The Map That Writes Itself: Maria Miranda & Norie Neumark’s
In Georges Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual, rue Simon-Crubellier is a street in Paris’ 17th arrondissement. Perec located the apartment building at the centre of his novel in this invented street, making it an integral part of a literary work that is a study not so much of characters as of place. Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark, finding themselves in Paris and reflecting on – among many other things – Perec, found their reflections increasingly turning to… rue Simon-Crubellier.
No city is more thoroughly imagined than Paris; no city is more written about, photographed, filmed, studied, romanticised; mythologised. It is both the world’s Number One tourist attraction and the focus of the western world’s cultural imagination: city of poets, writers, artists, architects; city of light. Coming from elsewhere, Miranda and Neumark observed this city – overcoded, overloaded – where every corner has been represented, where everywhere plaques attest to the weight of the past. Confronting a city where everything is already imagined, they found the idea of an imaginary street appealing. Even more appealing was the idea of searching for that imaginary street.
Before setting out to find rue Simon-Crubellier, the artists imposed on themselves a set of rules. This strategy was entirely apt for a project inspired by Perec, whose works included one book written without using the letter ‘e’, and another using ‘e’ as the only vowel. For Miranda and Neumark, the primary rule was that when they asked for directions to rue Simon-Crubellier, they were obliged to follow those directions. Like many self-imposed constraints, this rule proved liberating, as the directions and advice from the citizens of Paris sent them across the city, from one encounter to another.
Some of these encounters are recorded in the video component of Searching for rue Simon-Crubellier. The remarkably helpful Parisians offer directions to this obscure street supposedly located somewhere in the 17th. Of course there are false starts and dead ends, but there are also serendipities: the artists somehow come across a former acquaintance of Perec, and somehow arrive at a building devoted to map-making. Directions send them away from the 17th, to unexpected parts of the city. As these wanderings build up, so does the work of art. And although this search is not constructed as a narrative, it starts to assume narrative qualities. It could hardly fail to do so, for our culture is enamoured of the narrative of the quest.
Western myths, legends, folk tales and movies enshrine the quest as a means of restoring vigour to a failing society. Whether the quest is in search of a golden fleece, a holy grail, a stolen princess or a lost ark, the successful quest brings healing and unity. Great works of literature have been founded on quests, even if the searcher is revealed as deluded (Don Quixote) or self-destructive (Captain Ahab). The search is the thing, even if it ends in failure or death: we who follow the narrative are travellers on the quest. We learn the value of imaginative tilting at windmills, or we marvel at the power of the white whale as force of nature. Modern culture is under the sway of the Romantic version of the quest, in which the searcher discovers something more than merely the object of the quest: he (still mostly a he) discovers - according to a humanist edict that has become a Hollywood staple - himself.
But what if the search is for an object that doesn’t exist? What if the quest knows from the outset that it will not succeed? What if there is no map to point the way? And what if the search proceeds by a random series of encounters? A closer literary analogue for such a search is not found in Romanticism, but in the curious margins of literature. In the late nineteenth century, Lewis Carroll wrote in Sylvie and Bruno of a map that perfectly matched its territory, on a scale of one mile to one mile. This exercise in cartography took the mapping quest to its illogical conclusion: the map charted its territory so faithfully that it became its double. Carroll’s fictional citizens found the map so cumbersome that they reverted to using the country as its own map, abandoning the mapping exercise that had performed its task too well.
This is a parody of the science of map-making and through it of the broader pursuit of science, which is its own peculiarly modern form of quest: the charting and controlling of nature. Borges performed another parody of this project in his fragment ‘On Rigor in Science’ (also translated as ‘On Exactitude in Science’.) In this story the denizens of a lost Empire created a map that coincided with the land exactly, only to reject it as useless. The map, and with it the discipline of geography, survived only as tattered fragments in the western desert.
These stories imagine a map that oversteps its scale, overtaking its object. The map forgets that it is a map and becomes its own object. Instead of functioning as a faithful miniature chart of the thing, it becomes a thing of its own. It should not surprise us that Baudrillard took inspiration from Borges’ tale, attempting to transcend its logic with his own model of the simulacra. The next stage into hyperreality, Baudrillard told us, was for the map to precede the territory, hence the ‘precession of simulacra’ in a desert of the real vaster than Borges’ western desert. This monolithic metaphor set the tone for Baudrillard’s total theory of simulacra. Baudrillard’s model was alleviated by irony and by the probability that its ‘fatal strategy’ was to mimic that of the modern age of spectacle. But it lacked a number of characteristics to be found even in its double: contradiction, messiness, process. The simulacra were simply there, presiding over us like holograms or cybernetic systems. The only glimpse of a way out was entropy, the system of capital and spectacle winding down and eventually imploding.
But reality is not so grand and not so total, and the best ways of imagining it or testing it are not so monolithic. What Miranda and Neumark bring to their search for an imaginary object is not merely a gesture towards the simulacral. They offer something much more nuanced: the process of getting there, the act of searching. Documenting the search builds up the search itself, as is attested by the albums of documents and the web-based research log The Fourth Floor, included as parts of Searching for rue Simon-Crubellier. Documents generate other documents, becoming aspects of the search process. This activity escalates in proportion when it happens on the Web.
When a Parisian tells Miranda and Neumark that if they want to find rue Simon-Crubellier they should search on Google, the artists of course follow that lead. The Google search is another component presented within the artwork, and in it the self-generating power of the search is most clearly evident. A Google search proceeds by accumulation: a search object is in large part defined by quantity: the number of references, entries, linked sites. This particular Google search throws up earlier references to rue Simon-Crubellier, but before long the artwork undertaken by Miranda and Neumark shows up, and then their search on Google itself appears. All the while, entries add up as the search broadens and loops on itself. Once commenced in the google-sphere, the search takes on a life of its own. The map begins to write itself.
Yet to say that a map writes itself is a form of short-hand; the reality is as ever more complex. The map is composed by multiple authors, each responding to a different trigger, each making a different contribution to the task. This is the way of the Web, as the online encyclopdeia Wikipedia demonstrates. Wikipedia is vast, sprawling, ever-changing, never completed. Because its authors are multiple, it makes mistakes that are rectified as quickly as they become apparent. Wikipedia is gloriously haphazard, constantly adjusting itself. It is a work continuously in process; and Searching for rue Simon-Crubellier, while it lasted and on a much smaller scale,shared this characteristic.
The online component of Searching for rue Simon-Crubellier also illuminates another aspect of contemporary culture. In our age of search engines, everyone is constantly searching on the Web. One search topic leads to another; searches change direction as links re-route the path. Some vain individuals delight in searching themselves, or at least the network of references to themselves. In an era of ubiquitous searching, the idea of the quest or search has been generalised. More than ever, the search itself is the thing.
Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark had to call a halt some time to their specific search, and they did it when serendipity led them to the building where all the maps of Paris are made. This was the appropriate place to finish a quest for a street that could not be found on any map. But their search did not really cease there. Before they commenced, rue Simon-Crubellier had existed in the imagination of Georges Perec, in Life: A User’s Manual, and in assorted references to that book. Now, it exists in a multi-faceted artwork, in the documentation of that artwork, and in an elaborate Google search. And that means that the search for rue Simon-Crubellier is not over…