Maps are in-between a book and a work of art, full of stories and cultural narratives. The continuous reinvention of the world is reflected in the maps in the form of changes and evolutions. Maps are not only scientific representations of the soil. They are tools used to build and intervene with our environment: their utilitarian nature exemplifies its demiurgical role. That’s why a map is constantly evolving; it has to reflect the constant reinvention of the world. Mapping is an imaginative cognitive activity of space, a product of the transitions between person and environment. They perform an adaptive function, solving problems related to space, but above all, they draw symbolic and expressive functions of personal identity.
“Why and in what sense is identity a poisoned word? Simply because it promises what is not there; because it deludes us about what we are not; because it passes as real what is instead a fiction or, at most, an aspiration. Let’s say then that identity is a myth, a great myth of our time.”
[Francesco Remotti, L’ossessione identitaria]
We’re used to considering charts and maps as an element of representation of the territory, essential to planning and design activities. But which are the identity activities of those drawings? What is their role within narrative, descriptive, and project practices?
The paths’ system of spiritual energy traced by the songs of the aboriginal tradition is drawn in territorial maps. Each path corresponds to a song and each song recalls a primordial history linked to the territory.
Bruce Chatwin in The Songlines (1987) develops the thesis that Aboriginal songs are simultaneously representations of creation myths and maps of the territory.
Imaginary lines draw the initiatory and secret storyline of the correspondence between traditional songs and geographical-topographical features of explored routes’ stretches.
The songlines cross, outlining the history of the origins of humanity and collecting the elements of the world in stories and paths.
It is thought that the first papers were made to reduce the fear of the unknown. Mapping is a remote need, linked to the knowledge of reality that surrounds us. The wide and desolate spaces in which the primitive man was living induced the first human beings to mark roads, hunting places, borders, dangers, resources. Everything possible to shed light on the darkness that surrounded them and thus ensure their survival.
On the one hand, they represent a process of rationalization of the known world: the identification and evaluation of the resources of the territory, the morphological consistency of the phenomena that constitute cities and landscapes, the critical evaluation of the ways of their organization, understanding the dynamics of transformation, and so on. On the other hand, they contain a strong metaphorical and narrative charge: the oldest stories, such as creation myths and legends, are nothing more than arguments about phenomena that went beyond the limits of the human pressure of time, and that they were born to make sense of the mysterious world that surrounded our ancestors.
If you combine the need for knowledge with the need for awareness of the territory, you get what Turks call “premapping”, or mind maps in which the place is not defined so much for its objective aspect as for the sensuous experience that defines.
In ancient Greece, Saint Isidore represents the inner world as a circle surrounded by the boundless sea.
The map of the journey of a Siberian shaman to the Upper World shows his ascension on the nine branches of the World Tree, which grows above his yurt and gives him passage through the gate of heaven.
The Guide psychogeographique de Paris, together with the various maps drawn by the exponents and followers of the situationist movement, becomes the emblem of the urban experience in the form of erratic investigation.
There are those who would love to read detailed lists and categories, catalogs of options and examples, while others resist the prescriptive and are prone to analogy rather than explanation, exceptions rather than rules; and of these episodes, they read a metaphor and an interpretation of something else, more than a history of cartography.
“In the casual unfolding of the events that characterize the progress of the world, there is a primary place occupied by events that it is impossible to inventory. The nature of these events is intimately and essentially uncataloguable. There is more. The non-systematic nature of these facts makes them inexplicable, a feature that even more expresses the ineffability of the event itself.”
[Giuseppe Marcenaro, Genova, il Novecento, Sagep, Genova, 1986]
Matthew Cusick, Altai region, from Il libro dei simboli, Taschen, 2011.
Today as then, we use charts to record great conflicts and significant discoveries, to tell spaces and times; we organize information to represent our knowledge in a new way. Maps suggest explanations. While the explanations reassure us, they are also a tool of inspiration to questions, to consider other possibilities. Mapping and orientation also respond to the precise need to visualize the world and explain it to others after us. Obviously such investigations on the real can never produce a result exactly identical to the existing one: every cartographical representation expresses not the absolute truth, but a point of view: Peter Turchi, author of Maps of the Imagination, states that “To ask for a map is to say, «Tell me a story»” . The interpretation of the territory, based on the data in possession, is carried out following the purposes that the map is proposing. The map is both what geometrizes and territorializes space, and what de-territorializes it, that releases it, and that can generate unpredictable connections, unexpected paths and therefore stories and narratives. Metaphorical stories about the world we know, the result of explorations of various kinds and experiences, myths of identity and otherness. Each story involves a close relationship with a territory, whether real or imaginary, tangible or abstract, whose design goes hand in hand with its exploration and vice-versa.
“What does memory have to do with space? I do not know. I know one thing: when I wrote “The Name of the Rose”, the first director who wanted to make a film of it was Marco Ferreri, who told me: “I want to do it because your dialogues are already cinematic, that is, they last as long as they should last”. And I: “Why?” Then I understood why. I worked having built drawings with a space, a world. So, if two characters had to go from the refectory to the church, having the map under my eyes, their dialogue instinctively lasted exactly as long as it would take someone to go from the refectory to the church. Then I understood more deeply what my way of working was. Another time I was struck by a French journalist who told me: “How is it that you describe spaces so well?”. “Do I describe the spaces? I had never noticed it ». And again, I understood. Because before working I created what I call a world and a space.”
[Hans-Ulrich Obrist interview to Umberto Eco, Sulla memoria]
Matthew Cusick, Altai region, from Il libro dei simboli, Taschen, 2011.
The ideal lack of knowledge borders inevitably leads to the codification of self-imposed limits. Global knowledge resizes around an individual perspective and comes to represent not the whole reality, but rather a mental version of the same, equally complex and concrete. These mind maps concern not only cartography, but also psychology, psychiatry and sociology, as well as urbanism and architecture, because they have the fundamental characteristic of including the physical succession of the paths and roads that we store in our minds, but above all our impressions of these places.
“Urban design has nothing to do with form itself, but with form as it is seen and used by men.”
[K.A. Lynch, The image of the city]
Maps are in-between a book and a work of art, full of stories and cultural narratives: culture and change in maps reflect the constant reinvention of the world. They are not only scientific representations of the soil, they are tools used to build and intervene with our environment: their utilitarian nature exemplifies its demiurgical role. That’s why a map is constantly evolving; it has to reflect the constant reinvention of the world. Mapping is an imaginative cognitive activity of space, a product of the transitions between person and environment: they perform an adaptive function, solving problems related to space, but above all, they draw symbolic and expressive functions of personal identity.
“Cartography appears as a kind of new “phenomenology of the spirit ”, as “time captured on maps ”. Normally for historians maps are aids, while they are much more: images of the world, figurations of the world, projections of the world for which everything that normally applies to historical texts applies, that is the criteria of criticism of the sources and ideology. Maps represent power and are tools of power. Each time has the idea of paper, the cartographic rhetoric, the cartographic narrative. There is nothing that cannot be reproduced with the means of cartography: war, siege, flight, pilgrims’ route, imperial dominion, scope of diffusion of certain cultural values.”
Matt Cusick, for example, read in the maps the possibility of carrying out visual researches on the representation of the world; “using maps as a medium for collage continually presents me with the challenge of integrating the resonant, varied and complex nature of Cartography with the more personal mystifying endeavor of making art.” Matt Cusick, based in New York, became known with his collages made entirely from portions of maps. To develop these collages, he meticulously cuts segments of antiquated cartographic works, including those of old encyclopedias, textbooks, road maps, and atlases to overlay small clippings in familiar forms. It is through the representations of the cartographers of the past, through the depth, colors, and shapes of the earth’s surface that he portrays figures and individuals. None of these representations is wasted: the contour lines, the shading and the wide palette of colors of the landscapes of the planet.
Can we say then that maps are one of the tools in our power to investigate identity relations with the territory and with perceptions and experiences of the same?
Maps are metaphors and tools not only to describe the world but also to interpret it. They’re charged with visual empathy, expression of cognitive and symbolic control of reality. Maps are able to produce positions that can specify the places represented on several levels and to bring out new awareness of identity.
Translated into English by Ayla Schiappacasse.
Cover: Matthew Cusick, Altai region, from Il libro dei simboli, Taschen, 2011