Unpacking the research: why do we use a map?

The Time Trails app is combining a number of elements that may be worth unpacking. These are maps, trails, time, history, stories, memory and reflection. Through Time Trail, we envisage that users would be able to map, map-make, remember, and self-document. Here I explore the values of these activities from my own perspective as a humanities researcher. This blog is in three parts: this one is about maps, map-making and trails.

An increasing number of apps use maps. I, for example, use them with Tate for Art Maps and with RAMM for both Moor Stories and Time Trails. This is because, among other reasons, maps represent interesting interfaces, aid navigation, and facilitate presencing (i.e. the act through which a user perceives their presence in relation to their environment). Maps have been famously described as ‘graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes or events in the human world’ (Harley and Woodward 1987: xvi). To gain a spatial understanding is crucial in the production of knowledge. We know that maps have often changed the way that people look at the world. Maps are not always accurate and often favour one perspective over another. We also know that historically map makers have wiped out entire areas simply to persuade people about where or how they should travel (such as the map Columbus used on his explorations which shows that there is hardly any distance between Europe and China by sea) or visualised the importance of certain socio-political groups by representing them at the ‘centre’ (typically google maps put ‘us’ at the centre wherever we may be). Therefore maps are instruments of navigation, but also tools for the establishment of power and authority. The question is: if we change our maps, can we represent and see the space we occupy in different ways? And if we see the space we occupy in different ways, can we see ourselves in different ways too?

map1 map2

What do we do with maps? Principally we map, i.e. we perceive and define, through signs, our environment, and place ourselves within it. We are increasingly ‘map-immersed in the world’ (Wood 1992: 34), using mapping as ‘a universal expression of individual existence’ (Wood 1993: 50). This is because maps act as presencing tools. Not only in the sense that through maps we establish our presence, but also because in the process of doing this we generate knowledge, our own individual and personal knowledge. Our knowledge is who we are. Thus anthropologist Tim Ingold notes that knowledge about the environment is determined while we are ‘on the move’ within it. The traveller maps, i.e. he ‘knows as he goes’ (2000: 231). Thus a map is a navigational tool, but this tool is in fact ‘a social construction of reality’, a ‘system[s] of signs’ (Wood 1993: 52). The signs we use then define the knowledge we generate. What is the difference, for example, between the two maps above? … between the map and the terrain? And what does it mean if we place ourselves in the map, rather than the terrain? What do we gain, and what do we loose? More fundamentally, the question is: to implement change, how do we change the map? … by changing the signs? And by changing the signs can we present a different social construction of reality?

It has been argued that, over time, maps have became ‘divorced from the experience of bodily movement in the world’ (Ingold 2000: 234). However, the explosion of mapmaking tools, from Google Maps, to EveryTrail, suggests a growing fascination with the act of reading and/or documenting physical movement through increasingly personalised trails. A trail is a story about places and their subjective experience. Cartographically, trails have no value precisely because cartographies pretend universality and often attempt to hide a point of view. Maps therefore rarely show movement, rather they show places, momentary rests from the rhythms of life, that may be worth remembering. Conventionally places are configured on cartographic maps as enclosed dots, indicating that something is or has been present there. So maps are about presence. This is why it is important that we map, that we establish our presence in space. Trails, on the other hand, join places and implicate more or less subjective movement. Trails are not roads, of course, though some trails may become roads. Rather, trails are subjective paths, points of observations, marking individual decisions and world views. Trails too are about presence, but not so much of an object as of a subject, a person… so, we are left wondering… who walked that trail, who ‘was there’?

To sum up, cartographic maps show a ‘bird-eye’s view’ (Gibson 1979: 198-9) – they show what pretends to be an ‘objective’ reality – trails, on the other hand, show paths – they show ‘subjective’ points of view. Maps are attempts towards more or less holistic world views. Trails, as I shall explain in my next blog, are individual stories.

We are creating a tool that facilitates trail creation because ultimately we are interested in your individual stories, your paths, what you felt and saw as an individual. For Moor Stories it’s a story you tell us. For Time Trails it is a story you explore and/or create physically for us. As you move, you map. And as you map, you remember and you acquire what you know. As we walk through your map, we learn too… we learn what you know.


Gibson, J. (1979) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Harley, J.B. and Woodward, D. (1987) (eds) The History of Geohraphy, vol. 1 Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Ingold, T. (2000) The perception of the Environment, London and New York: Routledge.

Wood, D. (1992) The Power of Maps, New York: Guilford Press.

Wood, D. (1993) ‘The fine line between mapping and mapmaking’, Cartographica, 30:4, 50-60.

About Gabriella Giannachi

Gabriella Giannachi is Professor in Performance and New Media, and Director of the Centre for Intermedia at the University of Exeter, which promotes advanced interdisciplinary research in performance and the arts through collaborations between artists, academics and scientists from a range of disciplines. Her most recent and forthcoming book publications include: Virtual Theatres: an Introduction (Routledge: 2004); Performing Nature: Explorations in Ecology and the Arts, ed. with Nigel Stewart (Peter Lang: 2005); The Politics of New Media Theatre (Routledge: 2007); Performing Presence: Between the Live and the Simulated, co-authored with Nick Kaye (MUP: 2011), nominated in Theatre Library Association 44th Annual Book Awards (2012); Archaeologies of Presence, co-edited with Nick Kaye and Michael Shanks (Routledge: 2012); Performing Mixed Reality, co-authored with Steve Benford (MITP: 2011) and Archive Everything (MITP, forthcoming). She has published articles in Contemporary Theatre Review, Leonardo, Performance Research, Digital Creativity, TDR and PAJ, and developed conference papers for IVA 2009, 9th International Conference on Intelligent Virtual Agents, CHI 2008, CHI 2009 (best paper award), CHI 2012 (best paper award) and CHI 2013 (best paper award). She is an investigator in the RCUK funded Horizon Digital Economy Research Hub (2009-2014) and is collaborating with Tate and RAMM on a number of projects. She has a BA from Turin University and a PhD from Cambridge University, UK.
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