Discovering Josh Ginsburg’s Mind-Bending Black Maps

1. (Image by Kyle Morland)

Image by Kyle Morland


Black Maps is an ongoing project by Josh Ginsburg that deals with dead ends, loops, cul-de-sacs and through fares. Though the project exists (and has existed) in various forms, the most notable perhaps is an interactive web environment housing a selection of media pulled from a priviate offline archive comprised of over 40 000 elements. Visiting the website, participants are taken on a self-paced journey by clicking on images, audio files, videos and bits of text that present themselves in the swirling digital maze. It soon becomes evident that these are not underpinned by any discerning logic but rather, exist purely to be explored.


We spoke to Josh, who is a practicing artist and curator living in Cape Town, to find out more about this mind-bending project.


What is Black Maps and how did it come to be? 


Black Maps is an ongoing project which takes form in a website, a set of objects and staged conversational engagements.


It was initiated after I gathered a series of small disparate objects together each of which had survived some process or project in the preceding years and fitted them into an old trumpet case (itself one of those left over objects). Dislocated from their original contexts and now assembled as a new family, the objects appeared to have a new agency.


And it looked to me like a board game of some kind, so I became interested in deriving a set of rules whereby the objects could instigate conversational exchanges (as catalysts), and then also represent threads of engagements (as pneumonics). So, to prompt and track interpersonal and explorative exchanges. I made a paper surface to play on and titled the project Black Maps.


But at that stage, its ability to function as a conversational tool was simply a proposal. I had no idea how exactly this process could unfold, what the rules of the game would be. Even now, Black Maps retains an unresolved status.


Then an invitation from Sometimes (a collaborative initiative between Marc Barben and Matthew King) to run a project with them, presented an opportunity to pursue the process in a more directed fashion and engage these off-cuts on their terms and as a collection.


This leads now to the finer co-ordinates or keywords that have driven Black Maps in its various forms, namely dead ends, wrong turns, loops, cul-de-sacs, and through fares; rule making, rule following, emergence, conversation, games and cartography.


Image by Kyle Morland

Image by Kyle Morland


In 2012 you gave a TED talk on the subject of digitally mapping memory. What first got you interested in trying to visualise or create a container for your thoughts?


I never set out to build this networked archive you are referring to – it was very much an emergent process.


I was really frustrated that thoughts or ideas were being feverishly recorded in my notebooks or on my computer and were piling up at home, or being buried deep on a hardrive, protected to the extent that I was never seeing or thinking about them again. In addition to not acting on the ideas (bringing them into the world in other forms), I wondered if I was having the same or similar ideas over and over again. So the first question related to navigation: could I make a way to consolidate the notes and explore the resulting space?


Secondly, whereas in my notebooks the forms of my notes were sketches or texts, I was actually mostly collecting notes on my phone in the form of photos. Photos host so much rich data that they can function as powerful pneumonics: it’s often more effective for me to document an idea by recording an image of where the idea occurred, or something bound to the moment of the thought itself. And the images of course could host other things too, things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to say in a textual form, i.e. the sense of an idea.


Consider the image below of two cups together on the platform in the London underground. They caught my attention because they looked so deliberately placed (quite cute actually). And I wondered why they hadn’t been thrown away if someone had taken time to place them. And I then realized there were no bins around and that was because they posed a terror threat (people had some years back left bombs in the bins). So the cups here associated with terror or fear, and made me wonder after the extent to which such fear affects us ubiquitously, i.e. in architecture, racial stereotyping etc. And of course, there is still the intimacy of the cups together, like a loving old couple. So the image hosts all these things much better than a text note can (for me).


So with image being such an important note form for me, I started consolidating all my notes in a single digital archive of images. This entailed photographing notes out of the notebooks, or off pieces of paper in my pockets, screen-grabbing notes in digital text applications like Word, and of course all the images and videos collected too. And I started tagging every element with all kinds of direct and oblique data I thought relevant to it. This metadata gave agency to each element, encouraging it to form groups across the archive with other related material.


To return to your question, I attempted to optimize my systems of note taking and storage with an emphasis on accessibility (being able to find things I wanted) and interaction between notes born of ‘family resemblances’. The result however was much more interesting than I had expected, and to a limited extent visualizes or simulates my process of thinking.




How did Black Maps shift from a physical space to the webspace it now occupies?


Sometimes was instrumental in the translation of the project onto the web. Sometimes is at once a team and a project space. But it is a project space without a space, or rather it defines its space with each project and for the most part, these spaces are printed publications and the web.


I have long been interested in the web as a site for art, but I had never produced a project where the form of the web was intrinsically connected to the work. So from the get go, Sometimes and I were invested in rendering the Black Maps as a work for web. In particular, our interest was to render an environment for exploration, without a defined purpose or end other than to be in it. We wanted to make a place that was ambient, where one could be slow, spend some time, wonder about and get lost.


Tied to the transition or reflection of the project as a conversational game and as a web environment, were questions of intimacy in private and in public. The conversational exchanges that employed the map and elements in the real, constituted private, nuanced encounters relevant only to those participating (4 people perhaps), whereas the web is a perfectly public environment available equally to anyone with web access. With a sense of the web as often a frivolous place of distraction, abundance, quick throwaway interactions, we wondered after a publically available private experience. So interaction with the web module of the project imagined engagement while riding the bus, in the line at the supermarket or (ideally) at home in bed.


An interesting and actually unexpected byproduct of the project’s web form, is its mobile or remote availability to me to use in conversational encounters with others. What I mean is that the material form of the Black Maps was employed for interpersonal exchanges, the web form was intended for individuals to explore on their own, but now I occasionally use the web form to engage with others as I did with the material one. It’s somehow looped.


From a practical point of view, the process began with the conversational events that employed the map and objects and were pursued in various locations (Marc’s home, my studio, a cafe). We then sent the box over to Johannesburg for some other artists to play with and propose augmented rule sets or strategies to apply to it. It’s still there at the moment. As soon as it left Cape Town, I started making the webspace.


Image by Jonx Pilemer

Image by Jonx Pilemer


 Tell us more about the role of the Sometimes team in all of this.


The role of Sometimes was significant in all respects. Firstly they provided a platform to pursue the project. While Black Maps had been named and essentially conceived as a process prior to engagement with Sometimes, it was very much drifting aimlessly in space before the gravity of Sometimes pulled it into a productive orbit.


As artists themselves, Marc and Matthew have a nuanced understanding of the ebb and flow of such processes and a deep commitment to artistic enquiry. They were always open, patient and full of productive ideas. And they presented themselves as guinea pigs throughout. The value of this alone should not be underestimated: how often does one get two people of extraordinary capacity making themselves available as subjects of an experiment?


In general, collaboration is a very complex thing I think, fraught with complex challenges pertaining to where ideas and ownership begin and end. Sometimes didn’t approach me as collaborators, but rather as facilitators. However, although I retained the authority to act in whatever way I saw fit, I do believe their role (in this case) to have been of a collaborative nature in the most productive of senses in so much as I don’t believe the project would have taken the shape it has without them.




The nature of the project stipulates that it will always be ‘in the making’…constantly evolving as long as you keep adding to it. With this in mind, do you plan to carry on with Black Maps indefinitely?


In one sense, Black Maps is ‘always in the making’ as it has no defined rule set and is structured and expected to use itself to evolve ways in which it can be used. But in terms of my investment in it, it’s mostly run its course. I think that in general, ideas have a life and there is a point where they can get stale and one should move on. I mostly feel that way about Black Maps now, not so much that its gone stale, but that it’s something that happened rather than something that is still happening.


That said, I do want to do a few things still, like I want to render the map and the objects into a single fixed thing (in the spirit of Daniel Spoerri) and Sometimes and I are talking about a book form too. These mutations into book and object do excite me, as there are always discoveries when ideas are translated across media.


And I also have a pretty serious challenge to resolve issued by Ruth Anne, an artist living between Johannesburg and Chicago, who was given the project to play with. She was asked to present augmented rules or other suggestions. She wrote back saying that given my investment in lost’ness, I need lose the Black Maps somehow all together (leave it on a bus for example). I’m not entirely sure how I plan to respond to this because although I feel like the project has essentially run its course, I’m not quite ready to lose it entirely. Perhaps I’ll find a loophole in their challenge and hang it my house (i.e. not even slightly lose it).




Where does all the content in this swirling digital archive come from?


The archive comprises about 40 000 digital elements of various media types (image, video, text and sound). They have all been collected for different reasons and at different times as notes or triggers to thoughts as described in one of the earlier questions. They are mostly collected day-to-day, in mundane contexts as snaps on my phone, or notes in my book.


That said, I’m also very interested in the intersection between art and research, or research as performance or art as research etc. So I often pursue discrete, focused processes that involve collecting hundreds or thousands of fragments related to a subject, relating them to one another through metadata and looking for interesting relationships or unexpected correlations. So the archive comprises both ad-hoc elements and purposefully collected sets.


Overall, the archive is made up of an extremely varied set of elements. In one sense it’s a cacophony: a swirling, amorphous haze. But, as a result of the detailed network that exists between the elements, this ‘haze’ is expertly navigable, which is to say, not a haze at all but rather a complex, dynamic space that resonates as both unwieldy and immediately accessible.




What is interesting about the experience of Black Maps is that it unfolds differently for each person who participates. A private journey which, if you spend enough time on, loops back within itself. How was this web environment built?


The architecture of the web environment was not planned at all. What I knew was that the paper surface with all the elements placed on it (what I call the home position) would be the principle interface. But that was the limit of the plan.


With the interface in place, I would engage an element, and then seek out media from my archive that felt interesting to connect to it and built a new linked page. And then this new page would become the source of the inquiry, sparking a new page, and so on in an iterative fashion. Sometimes the pages would connect up into the loops you mentioned. And sometimes things end in cul-de-sacs. I really liked it when this started to happen, that is, both the flow and blockages. Making the site was extremely fluid and fun and felt like a conversation with myself.


I used a brilliant web design tool called Wix to make it. I started with a clean space and built each page up from there depending on what was required – so not from a template. I also enjoyed testing some of the tools they make available (various image galleries etc.) and occasionally realized that a particular tool would really suit a particular set of media. So the technology I was using to make the space played a really important role by enabling a loose, very visual design process while also giving shape to the site through its tool set.


I can’t navigate to particular media in the site. It’s not designed that way. It really is a labyrinth, designed to be aimlessly wandered in. So some time after the site was completed, I attempted to reverse engineer its architecture – to map out the possible paths and try get a sense of what the space looked like. This was really interesting, but also absurd. I ended up with another map full of its own wrong turns and dead ends.




In what ways have you used this project to cultivate an ongoing conversation?


I think the most significant ongoing aspects of this project are with its core coordinates, that is, the institution that facilitated the process, Sometimes; Marc and Matthew as independents; and with the Web as a medium or a space. In all three cases, the engagements were new for me, hugely productive and worth sustaining and evolving moving forward.




Visit the interactive website to explore Black Maps for yourself.



Between 10 and 5