by Liz Stinson)
Where You Are is a book of 16 maps created by writers, artists and thinkers. Image: Visual Editions. Click here to see.
We’re constantly mapping our lives, even if we don’t realize it. The emails we send, the restaurants we Google, the buses we take, the status updates we post —all of this is a way to track where we’ve been, what we’ve done and what’s important to us. It’s hard to grasp what form our personal maps would take; your map would certainly be different from my map, but what if we could actually visualize these digital, intangible trails of information? If each of us could design a map that told the story of our lives, in its essence, what would it look like? It’s a big question, and one that Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen are trying to answer with their newest book Where You Are.
The two women are the founders of Visual Editions, an experimental book publishing house that has published a handful of what’s best described as reading experiences. They’re responsible for Jonathan Safran Foer’s die-cut Tree of Codes, and the quirky Composition No. 1, a box set of loose-leaf pages that can be arranged into personalized narratives.
Where You Are, like most of Visual Editions’ titles, isn’t a book in the traditional sense of the word. It has no pages and chapters; rather, the publishing house’s newest offering is a box full of artwork and essays that tell the story of artists, writers and thinkers in map form. “We asked 16 writers, what is your personal idea of a map? recalls Iversen. “And we got 16 different expressions of that.” The resulting book is meant to be opened, spread out on a table and delved into like you would an atlas before a road trip. In other words, Where You Are is a distinctly Visual Editions experience.
Three years ago, if you were to ask someone if it was a good idea to start a book publishing company, they probably would have responded by politely laughing in your face. For hundreds of years, our reading material had remained essentially the same: Two covers, a spine, and a pile of printed pages in between. It was a good business model. Until it wasn’t. As technology increasingly demanded that the publishing industry play by its paperless rules, getting into the book business seemed to make less and less sense.
And yet, that’s exactly what Iversen and Gerber did when they started Visual Editions back in 2010. “A lot of publishers were scared by it,” says Iversen of the changing industry. “But we thought it was a huge opportunity. It was exciting.” The two Londoners figured it was the perfect time to get into the publishing game. To them, new technology didn’t mean the traditional book was dead; it simply meant there was another new way to approach storytelling. After all, a good story isn’t determined by where it’s told, but rather by how it’s told.
“When we start working on any book we think about where can this live in the best possible way?” Gerber explains. “With the physical books that we make, were always asking ourselves, if this is going to live as a physical object, there has to be a damn good reason for it. Because it can live in a lot of other ways too.” Like apps, or websites or even live events.
For Where You Are, Visual Editions set out to answer the question, what does it mean to map our lives? “Our relationships to maps are changing so quickly; we’re not thinking about maps as crumpled old pieces of paper that tell you how to get from one place to another anymore,” says Gerber. Each contributor approached the question differently with a highly-personal touch, but the end product turned out to be a cohesive set of maps, stories and artwork that thoughtfully contemplates what it means to document our lives.
There’s Swings of Harlem from Valeria Luiselli, a touching look at the playgrounds she and her daughter frequent in Harlem. Then there’s Geoff Dyer’s map of Cheltenham, filled memories of his first love, first job, first kiss and first death. “Geoff brought in his old Cheltenham map and was literally plotting it against the Google satellite version,” Gerber recalls.
In the Visual Editions world, designers and writers begin working together from the outset. “It’s never about adding the design at the 99th hour as a kind of decorative or aesthetic choice,” Gerber says. “It’s really integral to the whole process.” For this book, the writers worked with London-based design studio Bibliotheque to translate the artist’s words into the beautiful individual maps.
Alongside the physical book, Where You Are lives as a website where each of the contributions are laid out in an interactive feature made by The Workers. Visual Editions’ painstaking design process might seem like a lot of work, but when you place one of their titles next to an ordinary book, you begin to see why it’s worth it. “We think visual storytelling is a meaningful part of how we live, and we think its really an integral part of how we look and read and understand things,” says Iversen. “It’s about pushing the boundaries of what a book is.”
Buy Where You Are for $50 at the Visual Editions website.