2013 – The Year Of The Tangible Map And Return Of The Map As Art

Looking back at the conference talks I gave and the posts I wrote in 2012, two themes are evident.

The first theme is that while there’s some utterly gorgeous digital maps being produced these days, such as Stamen’s Watercolor, the vast majority of digital maps can’t really be classified as art. Despite the ability to style our own maps with relative ease, such as with Carto and MapBox’s TileMill, today’s maps tend towards the data rich, factual end of the map spectrum. Compare and contrast a regular digital map, on your phone, on your tablet or on a web site in your laptop’s browser with a map such as Hemispheriu[m] ab aequinoctiali linea, ad circulu[m] Poli Arctici and you’ll see what I mean (and if you don’t browse the Norman. B. Leventhal Map Center’s Flickr stream you really should).

Hemispheriu[m] ab aequinoctiali linea, ad circulu[m] Poli Arctici

The second theme is that despite the abundance of maps that surround us these days, a digital map is almost by definition an intangible thing. It’s a view port, hand crafted by a digital cartographer, on a mass of hidden, underlying spatial data. It’s ephemeral. Switch off your phone, your tablet, your sat nav or your computer and the map … vanishes. Until the next time you hit the “on” button, the electrons flow again and the map re-appears. But it’s still intangible, despite the irony that a lot of maps these days are interacted with via a touch interface; we tap, poke, prod and swipe our maps, but they’re not really there.

But maybe 2013 will be both the year of the tangible map and the year of the map as art. It might be if the closing days of 2012 are anything to go by.

On December 8th, 2012, David Overton’s SplashMaps made their funding total on Kickstarter. A SplashMap is a real outdoor map, derived from (digital) open data, but rendered on a light and weatherproof fabric. It’s a tangible map in the truest sense of the word; one you can fold up or even crumple up and stick in your pocket, safe in the knowledge that it won’t fade away. There’s no “off” switch for this map. As one of the SplashMap funders, I’ll have a chance to get my hands on one in the literal sense of the word in a couple of months, once they hit production. So more about this map in a future post.

The other map that is both 100% tangible and 100% art is the awesomely talented Anna Butler’s Grand Map Of London. A modern day map of the UK’s capital city, digital in origin, lovingly hand drawn in the style of the 1800s and printed, yes, printed on canvas. It’s a map worthy of the phrase “the map as art” and when I first saw one and handled one in late November of 2012 I wanted one, right there and then.

Grand Map Of London

And then, on Saturday, December 29th 2012, Mark Iliffe and I met Anna for a coffee in the Espresso Bar of the British Library on London’s Euston Road and out of the blue, Anna handed over a long cardboard tube containing my own, my very own, Grand Map Of London. People nearby looked on, slightly non-plussed as I crowed like a happy baby, promptly unrolled the map over the table and just looked and touched. The next half an hour or so pretty much vanished as I pored over and luxuriated in the map, lost in the details and revelling in the map under my hands. Truly this is a tangible map which is itself art.

I’ve often said, half in truth, half in jest, that I’d love a big, as big as I can get, map of London on my wall, probably one of Stamen’s Watercolor maps. But Anna’s Grand Map Of London will be getting a suitable frame and sitting on my wall, just as soon as my local framing shop opens after the New Year break.

Grand Map Of London

Two maps to wrap up 2012. Both tangible, both digital in origin, both made for looking, touching and feeling. One clever, innovative and utterly practical and one a map you can keep coming back to and which reveals more artistic cleverness each time you look at it.

2013 is shaping up to be a “year of the map” in ways I’d never had hoped for at the start of 2012.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

2 Comments

  • Happy new year Gary. Your blog is always informative and useful.

    This post is particularly pertinent for me. I’m doing an MDes at the moment, which is an exploration of whether the map can have a physical as well as a digital future, and if it’s possible to cross-pollinate, so a physical map can have a digital counterpart, and the experience of using both can be enhanced by the other (or some such, it’s a work in progress!). It’s born out of a personal anxiety that what Gen Y and subsequent generations experience as maps is predominantly digital, and my upbringing on foldable, tangible, markable paper maps might (has?) become something that becomes a minority map user experience. So if you are right and this is the year of the tangible map, I’ll be happy!

    Having just spent the weekend using a fabric map (a mankymaps.com trail map for biking in Rotorua, NZ), I’ve got to say that though useful, it’s not the same as paper.

    Perhaps paper maps have just become objects to hang on the wall or study before activity, and I should embrace that :-)

  • Ahhh. The future is in print… but not on paper ;-)