One of the inspirations for The Demolition Project was a 1946 story by Jorge Luis Borges called On Exactitude in Science (English version here; Spanish original here).
I thought writing something about the story, or about Borges in general, would be a good way to introduce the project, which is a continuing exploration of maps and the city and people’s imaginative relationships with them. But then I re-read the story and rolled it around my brain for a while, and I’ve realised it’s far more complex and slippery than I first thought. Maybe The Demolition Project is too; hopefully we’ll find out more about that in the year ahead.
The story – I’m going to call it On Exactitude for short – tells of an empire with a sophisticated college of cartographers. These cartographers make increasingly large and detailed maps of the empire’s territory, until they finally make a map that is as big as the empire itself and covers the whole of it. Later generations find the map too awkward to use and let it decay until there are only a few tattered bits and pieces left in remote places. The brief tale is presented as a fragment of an old history book, thus avoiding the need for a tidy ending (or a neat opening), but it nevertheless has a sense of completeness.
On Exactitude itself is just a paragraph long – barely longer than this summary – and it feels a little like a fable or parable, and also like a shaggy-dog story, without really falling under any of these definitions. The central idea wasn’t original at the time – fifty years earlier, Lewis Carroll included a map the same size as a country in his novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. But in Borges’ version there is no enfolding narrative: this paradoxical map and its useless perfection is the heart of the tale. Importantly, though, it’s framed by the contrivance that it is a fragment of a long-forgotten history, echoing the fragments of long-forgotten map with which the story ends. And the title is also part of the frame (a frame around a frame?), telling us that it’s not a quirky fiction but has a larger message about the real world. Which is probably as reliable as any other assertion made by the author.
The image in the story does not just take to extremes the difficulties experienced by anyone who’s grappled with a large roadmap in a small car; it pushes far, far beyond that, over the border of the everyday world into the realm of the absurd. It lacks things that many readers expect in a story – detail, character, plot development, psychological realism. But its sparseness appeals to those who like playing with ideas. A few quick clicks through Wikipedia will let you freefall from On Exactitude to some big ideas in philosophy: Alfred Korzybski’s phrase, “the map is not the territory” (ie our models of reality are not the same as reality); Bonini’s paradox (the more complete the model of a complex system is, the harder it is to understand) and Baudrillard’s idea of simulacra (it’s reality that has fallen into disuse and we are actually living in the map – a copy of something that doesn’t exist).
With its image of an empire-sized map, On Exactitude conveys just enough information to tease out the reader’s imagination, goading us to make our own assumptions, draw our own connections and fill in the gaps with memory and speculation. In contrast, the map described holds too much information: the cartographers draw up ever-larger maps in order to include more and more detail – or at least that’s what the title suggests. When they include as much information as the territory itself the giant map becomes useless to travellers, town planners, invaders, or most of the other people who need maps, who would effectively have to walk around an area as big as the underlying territory to find out what they need to know. And the more closely you scrutinise the image, the more delicate and fragmented it appears.
Alisa and myself tried to make and use a 1:1 scale map in a piece we made with Nauen Park and Li Yeun Jing called Invisible Territory. For part of this work, Alisa photographed the pavement of a small walled garden and printed out the entire pavement at 1cm:1cm in a series of photos; I then had to put them together again on site, matching each photo to the piece of pavement it showed (the pictures here are from that piece). Passers-by asked me what on earth I was doing and some of them understood straight away that it was an impossible task, as the environment had already changed since the pictures were taken only a week earlier – at this level of detail, leaves, rain, footprints etc had altered the landscape. Plus the photos were blowing away, getting wet and being trodden on.
This made me think properly about the (im)possibility of a physical map existing in the world of On Exactitude. There’s little to indicate how this map covers the empire – nothing to suggest, for example, that it is carried on supports or suspended from ropes above the ground. There’s nothing to tell you what it’s made of, except that the map falls to pieces through neglect, implying that it is not infinitely durable – although by the end, animals and beggars use the remnants for shelter, so it can’t be all that fragile either. Our photographs showed only the surface of the ground up to a level of a few centimetres – how would a 2D map show objects above the surface, such as trees and buildings? Does the map cover rooftops, and if so does it leave out sheer vertical surfaces like walls? Does it curve along with contours of hills and valleys? What happens to the map in the area of lakes and rivers? And if it’s permanently in place as a sort of carpet across the empire, what do farmers do with crops and grazing animals? I started imagining the map was made of a sort of porous paper that grass could grow through…
This level of ridiculously literal questioning makes the absurdity of Borges’ story even sharper, and all these questions and more are hiding within its bare bones. Like the Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. Could a map like the one described in On Exactitude be a map at all – and does it help us think about what a map is? At what size does a map stop being a map?
Photographs: Debbie Kent/Alisa Oleva except b/w photo, François Correia
Part two follows soon, in which some of this might start to make sense