MappaMundi – An interview by Karin Schiefer with Bady Minck

Since the beginning of the age of digitalisation there has been a continuous discussion about a society in the throes of change which has intensified in recent years since the beginning of the increases in migratory movements. Was it this discussion about change, as if everything previous had been based on stability and peace, that provided the thought-provoking impetus for MappaMundi, as a way of seeing the present moment in its relativity and in relation to the motion of our planet in the universe?

BADY MINCK: These discussions were not the motivation but they certainly provided a certain confirmation. It’s true that at the present time change is conspicuous, on the one hand because of migration and, on the other, because of the changes in our understanding of the world that have come about as the result of the internet. But I was particularly interested my concern with dimensions – one of my fetish subjects – playing with the dimensions: area, space and time. This is subject that appears in my work repeatedly and culminates in MappaMundi. In Der Mensch mit den modernen Nerven [The man with modern nerves] I was fascinated by the plans drawn by Adolf Loos that proposed a city hall for Mexico City with a few lines and developed a city with a whole network of streets round about it. Perhaps that comes from the fact that I studied sculpture and my approach to questions is always something like ‘how can I get from a flat drawing to three-dimensional space and how can I impart movement to space? Or vice versa. If I consider Im Anfang war der Blick [In the Beginning was the Eye] I was concerned with the issue of how Austrian postcards represent the country and what part of the image of Austria is lost by squeezing it into a postcard. As I was in the process of completing this film concerned with the limited framework of a postcard, where everything is cropped to an idyll, I began to consider the idea of looking at my basic subject in a wider framework and wanted to take on a broader, and also geopolitical, challenge. That’s how I got from postcard to world map.

This iconographic question about the depiction of the world in the course of the history of humanity must come up in relation to both content and form. This iconographic issue of the depiction of the world in the course of human history was something you had to confront both substantively and from a formal point of view.

BADY MINCK: I asked myself what would be needed for people to look at the world in a balanced way. Initially I did research on historical maps of the world and discovered an uncanny diversity, on the one hand there was the course of history and, on the other, various geographical viewpoints. From this I deduced a need for view for an “outside” view. Where might such a refreshing view come from? Not from any of the continents. No. It had to come from the cosmos. So my gaze wandered out into space and cosmic cartographers help me to establish this viewpoint. The research made me aware just how much everything in space is in perpetual movement. Motion is the principle in our cosmos, our whole world order. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about continental drift or the movement of migrants. Even if we had the ultimate map of the world that registered everything, this would have to be re-drawn every five hundred years because the earth’s crust continues to move, so the constellations are always different. Not only is space based on perpetual motion, our planet and our own bodies are too. So current discussions about drawing borders and stopping migration seem that much more absurd. Homo sapiens would not have survived if we had not always searched for ideal circumstances, for the best possible living conditions. I would like to think that this realisation reverberates as an undertone.

MappaMundi seems so incredibly complex as far as research goes, but also on the technical level – animation, sound and textual levels – too. Did you begin to form a team at a very early stage in the project?

BADY MINCK: The subject is so huge that one could develop a hundred films from it. So I had to do the research myself in order to get an overview and to filter out what might fit into the film. And for the first two years I fought my way through the brush in order to make a pathway. It was only then that I could get help from others. I made the animatic, a sort of moving sketch, with Eni Brandner (with whom I’ve worked since Im Anfang war der Blick) to get a feeling for the movement, length, etc. For a film that is dealing with the principle of perpetual change this is an indispensable foundation. Just a screenplay or storyboard would have been too little.

How did you open up the world of world maps?

BADY MINCK: I began with the very oldest depictions because they represent the roots. Then I worked chronologically up to the present. Christian maps my demanded attention simply because there were so very many of them. Of course I wanted Islamic and Asian maps too. Finding some of the latter was extremely difficult. At the beginning there was very little in the internet that was freely available and in addition you had to be able to read Chinese. Then, together with Eni Brandner, we worked our way through the twenty-one volumes of Harley & Woodward‘s The History of Cartography, the bible in this area, in the holdings of the Austrian National Library. However, in this seminal academic work no-one takes the risk of postulating dates for the maps. And that meant that we really had to dig into the research. In the case of the very old maps we had to burrow through countless books to encounter any dates. Sometimes popular texts were more helpful because it was more likely that the writer would risk estimating a date. Limiting this mass of material was a huge amount of work. To create order we created a digital databank of the early maps. As far as I remember we collected about 1500 maps from which we used about a hundred in the film. After the Egyptians and Babylonians, the Greeks not only advanced philosophy in depth and breadth, but also cartography. The Romans treated their maps with much less philosophical ambition. They were more utilitarian – they were made for military and trading purposes. Greek knowledge then lay dormant in a few libraries and it was the Moslems who re-awakened the wealth of Greek cartographic knowledge and took it further. The Christians were very concerned that their maps conformed to what was asserted in the bible. Enlightenment was not the aim; the glorification of God was. Contrary to those from the Islamic world, Christian maps are very influenced by ideology. At the time Islam was a far more open religion than Christianity. There is no mention in the bible of continents or that the world is round, and that lack was not to be controverted.

Why was cartography so influenced by religion?

BADY MINCK: That’s the question I asked too. It could not have been simply resistance to bringing enlightenment to the people. In MappaMundi there is a Christian Psalter chart from 1265 that shows the world as the body of Christ with Jerusalem as his navel. That may well be evidence that Christian teaching not only saw the earth as God’s creation, but also, in a figurative sense, it was his body. Asiatic approaches to cartography were completely different. They made no distinction between the tangible and the intangible world. So Asiatic maps are fundamentally different. They are really mandalas. Chinese maps are an exception because they are also territorial maps although on world maps China was always spatially over-sized. No matter what approach was taken, each one focussed on its own centre: Christians on Jerusalem, Moslems on Mecca, the Chinese on the Middle Kingdom, i.e. China.

At which point was a global consensus formed about how to depict the earth?

BADY MINCK: If you omit Australia, Greenland and territories on the “edges”, then you might say that there was a consensus as early as the seventeenth century. But an indisputable scientific view of the world does not exist even now. Despite their accuracy, satellite maps are only constructions, collages from thousands of photos. To put them together each photo has to be cropped and bent and thus an element of subjective decision is introduced in favour of this or that and slightly distorting it. There is still no way to depict the earth that is unambiguously “correct”. Google Earth can’t do it either.

MappaMundi unites a philosophical approach with a scientific one, a poetic with a cinematographic one. How did MappaMundi arrive at its form in the midst of this force field?

BADY MINCK: That happened automatically. I took on the challenge of a very complex subject and the approach was determined by the subject matter. The essential question I was concerned with was: “How can I look at planet earth in a way that is geopolitically free of influence?” That question did not make financing MappaMundi any easier because the science fiction perspective which I’ve linked with documentary content was met, at least in part, with incomprehension. But for me the project would have made no sense if this “neutral” viewpoint in space had not taken centre stage. The earth is just a little cog in space. Space, the cosmos, is the principle by which we live. Why should this view from space not be appropriate? I couldn’t see an ideological problem there.

At some point this religiously-determined depiction of the planet must have given way to the maps drawn by the seafarers …

BADY MINCK: Yes, up to the time of the navigators they were ideologically influenced. Then came the Renaissance: humans, freed themselves from ideologies, strove for discoveries and sailed off to explore and measure the coastlines. It is from this period that we have portolans, navigation aids that only showed the coastal regions. Little by little the seafarers discover the continents. In 1420 a Chinese ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope which up till then had been regarded as impassable. During the Ming dynasty China expended huge sums of money on expeditions that went to Africa and possibly even as far as California. Afterwards they destroyed everything – maps and records. That meant that for the film we had to follow up long trails which often ended when we found out that the information had become scientifically unsafe and would have diminished the integrity of the film. In this way some essential elements dropped out of the film and then a lot of other things no longer fitted. The construction of MappaMundi was like a house of cards where each card has to be stable in itself so that the whole does not collapse because one card was used as a supporting column. Asiatic maps proved to be specially difficult. I would have liked to work with Chinese cartographers but I wasn’t successful in this.

The title of your film, Im Anfang war der Blick [In the Beginning was the Eye], already indicates a quest for something primal and an approach to time; MappaMundi is witness to the appropriation of land by homo sapiens and a journey through geological ages. Just how much are you involved in dealing with the factor of time?

BADY MINCK: The element of time runs through all of my films. One can find out a great deal by stretching and compressing time. You only have to treat time in the film differently and right away you have a stronger overview of the world. I will never again deal with such a vast expanse of time in my films. 750 million years in the past, 250 million years into the future: in MappaMundi you experience a billion years. The audience has the feeling that they are part of the crew of a spaceship journeying through millions of years. In the process you become aware of just how short the life of homo sapiens on earth has been and, more than anything, how short an individual lifespan is. It’s very important for me to make those different weightings palpable. I’m also concerned with the confrontation of conflicting elements. In Im Anfang war der Blick I sought out a person from the world of words – Bodo Hell – whom I dropped into a world of images to find out what resulted. In MappaMundi the cosmic cartographers are confronted with our world and I hope that their view of it makes it possible for us to see the world anew. In MappaMundi the present is almost imperceptible because it only exists for a very short time – when space junk appears – and then it’s gone again.

A further constitutive element is language – words, the text and also the translations (I’m thinking of the cosmic language at the beginning. Maps, too, are a king of translation) and the passages that are not translated such excepts from the Odyssey, from Dante’s Inferno or the Babylonian babble of voices … How did you approach the use of language?

BADY MINCK: The text was written right at the end. I first tried to make a film without any language at all because it’s the element I’m least comfortable with. Everything else is relatively easy even if MappaMundi did demand tiring research. Only the textual level made me sweat and sit there with misgivings. The film came slowly, layer by layer, like an onion. One challenge consisted in contending with the many technically elaborate elements so that they came together and look as if they are parts of a whole. Throughout the post-production process I was confronted with a changing test audience. I took note of their feedback and then went back to the editing room with my two editors, Frédéric Fichefet and Pia Dumont. It then turned out that language was unavoidable. It had to be a bridge in situations where understanding could not be generated in any other way. The literary elements that have been incorporated are Dante’s Inferno (which has inspired another project of mine which I’m working on at the moment) and Homer’s Odyssey which is the description of a geographical situation – the area around the Mediterranean Sea. His journey was made by ship and, just as the cartographers had done, it followed the contours of the littoral. And it has never been proved that Homer actually existed … [so] by using language the author of the Odyssey was a kind of cartographer too.

In the film the earth becomes a talking character and the science fiction part is certainly told in an ironic tone of voice. Why was it important to employ humour here with this factual subject?

BADY MINCK: Nothing I do can be without its share of humour. Humour was already present before there was any dialogue. I’m thinking here of the Roman map that falls on the Greek globe and squelches it, or Columbus being spat out by a crocodile in Central America. The earth as speaking film protagonist adds word games and jokes. I saw it as an additional means of completely free expression that I wanted to use. I didn’t approach the film like the ancient Christians approached cartography, by building an ideology within which I was then forced to move. I wanted no dogma such as is found in documentary films.

Was it pleasurable work to make use of the technical possibilities to develop a multi-layered, playful approach to the subject?

BADY MINCK: Yes, it was fun, first of all to work on such a wonderful subject and secondly to do it with such a talented and motivated group of people. However, the tight budget did detract from the fun. The realisation of the film took so long because I always had to wait until someone could work with me or I had the time to do it myself. For years work on the film took place mostly at night or at the weekend. Twice the project came to a complete standstill: during that period I began develop a new project: a full length feature film with the working title 1313 Dante’s Emperor. For the screenplay I took part in Sources, went to pitch markets and was given an award from Eurimages. It will be about Dante and Heinrich VII (Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, Italy and Count of Luxembourg).

Yet another universe opens up in the soundtrack to MappaMundi …

BADY MINCK: Towards the end of the film you can hear the movements and sounds made by the cosmic cartographers and the sounds of their machines – they have grown together with their computers and seats. All their sounds were produced by beatboxers. Initially we had “normal” digital sound design sounds. But I was never happy with that sonic world. The spaceship should seem to be like a belly of a whale or a gigantic intestine and it should sound like that too. Two beatboxers, who can replicate every sound with their mouth and throat, then produced the sound for the whole film. That gave the film an aspect I had seeking for a long time but never found namely, that in the spaceship everything is a single body, organic. It might well be our internal workings from which we look out into the world.

I really do get the impression here that you are not only presenting a filmic work but one that is sculptural too in the sense that you took this enormous mass of material and formed it, bit by bit.

BADY MINCK: I see myself as a fictional narrator but what you say certainly has something to it. And the third dimension that is so important to me – from paper into space – is very present. During my studies with Professor Bruno Gironcoli we had to draw a lot, I liked that. It was more important to him than the sculptures because he could see from the drawing if someone could think in three dimensions, plastically. Interestingly this has become the eternal topic of my films.

… just as film can be regarded as a kind of sculpture.

BADY MINCK: That’s right. A sculpture in time.


Interview: Karin Schiefer

January 2017