Making culture, mapping culture

A couple of years ago, Rick Meyerowitz was on the A train in New York City. He was staring at the subway map and he was thinking about lunch. Suddenly, station names began to look like food.

Rick asked, “What if I redid the subway map [as] a food map?” He brought in his friend Maira Kalman and the two of them renamed 468 stations. Avenue H became Mulligan Stew, Avenue J became Can of Soda, and Brighton beach became Beach Stroganoff. The New Yorker published their map in 2004.

This is remapping, taking a world we know, and reworking how we see it.  It’s one way to make culture.

We don’t have to work with something as grand as a subway system. Over the course of many walks, I have remapped my little town in Connecticut. I live pretty close to “the old woman who listens to her TV really loudly. She’s 100.” I am up the street from the “the house built by that crazy Swedish guy who eventually returned to Europe and died in a pauper’s hospital.” About a mile from my house is “smuggler’s cove.” Down the street from there is “The Chinese pavilion,” and from there it’s an easy walk to the “Fortress of mystery,” “Where the roller coaster once stood,” and “House of the trapped Brazilians.”

Maps used to belong to faceless bureaucracies and the state. They were literal. They gave up everything beautiful and imaginative to be accurate and clear. (By some miracle, it takes even the most sober map around 15 years to turn into a thing of beauty. We don’t know why. Apparently map makers install secret beauty on time release.) There are cultures in which maps are rich in connotative meanings (see Basso on the Western Apache, below), but usually our maps are an unamused rendering of the world. What you see is what we got.

Until now. With the decline of elites and the rise of an technologically empowered everyman, well, remapping is inevitable. All we need is the right pen and paper (or hardware and software) and hey, presto, the world begins to take on new properties.

One precedent was Saul Steinberg’s View of the World from 9th Avenue. This give us a glimpse of The New Yorker’s myopia. Maps like this record not geographical but psychological space.  See also this map of New York City from the point of view of a 3 year old.  

Lots of options. How does a city look to any one of the groups that occupy it? How does Chicago look to a recently arrived runaway? What about a Cubs fan? How about a student at the University of Chicago? (That’s a trick question: UC students do not leave Hyde Park so they have no map of the city.)

Naturally, no one wants to use these remapped maps as way-finders. This would be like driving across the country with the aid of Denny’s placemats. But to be fair there is way finding and way finding. These remapped maps are very good for certain kinds of navigation. They can take us places we could never find otherwise. Those who make them make culture.

Please if you make a "remap," would you let us know.

References  

Basso, Keith H. 1984. “’Stalking With Stories’: Names, Places and Moral Narratives among the Western Apache.” In Text, Play and Story: The Construction and Reconstruction of Self and Society.  Jerome Bruner, ed.  Washington, D.C.: American Ethnological Society, p. 19-55.

For more on the map by Meyerowitz and Kalman, go here.

Acknowledgements

Hiten Samtani for the New York according to a three-year old.  

14 thoughts on “Making culture, mapping culture”

  1. Love this. For me, the important element that gets introduced with “remapping” is that of story. Remapping creates storied landscapes and storytelling is crucial for creating culture. I wonder if there are other ways in which we are currently remapping our lives with new technology and social media. Hmmm….

  2. Remapping also points to the use of memory in creating maps, real or imagined, and culture..

  3. Hi Grant,

    Here’s my favorite example to add to the pile. This was New Yorkistan map was on the cover of the New Yorker 2 months after September 11th – it was a collective re-mapping experience

    New Yorkers, who together were making sense of Sept 11th and the new world of Middle Eastern affairs they were now forever entwined with. Here was the New Yorkers cartoonist – remapping New York into the world of Middle Eastern tribal affairs….

    http://www.mairakalman.com/newyorker/newyorker-8nyorkistan.html

  4. PS forgive the broken english – for some reason I can only see two of every three words I post in this box – so it’s like writing blindfolded on an iPad…

  5. last may a friend and I ran a participatory remapping experiment of a neighbourhood. here’s a video describing the results:

    http://www

    and our initial inspiration/call for participation:

    http://www

    i’m writing a more detailed paper with analysis, but basically the point is that this form of cartography contrasts with the mashup/layered form of cartography dominating the web today. issues raised: representational forms, relationship of spatial models to experices of a place, power relationships, and the role of technology in configuring all of this..

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