbican Centre is probably one of the most culturally important establishments.  Here's their website:

For more on the horrors of 'Sweeney Todd', please see:

If you want to read more about 'Spring-Heeled Jack' (he truly got around as he was reportedly spotted all around the UK at various points):

Radiohead and 'Hail To The Thief', one of their albums, are both well worth exploring:

'Pacific Coast' by Stanley Donwood can be viewed here with an interesting article:


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