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In the spring of 2020, the reporter Laura Bliss put out a call for readers of City Lab to send in maps of their new, quarantined lives. She received hundreds of responses from all around the world. Together, they constitute a visual archive of an unprecedented moment of spatial constraint, and the way we lived those limits in our homes, neighborhoods, and cities. A selection of those submissions has now been collected in a book, The Quarantine Atlas: Mapping Global Life Under Covid-19. Alongside essays from Jenny Odell, Geoff Manaugh, and others, the maps show how people channeled their boredom and grief into bursts of creativity. The following interview with Bliss has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Grabar: I really love this moment in your introduction where an archeologist relates the idea that all the detritus of this pandemic, the masks and the gloves, would eventually form its own geological layer in the earth. The strata of 2020. Was there a moment when you realized that you were moving from doing a blog to compiling a kind of bottom-up history, a collection of artifacts, and did that change your approach?
Laura Bliss: We put that first call out in April 2020, and I think we got like, 350 maps in that first month. We’re living in a fairly self-conscious era, and it quickly became clear that people were contributing to this project from that frame of mind. It didn’t take long to realize that this collection had to have a more permanent home, a more permanent form. And the first step in that is this book.
I’m not mad that you rejected my submission now that I know that you received more than 600, in total. I forgive you.
It’s not rejected! They’re all part of the collection, which, by the way, we are well on our way to finding a true archival home for.
Had you ever done anything like this before? Do you think anyone who sent in maps had done something like this before?
Personally? I had not done anything like this before. No.
You are a map lover, but not a map maker.
Indeed, indeed. But many of City Lab’s readers are design- and architecture-oriented people, so there were many map makers who had a design sensibility and who were fabulous illustrators.
Well as somebody who loves maps, I’m wondering what projects you see these maps in dialogue with. I was reminded of Image of the City, Kevin Lynch’s famous study from 1960 of the way people think about their environments, of mental maps.
That’s a really interesting reference. I had not thought about that. That urban atlas series by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro was really the primary inspiration for me—these books about San Francisco, New Orleans and New York that surface layers of urban history and experience.
The art in these quarantine maps is really beautiful, and often whimsical and fun. But I was struck by how looking back at a lot of these maps of the first lockdown, for people stuck in rooms or small apartments, the solitude, the spatial limits, the repetition, the obsessive attention to detail. It sometimes felt like looking at the routines of prisoners. It was a visceral reminder of how unpleasant and unusual this experience was—not all kooky neighborhood routines and sourdough bread.
There was a moment I think in spring 2020, like first week of April, when something like a third to half of the global population was like under some form of government stay-home order. It’s sort of hard to fathom that really happened, that there was an event that united our extremely disparate planet for that period of time. I think that really translates in the kind of intensity of observation, those feelings of early terror and grief and uncertainty.
There’s some darkness here.
That’s definitely true. A challenge of this project was, you ask people to sit down and make a map of what their life looks like. Well, if those people are reading City Lab, it’s going to attract, for the most part, people who were able to stay home. But the book does contain a number of nurses and doctors and grocery store workers, teachers and bike mechanics. Those maps in particular bring a level of gravity, and broaden the depth of the project. Those feelings of fear and uncertainty and isolated grief were just all the more profound for people who had to go to work at a grocery store and were feeling all those feelings while still having to pack the shelves and check people out.
Correct me if I’ve got the wrong impression here, but I felt like with the people we were calling essential workers, far from their maps being the most expansive and showing the most ground traveled, they’re often metaphorical or confined or focused on their place of work. And in some ways just as claustrophobic as some of the people who weren’t leaving their apartments.
The map that really stands out in this regard is by Louis McNair. It’s always kind of haunted me. At the time of drawing, he had literally just graduated college. So he is a young guy, his early twenties, and his senior year of college was turned upside down by COVID. It means that the track team he was on couldn’t compete and it was just this very traumatic moment. He is also working to put himself through school, which suddenly evaporates, but he’s still having to commute to his job at a grocery store.
The map is this black line down the center that charts his route from home to work. But then the background is just a wall of words. It’s work, school, masks, clothes, stress, finals, Zoom, friends and it descends into this scraggly scribble. It just conveys this sense of routine completely defined by the stress and uncertainty this moment in his life and in the environments that he is passing through.
There’s another version of map from people who map their smaller world, their apartment, or their neighborhood, onto a landscape like you’d see at the start of a fantasy novel, I thought that was a fun way of making something small feel big.
Like the Lord of the Rings, where you sort of have this world laid out for you to envision. They’re having fun with that. This map by Stentor Danielson is particularly funny, he’s got The Realm of Quarantine, The Seeing Stone of Zoom, The Temple of the Red and Black God, which I have to assume is Netflix.
One of the great problems for art in the 21st century is trying to represent the digital world and what an all-encompassing thing it is for our social lives, our entertainment, how we see our friends, do our jobs, all that stuff. There’s a couple of interesting metaphors employed here. Lydia Wei, a freshman studying at Stanford from home, renders Zoom as a “mythical sentient being.” Peter Gorman portrays his keyboard in the style of a city grid.
That map is like a one-sentence poem to me. The title is “The Quarantine Commute” and it’s just a very simple drawing of his keyboard, vertical. It’s this city grid, but of course if you’re working from home and online, that is the extent of your movement, it’s keystrokes.
One of the other big themes here is connecting with nature.
One of my favorite maps in the book is this map by C.X. Hua. It’s a map of sounds in her neighborhood. She’s marking not physical points in the landscape, but birds and wind chimes and passing bikes and cars. When you’re stuck in the same place, day in and day out, your senses start to become more attuned to things you would’ve normally tuned out.
Is there something therapeutic or helpful about thinking about your life in this way?
We did hear that from a number of map makers, which is not again what I was expecting or intending with this project at all, but I think it’s wonderful that people felt a certain level of catharsis, of relief at being able to put down these new and scary experiences onto paper. I think it does confer a sense of control if just momentarily. This can be a practice for times of uncertainty.