Making the Familiar Unfamiliar
Fig. 1 World Map (Source: Pixabay)
What’s wrong with the image above? If you immediately answered, “it’s upside down”, then I invite you to think again. Can a map of the world really be upside down? We know the world cannot be upside down, as there is no ‘up’ in space (just ask an astronaut), and as far as we know, nobody has managed to fall off the planet - yet. But can a map of the world be upside down? It’s an interesting question.
As it turns out, the map above is actually just another way of picturing the world, one that is just as accurate, real, and as natural as the ones most of us are routinely familiar with. Why? Because maps are fictions - albeit useful ones. There is nothing natural about them as there are no such boundaries or privileged orientations in nature. Maps are inventions, and as a result are subject to the assumptions, beliefs, and desires of those who make them, not to mention the practical limitations of depicting a three-dimensional sphere in two dimensions. They are visual representations, ways in which we re-present features of our world to ourselves in order to understand or manage them better. Representations are culturally determined, which is to say that they are shaped by 'conventions' - the accepted norms, standards, and assumptions of a given culture. But the most significant thing about conventions is that their constructed nature is often invisible to us. As a result, we come to believe that the representations that we are used to are in some sense natural, and unaffected by the vagaries of custom, social agreement, self-interest, or power. To put it another way, we believe that they agree with reality - that they correspond to how things are. The image in fig.1 is not wrong, or upside-down, it’s just unfamiliar. It simply goes against what most of us are used to. The idea that world maps are the result of custom or habit, or that they emerged over the centuries from the “interplay of chance, technology, and politics” might strike most people as odd. But that is exactly what they are. There are many examples of world maps throughout history that are based on entirely different orientations. Some of the earliest known maps, from Mesopotamia and Egypt, often have East or South at the top. The earliest Christian maps, known as T-O maps, because of their visual arrangement, also have East at the top with Jerusalem at the center. Amongst Islamic and Arabic map makers it was common practice to put South at the top (because Mecca was south of most Muslim countries), and there are Chinese maps from the Han Dynasty (200 BC – 200 AD), which also have South at the top, even though China, in the northern hemisphere, sits roughly on the same latitudes as the United States. As it turns out, for most of the 14,000-year history of mapmaking, North was not always at the top. Why? The answer depends on who was making the map and why.
Most modern maps (post-European Renaissance), situate north at the top, not because that is how the earth is, but because of a confluence of historical events, politics, technology, convenience, habit, and above all, basic psychology. Being at ‘the top’ has important metaphorical significance – as it connotes superiority, dominance, and centrality - qualities deemed especially important if you were in the business of empire-building. Similarly, because projecting a three-dimensional sphere on a flat surface necessarily involves tradeoffs in terms of distortion, differences in map projections can also embody metaphorical and unconscious assumptions and values.
For example, in the Mercator Projection (most popular in schools and textbooks in the US and Europe) the poles are exaggerated in size which leads to significant distortions of landmasses in the Northern Hemisphere relative to the equator and the Southern Hemisphere (fig. 2. left). In these maps, Greenland appears roughly the size of Africa. However, in terms of actual land mass, Africa is approximately 14 times bigger! The more recent Gall-Peters Projection, on the other hand (fig. 2. right), maintains accurate size relationships, though the shapes are distorted, giving greater visual importance to those countries around the equator - Africa, Asia, and South America. That the map favoring the “Global North” over the developing world is still the standard in all the school districts across the US (except Boston), is no accident.
From a creative thinking point of view, this little diversion into the world of maps illustrates an important aspect of our thinking, namely - that how we think about the world is culturally influenced by the representations and conventions that we grow up in and are exposed to. Conventions are established ways of doing things; they are habits of thought, action, and perception. Think of children’s drawings with the proverbial house and chimney (and obligatory smoke), flower in the garden, grass at the bottom, sun in the upper corner with rays, and black “v” shapes (birds?) floating in the sky - these are conventions that many of us are familiar with. They are representations that children learn and imitate in order to communicate; they are a language that is accepted and established as ‘normal’.
By reinforcing the status quo, conventions also establish what matters and what doesn’t – who is seen and who is not. Like the map example above, they are manifestations of underlying structures of power, position, and relationship. As a result, representations serve to legitimize certain ways of looking and thinking at the expense of others. They perpetuate what psychologists call - implicit bias.
To take another example. Who do you think the person is in Fig. 3? If you answered Jesus, you are correct. It is the closest approximation we have of what the historical figure from Nazareth might actually have looked like, based on what we know about the facial structure, hairstyles, and the racial/genetic makeup of men living in the middle east at the time.
This is a far cry from the brown-haired, blue-eyed Jesus so common in Europe and America. Not surprisingly, in non-western cultures, we get a variety of different representations of Jesus, all based on the familiar conventions of that culture (Fig. 4).
Again, such representations are derived from the cultural conventions of those who make them. Only when these conventions get challenged, often by artists, do we stop to consider their constructed nature and mediating power.
The upside of this, especially for creative thinking, is that because they are constructions rather than reflections of an underlying reality, they can be de-constructed and re-constructed. Representations have an enormous influence on how we see and think about the world, and consequently how we act. If we can change how we see things, by changing how we choose to ‘represent’ them, then we begin to allow for the possibility of changing how we might think about things. In the case of the so-called upside-down maps, they literally do make you think differently about various countries and land masses. Images like this, at the most basic level of perception, break the habitual associations we have, simply by presenting the brain with something unfamiliar. It’s all the same information, it has just been reconfigured. Without the usual context, it becomes de-familiarized and free from the patterns of thought we have woven around it over time. As a result, it becomes new and fresh, and we see it in a less constrained way.
In art schools all over the world, methods and techniques of de-familiarization are common. From learning to draw, to producing work that challenges society’s beliefs, de-familiarization (or de-contextualization) is a staple strategy in the world of art. In introductory drawing courses, for example, students are trained to see with their eyes, not their brains, in order to learn to draw more realistically. To do this they are often presented with drawing exercises designed to engage and sharpen their perception by exposing entrenched habits of thought.
In Fig. 5 we see an image of a woman lying down at a foreshortened angle (left) and on the right a drawing of that figure by a student in a beginning art class before receiving any instruction. The student example above might look pretty good to most people, but if looked at more closely, it is way out of proportion to the original. The discrepancy is caused by the student drawing what they know, not what they see. Because legs and torsos are longer than heads (in the real world) people tend to exaggerate their length when faced with unusual angles. What you see in the picture on the left is a head (and hair) that take up more than a third of the total length of the figure – it’s what your eye actually sees. On the right is what the brain thinks it sees, with incorrectly elongated arms and legs and a head that is less than a quarter of the entire length.
As any drawing instructor will tell you, the biggest obstacle to drawing is not motor skills, (if you can write your name, you can probably make most of the necessary manual movements), but rather the eye, or more accurately - the brain. It is often said that if you can see something accurately, free of expectations, assumptions, and familiar habits of thought – then you can draw it. And if you can’t draw it, it’s because you can’t see it!
Being aware of how our perception/thinking is shaped and influenced (mediated) by forms of representation is crucial to thinking creatively and imaginatively. But they often fly beneath the radar, which is why experiences that de-familiarize what we consider natural or normal are so important. Whether it be art, travel, reading, social engagement, or physical challenges, anything that disrupts our familiarity with the word will inevitably keep us open to what is rather than comfortable in our expectations and assumptions of what we ‘know’.