A Contemplative Atlas of Transition

by Laurene Vaughan

published November 2014 


A Contemplative Atlas of Transition from NANO: New American Notes Online 


The Contemplative Atlas of Transition is situated within a larger body of inquiry, collectively titled the Affective Atlas. The Affective Atlas is an interdisciplinary collaboration that has explored different approaches to mapping the affective qualities of place.

For the past 10 years, I have been exploring different approaches to and understandings of subjective mapping and place making. My early works explored the intersections between artefact, space, identity, and creativity through the making of installations and artefacts. My inquiry evolved to include explorations of the body as the mapping tool that both records space and, through its actions or practices, makes place (de Certeau). In order to notice transitions, I drew on methods of documentation and observation for these inquiries. I framed them within possibilities for discovery that the peripheral—and peripheral vision in particular—hold (Vaughan 2013). The Contemplative Atlas of Transition is the next evolution in this exploration. In this, I move from a focus on the linear narrative of the body in motion marking its presence in space like a line on a surface, or a crafted artefact recording the trajectories of others, to what is now a non-linear multiscreen representation of different places. Unconcerned with boundaries of space or time, this is an atlas of travel through disparate locations, bound together through both the view and the recording actions of the vernacular cartographer. In this way, the work embraces the proposition by Joe Gerlach that vernacular mapping frees the cartographer to engage with “cartographic attributes that are transient, contingent and fleeting” (2). The aim of this vernacular cartographer is not to create a map or representation of place that has any illusions of truth or longevity; rather, I embrace the material and transitory nature of things and beings as they move in peripheral relation to each other and to particular spaces and places over time.

Within the fields of cartography, geography and other allied domains of art and design, there is a mapping tradition of integrating the elements of time, space, and motion–often through walking–in the representation of place. These perambulatory interventions into the making and narrating of place are typically realized through the body as it moves through space; the mapping interventions of the Dadaists (1916-1923), the Situationist International (1957-1972), or more contemporary artists such as Richard Long or Jeremy Wood provide some examples. In such works, the maps that are the outcome of these walking interventions are realized in one of two ways: firstly as documentation of the markings of the body as it moves in space, or secondly as the view from the body as it records the landscape that is encountered throughout the duration of the journey (Vaughan 2011). These are best understood as active subjective mappings of place.

In this atlas project I have shifted the method for subjectively mapping place from being active through walking, to being passive through looking. In this way, it is not the cartographer that moves, but the world around them. I have named this approach as contemplative cartography; this is a cartography of subjective looking. In so doing, I acknowledge that all mapping practices are observational, and that maps are the manifestation of what is observed, analyzed, synthesized, and then represented. Such mapping practices are a visualization of place. In the realm of subjective or imprecise cartographies, the link between cartographer, view, and place varies. On occasion, the peripheral is present, at others, it is omitted and the view straight ahead is the focus.

As such I explore the mapping possibilities when the body is still, looking out on the world and observing what is taking place when people move through space. Unlike the maps made by the mobile body of the walking cartographer, in this exploration the body is still. The cartographer/narrator looks out on the acts of everyday life, specifically the transitions of travel, commuting, and the rituals of worship or shopping. The view out is framed through the shape of the lens, it is a secondary view twice removed from the mapping acts. In the Contemplative Atlas of Transition,a series of individual views is collated into a multi-video atlas. I, the vernacular cartographer, look idly through a frame, looking out at anything of interest that catches my eye. The focus of my view is framed by chance and by my presence as a viewer on a plane, a boat, a road or at a café. My co-mappers go about their activities at that time in that place, unaware that I lurk voyeuristically capturing and noting their movements in space. The pilot, the train driver, the shopper, or the believer enables the mapping impulse to be realized. Without them, this atlas would be transformed from being an atlas of practices of transitions, to a representation of landscapes in place.

This project raises questions of what defines a map or an atlas, and who the cartographer is in such idle observational cartographies of place. Is it me, the observer, who creates the record of the place, narrating through image the external world that is seen? Or, is it those that are making the lines in space who are unaware of the shared map that we are making, as I document their trajectories and these topographies through the means of a lens?

In previous explorations, I have been particularly interested in noticing as a methodology for recording the trajectories of the walking body in space. This noticing happens through peripheral vision, that which is seen from the corner of the eye, a glimpse or chance sighting as I have moved from place to place (Vaughan 2011). The remnants of these walking interventions have been re-presented as visual essays or narrative maps. In the contemplative explorations of this project, images are captured through a direct line of sight, through the act of looking out of a window, gazing out from a table, or waiting to cross the street. These are not practices of noticing where one engages with things out of chance or happenstance and glances upon them; they are the direct actions of looking, where something is seen and focused upon. In each of these observations, the mapping variable of happenstance still plays a part, but unlike the mapping body in action that integrates the acts of walking with seeing, as in my previous explorations, the body is now stationary. I have the time to watch the undulations of land and sea, or clouds in the sky, and I am unobserved by others. What will emerge through my presence in this place at this time is unknown. I, the cartographer, am one among many, as I sit with a phone camera tentatively balanced on a table, and look out on a terrain collecting the content of my atlas.

The focus of each of the video elements in this atlas is the rituals of a situated transition. These are the landscapes of travel and are the views out to the world that I occupy at that time. I look out to other people’s actions: rituals of work, belief, and consumerism, located in landscapes of transition, shifting from one locale to the next. Imprecise, anecdotal, and personal, this atlas presents a cartographic narrative of places that cannot be reenacted. This is not an atlas for way-finding, it is an atlas for way-showing.

Situated within the traditions of thematic atlases of love, food, or imaginary locales, this Contemplative Atlas is my atlas, realised through the things that I have seen, in locations I have travelled to, within the everyday course of my life. It is a collection of phone videos; observational in my intent to record the direct view, that in turn becomes the documentation of a chance sighting. Held within the atlas are a series of maps of discrete places, maps of clouds, ocean waves and distant coastlines; of commuters crossing bridges, back and forth; trains as they come and go; and feet as they pound concrete and gravel. These maps are realized through the actions of others, others undertaking their everyday acts of life and work while I, the mapmaker, remain still and document the expanded trajectories that bring map and atlas into being.

Simon Armitage states in relation to the experience of travel that “[f]amiliarity fades with distance” (50). This contemplative atlas is a record of travel and transition that makes claims of, or for, the recording of transition. Surely, an atlas of travel raises expectations of exoticism and difference, as well as issues of unfamiliarity; yet this one does not. It highlights the “normality” of existence in place; the exotic place of difference for the traveller is the ordinary locale of home for another. The view from the airplane, the boat, or the train is exciting for the novice tourist or first time visitor, but is the norm for the regular traveller, the crewmember, or the person going home. As de Certeau, argues in The Practice of Everyday Life, it is the practices of the everyday that make place, and these practices are subjective and situational. These everyday actions are the practices of making the place-world. The place-world is where we live, and where we are at particular times. Edward S. Casey claims in “Between Geography and Philosophy: What does it mean to be in the place-world?” that we are all “homogeographicus”–beings who exist in and who make place through active presence. Homogeographicus cannot be conceived outside of the place world; for we, homogeographicus, are situated in particular places and times and in relation to others. In the Contemplative Atlas of Transition, homogeographicus is a vernacular cartographer, intentionally integrating actions, vision, and methods of documentation to recount the imprecise subjective world of their making.

Within the field that is known as narrative cartography, there is a growing body of projects and publications exploring the intersections between fictional narratives and the making or recording of place. In “Literature and Humanist Geography,” Douglas Porteous proposes a four-part framework for the analysis of how we frame where we are in travel accounts–insider/outside, home/away. This framework is used to make sense of the locations that are being written about, these are the places as Barbara Piatti says, where the action happens. In this way Porteous’s argument is linked to the narratives of travel and the tourist, and he notes that not all travel is the act of the tourist. The person in the video making the boat crossing may be a traveller moving from country to country, or they may be a local engaging in an act of commuting whereby travel becomes transportation. Unlike the narrative cartographic investigations of Barbara Piatti and Larence Huni into the links between fictional landscapes and actual locales, this work is better understood as a non-fiction exploration of narrative cartography. It is more aligned to the discourses of travel writing than to the novel; akin to the family of memoir writing, it is already situated in the realms of the real, even if the real is veiled within a mist of adventure or interpretation.

The differences between the two dominant genres of narrative writing (fiction and non-fiction), have significant implications for how we read or watch such video-maps. For David Lewis the difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction is “a story told as true about another world than the one we regard as actual by a narrator situated in another world,” while non-fiction is “told as true about our world by one of its members” (Lewis in Ryan 32). This is not to say that the story that is told in a non-fiction context is a true account; rather it is to acknowledge that the author is someone who resides both in our world, and is of our world. In a video work such as the Contemplative Atlas of Transition, the line between reality and fiction is uncertain: is this a re-presentation of fictional journeys, or a documentary of lived experience? As the maker, I can confirm that I have documented places I have inhabited even if only temporarily. But, for the unknowing viewer who is uninformed of the details of time and place, is this fiction or non-fiction? Are the elements of each micro work staged, are they meant to convey a greater narrative of some other story?

The subjective nature of vernacular film and recording practices that contemporary digital technologies afford, enable lay cartographers to challenge claims for authority and to create our narratives of place outside of the strictures of scientific truth or certainty. The Contemplative Atlas of Transition embraces the possibilities for such vernacular practices. As a work of lay cartography, it names none of the locales of its content. It is an atlas realized through pixels with an intention to document the world seen from the periphery. With its focus on acts of transition, it has been made in what Marc Augé calls the non-places, the moments noted and contemplated upon as we traverse from here to there. As such, this atlas calls us, enables us, to contemplate homogeographicus’s between moments: the moments between departure and arrival that are often passed over or forgotten in the everyday acts of transition. 


Works Cited:

Armitage, Simon. Walking Home. London: Faber and Faber, 2013. Print.

Augé, Marc. Non-places, Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London: Verso, 2000. Print.

Casey, Edward S. “Between Geography and Philosophy: What does it mean to be in the place-world?” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 19.4 (2001): 683-693. Print.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. Print.

Piatti, Barbara. & Hunri, Lawrence. “Mapping the Ontologically Unreal – counterfactual Spaces in Literature and Cartography,” The Cartographic Journal. 46.4 (2009): 333-342. Print.

Porteous, J. Douglas. “Literature and humanist geography,” Area. 17.2 (1985): 117-122. Print.

Vaughan. Laurene. “Step by Step: marking the way.” Proceedings of the 25th International Cartographic Conference, Paris, 3-8 July 2011, Palais de Congress: Paris.

 ---.‘”The Visitors: A Collective Methodology for Encountering and Documenting an Unfamiliar Cityscape.” Cartography from Pole to Pole, Selected Contributions to the XXVIth International Conference of the ICA, Dresden. Heidelberg: Springer, 2013. 357-367.


Artist Websites:

Richard Long: http://www.richardlong.org

Jeremy Wood: http://www.jeremywood.net


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Laurene Vaughan is Deputy Dean Design, Games, and Interaction, in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University, Australia.


Contact: laurenekv@gmail.com