Making our way through landscapes, digital and otherwise

We cited artist Mary Flanagan a while ago. Flanagan’s Borders project, ‘video documentation of a series of walks, conducted virtually in popular, shared online multi-user worlds. The rendered landscape is beautiful and hypnotic and we are transported directly into [Henry David] Thoreau’s walking shoes, “glimps(ing) Elysium, but only as he walked along, surveying the boundaries and divisions…”’. Naturally, this set us off down a pixelated trail of digital landscapes and imaginary exploration. Is it possible, or even desirable, to conduct an online dérive? Or is the act of being online simply the modern version of the dérive, meaning we have all become drifters now?

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There’s something fundamentally attractive about exploring the unknown. Mapping is one of the marvels of our age and the availability and complexity of maps is richer than ever before; we literally have the world in our pockets. But somehow this is not enough. The fantastical draws us in – hence sites like Map of Strange, Google Earth Anomalies and Google Sightseeing, all of which look to sate our desire for unknown lands, unusual places and that sense of being a stranger in an unknown land. Here be dragons, and all that (although that line was only apparently found once, according to TV Tropes). The above image is a detail from Abraham Ortelius’s 1585 map of Iceland (Islandia) from Maps, Myths, and Monsters at the Osher Map Library.

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Flanagan’s work explores the potential for virtual worlds to sate that desire, and navigating the virtual unknown has been second nature for generations, ever since the first explorers ventured into the MUDs of the 1970s. You can play Will Crowther’s ‘Adventure‘ online, read about the history of the game and download a map at Spitenet. But with greater and greater complexity afforded by games, as well as the ability to ‘grow’ worlds procedurally (using software like Terragen 2 from Planetside, all very reminiscent of the ‘Genesis effect‘ conceived for Star Trek II back in 1982), the line between our engagement with the real and virtual worlds is getting exceptionally blurry. How many people will soon get their most visceral response to landscape through the medium of a computer screen and not from actually physically being there?

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More and more games are also adopting a hazier, more evocative rendering style, such as Proteus, ‘a game of audio-visual exploration and discovery’, footage here (very reminiscent of the BBC classic, The Sentinel – found at the incredibly polychromatic Pure Machine Code screenshot archive), or the smudgy, impressionistic Love (footage) or Sir, You are Being Hunted from Big Robot, which includes the marvellous British Countryside Generator (previously), developed by the same people who created In Ruins, ‘part of an ongoing Phd research project to investigate ideas that connect games, permutation and the sublime. It’s part of a series of games inspired by artistic interpretations of the sublime, in this case the work of Romantic landscape painters’ (test footage). There are also weblogs like Dead End Thrills, which presents massively enhanced screen shots from games, including open-end landscape games like Skyrim, almost as a new form of landscape photography.

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Perhaps, as these multiple worlds multiply, and our involvement in alternate realities of increasing complexity increases, the way we see maps and guides will also evolve; your smartphone will no longer hold maps of the real world, but also the ‘unreal’ ones, allowing you to undertake the same level of interaction and exploration of the imaginary terrains, planets and cities that populate your mind.

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Related, a collection of Free and Open Source procedural space simulators, including the intriguing-looking Pioneer, ‘a game of lonely space adventure’. But we digress / the excellent Hand Drawn Map Association / follow Digital Urban for developments in generative architecture and city design / there are many, many imaginary places out there online, some immensely complex (see Virtual Verduria, for example) / Some more related things: The Strange Maps book / Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, subtitled ‘Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will’, which takes geographical remoteness and translates them into an almost fictional idiom (spread here).

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