Mapping with Royal Grammar School Students

Mapping the City – A week of art classes at Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School

Last week we worked with pupils at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle. They, and particularly Christine Egan-Fowler (art teacher extraordinaire), have been generous enough to give up a week of art classes, and allowed us do some teaching about maps for our Mapping the City project. Our time at RGS culminates with two workshops with artists who are interested in maps: Ben Jones and Jess Dolby. This is a quick outline of what we’ve been doing.

Day One – A Brief History of Maps

The first set of classes we ran were about how maps have changed over time. The pupils were familiar with paper-based Ordinate Survey maps and atlases, and maps in the form of pixels on their phones or satnavs. But we were keen for them to explore the range of maps created over millennia of cartography. We showed them the various forms maps have taken mapping imaginations from Mesopotamian clay tablets, massive Roman city plans carved into marble to medieval vellum  (calf skin).

After about ten minutes on history we asked them to make stick charts of something significant from their lives. You can see some of the examples below:

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The range of subjects was fantastic: from bedrooms and routes to school, to holiday destinations and the entire world. Like some of the traditional Polynesian stick charts, the author – or navigator – was the only person with intimate knowledge of the map. It was exciting to hear the young cartographers describing what they were mapping and the choices they made to depict things of significance to them. Our favourite was the use of a animal bone suspended in an oval which represented Nando’s in The Gate entertainment complex!

Day Two – The Power and Politics of Mapping

The second day focused on maps as representations of, and tools for exerting power. We asked participants to consider, first, the decisions made by cartographers about what is important enough to be included in maps, and what can be excluded. It was great to see the pupils quickly grasp this idea and relate it to the absence of their lives on the maps they interact with daily.

Second, pupils were taught about the role of map projections in developing visions of the world. For those unfamiliar with the problems of projecting a spherical world on to a flat surface, there is a summary here. This video from The West Wing describes the implications of different projections.

We also dispelled the myth that north = up, and the reaction of Year 8s to a map with Australia at the top was fantastic.

After this introduction, Christine had came up with a great exercise involving compass cutters (for cutting out circles) and (imitation) gold leaf. The participants were asked to remove a section of a city-centre map which was important to them, and guild it to highlight places of significance.

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The effect of the gold was interesting as it simultaneously highlighted and obscured parts of the maps. It acted to redact places, while giving them a shimmer of preciousness. This is something Ewan David Eason discusses in his work and this video.

Day Three – Mapping Soundscapes

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We weren’t able to go into school on Wednesday due to induction week commitments back at Northumbria University. Instead, we handed over to Adam Goodwin RGS’s new art technician who is also a sound artist. He showed students the power of mapping sound! He introduced students to experimenting with contact microphones and several students made their own mics from Maplin components. Amplifiers were plugged in to play the sounds emitted from bygone technology; tape recorders, slide projectors, speakers and using hydrophones to listen to a glass of water and even hearing our own heartbeats.

Adam introduced us to Yoko Ono’s work ‘Grapefruit’ and to artists who use instructions in their work. Ono’s using a ‘map to get lost’ created a stir. Her instruction to hear the ‘sound of the earth turning’ made us realise the potential for students to use sound as their Art material. We also mapped the eavesdropped sounds of our school by creating sonic drawings with Christine Egan-Fowler. Photos of the sessions show students entranced by hearing raw sounds. Adam will follow up these workshops by creating a sound club for interested students.

(See his work at the Newbridge Project and his company The Occasion Collective)

Day Four – Psychogeography

On Thursday, Sebastian began by explaining the idea of psychogeography – an ambiguous set of playful, subversive and experimental techniques for experiencing places. He began by identifying the common threads of psychogeography as:

  • The importance of walking (or drifting) without a pre-planned destination: to create the opportunity for meaningful interactions and experiences
  • The image of the maze: the idea that cities are dynamic labyrinths which are re-imagined or re-created every time they are navigated
  • Juxtaposition and collage as an essential ingredient of healthy places and as a modus operandi for creativity and originality: a sense of the uncanny (“unheimlich”) and being able to stumbling across the unexpected is a necessary indicator of a civic society with a diverse and rich urban ecology. (By contrast, a mono-culture of chain stores, ubiquitous coffee brands and repetitive bars, surveilled by CCTV and private security to enforce prohibitions on the uses of spaces, deprive towns and cities of their role as spaces of social exchange and social integration because it excludes people and cultures whom cannot afford, or chose not to partake, in the limited range of activities they provide).
  • “Carnivalisation” and celebration of everyday acts, events and seasons: the ability to play is the highest expression of the human imagination and intellect.

Tracing the concept of “deep time” from the Roman veneration of Genius Loci, literally the Spirit(s) of a Place, which has been adopted by architectural theorists, to the literary tradition of authors like Iain Sinclair, who identify particular events seemingly written into a space and destined to reoccur in the same location throughout generations, the pupils were asked to collage a postcard which an archaeologist or tourist from 1000 years in the future could send back to them through time to show how the pupil’s world had been re-/mis-constructed from fragments.

All of the participants were also given “Cultural Probe” postcards. These juxtapose an image and an open-ended question and are intended to provoke non-reflexive responses. Some of those questions included:

  • What is your favourite sound?
  • If Tokyo should be visited at the end of March for Hanami (viewing of cherry blossom) and Boston is identified with Fall in September, what is the ‘season’ to visit NewcastleGateshead and why?
  • What do you do at home that you don’t tell other people?
  • What book would you share and with whom?

We will be looking at the answers to the Cultural Probes over the forthcoming weeks to consider how they can “feed-forward” and inform the development of further briefs for the pupils.

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Day Five – Personal Geographies

We worked with year 13, 12, 7 and 10 on Friday, reminding them that the least interesting things about maps is that they are an A-Z, and instead maps about power, control, what you want or who you are allowed to be. Everyone then doodled a map of the school, where they go, themselves, friends, characters and teachers. Very soon the chatter increased as tales were told. Then we worked on joint maps, places, memories and experiences overlapping, increasingly unfussed about literal time and space. Students were climbing onto the desks, hands and arms no longer identifiable to individuals as their personal geographies were traced. It seemed a shame to call a halt to the theatre of memory after just an hour.

More: see what we got up to at Walker Technology College

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