Stephen Walter spent one-and-a-half years drawing a map of London and is currently in Berlin drawing.. you guessed it. These maps may or may be of use in finding the local post office. But whether you get there or not, it is sure to be a path filled with unexpected turns that traverse space and time. Similarly to Charles Olson’s poetics, Walter’s maps reconfigure landscapes to enable new possibilities for thought.
‘The Island’ London
In one well-known story by Jorge Luis Borges a fictional cartographer tries to figure out how to make a map of England. He comes to the conclusion that to make a proper 1:1 map the image would have to include the map itself, leading to an infinite regression. This story has analogues such as the Droste effect and Bertram Russell’s paradox of a set not being able to belong to itself. Gregory Bateson makes a similar point of infinite regression in an illuminating passage, cited by Louis Armand (Solicitations, 208):
We say that a map is different from the territory. But what is the territory? Operationally, somebody went out with a retina or a measuring stick and made representations which were then put on paper. What is on the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man [sic] who made the map; and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps. The territory never gets in at all… Always, the process of representation is only maps of maps, ad infinitum
Umberto Eco has written ‘On the impossibility of drawing a map of the empire on a scale of 1 to 1’, in a satirical demonstration of the practical difficulties of such an endeavour. One central problem that would arise is that a part of the whole would represent the whole, en abyme. There would be a continual forethrow of representation, or ‘metonymic recursion’ (Armand, 208) in which each time a part of the whole represents the whole. It is in other words a ‘recursion of the inassimilable’ (211).
The artist Stephen Walter wisely – perhaps having read Eco’s essay – decided against trying to draw a 1:1 map of England. He has, however, made an artistic cartographic rendering of London, with a similar effect of metonymic recursion as that described by the cartographer in Borges’ story. Walter has drawn London as an island, with the shore starting at its bordering burroughs (probably partly to avoid infinite regression of another kind; that of never finishing the map). The map directly zooms in on one part, a fragment lifted from the whole; London as an island, instead of Britain as an island. ‘Britain is a collection of islands… I wanted to show London as one of those islands’, Walter writes in an artist’s statement.
Collage of signs
But this feedback loop, in which a part is generated by but also mirrors the whole, recurs throughout Walter’s map of London. Because while it is a geographically accurate map of London, it is filled in with depictions of signs, facts, stories, and myths about the city. Walter, who was born in and lived most of his life in London, mixes personal memories and experience and documented fact; a fascination with the contemporary culture of signs and the myths that can be found in every corner of the city; Wikipedia entries and literary anecdotes.
In other words, the city of London which constructs a network of signs, is in turn also figuratively or literally replicated by these signs which proliferate everywhere. In cybernetics (the study of self-producing systems) this would be called an ‘autopoietic machine’: a network that ‘gives rise to components which, through their interactions and transformations, regenerate and in turn realise the network or processes that produced them.’ (211)
What Ron Silliman has called a ‘fetishisation of signs’ under capitalism occurs here to the n-th degree, and is thereby subverted precisley by means of a proliferation of signs. What Armand calls an ‘aestheticisation of information’ (218), here becomes an aestheticisation of signs, and of the inassimilable (the myths, stories, (unverified) facts) of the city.
A collage of excess that can be read as an act of resistance, as what Guy Debord has dubbed ‘detournement, “the re-use of pre-existing … elements in a new ensemble”’ (218), making possible previously inexistent combinations that are not normally part of Empire and ‘making an appeal to a de-labourisation or anti-work as critique of industrial positivism.’ (219)
the two fundamental laws of detournement are the loss of importance of each detourned element…and at the same time the organisation of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect. Detournement has a peculiar power which obviously stems from the double meaning, from the enrichment of most of the terms by the coexistence within them of their old sense and their new, immediate sense…detournement is first of all a negation of the value of the previous organisation of expression. (Debord, quoted in Armand, 219)
Charles Olson’s cartography
This notion of Walter’s map as a detournement of present-day London, bears fruitful comparison to Charles Olson’s poetics (with the help of ‘Olson’s Republic‘ an essay by Nick Lawrence, from which all quotes below are taken). In his Maximus poems Olson (1910-1970), of course, also mapped the history of one place, Gloucester (Massachusetts), using that city as a prism for American history, and arriving at universal truths through descriptions of the local. Olson’s project – more pronouncedly than Walter’s – was one of writing a republic, of discovering the polis at work in everything. However, never THE republic, never the way things were ordained to be, but always with a turning away. ‘What the poet has seen or done regarding the nation suggests a motive for the project of writing a republic, even if that motive is aversive, a turning away.’
As described in Polis is this, the recent documentary about Olson, he was a teacher who had no time for convention, would teach all day, then go for beers with his students and return to class at night. He taught a course on ‘the present’ in which the class would read newspapers, an extension of his poetics in the classroom; anything could serve as the springboard for novelty, the detournement of tired, received, common-sense knowledge into new meaning. ‘No visers aloud [sic]!’ concurs one corner of Walter’s map (see image directly below).
Olson’s ‘[p]oetry as that form of discourse which distracts the state…’ becomes directly relevant to Walter’s map-making projects. Both artists dis-tract, ‘not simply by diverting…attention from the good, but by drawing it apart, dispersing and multiplying its loci of value; not just by constituting a space alternative to that of the state-form, but by de-gridding the concept of state-space, revealing it as lumpy, heterogeneous, desquamated; energizing it into spills and flows. Field as phasal, tendential, in formation.’
Thus, both Olson’s and Walter’s creation/discovering of a republic is ‘not lawmaking at all in the regulatory sense (gridding of the state-form), but instead wayward line-making, surveying: walking and mapping the eccentric boundaries of possibilities for social assemblage (elements gathered across time as well as space).’ Walter’s map accurately reproduces London’s main features – roads, waterways and population density; however, at the same time new lines emerge, signs of BBC, IKEA, and $, proliferate as virtual neighbours of Jack the Ripper, ‘the 1st Earl of Salisbury having honeymooned in 1589, in what is now a dodgy part of Edmonton’, and ‘secret lives of poverty’.
Mapping the shadows of history
‘The Island’ tells the history of London in one of the uncountable ways that it might be told, but certainly not from official knowledge, at least not only. In this map facts from history books relinquish their hegemony to constitute – as a heterogeneous collage – an alternative story of London. In ‘The Island’ Walter is literally ‘shoring the fragments against his ruins’ and in doing so educates – in Walter Benjamin’s trusted poetic formulation – ‘the image-making within us, raising it to a stereoscopic and dimensional seeing into the depths of historical shadows.’ (Arcadework, 458). It is fitting therefore that Walter’s map, although very large (app. 1 x 1.5 metres) requires the use of a magnifying glass to read it.
Umberto Eco asserts that, ‘every 1:1 map of the empire decrees the end of empire as such and therefore is the map of a territory that is not the empire.’ (Eco, 94). Although meant as an argument for the impossibility of drawing such a map, we could also read it as the description of an event, arising as a rupture from within the existing map. The same could be said of Stephen Walter’s alternative rendering of London; an accurate map that is nevertheless also rearranged into a virtual constellation of existing facts/fiction. ‘The republic as resonant body whose emptiness enables its writing–not as a filling of that space, not as fulfilment, but as a concretizing of the invisible within it. If ideology is what disallows the seeing of what lies before us (ob viam = in the way), then hearing those lies as history’s echoes is what art may permit.’