Try the new

May 30, 2014 6:41 pm

Maps – the shape of things

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments
Maps are no longer simply pieces of paper pointing us in the right direction but a visual framework for our ideas about the world and about ourselves
‘Hot Spot III 2009' by Mona Hatoum©Agostino Osio

Mona Hatoum, ‘Hot Spot III 2009’. ‘Hot Spot is a cage-like steel globe, approximately the size of a person with arms outstretched, that tilts at the same angle as the Earth. The continents on its surface are outlined in red neon. It can suggest that the whole world is a political hot-spot caught up in conflict and unrest. It can also be seen as a reference to the dangers of global warming’. ©Agostino Osio/Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice

When Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Swiss-born co-director of exhibitions and international projects at London’s Serpentine Gallery, talks about a marathon, he doesn’t mean a physical endurance test but an intellectual one. Since 2006, when he arrived at the Serpentine, his marathons have become annual events. Each year, a theme is chosen and a wide group of experts – artists, philosophers, scientists, digital analysts, cultural theorists – is invited to discuss it. The marathon takes place over a weekend, sometimes less, the theory being perhaps that many ideas compressed into a short period of time will generate enough energy to drive them out into the public mind.

After the inaugural Interview Marathon in 2006 came the Experiment Marathon, the Manifesto Marathon, the Poetry Marathon, the Map Marathon, the Garden Marathon and the Memory Marathon. Last year, Obrist and his co-curator Simon Castets inaugurated the 89plus Marathon, a long-term project with the ambition of “mapping the generation born in or after 1989” – the year the Soviet Union came to an end and the internet began. It is also the age group, the curators point out, that now makes up almost half the world’s population.

Emanuel Derman, mathematician, ‘Pleasure Pain Desire: A Map of the Emotions* (*according to ‘Ethics’, Benedict de Spinoza)’

“Spinoza’s most fundamental affects are pain, pleasure and desire. They lie beneath all the other affects and can be thought of as closer to organic conditions than psychic ones. The more complex emotions bear an indirect link to the three just named.” Click here for a full version of the map.

The word “mapping” has become almost as ubiquitous as the word “curating” these days; both offer ways of organising objects or ideas into some kind of visual framework. No longer a geographic paper diagram unfolded with some difficulty over the bonnet of a car, a map can represent anything from the genetic connections between different diseases to the flight paths of an entire continent or the incidence of obesity within a social group; it can, according to research by the psychologist Brian Knutson, show the way that areas of the brain react to the amount of money a person anticipates making. These are just a few examples from a collection of around 140 contemporary maps to be published in a new book edited by Obrist. It grew out of the 2010 Map Marathon at the Serpentine, fuelled by his own obsession, which began at the age of 17, when he met the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti.

This was in the mid-1980s. Boetti had been a leading figure in the arte povera movement in Italy in the 1960s but by this time had turned his concerns about place and identity into a series of embroidered world maps, particularly “Mappa”, in which every country is woven in the colours of its national flag. Boetti introduced Obrist not only to map-making but also to the kind of networking of ideas he now practises as a curator. “It was really my introduction to the potential of mapping, and to navigation as a way into making exhibitions,” says Obrist.

Later he would be influenced by conversations with the French social scientist Bruno Latour, whose work examines the connections between digital technologies, social theory and science. “It always starts with a conversation …” Obrist says, echoing something he writes in his afterword to the new book: “Dialogue, conversation and exchange between different fields is the only way we can chart a course [through] the increasingly complex terrain that is contemporary life.”

. . .

“Maps of Palestine – 4 map version” by Richard Hamilton

Four maps of Palestine by Richard Hamilton©Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton, artist, 'Maps of Palestine – 4 map version'

Click here for a larger version of the map

. . .

“Human Disease Network” by Kwang-Il Goh, Michael E. Cusick, David Valle, Barton Childs, Marc Vidal and Albert-László Barabási

Human disease network by Kwang-Il Goh, Michael E. Cusick, David Valle, Barton Childs, Marc Vidal and Albert-László Barabási©Albert-László Barabási

Albert-László Barabási, scientist, “How diseases link to each other thanks to shared genes. We call it the ‘diseasome’” (detail)

Click here for a full version of the map

. . .

“A Map of 1960s New York from Memory” by Jonas Mekas

“A Map of 1960s New York from Memory” by Jonas Mekas©Jonas Mekas

Jonas Mekas, artist, “A Map of 1960s New York from Memory” (detail)

Click here for a full version of the map


‘Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies’ is published by Thames & Hudson on June 16.;

To comment on this article please post below, or email

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments


FT Weekend

Get our newsletter by email each Saturday. Alec Russell, Weekend FT editor, handpicks a selection of the best life, arts, culture, property and news coverage

Sign up now


More FT Twitter accounts