Mapping Alternative Ulster Exhibition

Garrett Carr curates a curious collection of fresh perspectives by artists, historians and others at the Ulster Museum

Garrett Carr loves maps. Having developed a fondness for them as a child, as an adult he began designing his own – including 'The Map of Connections', 'The Map of Encounters' and 'The Map of Watchful Architecture' – and commenting on developments in Northern Irish map making on his blog, New Maps of Ulster.

'I don't think it's such an unusual thing,' says Garrett of his enduring obsession. 'Quite often on Desert Island Discs, when the guests are given the choice of a book to take with them, they go for atlases, or Ordinance Survey maps.

'I suppose it's that sense of maps being all encompassing – of taking something so vast and making it digestible – that I've always enjoyed. There is something very absorbing about looking at your actual coordinates on this huge sphere we live on.'

Now Garrett – a creative writing lecturer at Queen's University – has fulfilled an ambition to curate an exhibition of old and new maps of Northern Ireland, featuring maps by artists, social historians, architects and concerned collectives, which attempts to redress the balance in a country where maps are so often drawn along sectarian lines – where communities are designated either green or orange, nationalist or loyalist, and diversity is non-existent.

Mapping Alternative Ulster is currently on display in the Ulster Museum, and includes beautifully illustrated maps of Fermanagh townlands, flora and fauna by the late Johnny McKeagney, a new map entitled 'Missing City' by the Forum for Alternative Belfast – which highlights the city's decreasing population and the huge swathes of vacant land dotted all around the city centre – and another that Carr had shipped in from America especially for the occasion.

It is 'Friend Map', created in 1976 by John Carson. An incredibly prescient piece, it predates our current infatuation with Facebook and other social networks by mapping the locations of Carson's friends – all visualised in passport-sized black and white photos – in Carrickfergus, Belfast City and Greater Belfast, and connects them all with drawn lines, as well as those friends of Carr's who knew each. Carr is in awe of Carson's work.

'These days, we're quite used to thinking of our friendships in schematic terms. You've got a friend who knows this person who knows this person, and we draw these circles in our minds with connecting lines. But this is 1976... the height of the Troubles, an extremely bloody year. Yet out of that came this map, which is all about friendship, connection, relationships, people across the city knowing one another and having friends everywhere. So it's a wonderful statement, I think.'

Mapping Alternative Ulster also features work by Garrett, namely a map which delineates man-made crossing points across the Irish border – little bridges erected by school children, public walkways, ancient paths and the like – which the intrepid Carr discovered himself while traversing the border on foot. It is this curiosity, this sense of inclusiveness and of viewing the world from a fresh perspective, that informs the entire exhibition.

'In Northern Ireland especially, there is a focus on sectarian values or those kind of divisions,' Carr observes. 'We still see them now, political maps divided by orange and green, both of which are extremely hackneyed ways of looking at our neighbours and actually have a lot of negative connotations.

'Of course, they are political colours which have been applied to religious divisions for a start, and people just aren't that simple. Certainly we're living in a much more diverse Northern Ireland now. So I wanted to draw together some maps that question that, that offer alternatives to that, and that show other ways of looking at where we live.'

Mapping Alternative Ulster runs in the Ulster Museum, Belfast until June 22.