The Map is not the territory

July 3, 2013

Where poetry starts to be written

To duplicate the world that surrounds us in images is of all times and places: roman pillars with chronologically ordered scenes; the mexican Codex of Borgia; el Kitab Surat-al-Ard of Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Musa al-Jwarizmi; the tapestry of Bayeux with embroidered history; the Florarium Temporum by Nicolaas Clopper; the Atlas of Mercator; the Mundaneum of Paul Otlet; to the internet with its search pages. The peculiarity of visual contemporary culture does not only eradicate in the quantity of images generated, but in the profound human necessity to visualize significant events. All these representations have assisted human beings to describe, classify, order, analyze and comprehend its surroundings.

The Codex of Borgia—discovered in 1805 by Alexander von Humboldt in the estate of  Stefano Borgia—shows representations of icons, rituals and daily activities, important events and narratives of pilgrimages.

In the Florarium Temporum “Bloemlezing der Tijden”, the hometown of its maker Nicolaas Clopper (1468-1472) forms the center of all maps and writings.

Human beings are social beings and beings situated in a certain territory. When an indigenous woman from Chamula (Mexico) was asked to draw a map of the world—after explaining the notion of what a “ map” is—she placed the temple of her hometown in the center, surrounded by concentric circles whose size decreased with the distance she perceived, to represent the places that connoted some relation to the interests of the community: San Cristobal de las Casas, Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico City … and the United States on the border of the sheet of paper. Knowing nothing about the location, she eventually agreed to add a spot across a stormy sea that no vehicle can cross: Europe. The map by the indigenous woman was drawn out of her personal daily experiences and activities; its center shows her worldview and way of life. Identification with a certain place emerges out of a dialectic process between hierarchically dominated structures and the territory that is created through personal experiences and cultural practices.

The large number of images circulating around the world nowadays do not belong to a specific place anymore, there is no single center. A huge amount of social, ideological, cultural, ludic, religious themes can be taken as a starting point for describing the relationship between human beings and the places being inhabited by them. When mapping a territory—as an act to represent the relationship of human being and its surroundings in words and images—questions of personal identity need to be answered: who am I? where am I? where do I come from? on which genealogical site am I situated? where do I want to belong to? what do I find important? which are the images I identify myself with? which visual symbols will I addapt? There is no such thing as an objective representation of the territory described, it is not measurable, and therefore it is subjective. That is where the geopoetry of place starts to be written.

The Atlas of Mercator was a cosmographic meditation, rather than a collection geographical and historical maps. In fact, in the tradition of books called atlas—or Theatrum mundi—very often they do not consist of maps, but of collections of drawings, photos or paintings.

Subjective Atlas

Within the framework of a subjective atlas, personal stories become part of a collective narrative, in which critical reflection allows to articulate processes of territorial identification. In the workshops, cartographies of everyday life are being developed; micro events that are recognized not as “little things” or “not that important”, but as essential details that construct cultural identity on a bigger scale.

Although the main focus of this project is to publish a book, the series of atlases itself is not the main goal, neither the final product. The subjective atlas is a tool to stimulate a visual dialogue, to create a catalogue of opportunities, in which art and design are used as mediums that can allow to have collective discussions; a platform for reflexion that competes and challenges social, political, cultural and economic circumstances by questioning the visual symbols being adopted by the public discourse. It is an exploration of the individual in relation to the collective, the (apparently) objective in relation to the subjective, the political scale in relation to the human scale.

Moniek Driesse