How maps inspire us

Last Thursday I spent the day at SteerDaviesGleave in London, where the Design Group of the British Cartographic Society has arranged a programme of talks by people who have taken maps into their artistic fields.

I admit to being slightly sceptical. I guessed that the event would either be some organic-munching, slightly new age, overly arty types banging on about how they love walking with OS Explorer Maps, or it would be some brilliant artists that have taken their passion for art, mixed it with a mapping slant and come up with something slightly outside of the box and probably outside of the limits of my imagination. Thankfully, I am very pleased to report that it was far closer to the latter.

Organisers Dr. Alex Kent and Prof. Peter Vujakovic of the University of Canterbury provided their usual dose of comedy duo and set the scene, Peter Twelftree of SteerDaviesGleave gave a fascinating talk about the history of transport planning in London (it perhaps sounds dull when I write it like that but honestly, it was actually very interesting), but it was the artists themselves who stole the show.

First up, Alex and Peter’s colleague Kate McLean gave a presentation on her ‘exploration of smell mapping’. Although I think the mapping aspect became somewhat lost in her exploration, her enthusiasm for smell and for Paris kept us all engaged and her results from a scientific perspective were really interesting. Conclusions such as wine reminding people of events, coffee reminding people of friends and family, all these things might seem obvious in hindsight but Kate’s work really adds weight to this. Her idea of mapping smell to people’s memories and locations is certainly intriguing. I hope she takes this further.

Dr. Alison Gazzard, a lecturer in gaming, took us into the world of computer games and their maps. Did anyone else play Hopper on the BBC Acorn as a child? Can’t believe she brought back such memories! Her focus on the difference between navigating in first person, and navigating from an aerial view is something that we should perhaps think about more when creating maps.

Anya Beaumont, a sculptress in North London, took us through the process of making 3-dimensional wall sculptures out of recycled paper, including street maps and local articles to create a design that worked both as a map of streets as well as a map of the local landmarks, events and cultures. I loved the way that her main emphasis was on light and shadow, almost giving her artwork the same added dimension to the cityscape as a cartographer might try to achieve with the application of drop shadow. The attention to detail, such as local trees between streets, is also something that we cartographers often omit. It’s quite interesting; we make local level maps at Ordnance Survey, but I’m not sure we capture anywhere near the same amount of local detail as Anya does in her artwork.

After lunch and after Peter’s regular but interesting presentation on maps in the media, Alison Hardcastle, an artist, card designer and typographist from Yorkshire, gave a wonderful journey through the process of creating hand-drawn typographic maps. I was amazed at how quickly she creates them. Although I questioned her on the amount of competition she faces in what has recently been a very popular artform, Alison’s work is definitely some of the best examples that I have come across.

You can find out more about her work on her website.

Many thanks to Alex, Peter and the BCS for organising the event.

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