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Exhibition Review Imaginary Cities, British Library, London

A groundbreaking exhibition shows how perceptions of futuristic urban environments are being transformed in the digital age

ALGORITHMS have existed since the ancient Greeks and they are increasingly becoming a part of everyday life in the digital age.

We’re not just seeing their practical use in the realm of science, computing and mathematics but also in the arts – particularly in electronic music – and now, as the British Library’s resident artist Michael Takeo Magruder skilfully demonstrates, even in art installations.

Images and metadata from 18th and 19th-century maps of London, Paris, New York and Chicago have been used for the four works on display and, as Magruder explains to me on a guided tour of the free exhibition, the painstaking operation originally involved a bank of one million images of historic urban maps in the British Library’s online digital archive.

They were whittled down in algorithmic stages to 68,000 then 50,000, before culminating in the four chosen. Much of the process was based on the popularity and metadata of each map, such as the number of users who interacted with each image through view counts, favourites and tags, as well as how detailed the maps were.

Initially, Magruder envisioned a map from different parts of the globe but had to settle on Western cities, two from north America and two from Europe because the maps had more detail to work with.

“I would have liked to work from a map from an eastern city but my research soon found that the level of detail of maps in the region from this era was scant,” he explains, “largely due to the fact that people at this time did not travel so much and so cities in the east were less documented.”

Perhaps the most striking of the four art installations is Magruder’s VR portrayal of New York, based on a plan of the city from 1766-67. Here visitors are invited to don a VR headset and fly through a real-time 3D virtual experience of the city.

That 3D environment is algorithmically generated afresh each day as the virtual world is subtly changed from the interaction with the map by users online.

Paris, based on a map from 1877, shows four algorithmically generated monoprints on 24ct gold-gilded cotton boards and an 1874 map of Chicago has been transformed into a circuit board using cut-up laser engraved sapele hardwood with a UV-light inlay.

The map of late Georgian London is presented on a triptych of ever-changing LED screens, using algorithms based on user metadata from 2018.

“Part of my inspiration for the work was the idea that the word map now has many meanings in the digital age, such as mapping through networks,” says Magruder and the exhibition certainly evidences his singular talents as a consummate techie, mathematician and visual artist.

A fitting tribute to the opening of the exhibition sees the library’s entrance hall playing host to a unique “algorave,” with electronic music and visuals from DJs Coral Manton, the Yorkshire Programming Ensemble (TYPE), hellocatfood and ALGOBABEZ.

Using live-coding programmes such as Cyril, ChucK and SuperCollider to create 3D visuals, they came up with a unique experience in a unique setting.

Runs until July 14, opening times:


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