The Current Situation through Historical Cartography

4 June 2014

By nature, "The Current Situation" represents the ephemerality and subjectivity in a chaotic world.

The Current Situation is the name Yara El-Sherbini's exhibition title and her new sculptural commission at New Art Exchange- a world map in the form of a 'buzz-wire' game that spans the expansive gallery space. Viewers become players, carefully navigating the twists and turns of the globe with a metal device avoiding contact with the frame. Through creating a map outline, El-Sherbini represents the world purely as a set of borders. The piece is charged politically through issues of travel restrictions and border conflicts, whilst it is also charged electrically through the actual current running through the sculptural installation. El-Sherbini provides a space to consider how borders define personal and national identities, and reflect upon our understandings of the broader world.

Through her artwork, Yara El-Sherbini encourages her participatory audience to look at a familiar map in a new light and to question how these world borders came into existence. What powers create maps? Who decided where these borders should be placed? This blog aims to loosely contextualise Yara El-Sherbini's ideas in a history of cartography, delving deeper into how world maps were constructed and the effect they have had on our perceptions of the world.

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A printed map from the 15th century depicting Ptolemy's description of the Ecumene, (1482, Johannes Schnitzer, engraver).

The history of cartography began with Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek-Roman academic from Alexandria, who first created a method of mapping the world in 150AD. Using maths and geometry, Ptolemy mapped the world in relation to the planets. For centuries his mapping methods were deemed reliable, and in the fifteenth century they were printed across Europe. However, it was discovered that Ptolemy's data was inaccurate as it underestimated the size of the world.

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Martin Waldseemuller, Universalis Cosmographia, 1507

German Cartographer, Martin Waldseemuller created Universalis Cosmographia in 1507. It is significant because it is the first time America and the Pacific Ocean appeared on a map, acting as the countries birth certificate. Waldseemuller was responsible for deciding upon the country's name 'America', named after its discoverer Amerigo Vespucci. At the top of the map Ptolemy and Vespucci are depicted, which recognises their significant achievements in shaping world knowledge.

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Mercator Projection World Map, Gerardus Mercator,1569

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A modern Mercator Projection World Map

The Mercator Projection World Map is the familiar map that we know and use. Created by Flemish geographer and cartographer, Gerardus Mercator in 1569, the method allowed the world to be depicted in a rectangular form. Although the map was ideal for depicting land masses for nautical purposes, it distorts the proportions of the world, stretching areas far from the equator. As a result Greenland and Africa look similarly sized, when Africa's is 14 times larger. Additionally, Alaska appears the same size as Brazil, although Brazil is approximately 5 times greater. There was a concern that Europe appeared too small and too unnoticeable towards the upper part of the map, and therefore the Mercator map elongates land masses above the equator and compresses those below.

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The Gall-Peters Projection World Map

 

An alternative world map, The Gall-Peters Projection, differs from The Mercator as it represents the world in near accurate proportions. Scottish clergyman, James Gall described the map in 1855, but it was not until 1973 that Arno Peters, a German filmmaker and historian, devised a map identical to Gall's claiming it as a new invention. It is interesting that we did not change the map we used to be Gall-Peters Projection. Is this because the world map is often considered an objective representation? Also, what would it do to morale to discover that economically strong area such as Europe and the United States are dwarfed by developing countries such as those within Africa?

Finally, in an age of digital technology, the most frequently used map is Google. The map is based on The Mercator Projection once again and therefore cannot be relied upon in terms of scale. In Google Maps advertisers are able to influence our understanding of space. I recently searching for 'Low Road' and I was bombarded with 'pins' highlighting spaces with low cost offers. Street View may allow a pedestrian view of environments, but it also suggests that the sites worth viewing are commercial businesses.

I return again to The Current Situation; as you will now see, it is an artwork containing a wide array of ideas developed by cartographers. El-Sherbini had her own challenges in creating her world map in The Current Situation. Her interpretation is based on the borders in the World Political Map which shares proportions with the unreliable Mercator Projection. She was limited by the restrictions of the metal material, and therefore borders and small details are omitted. She did, however, chose borders that do not exist on a map such as the Western Sahara and Turkish Cypriot border- if people are willing to fight for the existence of a border El-Sherbini believes it has as much relevance as established borders. Cartographer's compositions present the same personal considerations as Yara El-Sherbini's artwork. Whilst interacting The Current Situation it is important to remember that our world map may be essential for us in visualising the world, but it is certainly not objective.

- Laura-Jade Klée

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