How I Lied With Maps

ENGL 1027

Professor Woodworth

April 8, 2012

Painting the Fog

I took quite a bit of inspiration from David McCandless’s TED talk that we watched a while back. His idea that data can be beautiful, and that we can draw powerful understanding through relativity, were powerful forces during the process of the project. Early on, I knew very little about what I actually wanted to do, but I did understand the foundation upon which I wanted to build. I knew, ultimately, that I wasn’t going for pretty. I wasn’t intending to create something beautiful. If anything, that would be merely a coincidence. Instead, I wanted to focus more on creating a connection between the map and the viewer. I didn’t want something arbitrary like a themed map, because I didn’t feel like that would give it the emotional appeal I wanted. I intended to create an interesting, stimulating map, and it’s beauty was always secondary.

One of my earliest drafts involved taking twigs, leaves, and rocks from all over Montgomery and gluing them relative to where they were found. It would have been a massive undertaking to give the idea justice, and it was something that I ultimately decided not pursuing. That being said, it ended up setting a very essential tone for the rest of the project.

The idea concerned itself first with emotional appeal and then with beauty. It brought Montgomery to the viewer in a way that printed line could not, making the area tangible and dimensional. It portrayed a Montgomery separate from the steel and cement that we attribute to it. It was actually the focus of my post Naturalism in which I wrote:

“I’ve been tossing around inside of my head the idea of collecting flowers, grass, rocks, sticks, and leaves from places and attaching them to where they were found. I love the idea of the map being a collection, and this connects the viewer directly to what they’re looking for. It becomes more personal and infinitely more tangible.

I’ve been hiking alot, recently, and I think that’s where I get the inspiration for the idea. I’ve become enraptured with the beauty of nature and seclusion. It’s been an eye-opening experience, and I think this is one of the best ways to connect viewers to that. Just as a map acts as a way for tying all of an area together onto a page, through line and color, so too does collecting bits and pieces symbolically, and literally, tie together an area through proximity.”

While the idea didn’t end up panning out, its concept remained firm in what would ultimately become my final project–that I wanted connection more than anything else. Just as the stones and leaves drew a connection between a line on a map and a physical place, so too did I want my work on the map to form a connection. Arbitrary doodles and marks can be pretty and interesting, but they don’t create the investment that I want.

My final idea ended up tying together both data-visualization and spatial-connection. I took alot of inspiration, specifically, from string webs, tying together connected events and ideas by string, and encompassing vast rooms. To me, these epitomized data-visualization and McCandless’ assertion that data can be beautiful, and I wanted to try to reconstruct this phenomena as closely as I could. The strings acted as connections, both literally and figuratively, creating the same kind of bond that I wanted with my first idea, while being more easily understood and less time-consuming.

The completed concept involved marking points of interest all across the map, and connecting them with string if their memories were somehow tied to each other. The strings allowed the viewer to see relationships in the map that transcended geography, coupling points that are otherwise detached and unrelated. To map the map easier to read, the points were assigned colors based on what they were. This choice established contrast across the piece and provided a level of organization that’s essential to it’s integrity.

Considering the final product, it is natural to notice certain “memory hubs.” These are places in which several significant moments are all tied–illustrating places that have had large impacts in our lives. On my memory map, high school, my college dorm, and my house all’ve had profound influence on my life, representing my progression into my eventual adulthood. These hubs bring together strings of all colors, aggregating several memories of different kinds into a single point. They illustrate how wide the influence of a powerful memory can be. That being said, I wasn’t able to map out every single memory of Montgomery, but rather decided to only plot the most significant. In the very first page of How to Lie with Maps, author Mark Monmonier says: “To avoid hiding critical information in a fog of detail, the map must offer a selective, incomplete view of reality” (Monmonier 1) This is precisely what had to be done.

The strings act as metaphors for our emotional connections to places in the world. We inherently associate places with feelings, tying the destination with the journey that led us there. The strings illustrate our ability to link locations despite being separated by miles, and this concept of distanced association was what my map was predicated upon.

My map reminds me very much of abstract art. My emphasis on emotion rather than beauty mimics the philosophies of artists like Piet Mondrian, accenting emotional importance rather than aesthetic value. This kind of art functions to not simply represent emotion, but also to elicit emotion. Mind maps as personal as mine are more than just strings on a page–more valuable than markers and ink. They attempt to bring feelings to the viewer. Such a struggle can end fruitless, just as the artist who attempts to paint upon the surface of the fog. But, when done successfully, the artist touches the viewer in a way no other medium can. For this reason, Chriss Pagani writes “It isn’t just art, it is mind programming. And that is what makes abstract art the most powerful force that the creative mind can unleash” (Chriss).

Ultimately, I didn’t create a map for guiding tourists around the city of Montgomery. It actually isn’t of any particular use, from a utilitarian standpoint. Instead, it is acting as it’s own memory palace. It acts an emotional map, a transcendental map, one that is mapping experience and events rather than places and things. It’s difficult, really, to map the insubstantial and the personal rather than the tangible and the objective. To the artist, they can be as gripping as physical pain and as soothing as the cooling rain. The subjective, in each of us, rest as fully realized as the objective. But outside of ourselves, it becomes difficult to pinpoint and convey these abstractions. In the face of another, the unreal cannot be fully conveyed. Just as the artist who attempts to paint the fog.

”]Attempting to map the abstractions of my memory, my map became a little messy. Tying together the  wide spectrum of experiences from both my childhood and recent life became a cluttered, messy task. In the same way, Adam Sicinski’s “Mind Map” (see above) had similar problems. Just as the fleeting memories of my past created a barrier in translating them into my map, so too does defining abstract emotions and concepts create a similar barrier. In my particular map, the sprawling scope of my experience became cluttered and in disarray, to it’s credit, I think, and Sicinski’s map has the same fundamental issue. And his solution mirrors mine. By connecting his words with bold black lines, he illustrates the same kind of intangible association that was depicted in my map of Montgomery. However, he creates further contrast by supplying appropriate clip art to accompany several of the words and, while they ultimately become a little cluttered, they do organize his idea in a way that my map did not. Ultimately, while both of our maps attempted to depict the abstract, and while both did so despite being cluttered and chaotic, our essential difference stems from our organizational strategies. I attempted to organize my data through the explicit use of color, while he did so through both color and illustration. I could have illustrated my memories, as well, and it very well could have been more organized, but through a combination of very little space and a limited color palette, I chose against it.

”]This comparative map epitomizes my feelings towards maps.

Here, the city of Montgomery is no larger than a small star, lying tiny and inferior in the scope of the sprawling space around it. Here, there’s no sense of scale between the size of Montgomery, the size of Wetumpka, or the size of Ft.Deposit. Here, each place is equally misrepresented. To the mapmaker’s credit, the map really isn’t intended to do that, anyways. That being said, it still surfaces an interesting point.

While helpful, maps cannot ever truly convey the significance of what the viewer is seeing. Just as the glorious capitol of Alabama is reduced to a pathetic star, so too is my map deceitful. On my map, years of bowling with friends and lasting memories are reduced to the inferiority of a blue dot. The rise and fall of high school, meeting my first girlfriend, the struggles of being in yearbook class, the daily pressures of both academia and my peers, all are embodied in a single purple dot. These misrepresentations are disservices to the powerful memories they contain.

But memories and experiences cannot be mapped. They are the fog we are trying to paint. With human hands and human mind, we are shackled to conformity. And even if, in glorious epiphany, an artist truly captures the nirvana of true emotion, we may never understand it. For while we are cursed with the mortal hands and mind, so too are we cursed with vile human eyes. So the problem remains: we cannot depict true emotion but, even if we did, we likely could not see it.

This failure of map-making is epitomized in both my map and the map above. The streets of the civil rights marches are but a small dot of ink in an inaccurate red star. The sprawling state capitol building, the serenity of the Ida Bell Young Park, the laughter of children after school, and the machinations of Auburn Montgomery itself are all dots of ink on a page. Never can cartography reproduce the human element.

”]This Moroccan map also symbolizes the error of cartography, and that is perception. Most strikingly in the image is the artist’s decision to ring the entire globe in mountains. An admirable effort, while inaccurate. But, while it offers hardly any reputable geographical insight, it does allow the viewer to glean information about the thinking of the artist, or perhaps even of that entire region. Mountains don’t literally surround the “World of Sicily,” but they may however stand as metaphors of Sicily’s feelings of isolation. They map act personifications of emotional barriers rather than physical ones, or perhaps they embody the closeness that the Mediterranean people feel through regional proximity. These are all postulations, but that’s what maps of these sort are: postulations.

In my map of Montgomery, the precise mental link between one point and another is almost entirely excluded. String between two points are only there because I say there should be a string there. My reasoning comes from memories and experiences that, as previously discussed, cannot truly ever be conveyed. Just as Hellenic peoples of the 12th century knew not why mountains surrounded the map, so too does the viewer know not of what significance a single string may have.

Ultimately, I attempted to map not only scale and proximity, traits of conventional map-making, but also transient qualities like value and time. Maps of today are snapshots of their time, portraying the world as it stands at that moment. So too is my map an emotional snapshot. My map depicts the construction of intangible buildings,  and illusory roads connecting memories and experiences. Just as architects are slowly adding to the grand scale of our city, my life, daily and unceasing, adds to my own mind map. The revised map of Montgomery stands just as much as a testament to my mental state now as it does to the state of Montgomery as it currently stands.

I largely equate my map-making process to understanding abstract art, despite how ironic that may sound. While maps are intended to be representational, the emotional map is just as much a piece of art as it is a piece of data. These strings are more than strings.

Harley Hahn asserts that abstract art cannot be fully appreciated as a “single, isolated creation” (Hahn). So too can the viewer not value my map as merely a piece of string art. Objectively, it is a mass of glue and string, decorated with colored marker. These things, however, do not define my map. It is not singular nor isolated. My map carries with it the weight of nineyearsof memory-making. My map is no more isolated than the driftwood on the sea–the paper of my map, too, floats on the seas of my experience.

I cannot guarantee that any of these things will be considered by the viewer. To them, it may be colored thread on a printed map–the product of elementary-level arts and crafts, symbolizing nothing but a strange fetish for colored thread. I have faith, though, knowing that if they take the time to consider, however briefly, thejourney that let to it’s development, by casting off the opaque veil of ignorance, that they will see beauty.

Because memories are beautiful. Years of my life lying bear upon a page, connected by a string as fragile as the synapses connecting the memories in my mind.

If the viewer doesn’t agree, my work and, to a degree, my life, becomes a decoration on a wall. But that’s the life of the artist. They cannot force anyone to think in a way they they don’t want to. I cannot press my will upon the page so deeply as to make you feel the years of my life. If I could, I would have.

But I can’t.


Works Cited and Consulted

Monmonier, Mark. How to Lie with Maps. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.

Adam Sicinski. Mind Map Art. <; Web. April 7, 2012.

Montgomery. Montgomery, Alabama. Racine; Seeger Map Co. 2008.

Harley Hahn. Understanding Abstract Art. <; Web. April 6, 2012.

Chriss Pagani. Abstract Paintings. <; Web. April 7, 2012.

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