Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Reality Schmeality

This is partly in response to Joe's comments from two posts ago. Joe, you're taking the idea of frames a whole lot further than I was headed... but OK, I'll bite.

I think what Joe is saying is that our understanding of the universe is by necessity blinkered. It's how humans deal with the world -- they filter, frame and label it into if not submission, at least comprehensibility. Sometimes something in the world makes us realize those frames, but most of the time we just ride along happily (or unhappily) ignoring them.

Okeydoke, fair enough. It's not a generally accepted definition of "art," but I really like Duane Preble's comment in Artforms that "aesthetic is the opposite of anaesthetic." That was my quote in my senior college yearbook. I think that's what Joe is talking about: A work makes you realize that part of you has been sleeping by waking you up.

One of the main critiques of mainstream cartography by Denis Wood et al has been that by reinforcing conventional ontologies (this is a road, this is an ocean, etc.), it is in part responsible for that blinkering. That by positing propositions as facts, maps close off alternative understandings of the world.

Guilty as charged. I would point out, however, that this is true of all our conventions of communication. If I decide to abandon conventional English language, no-one will yoddle for you as you beezify them. Which limitation does in itself cause us difficulties unless we we step outside our native language (I really enjoyed V.V. Raman's recent appearance on Speaking of Faith on this subject).

As Joe notes, we kind of need to work within this system of frames and blinkers most of the time, if for no other reason than life is too short to reinvent language for every conversation and besides we'd go insane and starve. But, it sure is neat when we can be surprised and woken up even a little.

Can a map do that? I mean a cartographic map? Not a painting of a map (this example is getting hoary), or a picture that depicts the earth but outside the tradition of cartographic graphic conventions? I often come back to Chris Ware's book jacket for Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid in the World (the website for the book includes a teaser that incorporates some of the jacket art: click on the arrow near "It is now possible to proceed..."). Part of what works here, though, is that one of the main thrusts of the book is a sense of isolation in its characters, which placing them in a cartographic context makes seem inevitable. So perhaps it is specific wakings-up/deblinkerings that can be accomplished in a cartographic milieu. Perhaps a topic for another day...

4 comments:

Joe Banks said...

"Here be monsters."

I've always loved that particular map legend, because it's a way of "showing the frame" of the map, that point at which the language of the map, or the knowledge of the cartographer, has gone into the realm of speculation.

I also love the fast, handwritten maps of a century or two ago -- like this detail from an 1810 map of some land my wife grew up on . The level of detail they show is in exact proportion to the time spent making marks on the paper, and where there are no marks at all, we intuitively understand the blanks are because the cartographer had nothing to say about those regions, not that there was nothing there.

That leaves an open question for the maps we generate largely via computer data -- how do we "show the frame" of these maps?

Visual detail no longer corresponds to a human intelligence's effort in mapmaking, i assume; it certainly doesn't on the drawings i make as an architect. I can copy, paste, mirror, rotate, array and otherwise build fantastically detailed and hatched drawings fast and dirty, and the results, visually, are broadly indistinguishable from those done carefully.

(As an aside, a steel fabricator here in Albany routinely does all their design work in CAD, but their final drawings by hand, specifically to be able to catch those "copy and paste" errors.)

It seems to me that all this frame-making, at least in cartography & architecture, is about understanding and articulating relationships of things to one another, graphically. Perhaps that what frames are, in general - systems that help us understand relationships.

natcase said...

Joe: "Here be legendary beasts" does mark a frame of direct experience ("terra incognita" does the same a bit more accurately). Or a frame of knowledge, such as your 1810 map. Map makers had to say something about their limits of recorded knowledge because, well, it was a great deal more limited.

What I began this discussion on was a different sort of frame, one that is in common with other western visual arts, one that is like a window-frame. A map may have both these frames, as with most "terra incognita" maps.

The sort of frame you are talking about, the frame of knowledge, is a whole lot more fluid, and the deceptions it conceals are a lot trickier. With a window-frame, the mapmaker is saying "see, the world I am picturing goes on past where I drew, under the frame." With a knowledge frame, the map-maker is saying "I can confirm all that I have shown is actually here."

Which is often as not, not true. Really what they should say in many cases is "I was told by sources I generally find reliable that what you see is actually there, or at least approximates what is there. It is probably out of date, becuse their data is based on several layers of compilation from other people's data, and we did not dield check it. Also it may not be spatially accurate, as it may have been compiled from sources that were not intended to be used at this scale."

But we don't say that. Just like fiction writers don't say "the world imagined in my novel does not necessarily extend very far beyond these pages, though I did spend some time imagining the layout of the house you only see the outside of in chapter 4. Also there is a whole cast of characters in the other spaceship which I have in mind for another story. Other than that, I have no idea what the rest of this universe looks like. Yet."

Kelly said...

have you looked into the festival of maps going on in chicago? carrie secrist gallery is having a really interesting show...artists who use maps or the idea of mapping in their work.

natcase said...

Kelly, yes, I'm hoping to get to Chicago in January. The question of "Map Art", "Art Maps", maps in art, maps as art, etc. is a big one; If you haven't seen the Winter 2006 issue of Cartographic Perspectives, it's worth a look. MapRoom talks about it here

I love art images that use art, but haven't talked about it much simply because I haven't been able to keep up with the subject. Also, I think it muddies the waters of talking about maps here. It muddles my thinking anyway. As I've said elsewhere, I'm convinced that artists operating in the framework of the fine arts are speaking in an alien context to those who work in a cartographic framework.

So to answer your question, yes I hope to get down there and see the show... thanks for the heads up.