With everyone wrestling their way out of Afghanistan faster than you can say ‘nobody’s a winner here’ (so, not that fast after all), it seems fitting to think about Alighiero e Boetti — the Italian Arte Povera artist who travelled often in the 1970s and 80s to that country and used Afghan weavers to create his signature tapestries, on view now at Tate — and his project of mapping the world, consistently, repeatedly, to show how politics changes the literal face of the world. Czechoslovakia disappears; Lithuania reappears; Israel grows a little: these are facts with real human consequences, but are also only arbitrary — a system of coordinates laid over spatial geometry that is understood as a representation of the world. A very human system indeed, and in that contingent on our modern Western way of thinking. The map is certainly not the territory.
The ancient Romans, for example, despite their prowess in road-building, did not have road maps in the way we conceive of them. Rather than a set of coordinates mapped onto an approximation of the space contained by one country — Ireland being smaller than Britain; Britain being smaller than the US; and represented as such — the ancient Romans just chucked the contents of a place into a space delineated on a sheet of a paper (a map). Ireland, a land containing Croke Park, the Blarney Stone and the Guinness Factory; England, a land with Westminster Abbey, Hadrian’s Wall and some little mountains to the North and West; the US, the Empire State Building, bigger mountains and some big faces carved into mountains. Rather than an emphasis on scaled representation, theirs was on information.
This ability of maps to convey information about the contents of a place — and not just how to get from here to there; turn left at the Via Appia and make a right at the Coliseum — is also evident in two very worthy new London projects whose press releases have lately crossed the DLR’s busy desk. First, the London Bookshop Map, a project run by Louise O’Hare, one of the organisers of Publish & Be Damned, the self-publishing fair that will hold its 2012 edition next weekend at the ICA. The Bookshop Map is what the city of London looks like to someone who only cares about independent bookshops (which is to say, what London looks like to any right-minded person): a sea of grey lines punctuated by the red bauble denoting a calm among the madding crowds.
There are 96 independent bookshops in London, O’Hare’s research tells us, evenly proportioned across the city. In the East, Broadway Market bats in heavy with Artwords, Broadway Bookshop and Donlon Books — with Luminous Books and X Marks the Bokship just over on Mare Street. Dalston lags, we have to say, behind in number but leaps ahead in speciality, with just one, Centerprise, “the UK’s leading stockist of African Caribbean titles”. One might buy one’s BS Johnson anywhere nowadays, should one be so inclined, but Centerprise offers lectures on Black History and on International Women’s Month — “Empowering Edutainment for the Empress” (yes, please!) — which, we say with no hard facts behind us, is probably, unfortunately, a literary niche not well stocked elsewhere. (The second edition of the London Bookshop Map launches at the PABD fair this weekend, with a new piece of artwork specially commissioned for it by the artist Katrina Palmer.)
For those who like their maps interactive and with an optional dose of topographical theory comes Unreal City Audio‘s Coffeehouse Tours, in which Dr Matthew Green and a trusty band of cohorts map out the invisible remnants of London’s coffeehouses, which flourished in London in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Coinciding with the relaxation of censorship laws, the presence of these coffeehouses as fora for discussion among men of varied social stature — aided and abetted by the dissemination of information and opinion in newspapers, which also thrived during that period — and you have the sudden and happy emergence of what has come to be known as the public sphere, or an arena where men (men) could come together to freely discuss social and political issues. Though coffeehouses are oddly invisible in current popular caricatures of London of that period — which are dominated by alehouses, mostly, which have survived — they, in their help creating this public sphere, have contributed to one of the major feats of the modern age. On the downside, based on the beverage “brewed in the eighteenth century manner” they serve on the tour, the coffee was terrible.
One also learns quite interesting tidbits such as the fact that Lloyds of London was once a coffeehouse, where, being in the City, one learned news of ships that had sunk, shipments gone awry, and other such calamities for which one should take out insurance. Even today the tellers at Lloyds are called waiters. Don’t say you never learn anything from this
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Thus, go, see, conquer the land of London as it spreads out in coffee cups and bookshops before you! No better land than that to conquer.