The Map as Art


The mapping of our world has long been a significant scientific undertaking, which has influenced how we think about the world and our place within it. The history of geography from early modern navigation and enlightenment exploration to the institutional geographies of the 19th and 20th centuries and the focus of recent history of spatial thinking in human geography, illustrates how maps have played a key role in the Modern Era. Map knowledge does not come to us naturally but through complex cultural understanding. Each map speaks of its time and the value of its culture; the tacit knowledge of ocean faring embedded in the sticks and shell system of a Polynesian chart, the spiritual and geographical Aboriginal knowledge passed on through millennia long oral tradition[i], the territorial claims of competing Portuguese and Spanish empires staked out on maps and globes in the Age of Discovery or the global dominance of internet giant Google in online digital mapping.

 The understanding of how maps work, and the diverse ways in which space and place are currently conceptualised and analytically employed to make sense of the world, has been analysed more in the last two decades. The cartographer and artist Denis Wood has been at the forefront of the critical discourse of cartography since the early 1990s. He argued in his seminal book, The Power of Maps (1992[ii]) that understanding the historical provenance and the rationale of maps to claim territories, mark property and denote political boundaries, makes maps potent tools of power. Wood as such dissected the map, not as an impartial neutral tool but as a biased, active and potent agent and artists have been singularly astute in challenging the perceived neutrality of the map. There has always been a close relationship between art and cartography, for example artists were traditionally employed to draw and embellish maps. Both cartographers[iii] and art critics have witnessed a rise in cartographic language and visual idiom within visual arts practice. Until recently, geographers and historians have led most of the academic debate on the subject of mapping in art, or art and cartography. The cultural geographer Denis Cosgrove has written extensively on the subject of cartography including mapping and contemporary art. In For Creative Geographies; geography, visual arts and the making of worlds, a critical overview of how art and cartography intersect, cultural geographer Harriet Hawkins (2014) argues that ‘clearly there is more work to be done on these historical relations’[iv]. The artist and academic Ruth Watson from the University of Auckland wrote a comprehensive paper Mapping and Contemporary Art for The British Cartographic Society in which she calls for a ‘new history of the map in art to be written that upends the usual suspects from their comfortable nodes on a one-sided cultural map’ (2009)[v]. Non-western cultures emergent on the geopolitical landscape bring with them other mapping paradigms. However, Western thought and culture dominate the mapping discourse discussed in this research.

 Artists have explored the subversive use of the powerful semiotics of cartography more noticeably since the 1960s. “This is the moment of the map”, wrote artist Lize Mogel in 2008. “The enormous amount of recent cultural production involving maps and mapping is reaching a critical mass”[vi]. Journalist and writer Katharine Harmon defines it as symptomatic of the post-modern era, “where all conventions and rules are circumspect”[vii]. The importance of artists creating work informed by the locale, whether urban or rural, has turned artists into producers of new knowledge; of makers of alternative forms of data, and has been a key factor in the changing field of geography itself (Hawkins, 2014). From the site-specific art of the 1960s and 70s Land Art, and the personal, identity politics of the 1980s and 90s, a more global, sometimes utopian, activism addressing environmental and political concerns has emerged. From cutting and reassembling, to walking, making and writing the map towards mapping: “is a generational shift away from the map (and associated problems of the image and representation) towards mapping as a process, with a concomitant focus on action and activism” (Watson, 2009). The emergence of critical cartography, the linking of maps with power, and thus an active and political agent (Crampton, Krygier, 2005)[viii] as had been theorised by Wood, has emerged as a distinctive critical tool for artists as is evidenced in the burgeoning cartographic work produced by visual artists in the last four decades, and more significantly in the last fifteen years. Nato Thompson, the curator of Experimental Geographies exhibition (2008) observed that the new emerging mapping practices in art could be described as ‘operating across an expansive grid with the poetic-didactic as one axis and the geologic-urban as another’. Visual cultural theorist Irit Rogoff wrote that “it is precisely because art no longer occupies a position of being transcendent to the world and its woes nor a mirror that reflect back some external set of material conditions, that art has become such a useful interlocutor in engaging with the concept of geography, in trying to unravel how geography is an epistemic structure and its signifying practices shape and structure not just national and economic relations but also identify constitution and identity fragmentation” (Rogoff, 2000:10)[ix]. Critical cartography in the hands of artists has become radical cartography (Mogel in: Thompson, 2008), responsive to a political moment, temporal and anti-monumental as a form of resistance, whilst at the same time it has become an experimental cartography (Thompson, 2008), where mapping has been used to visualise radically new ideas of world making.

The French Situationists, with artist Guy Debord as protagonist, had literally up-ended the map, through the challenge of the dérive in the mid 1950s. This technique of transient passage, allowed the psycho-geographer to explore the terrain through an element of chance. This drift [x] subverted dominant authoritarian readings of the urban landscape, and instead honed in on the ephemeral, fugitive and sensory spatial experience. The Marxist political theorist Fredric Jameson described the importance of drift as a form of cognitive mapping in relation to urban space as ‘the practical re-conquest of a sense of place and the construction or reconstruction of an articulated ensemble which can be retained in memory and which the individual subject can map and remap along moments of mobile, alternative trajectories’ to reclaim territory in a dis-alienating urban landscape[xi]. Both the dérive and its predecessor of the urban wanderer or flâneur, as described by the French poet Charles Pierre Baudelaire, were defined by the urban landscape. The French philosopher Michel de Certeau distinguished between place (lieu) and space (espace) in his influential Practice of the Everyday (1980), where place implies belonging and an indication of stability, whereas space has none of the stability as it is a product of action and movement[xii]. De Certeau also discerned between producers – the mapmaker – using strategies to plan space, and the consumer – the map user – who uses tactics to navigate space. The implication of this on cartography was profound. He determined that the earliest kind of map was not a geographical map but ‘a history book’, recording journeys pictorially and thus implied movement, a line of enquiry which the anthropologist Tim Ingold investigated further with his historical analysis of the line (2007) in the story of the map; from a gestural, three dimensional thing to a two dimensional drawing and the invention of the straight line[xiii]. With the onset of the Modern Era, maps became ‘more autonomous’ and as such divorced from the space of which the map is the ‘visible evidence of its own construction’[xiv]. The map historian Allesandro Scaffi put it eloquently like this: “With quantification, and by asserting the concept of an absolute space, mapping from 1500 certainly gained increasing precision over the whole span of time as well as the whole of earthly space. The price however, was the loss of the timeless vision offered by the medieval mappamundi; mapping’s horizon was reduced to three dimensional Euclidean space and limited to our experience of the physical world”[xv]. The ‘tactics of consumption’, to paraphrase De Certeau, thus places the agency of mapping back onto the consumer (map user), which embodies the essence of the Situationists: the power of the map claimed by the consumer rather than the producer. Artists have been very astute in understanding this.

This blog will explore how artists have deployed the map as a trope and mapping methodologies to explore notions of space and place and it the process challenge our understanding of the world, chip away at altering our collective worldviews or simply offer an alternative vision.

Inge Panneels

9 January 2017


[i] Although original songlines, as the name implies, are part of a millennia long oral tradition and have only recently been transferred into a visual medium by Aboriginal people.

[ii] Wood, Denis (1992) The Power of Maps New York: Guildford Press

[iii] The Art and Cartography Commission of the International Cartographic Association was established in 2008 specifically to ‘explore the art element in cartography’. Whilst its aspirations ‘to facilitate inter-disciplinary cross fertilisation of ideas and concepts and to disseminate information about developed theory and ontologies related to the interaction of art with cartography and cartography with art’ are a welcome acknowledgement of the intertwining of both disciplines, but it has been less active of late.

[iv] Hawkins, Harriet, For Creative Geographies: Geography, Visual Arts and the Making of Worlds. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013)

[v] Watson, Ruth “Mapping and Contemporary Art” The Cartographic Journal, Vol 46, Nr 4, p 299, 2009

[vi] Artist Mogel, Lize ‘On Cartography’ in Thompson, Nato and Independent Curators International Experimental Geography: Radical Approaches to Landscape, Cartography and Urbanism (New York: Melville House, 2008), p107

[vii] Harmon, Katharine, The Map as Art: contemporary artists explore cartography (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009) p 9

[viii] Crampton, Jeremy W and Krygier, John (2005). “An Introduction to Critical Cartography”, ACME An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, Vol 4, No 1

[ix] Rogof, Irit (2000) Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture London: Routledge, 2000

[x] Corner, James The Agency of Mapping Contemporary Art, chapter 10 in Cosgrove, Denis, Mappings (London: Reaktion Books, 1999), p 231

[xi] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism (Durham, NC, 1991) p 51 as quoted in Corner, James The Agency of Mapping Contemporary Art, chapter 10 in Cosgrove, Denis, Mappings (London: Reaktion Books, 1999), p 232

[xii] Reynolds, Bryan – Fitzpatrick, Joseph ‘The Transversality of Michel de Certeau: Foucault’s Panoptic Discourse and the Cartographic Impulse’, Diatrics, Vol. 29, No 3 (autumn 1999) p63-80, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

[xiii] Ingold, Tim, Lines: a brief history (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007)

[xiv] Reynolds, Bryan – Fitzpatrick, Joseph ‘The Transversality of Michel de Certeau: Foucault’s Panoptic Discourse and the Cartographic Impulse’, Diatrics, Vol. 29, No 3 (autumn 1999) p63-80, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, p68

[xv] Alessandro Scafi, Mapping Eden: Cartograhpies of the Earthly Paradise, Chapter 2 in Cosgrove, Denis, Mappings (London: Reaktion Books, 1999), p67-68