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Research: Counter-mapping

One of my literary inspirations throughout this project has been the writing of Robert Macfarlane who is a nature writer (though he is much more than that) with a passion for landscape, nature, and memory. In one of his talks, he mentions the concept of counter-mapping which I was drawn to so I examine this concept here as it relates directly to this project. Macfarlane states that mapping is always partial, and for that reason is always an expression of priority — and often an expression of power, and his statement below was particularly resonant.

“Counter-mapping makes visible those aspects, psychological as well as geological, that we have sought to bury, suppress, hide, or render obscene. Such things have — in trauma theory as in geomorphology — a tendency to resurface.”

― Robert MacfarlanE

We live in a world with many ways of knowing and counter-mapping aims to show that humans have many different ways of viewing landscape and it aims to challenge what maps are about. I’ve brought this concept into my project as it crystalises my journey along the River Erewash and may provide guidance as to how to fine-tune my final outcome. The video below is a fascinating overview of counter-mapping and includes the observation that many native people will look at a map and say, “I don’t understand what I’m looking at. I’m not a bird”. I found this insight enlightening.

Counter maps don’t necessarily have north at the top, scale is unnecessary, can be 3D and the inclusion of history is imperative. Cartesian maps eclipse historical knowledge with something that isn’t from the local landscape. When you realise that ancestors in a place go back hundreds of generations, that brings a profound identity that cannot be found anywhere else. It seems to me that what underpins counter-mapping is the fact that psychological, as well as physical distances, are embedded in these maps.

This brings to mind the maps I looked at that were created by the HS2 cartographers. Many areas in these maps were blank, whereas I found myself mapping stories, history, and wildlife-rich areas onto some of these ignored white spaces. It made me question how readily we accept the bird’s eye view of the world that uses a single knowledge base and often conveniently sidelines that which may be problematic to development, influence or another political objective.


Counter mapping is fascinating concept and I enjoy how it challenges the rigour and objectivity of the cartesian system of mapping a historical landscape. This study has opened up a whole new area of investigation and research and I’m aware that it could introduce almost too many new ideas into my project. Useful as it has been as an exercise in understanding, I’ve decided to park this direction of travel but try to crystallise the essence of counter mapping into my project.

What came to mind was how counter mapping was a set of layers fading into history, with some layers being more dominant than others but older layers still impacting on the current view of a landscape. If I could introduce a sense of this layering in my outcome it would add a solid reference to this fact – that your view of the world depends on where you stand both physically and psychologically. I’ll take this idea forwards as I plan the installation space.

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