Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers

Critical Writing
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2013
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From Guy Debord in the early 1950s, to Richard Long, Janet Cardiff and Esther Polak more recently, contemporary artists have returned again and again to the walking motif. Debord and his friends tracked the urban ambiences of Paris to map the experience of walking at street level. Long trampled a path in the grass and snapped a picture of the result (A Line Made by Walking). Cardiff created sound walks in London, New York and San Francisco that sent the audience out walking. Mapping is a way for us to locate ourselves in the world, physically, culturally, or psychologically. Debord produced maps like collages that traced the “psychogeography” of Paris, while Polak and her team equipped nomadic Fulani herders in Nigeria and Cameroun (West Africa) with GPS devices and developed a robot to map their itineraries in the sand.
Today, the convergence of global networks, online databases, and new tools for mobile mapping coincides with a resurgence of interest in walking as an art form. In Walking and Mapping, Karen O’Rourke explores a series of walking/mapping projects by contemporary artists. Some chart “emotional GPS”; some use GPS for creating landscapes made of data --“datascapes”-- while others use their legs to do “speculative mapping.” Many work with scientists, designers, and engineers.
O’Rourke offers close readings of these projects--many of which she was able to experience firsthand--and situates them in relation to landmark works from the past half-century. She shows that the infinitesimal details of each work she considers take on more significance in conjunction with others. Together, they form a new entity, a dynamic whole greater than the sum of its parts. By alternating close study of selected projects with a broader view of their place in a bigger picture, Walking and Mapping itself maps a complex phenomenon.

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Karen O'Rourke