Maps, no matter how accurate, inevitably reflect the priorities, biases and blind spots of the people who make them, distorting our perception of the world in more and less apparent ways. (Consider the world maps that most of us use, which drastically exaggerate the scale of North America, Europe, and Asia in relation to equatorial Africa and South America).
A carelessly drawn map can have disastrous human consequences as well, as with the haphazard parcelling-off of much of the globe by European colonial powers, leaving a continuing legacy of war, poverty, and internal conflict in those regions.
Maps are also beautiful. They clearly, concisely illustrate fantastically large and complex subjects, communicating a wide range of information about them. At the same time, their familiar, adaptable format allows for limitless creative reinterpretation, and it's no surprise that maps and map-making would attract the attention of artists, designers, and activists alike.
The contributors to Another Atlas, the map-themed exhibition currently at RAW: Gallery, represent each of these camps and in many cases blur distinctions between them. The show builds on An Atlas of Radical Cartography, a 2007 publication and subsequent touring exhibition organized by Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat, featuring a selection of works from the original project augmented with new works by six Canadian and international artists whose works tackle issues of politics, perception, and information design, as well as more poetic explorations of space and location. The approach to format is accordingly broad, with some "maps" taking decidedly unfamiliar shapes. Fortunately, the gallery provides an "atlas" of its own, an 18-page booklet with a helpful floor plan and detailed information about each piece.
Most of the work plays against our perfectly reasonable expectation that maps will help us orient ourselves, using familiar devices to (at least temporarily) disorient us instead, hopefully opening up new perspectives and challenging unquestioned assumptions. Some accomplish this through information overload: Ashley Hunt's sprawling World Map co-opts the corporate visual language of flowcharts and infographics to construct a veritable maze of vaguely paranoid pronouncements on capitalism and global power, part critical theory, part conspiracy theory. Displaying comparable visual density, Etienne Turpin's Stainless uses maps of flagging industrial centres (Sudbury, Detroit, Pittsburgh, etc.) as frameworks for a kaleidoscopic jumble of imagery charting the history of labour movements in each location.
Others artists take a more reductive approach: Jeanette Johns's Ocean Fathom prints are cascading sheets of Tyvek covered entirely with minute blue dots and pinstripes, the patterns used by different print atlases to represent the sea. Simon Elvins is subtler still: his Silent London plots that city's quietest locations (as determined by government studies) with a nearly invisible, braille-like grid of embossed dots. In Parallel, a video, Lawrence Bird pans along the 49th Parallel in Google Earth, all the way from the Rocky Mountains to Lake of the Woods. Scrutinizing the satellite imagery, the only evidence of the critically significant but essentially imaginary Canada/United States border are the visible edges of farmers' fields, and even those distinctions are complicated by boundaries between the software's stitched-together source photos.
Like any "atlas," the scope of the exhibition is immense, yielding the most with close and repeated looking. There might not be a helpful arrow letting you know that "you are here," but that's kind of the point.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator.