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Getting Lost in Terra Incognita

I adopted the role of Lost Tour Guide in order to engage with Grizedale as a site, and the Forest as a cultural space-place. Part of my remit is to establish an archive at Grizedale, so Getting Lost in Terra Incognita  investigates what happens when someone who is without experience of ‘archiving’ anything other than their own practice, attempts to navigate and find parallels between Terra Incognita and

the art archive, through exploring the points where mapping, archiving and collecting intersect.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines Terra Incognita as ‘unknown land’ – it derives from early European colonialists’ attempts to map and navigate the world so that they could ‘collect’ it. Whilst the coastlines were usually roughly sketched in, the continental landmasses of the Americas, Africa, Australia, and more recently Antarctica, were dubbed Terra Incognita. In lieu of the actual data, entire continents were filled with fantastic drawings of flora and fauna. The philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote about the archive in terms of privilege, about a fear of losing control of ‘knowledge’. I am proposing that whilst Terra Incognita is an admission of not having knowledge, it retains its sense of privilege, because the mapmaker was not just imaging space and land, but imagining it. 


My investigation into what a 21st century archive might be was supported by interviews with key archives across the UK. I'd like to thank the following institutions and individuals for their support:

Jonty Tarbuck (Locus+, Newcastle); Angie de Courcy Bower (Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield); Claire Mayoh (Henry Moore Institute, Leeds); Kiri Ross Jones, Anne Griifin & Daniela Zappi (Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew); and Nayia Yiakoumaki & Gary Haines (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London)


See images of these and other archives below.

Link to Into the Unknown Paper

Published in eSharp online peer reviewed journal. Issue 20. Spring 2013.



This paper is a navigation across time and space – travelling from 16th century colonial world maps which marked unknown territories as Terra Incognita, via 18th century cabinets of curiosities; to the unknown spaces of the Anthropocene Age, in which for the first time we humans are making a permanent geological record on the earth’s ecosystems. This includes climate change.


The recurring theme is loss and becoming lost.  I investigate what happens when someone who is lost attempts to navigate and find parallels between Terra Incognita and the art archive, and explore the points where mapping, archiving and collecting intersect. Once something is perceived to be at risk, the fear of loss and the impulse to preserve emerges. I investigate why in the Anthropocene Age we have a stronger impulse to the archive and look to the past, rather than face the unknowable effects of climate change. This is counterpointed by artists, whose hybridic practices engage with re-imaging and re-imagining today’s world, thereby moving us forward into the unknown. ‘Becoming’ is therefore another central theme.


The art archive is explored from multiple perspectives – as an artist, an art archive user and an archivist – noting that the subject, the consumer and the archivist all have very differing agendas. I question who uses physical archives today and how we can retain our sense of curiosity. I conclude with a link to an interactive artwork, which visualises, synthesises and expands this research.





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