T as in Terra Incognita

von Daniela Bär Daniela Bär, *1989, ist Kulturpublizistik-Absolventin und Zollfreilager-Mitgründerin. gepostet am 15. Dezember 2014

The unknown inspires the imagination, as a look at the history of cartography shows. Uncharted territories, the Terra incognita, were colonized by dragons, hic sunt dracones, and guarded by lions, hic sunt leones. Borders were created by marking known and unknown land, touched and untouched soil. The line between already knowing and merely guessing. The line between belonging and being foreign. The line between fact and fiction.

We owe our refined worldview to the intrepid explorers of the past and to the satellites of the present, which dissect spaces of one square meter several times a day. We knew of rivers and lakes without ever having to stand at their banks. We can name plateaus and caves without ever crawling up them or in them. Ever since documentaries informed us about antipodes and Google Maps has allowed us to go on journeys seated in our chairs at home, the term ‘entering new territory’ has become a metaphor.

Although: knowledge and ignorance do not behave according to the rules of reverse proportionality. The more we can know, the less we actually do know in relation to possible knowledge. Even the most precise satellite image cannot grasp the canyons and the steep faces from above, and so spaces, hundred thousand square kilometers in size, are reduced to a single line on the map. During the 16th century it sufficed to settle along the coast of Terra australis incognita in order to make it a part of the known world. Today’s research has to clear a much higher bar. The Arctic, the Venezuelan rainforest, huge parts of the ocean floor: all of these have long since been surveyed. However, not much is known about their flora, fauna or geological condition. That is why researchers still call them “white spots.”


Another form of as-yet-uncharted territory is presented by the project Italian Limes at the 2014 Architecture Biennale in Venice. For Marco Ferrari, co-initiator of the project, two observations are central to the project. Firstly the loss, through the Schengen Agreement for instance, of a sense for crossing borders. Secondly, the regulation of borders by technical innovations that force us to think and act more precisely. The latter is shown in Italian Limes by means of the demarcation line between Italy and Austria, which runs over the Grafferner Crevasse, located on the 3,599m high Similaun Glacier. Since 1920, the watershed divide has decided where Italy ends and Austria begins. For the past few years, however, global warming has unsettled this certainty. The glacier on the mountain is melting and along with it the natural border is as well. In order to measure the shift of the natural border on the Grafferner Crevasse for Italian Limes, GPS probes were embedded in the ice. The latest data was transmitted to the Arsenale, where visitors could print out their own map. Printed on them was a Terra incognita, a territory without a specific affiliation.

Technological advances, which promised a Terra cognita, continue to produce further white spots on the map – spots that with still bigger problems in measurability and assignability within a still growing number of scientific approaches will probably stay unknown.This is why unknown territories exist in places long since discovered. The contemporary Terra incognita is a question of perspective and scale. Its story reads like a castling: from an unknown and therefore uncharted territory to a charted territory of unknown expanse.

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Translation: Sophia Cosby