The Cartographer Tries to Map her Way to Deptford

A woven canopy hangs suspended above the heads of diners at Deli X, a cafe on Deptford High Street. Although apparently abstract, the lines and knots map out the location of power networks in Deptford, stretching from the Thames to New Cross Road. At dusk as darkness creeps over the courtyard, a network of glow-in-the-dark fishing-floats glimmer in the web. This network matches up with the location of constellations above the courtyard at the end of September.

“You’re part of a system that is wondrous and on which you depend…for most religions, it’s not about trying to control the world, but seeing that you are dependent, part of a bigger system…” 

– Neil MacGregor on Living With the Gods

Woven in rope using the macramé method, the net perhaps looks like a fisherman’s trawl, or maybe a hunter’s trap, or even an unlikely acrobat’s safety net. The woven canopy appears to link the intricate and pragmatic messiness of what lies beneath our feet with eternal astral movements above. Do systems serve us, or do we serve the System? Is the canopy a shelter, or a netted cage?

However ethereal and disconnected our lives feel, we still depend on physical, material connections to people, places and ideas beyond our immediate understanding. The net is a metaphor for connectedness, both globally, and to the streets and sewers that make up the city.

Notes

In 2017 I took part in the British Council’s fellowship programme in Venice. During this period of research I learned macramé weaving, a technique of making textiles through knotting rope, as a means of mapmaking that is more equivocal, capricious and unstable than traditional cartography. Read an interview with me on the British Council blog here.

Macramé is a technique of making textiles through knotting rope and a crude form of lacework. It has a history intertwined with notions of trade and travel – invented by caravan traders to keep flies off their camels, it was later spread by sailors who wove nets and hammocks in spare hours on board – later trading them on shore, and thus spreading the technique. So the exchange and transfer of ideas that comes with connection to the sea is deeply embedded in this material’s history, making it especially relevant to places that have a maritime, outward-facing heritage.

Polynesian sailors, too, wove extraordinary nets – fishing nets which were also maps (of wind and sea currents) – giving them them means to navigate the vast oceanic distances between islands.

Like history, cartography is usually made by the victors. As Kei Miller explores in his poems, maps can seek to control and dominate landscapes, creating divisions where in life none exist. Capricious Cartography, conversely, is shifting and mutable, and picks out features of landscapes both real and imaginary.

The title of the piece refers to the 2014 Forward Prize-winning collection of poems by Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, in which a Cartographer and a Rastafarian dispute the properties and capabilities of mapmaking in asserting control over territory.

Watch a video interview