Pen­e­trat­ing hori­zons and imag­in­ing worlds

Domus - - CONTENTS - Pre­sented by Adam Lowe and Char­lotte Skene Catling

In car­tog­ra­phy, con­tour lines join points of equal dis­tance from a given level to de­scribe form. In the dig­i­tal age, the means of trans­form­ing the real world into a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of it­self have mul­ti­plied and car­tog­ra­phy has emerged as a re­al­is­tic lan­guage; a hy­brid con­coc­tion of mea­sure­ments, signs and graphic no­ta­tions from which we cre­ate men­tal con­struc­tions to see places we know well, imag­ine places we haven’t vis­ited, and grasp places that ex­ist only in the imag­i­na­tion.To­po­graphic in­for­ma­tion used to be ex­tracted from painstak­ing mea­sure­ments taken by ro­man­tic and ec­cen­tric fig­ures. To­day it is de­rived from us­ing the speed of light to de­fine dis­tance or ‘fea­ture map­ping’ com­pos­ite pho­tographs to gen­er­ate form. The ev­i­dence of the hand is now me­di­ated by the tools it chooses from a dig­i­tal pal­ette. These are pre­de­ter­mined by el­e­gant and in­ven­tive al­go­rithms writ­ten by in­vis­i­ble dig­i­tal artisans. An equiv­a­lent of these artisans is found in 12th-cen­tury Si­cily, in the car­tog­ra­phers who worked in the court of Roger II with the Mus­lim scholar Al-Idrīsī to pro­duce an ex­tra­or­di­nary world map. Al-Idrīsī’s leg­endary book, the Kitāb nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq (The Book of the Jour­ney for He Who Longs to Pen­e­trate the Hori­zons), is the ev­i­dence of their col­lec­tive ge­nius. The moun­tains in al-Idrīsī’s mas­ter­piece do not have con­tours; they have shape and colour. They sit in an un­marked back­ground with graphic no­ta­tions and hand­writ­ten script. Car­to­graphic clar­ity is based on many types of sign to draw quan­ti­ties, ev­i­dence and nar­ra­tives onto the map. It func­tions both as im­age and in­for­ma­tion. Al-Idrīsī and his team gath­ered in­for­ma­tion from trav­ellers pass­ing through the ports of mul­ti­cul­tural Si­cily over a pe­riod of about 15 years, cross­check­ing it, mea­sur­ing dis­tances and striv­ing to pro­duce a clear and use­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the world — use­ful for trad­ing both knowl­edge and ma­te­ri­als. The sto­ries on the map in­clude nar­ra­tives of whales and tur­tles “twenty arms long” with thou­sands of eggs in their bel­lies, ex­otic places in­hab­ited by ser­pents whose gaze was deadly, lav­ish clothes and valu­able stones. Each se­lected el­e­ment is care­fully de­lin­eated and brought into fo­cus while the mul­ti­tude lies un­fo­cused in the bokeh of our imag­i­na­tion. The rest­less na­ture of per­cep­tion pre­vents sta­sis. The mix of thoughts and ac­tions, trade and ven­er­a­tion, mys­tery and nar­ra­tive merge to pro­duce a dy­namic and con­stantly chang­ing ter­rain of fact and fic­tion. The map it­self was en­graved onto a sil­ver tray, two me­tres in di­am­e­ter, which was lost in a ship­wreck soon af­ter its com­ple­tion. The Ot­toman copy in the Bodleian Li­braries, Ox­ford, sur­vived. The dig­i­tal artisans work­ing to recre­ate this great map form a team with di­verse skills and per­cep­tions. Col­lec­tively they de­ter­mine the lim­its of our car­to­graphic imag­i­na­tion and de­fine the con­tours that con­trol the CNC en­grav­ing tools and the lam­i­nar build­ing sys­tems used to re­ma­te­ri­alise our world in phys­i­cal form. Borges would have de­lighted in the new fam­i­lies of ma­te­ri­als that can be fused by heat and light or carved with a pre­ci­sion that pre­vi­ously re­quired a per­verse ar­ray of man­ual skills. Elec­tric­ity is the king in this

“To put a city in a book, to put the world on one sheet of pa­per — maps are the most con­densed hu­man­ised spa­ces of all...” Robert Harbison, Ec­cen­tric Spa­ces, 1997 Pre­sented by Adam Lowe & Char­lotte Skene Catling

hy­brid, al­chem­i­cal world as liq­uids trans­form into solids, met­als emerge from pow­der and stone is re­duced to dust. But, as much as it strives to take phys­i­cal form, the dig­i­tal re­mains an elec­tri­cal stim­u­lus. It is a bit noisy but with care it is a sig­nal that can be con­trolled. As a vi­su­al­i­sa­tion it ex­ists in a neb­u­lous space de­pen­dent on light and a sur­face to re­ceive the light. In this spec­tral form it can hover as vir­tual, aug­mented and mixed re­al­i­ties that we can ex­pe­ri­ence and in­ter­act with. J.R.R. Tolkien in­hab­ited the imag­i­nary space of Mid­dle-earth but made it real by pro­duc­ing de­tailed maps with con­tours and ord­nance sur­vey no­ta­tions. These works are on show at the Bodleian Li­braries in Ox­ford (“Tolkien: Maker of Mid­dleearth”, un­til 28th Oc­to­ber 2018). At the cen­tre of the dis­play is a model of Mid­dle-earth merg­ing the vir­tual and the phys­i­cal. A relief map with il­lu­mi­na­tion from above and be­low gives the sen­sa­tion of look­ing through Tolkien’s eyes. Crafts­man­ship and tech­nol­ogy have merged. His thoughts have taken a phys­i­cal form, merg­ing il­lu­sion with re­al­ity. In this pe­riod of ‘post-truth’, sub­jec­tiv­ity and ob­jec­tiv­ity be­come lim­i­nal and fluid. But the won­der of art is that it oc­cu­pies a place where the muse still re­sides, where ob­jects are cel­e­brated as com­plex sub­jects that re­ward any amount of study. They re­veal the truth to those who look for it and aes­thetic plea­sure to those who find it. Adam Lowe Is the founder of Fac­tum Foun­da­tion and di­rec­tor of Fac­tum Arte, a lab­o­ra­tory of dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy in art­works con­ser­va­tion. He is ad­junct pro­fes­sor at the MS in His­toric Preser­va­tion at Columbia Uni­ver­sity, New York. Char­lotte Skene Catling is an ar­chi­tect and founder of the Skene Catling de la Peña prac­tice. She has writ­ten about ar­chi­tec­ture for The Sun­day Tele­graph, Ar­chi­tec­tural Re­view and ARCH +. Her prac­tice has won nu­mer­ous awards and has been ex­ten­sively pub­lished in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Op­po­site page: a de­tail of the map by al-Idrisi, held in the Bodleian Li­braries in Ox­ford This page: test spec­i­mens en­graved on sil­ver and cop­per for the re­con­struc­tion of The Book of the Jour­ney for He Who Longs to Pen­e­trate the Hori­zons by al-Idrīsī , pro­duced by Fac­tum Arte

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