A few years ago, an unusual map of Africa began gaining traction throughout the internet. It showed that the continent is, in fact, larger than the United States, China, Japan, India and all of Europe combined. This realization surprised the many people who had grown up using the popular Mercator projection (a variant of which is also used by Google Maps), which depicts Africa’s size to be much smaller than it actually is. This is an ideal example of how maps can never be completely correct or neutral, as they are personal abstractions of the physical or conceptual world, put onto a flat piece of paper.
“The True Size of Africa” is one of the 140 maps that superstar curator and Serpentine Gallery co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist has put together for the hardcover, “Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies.” A creative offshoot of the gallery’s Map Marathon that took place in 2010, the book features maps as we’ve never considered them before. Damien Hirst writes instructions on how to get to his house (starting with “Call first”), former RISD president John Maeda draws a “map of the future” scribbled on a Best Western notepad, Yoko Ono contributes her poem “Map Piece” from her 1964 book “Grapefruit,” Matt Mullican asks the reader to consider the calendar as a map of the future, and Sir Timothy Berners-Lee creates a map of “mingling and evolution of influences in the world wide web” (which, if you’re not familiar, he invented).
While at some moments, it does feel like you’re thumbing through a contemporary art exhibit, regardless of the contributor’s background—whether they’re a filmmaker or data scientist or philosopher—the subjects are relevant and intriguing, with each map adding to Obrist’s overall mission to “rethink what maps can be and do.” He organizes the maps into general chapters, from “Redrawn Territories” to “Invented Worlds” and “The Unmappable,” and with beautiful design by Jonathan Barnbrook it will be a long, long while before this book starts to feel old.
Now living in a time when there are fewer and fewer blank spaces to fill (aside from the galaxies billions of light years away perhaps), the book closes with an afterword from Obrist, who writes, “There is a point when everything could become a map. Maps can be totalizing revisions, but they always invite their own revision.”
Book photos by Nara Shin, artwork ©Jacques Roubaud courtesy of Jacques Roubaud