Maps are their own narratives of space. Who draws them, and who names them, holds immense power to determine not just Where You Are, but How Things Are. Subjective or empirical experience in conflict with the map’s own assertions can leave you nowhere, or somewhere unknown, as anyone who has tried to navigate, say, Venice by map will know. Have they purposefully drawn it up to bear no resemblance to its actual layout in order to confuse visitors into spending more money on alcohol and sequined masks?
In 1957, Guy Debord created a psychogeographic map of Paris that countered the “official” maps of the city, its arrondissements spiraling neatly outwards from the center. In this project, which Debord entitled “Naked City,” 19 cut-out sections of Paris were cut up and rearranged, connected by red arrows indicating the flow of energy around certain “pivot points,” creating a fragmented and subjective version of the city.
Since Debord, artists have made ample use of maps and the trope of (dis)orientation. Where You Are is the latest in this vein, demonstrating that in memory as in daily life, location is often a question of dislocation. An art book of sorts produced by Visual Editions, best known for re-imagining Tristram Shandy into a visual, tactile experience, with words underlined, blacked out, maniculed, and die-cut from pages which are themselves folded (to indicate a shut door), cut, and otherwise rearranged. Somewhere in the Afterlife, Laurence Sterne must have been tickled to see his fiendish book infused with new life.
Where You Are comprises 12 individual pamphlets, some of which unfold into larger maps and diagrams. These are layered inside a grey paperback-sized box; the introduction, by BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz, is printed on the inside of the top cover. You can read most of the text online for free, if you have the patience to deal with artsy websites. Visual Editions is hoping people who like maps and art books will also fork it over to have a more tactile experience, one in which they won’t have to scroll down as the font recedes into a stylish fade.
Each writer or artist has been asked to “explore subjects in a topographical manner.” Joe Dunthorne creates a map of his writerly anxieties. Tao Lin charts the path of lunar hamsters in search of some decent wifi sometime in the year 2027. Geoff Dyer takes the reader on a map-based tour of his hometown, Cheltenham, in Southwest England. The notion of choice, and what our choices exclude, is most salient for Adam Thirlwell and Peter Turchi, who reflect on the places they haven’t visited and the paths their lives didn’t take. Sheila Heti turns to ancient divining practices to chose her path and presents an abridged version of the I-Ching, cobbled together and re-translated from a variety of pre-existing sources in English, and counterbalanced by Ted Mineo’s sketches of exploding streetlights and yin-yang bagels. “It’s hard to be good when you’re lost,” she notes: metaphysically lost, we turn to the occult, believing if we can no longer guide ourselves, we can be guided by chance. Throw the coins, roll the dice, pick your card. Make a turn.
Then there are the maps that trace their authors’ mistaken (or prejudicial) worldviews. Alain de Botton muses over the 12th century Arab scholar Al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana map and Giovanni Contarini’s 1506 map, which echoed Columbus in thinking Cuba “was an island off the coast of East Asia,” sections of which are beautifully reproduced. “It was not until the end of the 17th century that most landmasses found their correct locations,” de Botton notes. Then there is the Mappa Mundi of Evesham, created around 1390, in which “we see that England, in a mood of national self-importance, depicts itself as unnaturally fat, is separated from Scotland and Wales by a sea, and has as its neighbor a curiously tiny France.”
A few pamphlets elegize our lost ability to get lost, thanks to the advent of GPS. Driving in South Africa guided by a navigational system with the voice of Kate Middleton, the BBC journalist John Simpson contrasts his experience with that of his wife’s great-great-great-grandfather, Andres Pretorius (founder of the nation’s capital, Pretoria), “a ferocious Boer leader who fought his way across the face of South Africa” relying on the not-inconsequential knowledge of a group of local guides. Today, the South African terrain is just as unknown to Simpson, and probably as dangerous. The GPS offers him a choice: the fast route or the “dynamic” route. Not one to shy from an adventure, he chooses the latter, which takes him far from “the bland main roads where the police cars patrol and other motorists will stop to help you if you break down.”
Yet Simpson is unhappy with this dynamic choice. He declares he has been taken “hostage” by his GPS: “Only it knows where we are going. Only it will tell me when we get there.” Apparently the route is not dynamic at all, but an anesthetized, supervised journey.
The artist James Bridle’s contribution, a short essay and a series of sketches of GPS satellites, sums up this perspective: “The GPS system is a monumental network that provides a permanent You Are Here sign hanging in the sky, its signal a constant, synchronized timecode. It suggests the possibility that one need never be lost again; that future generations will grow up not knowing what it means to be truly lost.”
As someone with a terrible sense of direction, I can say that in spite of the GPS on my phone, it is indeed still possible to be well and truly lost. For that matter, the blue dot is sometimes in the middle of the river when I’m standing in the street. And on a few rare occasions when I’ve been driving in unknown places, looking for Beatrix Potter’s house in the Lake District, or Colette’s house in Burgundy, I have entered the address I wanted into the GPS only to arrive at its shadow corollary, somewhere that was not at all a famous landmark, but worth the visit in any case.
One day, Simpson suggests in a dreading tone, when our cars automatically drive themselves, they and the GPS will conspire to “avoid the pockets of crime and violence and take the quieter, safer, less interesting roads.” But surely there is something to hope for in a car journey that is neither violence nor blandness?
It also seems odd that a project praising the map would be so categorically troubled by GPS. Leaving aside for a moment the discomfiting weirdness and political implications of being locatable and trackable by satellite—which, yes, is very creepy—isn’t Google Maps just another kind of map? A map that weighs no more than your phone? But Where You Are makes a distinction between the physical paper-based map and the one on our touch-screens, and just as I prefer to read a book in a box, these wanderers disdain the map on the screen. I wonder what Debord would have made of the blue dot and its peregrinations, its surprising ability to walk on water, and its capacity to lead us to unpredictable, hitherto unimagined locales
Lauren Elkin is writing a book about women walking in cities, called Flâneuse, which will be published by Chatto & Windus in 2015. She lives in Paris.