About You Are Here

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You are Here is a mapping project that grew out of a series a workshops hosted by the TREE reading series in fall, 2011. Led by Monty Reid, and taking inspiration from the Germaine Koh/Gillian Jerome MapSense project in Vancouver as well as Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City, You are Here is an interactive attempt to produce a literary map of Ottawa.

 

Maps always suggest explanations, but they also force us to consider other possibilities. They can be a ticket to actual territory, but they can also chart the motion of a community. They can be dense with information, but they are also full of blank spaces. They can be sensual, political and humorous, and they can be powerfully functional. They do not have to be only one thing.

 

Map of football game

Winnipeg Blue Bombers (6) @ Saskatchewan Roughriders (25)
Monty Reid (1965)

 

Most early maps were pretty functional – they show you the way. A rock carving from 25000ybp shows mountains and rivers and other physical features laid out like a map has been found in Czechoslovakia, and another from 14000ybp in a Spanish cave. The first map to use one of the standard conventions of maps – a bird’s eye view – shows up some 7000 ybp in western Turkey.

 

But some of the very earliest known maps weren’t maps of the earthly terrain at all. They were maps of the stars. The oldest known are from the Lascaux Caves in France (16,500ybp). These could have still been aids to navigation of course, and they may have been hunting guides, or they may have been a way to explain what lay beyond the stars.

 

And other early maps were also aids to another widespread marker of civilization – taxation. These come from Babylon, and clearly show plots of land, one of which has its size and its owner recorded. It also was the first known map to use cardinal directions.

 

Maps have many functions. They can be religious icons, they can be descriptions of battles and great hunts, like those carved into the sandstone in Writing On Stone Park in southern Alberta, they can be football games. Always though, they are a way of organizing our understanding of the world.

 

Maps, like stories and histories, tend to be produced by the dominant culture, by the victors.  In these days, where the local tends to be obliterated by the global, where the actual is swamped by the virtual, where disaffection and disengagement with community are happily encouraged by most of our media, creating our own maps is a small way of fighting back.  

 

“We cannot, however, return to the aesthetic practices elaborated on the basis of historical situations and dilemmas which are no longer ours.  Meanwhile, the conception of space that has been developed here suggests that a model of political culture appropriate to our own situation will necessarily have to raise spatial issues as its fundamental organizing concern.  I will therefore provisionally define the aesthetic of this new (and hypothetical) cultural form as an aesthetic of cognitive mapping.”.  

 

Frederic Jameson

 Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.  

 

This is, of course, how counter-mapping began, as a way of resisting the dominant ideology.   Communities in danger, often indigenous communities, sometimes threatened tribes seeking to stake out their territory, rejected the maps of those trying to displace them and came up with their own maps. So instead of the Pan-American Highway slashing through Mexico, one might see the overwinter reserves for the Monarch butterfly.  It has become a common element of land claims battles.  

 

Another approach to alternative mapmaking is psychogeography, a geography based  not only on the existing terrain and architecture, but on the subjectivities of the people that traverse it.  One might trace the idea back through Walter Benjamin to Charles Baudelaire.  Baudelaire came up the with idea (and the practice) of the flaneur – the stroller – a person who walks the city in order to experience it, as a way of coming to terms with urban life with its discontinuities, its noise, its strangeness. .  

 

Walter Benjamin adopted the idea both as a method and as a lifestyle.  A German Jew, living in exile, and poverty, in Paris between the wars, he loved to walk the market streets.  His great unfinished project is called the Arcades Project, named after the famous covered markets of Paris.  For him too, there was a recognition that the design of the street and the markets and the buildings had a profound affect, that might be absorbed best by undirected wandering.  But in the end, he couldn’t walk fast enough  – hurrying from the Gestapo when France fell to the Germans, he walked across the Pyrenees into Portbou, Spain, only to find that the Spanish intended to turn him back over to the Germans.  He took an overdose of morphine and died on September 26, 1940.

 

The flaneur of Benjamin and Baudelaire is a precursor of the work of the psychogeographers of  the Situationist movement of the 1950s and 60s.  As an antidote to the banal architecture and restrictive urban planning of the rebuilding European cities, they set about to infuse the city with the dreams and aspirations,  the ghosts and the body fluids, of its inhabitants.  Guy DeBord, the best known Situationist, described psychogeography as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.’ 

 

He created several maps, the most famous of which is a Paris chopped up into and archipelago of neighborhoods, which is how DeBord believed most people experienced it, not as an entire metropolis, but in isolated segments.

 

 

Guy DeBord (1957)
The arrows, or psychogeographic gradients, show typical flows through the city, the ‘derives’ of a stroller. It’s a map with some of its authority removed and with greater availability for personal narratives.

 

Many other writers have influenced how we understand space and the mapping of space.  
Gaston Bachelard was a French philosopher of science.  Actually, he started out as a postmaster in his hometown – Bar-sur-Aube, in champagne country.  He was born in 1884, served in World War 1, got his first academic posting in Dijon in 1930 and became the first chair of the history and philosophy of the sciences at the Sorbonne in 1940.  He died in 1962.


He was trained as a physicist and then as a philosopher, and his work on the philosophy of science remains influential. But it was when he turned his attention to more literary subjects that he becomes most interesting for us.  Maps are, at the very least, an arrangement of space.  Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space has been around since 1958.  The book is, as Bachelard says, a study of “the problems posed by the poetic imagination.”   It is an attempt to integrate the function of reality and the function of unreality and he attempts to do this by focusing on images of space in poetry.  He does this because “…space seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor”  He looks at houses, drawers, nests, ideas of inside and outside and roundness.   Always, he admits to the usefulness of description, but always moves beyond that to what reveals the primary motivations for attachment to a site.  
At one point, in trying to describe how a poetic image works, he begins to use sound references. He says the poetic image will have a ‘sonority of being’.  It reverberates, and its power comes when we experience its reverberation.


It reverberates as well with The Songlines, that great mess of a book by Bruce Chatwin.   It came out in 1986, after Chatwin had spent months in Australia researching.  The central idea is that Aboriginal songs provide a map of the real world.  In fact, the songs themselves are what call that world into being.  He goes on to posit that the first language was song, that the first people on the African savannahs were nomads, and that the construction of songlines was the norm for culture until more sedentary civilizations took over.  
Chatwin also wrote a great travel book – In Patagonia – and several fine novels – Under Black Hill was the first – and they were well-shaped and carefully observed.  But The Songlines is part fiction, part travelogue, part anthropological notes.  As has become evident, Chatwin was careless with the facts for the sake of the story.   And in The Songlines, it seems as if he became impatient with the story too, as the latter half of the book is overtaken with notes.  


But sound as a mapping device leads us to something even more contemporary - Lisa Robertson’s Disquiet.  Robertson is a Canadian poet born in Toronto but spent much of her adult life in Vancouver and currently lives in France.  She is another walker, like Baudelaire and Benjamin and Rebecca Solnit.  As she describes Disquiet, she walked around Paris, finding locations used by the photographer Eugene Atget.  She made short sound recordings at each of the sites – since his exposures were about 30 seconds her sound recordings were too. She wanted to describe the present of these locations – what she ended up with, she claims, is a study of noise.  


She found that the process of systematic walking, musing on Atget’s route, fiddling with the recorder, worrying about the minor details, the often overlooked, had the effect of loosening self-identity.  She became, instead, enfolded in the noise.
Her notes, and samples of the sound recordings, are part of Dandelion Issue 37.1   They create a strange map of the city, but a map nonetheless.  “I wanted to represent the city as digressional, not causal; as ephemeral, not monumental; as commodious, not commodity. I wanted to record the breakdown of exchangeability, propriety and borders I heard acting within the noise.  I would record what was already there – cacophony”