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Gilbert & George (artists), Fournier Street 2008

Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies
Edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist
Introduction by Tom McCarthy
Thames & Hudson, $50

Charting uncertain territory is an architect’s primary function. Sites are investigated, plans are drawn, and structures are built—although not always as depicted or intended. Sometimes mere sketches depict a framework for improvisation where one can find success or get lost.

Novelist Tom McCarthy introduces this collection, which emerged from the Map Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery’s 2010 annual pavilion programming. Hans Ulrich Obrist, one of the event’s curators, edited the tome of maps, ranging from didactic to imaginary and from concrete to abstract. As McCarthy reminds us, “Cartographies can be altered endlessly to reflect different priorities…[and] challenge with which maps depict the ‘truth.’”

Referencing György Kepes, Obrist identifies the book as both an investigation and conversation of mapping and a “pooling of knowledge” that can help readers understand and navigate “the increasingly complex terrain that is contemporary life.” However, more than a few maps indicate life is tied to a cyberspace between land and imagination, rather than terra firma.

Each of the book’s five sections addresses a different theme. In the first, “Redrawn Territories,” Jonas Mekas interprets Manhattan by whiting out the area between 14th and Murray Street and projecting his memory of the locales of his friends, bars, and film houses. At another scale—to make people realize the size of Africa—Kai Krause stuffs foreign countries into the continent’s outline. The combination of the U.S., China, India and Eastern Europe leaves plenty of room for much of Western Europe. Phillip Hughes’ Ingleborough (1998) is a bit more interpretive and representational of land formations, while Doug Aitken’s Manhattan Metamorphosis (2008) is an abstract array of red lines and planes.

The section “Charting Human Life” swerves all over, attempting to “point toward a land of the future.” Tim Berners-Lee navigates “influences in the World Wide Web technology,” although his Dungeons & Dragons–style illustration belies its high-tech content. Tom Standage goes back in history with a “map of the internet in 1901,” which traces that year’s international telegraph system, from which Internet connections eventually sprung. Conversely, Emanuel Derman in Pleasure Pain Desire: A Map of Emotions uses a simple, box-laden flow chart to relate human psychology. Attempting to make the politics of architecture visible in domestic interiors, architect Andres Jaque provides Fray Foam Home (2010) to illustrate the origins and use of the building’s resources, but without details, it appears as mere decoration. Meanwhile, the red-lined detail of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance (1981–82) does not enhance the original information. Claude Parent’s heavy ink sketches in the Le Tsunami Humain series take us far from the his utopian 1960s oblique to suggest fragmentation and disarray that humanity needs to overcome.

The cartographers in section three, “Scientia Naturalis,” use their work “to reach some truth of the natural world,” whether it’s genomic, DNA, charting worms and wasps, or explorations of space-time continuum. Dave McKean’s map juxtaposes an image of a human heart over London’s M25 motorway in a particularly Ballardian
move, though it is inspired by Iain Sinclair’s book London Orbital rather than Crash. More naturalistic, both Albert-László Barabási and Yong-Yeol Ahn categorize a number of maladies and food flavors, respectively, and network their relations in bubble diagrams, the latter in relationships among tastes and frequency of use.

“Invented Worlds” opts for complete imagination. Opening the section, John Baldessari’s Swamp (2010) humorously speculates that a “found photograph” could depict the location of comic character Swamp Thing’s home. Yona Friedman follows with the word-based A Map to the Future (2010). David Adjaye’s Europolis (2012) collages the European Union’s capital cities into a single “imagined, phenomenological city…[that] explores extremes of scale and the diversity of grain” that reveals a simultaneous density and emptiness.

The final section, “The Unmappable,” attempts to visualize an abstract idea or an event that has not yet happened. Toyo Ito supplies a porous sponge-like graphic that suggests a more complex, heterogeneous, and diverse direction. What it charts is unclear, perhaps it’s a map in search of a place. Some cede to colorful scribbles, while text dominates others in a reminder of verbal directions, such as Philippe Parreno’s discussion of mapping and invisibility and Tris Vonna-Michell’s page. Oraib Toukan’s 20/20 is a simple and subtle combination of a concrete poem and a collage studying distance, size, and scale.

The book design by Daniel Streat of the provocative studio Barnbrook, is on par with the maps. Each section launches with a topographic spread depicting chapter number and contours organizing the contributors. A title block accompanies each contribution with the artist’s name and occupation, and then title and text if they exist. Each is designed as an interpretation or key to the map, an admirable feat considering there are 120 maps. With such diversity in the atlas, I often found the title blocks interesting—repetitive in language yet different in form.

Unfortunately for such a beautifully designed and interesting atlas, the five themes create an uneven organization. Perhaps the answer lies with polar explorer Erling Kagge, included in “Charting Human Life,” who implores us to engage our inquisitiveness and exploratory intuitions: “It can feel both unpleasant and somewhat risky to explore the world. But perhaps it’s even more risky to do nothing.”

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