Every now and then, I come across a book that makes me think: This is right up my street (no pun intended). Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers (2013) by Karen O’Rourke is such a book. Karen O’Rourke is an artist and writer whose theoretical research on contemporary art has led to a number of articles and publications, this is one of them. Over its 328 pages, the book is a deeply engaging look at the modern state of walking, art and cartography. The book pays particular attention to experimental mapping techniques, online databases and a vast array of other modern technological devices made to map our way through the world. O’Rourke notes how “mapping is our way to locate ourselves in the world”, and throughout the course of the book, she manages to create her own chronological map of walking art and cartography. The first part of the book begins with the origins of contemporary walking practices in the 20th century by looking at the likes of Guy Debord, and how practitioners of psychogeography utilised cartography. The later parts of the book then take us into unfamiliar territory, examining the relationship between walking and modern technological mapping techniques. By presenting us with numerous artists’ experiments, some of which the writer actually participates in, we are shown how this practice continues to evolve today. These experiments involve mental mapping, surveillance mapping, emotional GPS and datascapes. Although confusing at first, these unusual terms are well explained and begin to make sense throughout the course of the book. Admittedly, at times I got lost and found myself re-reading chapters until I managed to grasp some of the more complex methods.
What I find really valuable with this book is the way it collates many of these ephemeral works into one volume. Walking art often takes the form of a performance piece, a fleeting experiment played out to express or communicate a point of view. Often with time, some of these works become forgotten or even lost. Here, however, O’Rourke manages to bring them together and give them a new life by re-contextualising them into her own history of events. Thankfully, many of the artists had used photography and moving image to document these performances, enabling us to get a visual sense of each piece. For me, it is fascinating to discover so many unfamiliar works and to see how they have each developed and built upon those that came previously.
The book comes fully illustrated in black and white with many film stills, photographs, diagrams and maps that assist the reader with understanding each project. The book also collates a large and varied set of practices that expose the ever growing interest in this area. Until now, I have never come across a book that charts walking and cartography so thoroughly, making it really quite unique. I can’t help but feel that it’s bound to become a valuable academic text used by those that share an interest in walking or cartography. Fascinating, erudite and remarkably well researched, Walking and Mapping is for me, an essential addition to the increasingly prominent study of artistic walking.