I am thinking of a recent experience of collective, spatial wayfinding that was prosaic and quite comical, but also illustrative. I was at a dinner party in Berlin for the full lunar eclipse on July 27, right around our birthdays. I guess all these eclipses and retrogrades in my astrological chart made me especially determined to see this lunar eclipse, which was supposed to be blood red and the longest eclipse for the century. It is one of those reminders that we live here on planet Earth, orbiting a ball of solar fire, itself being orbited by a cool sphere of rock, our moon. We didn’t make any particular plan to view the moon, in part because most of us were visiting someone else’s neighborhood, and those people were themselves visitors to Berlin. We were near the Volkspark Friedrichshain, and we just assumed that a park would be open and elevated and the moon would be there. We didn’t think much of it. We set off together through the streets to the park a little bit before the eclipse entered totality. But when the moon did not immediately present itself, we realized that we had no idea where the moon should be in the sky. We needed to orient ourselves in the city, and also know something about where the moon should be in relation to that orientation. I suddenly felt sad that I knew so little about the path of the moon through the sky. I always take it for granted, as a surprise, shining wherever I stumbled upon it. But at that moment, I was desperate to know where to find it. How to place my body in relation to the moon?
The navigational software on phones is all intended for the granular urban pathways of the earth, not for the sky around us. Furthermore, the park itself is unusually forested. We began climbing up to the top in the dark, through an ad hoc group decision making process, stumbling up many stone staircases, assuming that we would have a vista when we reached the summit. One of us had some idea of where the moon might be in the sky, others knew a bit more about the park and the streets, others consulted our phones, others just tried not to fall in the dark while scanning the night sky for an eclipsed moon. The summit was also forested, and the moon was nowhere to be found. We descended and found ourselves again on the wrong side of the hill, a section of empty sky.
»When navigating your body in space, there is a multilayered processing of direct experience and sensorial data gathering, as you determine your physical orientation in space, correlate it with the spatial map you may already have modeled in your mind, on paper, or using software.«
– Caitlin Berrigan
Finally we set off to walk in the streets, which seemed more open to the sky than the forested park, despite the buildings. I heard a voice behind me cry out: »look! It’s there! Can you see the moon?« I was almost going to walk again into a spatial proportion by which a building would block my view of the moon, which had been straight in front of me now for a couple of minutes. But I wouldn’t have known how to see it if I hadn’t been told it was already there. It was fully eclipsed, of course, the deep reddish purple color of a black plum. It could hardly be distinguished from the night sky. It had required the input of a team to find the moon, and the cross-consultation of many different mental maps, memories, and software. We arrived at our vista, a humble edge of sidewalk polluted by a mercury halide street lamp and the occasional street car rattling past.
Here I am curious if you can say more about your knowledge of early surveyors who had to not only navigate so-called uncharted territory, but also to develop a methodical way to move through and measure space. I appreciate that you see the evolution of technologies in a genealogy. Can you say more about how you think about the embodiment involved in your own work? How does that become expressed?
SM: I often wonder if the advancement of sensing technologies has any major impact on what cartographers had always been doing—i.e., creating an intelligence of the terrain through a visual process. But I suspect that there is a change in the process by which sensations are quantified in knowledge-making; especially where simulations and model-building is involved.
For example, the French had been desperately trying to map Mont Blanc during the nineteenth century, realizing that the mountainous terrain could only be mapped as far as the human body could go. The historian Emily d’Orgeix writes on the memoirs of a French military man-turned-archaeologist (this alliance between military science and archaeology is fascinating) who designed a gadget in the 1800s that combined a telescope with an artist’s drawing planchette to ensure that a general would have complete confidence while surveying the landscape from a distance, hopefully never having to leave his station. But still embodiment never really went out of the picture—the perspective was situated, and an aesthetic experience of landscape was coded into a drawing. French military education for instance emphasized the need for artistic sensitivity in drawing a landscape for reconnaissance and intelligence, emphasizing how an engineer must be able to »delicately« illustrate every leaf of a tree while documenting a topography. So techniques of direct human sensory perception were as important as the tools for training engineers back then. And Viollet-le-Duc wrote quite insistently in the late 1800s that the French had failed in wars with the Germans because the latter had a greater on-the-ground »intelligence« of terrain (I suspect he meant a sensory apprehension), while the French up until then had focused too much on perfecting map-reading skills and couldn’t connect what the eye understood with what the body was able to navigate. So, making actual contact with terrain became a necessity. Landscape architects like Christophe Girot at ETH Zürich mention this relation as a way of talking about topology: a system by which we can express an intelligence of terrain that returns to an elegant language of human sensory apprehension. In which sensations can once again be quantified in ways that can be drawn back to the realm of a bodily, aesthetic realm of perception. In which the mediation between the realm of sensory evidence and formal intellection, as the historian Antoine Picon might put it, can be once again be a little more transparent. I think we need this. So the question of site and the perspective is also a sensory and aesthetic one—a question of how we are engaging with landscape, whether we think of landscape as a »way of looking«, or as an object in the world.