- Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers by Karen O’Rourke
In Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers, artist and scholar Karen O’Rourke reflects on a diverse body of cultural activities conducted where three fields of practice – cartography, art, and walking – interlock. An often provocative probing of the formal and political tensions involved in those conjunctures, this book contributes the important problematic of walking to the nascent scholarship at the interface between cartography and contemporary art.
The structure of Walking and Mapping is quite experimental, with comparisons weaving back and forth across chapters. Its first third grounds contemporary walking practices in twentieth-century avant-garde attempts to overcome the division of art from lived practice (predominantly those of psychogeography and post-war experimental performance), while the remainder turns more closely on the relationship between walking practices and various forms of mapping. Moving from “top-down” artistic visions to “bottom-up” participatory projects, the book unpacks artists’ experiments with quotidian mental maps and models, cartographic traces of walks, works that allow people to “annotate” specific sites, “hybrid data-scapes” (experimental geographies in which a range of new and sometimes older media collide), and subversions of surveillance mapping.
O’Rourke’s complex, cross-disciplinary work is of constant relevance to themes and debates surrounding cartography. A central point of interest is the basic methodological challenge surmounted by the research: that works of “walking art,” far from being the stable made objects to which art historians are accustomed, are frequently defined by their ephemerality. The value and challenge of these fleeting practices are often bound up with their intransigence, and distance from textual or cartographic paraphrase. O’Rourke negotiates the issue by providing lucid, and often first-hand, accounts while also [End Page 337] setting out the ways in which artists have themselves navigated the tensions between walking and mapping. The divide is occasionally overcome: artist Jeremy Wood describes his walking body, tracked by satellite and traced on a map, as a “geodetic pencil” (p. 134). Many pieces, however, privilege graphic demands above the walk (I am thinking of Heath Bunting and Kayle Brandon, who cut fences to avoid deviating from a circle drawn on a map of Bristol, pp. 49–50). In others it is the map that concedes, either signalling its basic difference from the walk or reforming entirely so as to record experiential dimensions of walking. Indeed, we encounter artists testing and stretching the possibilities of documentation throughout the book. For the cartographic reader, which of the creative and often strange forms that result should be designated “maps” and why are questions that provoke definitional and even disciplinary vertigo.
Walking and Mapping is helpfully illustrated in black and white. It energetically gathers and reconstructs a large and forbiddingly varied set of practices. In a single sitting, the reader might encounter an invisible labyrinth and a citywide chess game, digital songlines and the West Bank barrier splitting San Francisco. This bracing variety, however, also highlights the book’s major lack: that of integrative argumentation. O’Rourke does make illuminating theoretical connections and give helpful contextual information throughout. But such insights are local, rarely spilling over the thresholds of case studies or chapters to contribute to a larger structuring logic for the book. It should be said that this lack also registers O’Rourke’s unfailing fidelity to her material, which is never subordinated to some generalized schema. For what she calls a “context for listening” (p. xiii) to so many multifarious practitioners, however, the book is long. Across the almost 250 pages of text, I often missed an articulation of the wider stakes and significance of the field and a more programmatic argument for the value of these works as cultural practices and forms of engagement with the worlds that surround them.
The significance of new technologies might have provided such an argument, because walking arts have derived much stimulus and form from satellite, Internet, and more generally electronic cartographies...