Friday Book Design Blog: Where You Are, by Visual Editions
If maps, like books, are, if not disappearing, then at any rate evolving in step with the technology that governs them, then it’s quite right that they should receive some kind of loving attention as physical object, while physical objects they remain.
There have been plenty of books over the past few years that celebrate their history: Rachel Hewitt’s Map of a Nation on the beginnings of the Ordnance Survey (though it never quite gets to grips with the strange, rambley place the pink-, yellow- and orange-clad marvels hold in the heart of the nation); Simon Garfield’s On The Map; and Jerry Brotton’s History of the World in Twelve Maps.
If you want something that approaches the idea of maps more personally and imaginatively, however, then you had better turn to British art publishers Visual Editions, who have collaborated with 16 writers and design company Bibliotheque to produce Where You Are, a box of 16 individual maps.
The writers… well, the contributing writers are an embarrassment of riches for anyone reading at a certain contemporary cutting edge: Lena Shapton, Valeria Luiselli, Leanne Shapton, Adam Thirlwell, Joe Dunthorne, Tao Lin, Geoff Dyer… I could go on.
Oh, okay, I will go on.
Chloe Aridjis, Lila Azam Zanganeh, Alain de Botton, James Bridle, Olafur Eliasson (he of The Weather Project at the Tate Modern), John Simpson (yes, that John Simpson – writing about a GPS-driven adventure in South Africa), Peter Turchi, Will Care of Wooden Floors Wiles, and Denis Wood.
Open the box, and start exploring the individual maps, and what you soon find, unsurprisingly, is that maps are intimately linked to memory and imagination. Some of them map more or less unreal places or journeys.
For example, Tao Lin’s Lunar Hamsters of 8G-932, mapping the extraterrestrial creatures of the title is as whimsical and, in the end, disposable as that title suggests, while Joe Dunthorne gives us a ‘Here Be Monsters’-type map of the average writing day. Adam Thirlwell’s piece, Places I’ve Nearly Been To But Have Not, starts from a standard world projection, but the routes it traces are of journeys he’s planned, in the past, but never taken.
Others of the maps, however, look naturally, almost reflexively, to the past, which though it is a different country, still the guidebooks that remain will suffice.
Two particularly bear this out: Geoff Dyer’s The Boy Out of Cheltenham and Denis Wood’s The Paper Route Empire. Wood’s piece harks back to the paper routes he and his friends rode in Cleveland in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and presents hand drawn maps – drawn from memory, of memory – some of which are then compared with Google Earth representations of the same neighbourhoods now.
Dyer’s dispenses with the pen-on-paper middleman, and simply marks up a huge Google Earth image of Cheltenham, where he grew up, with a very un-Ordnance Survey legend identifying locations linked to, for example, Home, School, Relatives, Friends, but also Sex, Drugs, Trouble and Death. Dyer, whose books always manage to bleed elements of his life into whatever subject it is he is supposed to be addressing, has perhaps never produced anything quite so nakedly – or at least programatically – autobiographical.
We learn the names and home addresses of the first girls he kissed, and had sex with, and of his uncle who committed suicide; where he fought, and worked; and where he took his first LSD trip (a little cross-referencing shows that this was in the hotel owned by the dad of a friend, who is now a judge. Hmm…) They could all be made up – but no, or at least, yes, the Internet confirms that there is a judge of that name. Perhaps best leave it there.
The amusing, unspoken implication of Dyer’s map is that any particularly rabid fan of this writer (as I am, though perhaps I wouldn’t go quite this far) now has a ready-made Tourist’s Guide to Dyer-Land, and can trudge around suburban Cheltenham exploring the crucial places of his life, just as he, hilariously, did with DH Lawrence in his book Out of Sheer Rage.
Beyond that, though, it’s a particularly timely conceit, because it recognises the role that Google Earth now holds in the personal autobiographies we’re continually writing in our heads, something close to but far more fruitful than that held, all those years ago, by Friends Reunited. We’ve all Google Earthed our old family home, just as we’ve all Googled our ex-girl- or -boyfriends.
The view Google Earth provides is, like memory, at once alien and familiar; it is a view that was until recently gifted only to God and the birds, and the occasional passing amateur balloonist or microlight pilot, and I suppose the companies who took those ‘bird’s eye view’ photographs of your house for certain kinds of households to hang on their downstairs loo wall – and those companies are all out of business, now, surely?
Valeria Luiselli’s Swings of Harlem is equally nostalgic, though at a closer remove. It reads like either a fragmentary memoir of moments spent in parks with swings with her daughter, Maia, or a first-person story about someone doing so, illustrated with Polaroids that claim to be Polaroids (though how you tell them apart from Instagrammed digital images, I don’t know).
I don’t know enough about Luiselli to know if it is fiction or non-fiction, just as there aren’t enough clues in the Chloe Aridjis piece to know whether her Map of a Lost Soul, about a 65-year-old homeless German woman living on the streets of Mexico City is based on fact, or made up.
But the Luiselli does remind me of two specific things: one, the Will Self story The Five Swing Walk, which could quite easily have been made into a map, like this… as, in fact, could various other of his stories… and the more I think of it the more maps and literature become natural bedfellows – I think of Alan Warner’s novels, set so closely to the layout of the port town of Oban that you could follow the action on a map… and then I think of Visual Editions’ next project… a re-imagining of Don Quixote that will apparently follow the route of the novel in a camper van…
The second thing Luiselli’s map reminds me of is, unsurprisingly, her own scintillating non-fiction collection Sidewalks, which takes a similarly map-like, dream-like approach to cities, and literature. So much was I reminded of it, in fact, that when I got it down off the shelf I found that one of its essays, ‘Alternative Routes’ actually covers exactly the same area of Mexico City as the Chloe Aridjis piece in Where You Are: the Colonia Roma. Luiselli, taking an evening stroll in search of a Portuguese dictionary, literally crosses paths with Aridjis’s Margaret Alberin – so definitely so that you reread both pieces, looking to see if either character is recognisable in the figures the other sees on their peregrinations. It’s wonderful to think that their narratives can be laid down one over the other, like onion skin maps, and read together.
Perhaps that’s what so nice about this collection: that it doesn’t try to perform those fashionable pscyhogeographic dances all at the same time (“Whenever I walk in a London street, I’m ever so careful to watch my literary references,” as Christopher Robin piped in the famous AA Milne poem, ‘Lines and Squares’) but instead skims off one at a time, to let each writer map the territory of their own references in their own way.
(Another connection: Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory, with its artist creating art out of old maps of the deep terroir of France. And it’s perhaps a little strange that Dyer’s is the only one that seems to have any connection to the landscape of Britain; these are mostly city-based maps, those that are based on real geographical places – you wonder what Richard Mabey, for instance, would have produced, had he been invited on board.)
Design? Well, it’s all design.
I was going to say that each map/pamphlet/story is produced in a different way, but that’s not quite true. They all start from the same dimensions, with four or five being simple stapled booklets, two or three simple unfolding maps, and the others showing various idiosyncratic and ingeneious variations on these themes.
They all share a basic, exterior uniformity, though, and what I like about this is that, faced with each piece, unopened, you have no real idea how it will unfold, what form it will take. Compare this, for instance, to some of the more outré editions of US journal McSweeney’s (one of which came in a cigar box, one as junk mail – see my post here), and the uniformity holds it together, stops the disparateness of the individual pieces overflowing into disparate design solutions. There is a rigour at work.
Luiselli’s, for instance, has a proper fold out map as its jacket (rather in the manner of literary journal The White Review, which jackets each plain white issue with a fold-out art print), de Botton’s has a lovely concertina-ing last page, while Eliasson, Wood and Turchi’s fold out in unexpected places. Leanne Shapton’s contribution, Tablescapes, is a collection of Patrick Heron-like paintings based on objects on her desk (perhaps a little tenuously linked to the idea of maps, but lovely nonetheless) in a double-width booklet – counterintuitively, even annoyingly, that double width is pre-folded, like something you’ve folded to fit in your back jeans pocket (an exhibition catalogue, a magazine), so you’ll never be able to make it completely flat: as art prints the images inside are useless.
However, having been playing with and reading the different pieces for a while now, I can confirm that the best thing about them (about some of them) – the thing that makes them the most wonderfully, authentically, tragically map-like – is that I’ve already got the folding-back-up of some of them wrong, so they get all bent out of shape, rubbed up the wrong way and generally kerfuffled, so they’ll probably never fit properly into their box again.
See more at www.visual-editions.com
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