“A book of maps designed to get you lost.” A beautiful box, wrapped up in finely graphic paper. Anticipation as my finger hooks open the stickers. Inside, 16 intriguing looking, brightly coloured pamphlets. As I unpack them I can feel the promise of different contents, weights, folds, thicknesses. A delectable sniff of fresh print as I lay them out around me. Maps to open up and be swept off on an adventure… without even stepping out of the room.
“To ask ‘Where You Are’ invites a series of responses: cartographic, historical, social, spiritual, situational; discursive or prescriptive,” says James Bridle in his map, ‘You Are Here’. I’ve picked it up first, leaning on that default habit when looking at a conventional map to see where I am before working out what’s around me and where I can go.
But it sums up the thinking behind Where You Are – the ‘book’ that, quite literally, surrounds me – from experimental publishing house Visual Editions. They asked, what does it mean to map our lives? How can we map ideas, emotions, personal histories, behaviours, dreams, habits, relationships and more? With almost every inch of the planet mapped out by Google, how can maps take on a greater meaning than just navigating the physical world around us? So they asked 16 artists, writers and thinkers just that – and the result thrills me as it covers my living room floor.
Fighting the corner for books
Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen set up Visual Editions to explore the extra creative dimensions printed ‘books’ can foster in a relentlessly digital age. “We think about the visuals feeding into and adding to the storytelling as much as the words on the page do,” they say. “We also like to make sure that the visuals aren’t gimmicky, purely decorative or extraneous, but are key to the story they are telling.” Their beautiful productions transcend the simple pages-within-a-spine-and-cover format, with a bold and expansive physicality that draws each reader in, making them work to piece together their very own story that will be completely different from anyone else’s.
“With the physical books that we make, we’re always asking ourselves, if this is going to live as a physical object, there has to be a damn good reason for it,” Gerber explains. “Because it can live in a lot of other ways too.” Like apps, or websites or even live events. “To them, new technology didn’t mean the traditional book was dead,” says Wired magazine, “it simply meant there was another new way to approach storytelling. After all, a good story isn’t determined by where it’s told, but rather by how it’s told.”
I’ve been fascinated by their approach ever since their jaw-dropping collaboration with Jonathan Safran Foer on Tree of Codes in 2010. Safran Foer chose one of his favourite books, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, and worked with Visual Editions using a die-cutting technique to ‘cut out’ a new story out of it – so the final book is layered with holes and hidden words that tell a very different story. This film explains it much better than I can:
Back to getting lost
“The GPS system is a monumental network that provides a permanent ‘You Are Here’ sign hanging in the sky,” says Bridle. “It suggests the possibility that one may never be lost again; that future generations will grow up not knowing what it means to be truly lost.”
Now we all have GPS in our smartphones and can see that blue dot in an instant that shows us where we are, we don’t even think about the technology that makes it possible. Bridle explains how idea was first conceived in the Pentagon in 1973, and was intended only for military use until 1983, when the USSR shot down a Korean Airlines passenger jet for accidentally straying into its airspace. So Ronald Reagan decreed that GPS should be freely available for the common good. And now we’re all “suspended in the ever-shifting embrace” of “a grand asymmetric architecture composed of space-hardened signallers and radio waves…”
But having this technology at our fingertips – the whole world in our hands – reduces our perceptions of geography, terrain and the immense challenge of crossing them. Somehow it all seems frighteningly – deceptively – easy.
Having this technology at our fingertips – the whole world in our hands – reduces our perceptions of geography, terrain and the immense challenge of crossing them.
So I turn to Tao Lin’s genius ‘The Lunar Hamsters of 8G-932’, to shoot me out into the stratosphere of different perspectives. His map tells the tragic story of three desperately antisocial, hermetic lunar hamsters, frantically digging strange shaped tunnels into the depths of the moon to find somewhere they can escape any social interaction and enjoy life alone with a good wi-fi connection. The coloured tunnels show not only the routes they burrowed, but their behaviour, personality and fear that drove the way they dug, for example: “’Bee-line’ tunnelling indicates prioritised movement away from an externalised fear – an escape, for example, from a group or community of garrulous, well-adjusted, opinionated hamsters.”
Set in 2027, it’s imaginative, hilarious, bleak and an insightful social commentary on our times all at once. It’s full of almost believable pseudo-science that plays with the way we gather, map and control data – from an evil missile company murdering scientists and disposing of their bodies by “converting mind and body into a numeric value in Raytheon’s quarterly earnings report” to recording a dying hamster’s last thought. It blows me away, such a brilliantly creative and unexpected response to the idea of a map as a stimulus, and food for thought about how we can respond to creative briefs.
“…how funny words look/ As they stare startled back at you who just wrote them down”
One of my favourite contemporary poets, Joe Dunthorne, cites this Bill Kushner quote in his map, ‘Ghost Pots’. Laying out his literary landscape like child’s drawing of a treasure island, Dunthorne features everything in his literary world from his influences (from drawings of Chandler and the Oulipo to trees he climbs – Kurt Vonn Egut, Glück, TED, the Atwoods) to fearsome monsters like Celebrity Biography, the Mount Amazon volcano and the Twitter whirlpool. “I wanted to try to illustrate the mess of influences, anxieties, past failures, hopes, enemies, distractions and stimulations that make up the map of each writing day,” he explains. It’s wonderful and I could pore over it for hours.
In his response, acclaimed writer and philosopher Alain de Botton says we think of maps as a bore because we only ever look at them when we’re lost. I disagree. I’ve always loved poring over maps – countries or cities I’ve never been to, trying to imagine what they’re like from the distinguishing features – rivers, bridges, palaces, grid-like blocks or winding knots of streets – and how the people there live. But he also highlights how amusing we find the old maps of the world that are so wrong today, but it’s far too easy to underestimate the “work and danger” they represent.
Unfolding, leaning in and poring on, I discover where in Cheltenham Geoff Dyer first touched a vagina, first experienced death; the heartfelt, existential musings of Valeria Luiselli as she pushes her young daughter on swings in many different parks of Harlem; and the wisdom and philosophical guidance contained in the ancient Chinese game, the I Ching, or The Book of Changes – which invites readers to throw three coins six times to ascertain which of its 64 ‘states’ you’re currently in, then turn to that ‘chapter’. Sheila Heti and Ted Mineo’s ‘Mini Ching’ map, which takes in six states, from Grace to Collapse, Gradual Progress to Return, is fascinating and eerily perceptive when I ask it a question and throw my dice.
Just a few hours in my living room and I’ve travelled from future moons to past heartbreaks, social challenges to islands of the imagination, city streets to fountain pens gliding across smooth paper. Can printed editions enhance our reading experiences and the way stories are told? That’s a resounding ‘Yes’ from me…