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Posts Tagged ‘geography’

Some glorious images in this exhibition of aerial photographs of Britain now showing in Bath.

This isn't from the exhibition!

I haven’t been able to see it myself, but you can just spend five minutes watching this beautiful slideshow with commentary from the BBC website.

From glacier-carved mountain valleys to jagged saw-toothed coastlines, the UK’s diverse physical and human geography – as seen from above – is being celebrated in a new street exhibition in Bath. More than 100 colourful aerial images – showing Britain’s natural and human landscapes – are being showcased in Bath city centre. Take a look here with the Director of The Royal Geographical Society, Dr Rita Gardner.

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I haven’t been to the map exhibition yet at the British Library. But in a recent conversation someone was telling me about the history of ‘upside down’ maps.

It was a delight to discover so many of these on the internet. It had always puzzled me why the map of the world is always printed one way up — with the North at the top and the South at the bottom. And I’d wondered about the psychological and cultural effects this must have on our understanding of the world.

It was hard enough for me to see an old Australian school atlas with Australia in the centre, Asia, Europe and Africa to the left, and the Americas down the right-hand side. Let alone turning the whole thing upside down. But why not?

Most of the images on the net are in copyright, but this one below is Creative Commons:

I remember seeing a TV documentary years ago about an experiment to change one’s ordinary perception. Some team had designed a set of ‘spectacles’ that you wore, a set of small mirrors that turned your visual world upside down, literally 180°. So you looked out and saw the same normal world, but the sky was at the ‘top’ and the ground at the ‘bottom’.

The remarkable thing was that after about 48 hours of wearing these mirrors, the volunteers involved in this experiment could function normally. Their brains had readjusted. One of the scenes showed them riding bicycles!

[Ann Karp, the designer of the image above, wrote the following: “This is an image I created for the back of a t-shirt. It was done for Cafe Campesino (www.cafecampesino.com), a wonderful fair trade coffee company. The upside down map is also the Peters version of the map of the world–notice the landmasses, accurate in area compared with your traditional Eurocentric map.”]

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Sometimes a single factoid can change the way you look at the world. Here was a recent one for me, quoted in this month’s Prospect, and originating from Geoff Mulgan of the Young Foundation:

One third of British citizens live within five miles of their birthplace.

I tend to imagine that we live in a culture defined by movement and change; that people are being constantly uprooted; that our sense of belonging (whether for a place, a tradition, or a set of values) is becoming weaker and weaker. There must be some truth to this, distorted by my own prejudices and the experience of living in a metropolis like London.

But there is the factoid: twenty million of us Brits live within walking distance of where we were born. We may not feel very rooted, and we may have been somewhere else in between – but that is where we have planted ourselves now. Belonging is more powerful than I thought, whether it is through a lifestyle choice or through harsh economic or social necessity.

It was only a few seconds later, after wondering about all these ‘other people’ who lived so locally, that I realised it was true for me too – born in Tottenham Court Road and now living in Chelsea, about three miles as the crow flies. I’ve ended up pretty near ‘home’ (the maternity ward at the old University College Hospital), with a few detours on the way.

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I learnt a new word on the radio this morning: psychogeography. Even after a bit of research, I’m still not sure what it means: anything to do with the way we respond on a non-rational level to the urban environment.

Someone from the Ramblers’ Association presented it as a way of walking the streets around you with more attentiveness – with the interest and focus you would bring to a visit to an art exhibition. Noticing things; appreciating things. This seems beautiful and harmless.

London by cod_gabriel.

But on the internet there are stranger theories about ‘drifting’ (letting yourself be guided by the ‘psychic’ or psychological contours of the geography) and ‘algorithmic wandering’ (walking to a formula, e.g. “Take the first street left, then the second right, then the second right” – then repeat this sequence until the time runs out).

I’m uneasy about the New Age aspects of this, but attracted by the invitation to go somewhere without going anywhere. And I like the idea of a programmed/random exploration. It’s the same fascination of being a taxi driver – the mix of uncertainty and fate, that you never know where you will be going, even though your destination is determined beforehand. Or is it?

Here is one summary of the meaning of psychogeography:

The word psychogeography was coined by the situationist poet Guy Debord around 1950. It describes the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.

The sudden change of ambience in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places – these phenomena all fall into the field of psychogeography.

One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

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