Ruth Barker

Between the Lines of Maps: Wonders, Dragons, and the Philosophy of One Mile



Article commissioned by Collective Gallery for One Mile Newspaper (issue 2). 


Someone once told me a story about a 1:1 scale map. In it, an Emperor searches for an absolute but finds instead a representation of dissolution. The story ends with a scrap of parchment caught beneath a stone. A trace of cartography swallowed by a landscape, or, alternatively, a pool of black ink held in the cup of a hand.  


I was not present at the inception of the One Mile Project, but I like to imagine it. Imagine me imagining a pair of compasses, with the point eviscerating a pencil mark overlaying a series of printed lines representing Cockburn Street on a map of Edinburgh. The compass point indicates the Collective Gallery. The arc of the compass is extended and a circle drawn. Judging by the scale of the map, the circle has a radius of One Mile.


Maps are a peculiar condition of the Modern idea of Place. They allow us to perceive the spatial relationships and orientation of an area without our ever having to go there. Maps can show us contours and streets, plazas and populations, density and economic comparisons. Maps are objective models of the world, condensing and ordering information until it is clear and unambiguous and inarguable, like evaluation monitoring forms of continents. 


And yet I cannot (and do not) deny that maps do have a poetry of their own. By revealing so little information they invite the speculation of the mind. ‘Here be dragons’, say the spaces between the lines. ‘Here be wonders’ whisper the lines themselves. That circle with a one-mile radius, drawn by someone at Collective Gallery and used as a locus for the One Mile Project, denotes what is physically a tiny space within the city of Edinburgh, within Scotland, within Europe and the World. But while it may denote little the circle contains much. It has been said of other microcosms that ‘all of human life is there’; taken literally this is not quite true within the scope of One Mile but what is true of the project’s radius is that infinity of possibility resides alongside any amount of human life.



One Mile, a series of collaborations between artists and groups of people who live or work within the one mile radius of the Collective Gallery, has in its second year become truly embedded in its processes. The layering of relationships between the projects and individuals involved – groups not otherwise engaged by conventional education or outreach work – has become rich and complex. Kate Gray, One Mile’s lead artist, has been key both in inviting and offering these relationships and in maintaining what might best be described as a conversation between artists and individuals, between groups and partnerships, and between agendas and ideas. The work that has emerged through these conversations is as diverse as those who have participated. From t-shirt design to performance art, the work has involved groups from the women’s circle at the local mosque, to Scottish Widows plc, to recent Polish immigrants at the Cowgate Centre. In essence perhaps, One Mile suggests strategies to map how different communities and ideas exist within the same space and time within a given area of a city.


There are as many ways to ask this question as there are people who inhabit the locus. However, in giving young people who have experienced homelessness, care homes, or housing difficulties the opportunity to work with artist Dave Sherry on a series of irreverent performances, we see how One Mile can facilitate a simple yet critical inversion that may be key to describing the momentum of the project as a whole. In the work, called "50%", the young people broke an unwritten rule and spoke to strangers in the urban refuge of the shop. People who are often omitted from maps of position chose to re-map a space themselves by becoming visible through public performance. This visibility will then be concretised through a publication. These are key approaches within One Mile because they raise two vital though related thoughts: the first a question of definition, the second a question of exploration.


Definition is a pivotal aspect within the project, as collaborators are invited to volunteer their interest and by doing so define their own terms of engagement. Conventional mapping is an externalised process whereby definition is imposed on a passive landscape. One Mile extends the reach of its own cartographic endeavour by circumventing this assumption, recording possibility, idiosyncrasy, and the subjective tenets of experience. In doing so the project illuminates the power of contemporary visual practice as a methodology that breaches the borders of the map, extending beyond representation to the moment of exploration. Contemporary practice, as positioned within One Mile, becomes a strategy not simply to plot the points of what is and is not there, but also to enter into that space - to subvert, question, or celebrate.


As such perhaps One Mile becomes the chart of a series of moments between the spheres of the participatory collaborators. An example might be Spartacus Chetwynd’s work, which developed out of a residency period during which she attended a pattern-cutting course. While learning a new skill from the individuals she met there, Chetwynd also made contacts and learned about the highly skilled professional worlds of these women. And so, in one of those sidesteps that punctuate the process of making art, a film was produced where the artist went to Lewis for 5 days with 8 of the women she had met, to film their progress in an imposed (and partly imagined) wilderness. Interspersed with images of the group in their usual environment, the film may be a metaphor for space and projection as the journey becomes inspired by the enigmatic tale of dislocation ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’. A similar sense of poetry emerges through Ellen Munro's work with Space 44 in which women with experience of homelessness, domestic abuse, mental health problems, or drug or alcohol addiction have been producing a banner behind which they wish to march, reminding us that:


“Freedom is not something that you are given, but something you have to make.”


The act of standing behind a banner is an emotive one that seems to encapsulate the intricacy with which One Mile has succeeded in forging relationships and asking these questions of place, ownership, and definition. It also encapsulates the series of balances maintained by many of the the art objects produced through One Mile, as the banner becomes both a functional tool to be used by the women during their annual marches, and the symbolic centre of a tea-party held as art event on the lawns in front of the Parliament building - to which the citizens of Edinburgh will be invited.



All ten of the challenging, lyrical, insightful projects produced as part of the One Mile atlas reflect the peculiar gulf between geographic propinquity and emotional divergence that perhaps exists between any grouping of human lives in proximity. Here is the gap between definition and experience, between the dusty stone and the fragment of parchment trapped beneath it at the border of a forgotten empire. Here is the space into which visual practice moves to inhabit and distil in order to convey.


One Mile critically engages with the Modern construct of the definable map, applying it to a Postmodern notion of composite communities, and moving that to… something else? In Postmodern thinking after all, deconstruction was King. As times change however, projects like One Mile may begin to refute that (at times) too-quick assumption, as they point to an evolution both in thinking and in practice. One Mile does not try to dissolve the text of the territory by fragmenting it into multiple viewpoints. Instead it suggests that we can use those pluralized perspectives to construct an image of the wider relational network that exists within this place, this mile. The project illuminates a heartbreakingly human fractal structure of which each node contains networks and nodes of its own, all of which retain some trace of the wider echo.


At the moment we are in the midst of the process – we cannot yet guess how the project will end. What we can see already however, is that at its best One Mile is able to celebrate the miasmic complexity of living and thinking and all the multifarious ways that that takes place, even in the microcosm of a single circle.