A good friend of mine, who is an artist and Geography student, emailed this video of Jerry’s Map to me the other day. It documents the creation of a cognitive map (though I am not confident this academic term applies so well here) by the daedal hand of Jerry Gretzinger.
While watching the video, I began wondering about the role that the imagination has in not only the art and science of map-making, but science in general. As a practice of representing certain realities, map-making is a science; but it is also entirely an art because it requires human perception and imagination in order to put meaning into a map’s context, e.g. the symbology in street maps, the color shades of topographic maps, etc.
Granted, no map ever changes the reality on the ground–directly. Yet, like science, the way reality is represented and communicated can change our perceptions, our attitudes, and ultimately our behavior. This can eventually be instantiated in things like physical landscapes, just as the communication of Darwinian theories of evolution transformed social landscapes by giving white Europeans a sense of geneteic superiority over other, “less fit” peoples. In a similar fashion, if political maps construct an image of a threatening society (consider those globes from the 1950s and 60s that show Russia as a massive area in bright red), then it may change the way the rest of the world perceives and interacts with a certain place.
We may feel that the best maps are those that are the most accurate at representing what actually exists, but no map is truly able to do this. Nevertheless, I believe that we are drawn to the aesthetics of a map: what is really and actually communicated to our sense of place. After all, it represents something we know through the senses (spaces and places, landscapes and cities, etc)–just consider a map of your home state, town, or neighborhood. Perhaps a map is best when a place is represented with a little more embellishment than an exact USGS seven-minute quad or the precise measurements that UTM tick marks offer.
In the end, Jerry’s Map is an example of the power that the imagination has in communicating reality, whether that reality is imaginary and unique, or physical and universal.
I hope you can afford the ten minutes to watch this, and then take an additional few to peruse his blog.