Charting The Soul Of A City In The Age Of Google Maps

At a time when everyone has access to GPS, artists are making maps that distort, disorient, and convey an emotional connection to a city.

When Seattle-based author and editor Katharine Harmon was a kid, she discovered the work of illustrator John Held Jr., whose maps and cartoons documented life in the 1920s for magazines like Life and the New Yorker. Comically disproportioned woodcut maps with names like Map of the Americana or Map of New York Night Clubs uniquely illustrated the culture of the era, and for Harmon, they were hilarious and narrative in a way she didn’t realize maps could be. Held’s maps marked the beginning a lifelong hobby of seeking out maps that appeal on an emotional level.


These days Harmon has turned her hobby into a publishing career, with two books collecting cartographic art under her belt and a third book, You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City, coming out November 1. Her latest follows her 2003 book You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, this time with a collection specific to New York City. But like her earlier collection, the maps are concerned much more with the psychic quality of a city than the physical topography–a type of map Harmon has seen on the rise over the past decade, even as big data and Google Maps have made precision mapping easier than ever.

Harmon’s book joins an upswell of recent collections that use maps as a way to document personal and emotional affiliations with place. In 2013, Visual Editions published a collection of maps, in print and online, that asked 16 writers and artists for stories, essays, or art pieces that reflect on a place. Author Rebecca Solnit and geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro just published their third volume of atlases that explore individual cities from the literary or artistic viewpoint of a series of contributors. Harmon traces the popularity of psychic mapping back to the 1960s with Jasper Johns’s Map, an oil painting of the U.S. in the style of abstract expressionism. Maps in this vein “seem to double or triple each year,” she says. Whereas traditional mapmaking is supposed to be objective, psychic mapping transposes an artist’s commentary and aesthetic onto the blueprint of a city, to sometimes disorienting or distorting effect.

When Harmon started researching a book focused solely on N.Y.C. maps two years ago, she was hoping she would be able to find 200 or so pieces to fill it; instead she amassed a database of more than 1,000, and even those were just the ones that would work in print. That may seem to be a lot of maps for a 22-square-mile island, but it’s a volume that matches the large mythology that surrounds the place. In a city with such an outsized personality, says Harmon, “there’s a sense of being overwhelmed and wanting to find our place in it.” These maps are one way of doing that.

Most of the maps in Harmon’s book fall into the realm of fine art, and a personalized view of the city that also speaks to a universal idea. In Liz Hickok’s Battery Place on Washington Street, the skyline is molded from gel wax to give the impression the buildings are made of jello. Under Hickok’s hand, the city has an intoxicating neon glow–reminiscent of Mike Kelley’s glowing glass renderings of Superman’s Kandor–but the buildings seem to melt or slump under the weight of so much nightly activity. A map created by architect Oscar Newman for Esquire magazine, meanwhile, is bright, fantastical and Space Age-y, yet tinged with underlying paranoia. It illustrates a fictional proposal for developers to use nuclear explosions to create a gigantic cave-like city under Manhattan. The artist Willis Elkins scoured the city’s outlying marshes and rocky beaches, collecting 1,946 lighters to make a multicolored skyline out of the city’s discarded trash.

In over a decade since the first You Are Here book was published, a lot has changed in the digital cartography world, with the rise of smartphones and GPS maps doling out step-by-step directions to anywhere. In New York, handheld GPS has made the city’s dense networks of streets, bridges, sidewalks, and subway tunnels much easier to navigate. Still, it’s hard not to feel like something has been lost. People walk around the city with their noses buried in their phones, missing the sense of discoverability and spontaneity that makes New York what it is.

Advancements in technology over the last decade have made data more accessible, which has made mapping easier than ever, which has been used by some artists for emotional mapping. But Harmon also sees the popularity of this type of psychic map as a reaction to the precision and accuracy that access to data provide. These maps aren’t wayfinding tools–GPS apps have that covered. Rather, they’re alternate ways of seeing a city. “We’re used to thinking of maps as truth,” says Harmon. “But maps are highly selective about the material they chose to present. Artists can play with that as well.”


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.