‘The map is not the territory’ is a dictum used by linguist Alfred Korzybski. It tells us that an abstraction of something is not the thing itself. He used it as part of a larger theory stating that human knowledge of reality is constrained by our perception organs, our neurology and by our language. This implies that we can only ever know abstractions of reality, translating from one form to another.
A map is a fantastic analogy for this idea, nicely demonstrated by the Jorge Luis Borges’ short short story ‘On Exactitude in Science’:
…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
—Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658
The story suggests, among other things, that an exceedingly accurate representation remains an abstraction, and is never the thing itself. Dan Halter’s work of the same name, takes the eminently quotable Borges story wholesale, but renders it in Halter’s distinctive woven paper. However, unlike Halter’s normally exacting weave, this work is unfinished, with the ‘fabric’ disintegrating and unraveling half-way through. Halter’s work reinforces the cautionary character of Borges’ tale: the best we can hope for from trust in representations is tatters and haunted fragments. Halter’s act of re-representing the story only serves to confirm this.
The cautionary aspect though seems to embody the conservative, fearful side of postmodern – the kind that is worried about pop culture and condemns simulation– the subtext of which is that the further we get from reality, rationality loses its potency and power is given up to the formless masses. ‘The map is not the territory’ suggest that there is no way of knowing reality. Every closer step reveals another map. Thinking is a map of language is a map of neural processes is a map of neural structures is a map of… in an infinite regression. Ultimately, we have to be content with representations as that is how our knowledge is structured. Halter’s Google Landscape Artifact deftly captures this infinite regression with an apology. Using the error message from Google Maps, the work suggests that reality is there, we just don’t have the capacity to access it.
A slightly lighter, more playful take on the mapping analogy is presented by Gerhard Marx’s recent map works, such as Flourish and
Calligraphy and Cartography. In these works map fragments are rearranged to draw out a series of abstract figures. This movement from representation to aesthetic abstraction is a reflection on the map/territory relation. However, Marx’s shapes resemble flourishes, a non-textual element of calligraphy. Flourishes, and by extension typography itself, reveal a secondary representation where the appearance of words influence their meaning, a remapping of the denoted textual meaning. Flourishes are a joyful expression of this second order.
The point here is that the form of text is a type of content, similar to the way a map can both accurately represent territory but simultaneously carry other meanings. To my mind, playing with these meanings, shifting, revealing and hiding them, is one of the functions of art.
Maps themselves are great objects to play this game with. Because of their strong correspondence with reality (the reason a map can get most of us from A to B) maps often mask other meanings. In Athi-Patra Ruga’s tapestry The Lands of Azania (2014-2094), the meaning potential of maps is exposed. The shape of the map more or less corresponds to the shape of Africa, but the content is different. The surprising difference between expectation and revelation produces humor. And indeed, the work is funny (Kuntistan! Sodom! snigger), like much of Ruga’s production. But underneath the humor, in complex layering of mapping, artistic mythos, stitching and African history, lies a challenge to the ideas we take on board when we look at a representation. And a reminder that the map is a different sort of beast to the territory.