British Library unveils four fantastical, technology-based art installations inspired by historic urban maps

Michael Takeo Magruder, Imaginary Cities at the British Library, 2019. Photographs by David Steele (c) Michael Takeo Magruder
Imaginary Cities

5 April – 14 July 2019

The British Library today unveils four newly commissioned technology-based art installations by artist-in-residence, Michael Takeo Magruder. Staged in the Library’s Entrance Hall gallery, Imaginary Cities is a free exhibition exploring the creative potential of archives and collections in the Digital Age. 

The installations are a creative response to four 19th-century maps of London, Paris, New York and Chicago from a collection of 50,000 images found within the British Library’s One Million Images from Scanned Books collection, which is freely available on Flickr Commons. They reflect upon the hybrid nature of archives in the twenty-first century through a combination of digital technologies and traditional fine art processes. Algorithmically generated imagery and virtual reality environments are used alongside precious metal gilding and historical woodworking techniques to create four fantastical cityscapes for the Information Age, which will be displayed alongside the original source maps from printed books contained within the British Library’s archives.

The exhibition will include a virtual reality cityscape based on New York City which is generated anew each day to reflect the live, ever-changing visitor data – including page views, interactions and volunteer image tagging – of the historical map on Flickr Commons. The piece visually highlights how the British Library collections are a living entity, sparking new and unexpected creativity.

Imaginary Cities was developed in collaboration with British Library Labs, an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and British Library funded project that inspires and facilitates use of the Library’s digital collections and data in exciting, innovative new ways. Since the One Million Images from Scanned Books collection was released into the public domain five years ago, it has received over one billion views and sparked a wealth of creative responses. Imaginary Cities perfectly showcases how open and free access to the British Library’s images has stimulated creativity and led to the development of inventive, born-digital and analogue cultural outputs designed for 21st-century audiences.

To mark the opening, the British Library will host a talk by the artist and his collaborators, followed by an Algorave, which will see the Library transformed in a futuristic late-night coding event in collaboration with The Alan Turing Institute. Imaginary Cities is generously supported by The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

Michael Takeo Magruder, said “As I delved into the archive of one million images, searching for precious moments and unknown fragments within the vast digital collection, I began to think about how I could use not only the image data to generate objects and experiences, but also the metadata like view counts, favourites and tags. When an archive becomes digital and is opened to the world it becomes a ‘living’ structure that is constantly changing as people connect to it, use it, and leave traces of themselves. This, from an artistic standpoint, became most interesting to me. And so, I set out to create artworks that would capture and embody this essence; creations designed by me and my collaborators, but ultimately dictated by the choices of passers-by whom we would never know or meet.”

Mahendra Mahey, manager of British Library Labs, said “The British Library has been a sector leader in releasing images from cultural collections into the public domain to be used freely. Since we uploaded one million images to Flickr Commons in 2013, the wildly inventive ways they’ve been used by people from all around the world has astounded us: we’ve seen the development of new artificial intelligence research, image tagging software and video games to educational initiatives, commercial products and artworks which have been exhibited all over the world. We’re delighted to celebrate the creativity that has been unleashed by our Flickr Commons collection through Imaginary Cities, an exhibition which perfectly encapsulates what BL Labs is all about.”


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Notes to Editors

Michael Takeo Magruder (b.1974, US/UK, is a visual artist who works with new media including real-time data, digital archives, immersive environments, mobile devices and virtual worlds. His practice explores concepts ranging from media criticism and aesthetic journalism to digital formalism and computational aesthetics, deploying Information Age technologies and systems to examine our networked, media-rich world. In the last 20 years, Michael’s projects have been showcased in over 280 exhibitions in 35 countries, and his art has been supported by numerous institutions within the UK, US and EU. In 2010, he represented the UK at Manifesta 8: the European Biennial of Contemporary Art and several of his most well-known digital artworks were added to the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art. As a Leverhulme Trust artist-in-residence, Michael produced De/coding the Apocalypse (2014); a solo exhibition exploring contemporary creative visions based on the Book of Revelation. The following year, he was awarded the 2015 Immersive Environments Lumen Prize for his VR installation A New Jerusalem. More recently, he has developed projects reflecting on migration issues surrounding the Syrian Civil War (Lamentation for the Forsaken, 2016) and the US southern border crisis (Zero Tolerance, 2018). At present, Michael is artist-in-residence at the British Library, researching digital map archives and the One Million Images from Scanned Books collection.

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website – – every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages. The Eccles Centre for American Studies promotes the British Library's North American collections and supports the study of North America in schools and universities. The Centre was founded by David and Mary Eccles in 1991 and is based at the British Library. The Centre works closely with the Library’s curatorial teams to promote awareness of the United States, Canadian and Caribbean collections and offers programmes of financial support for researchers. The Centre also collaborates closely with members of the American, Canadian and Caribbean Studies communities in the UK, and with other partners interested in the advancement of knowledge about North America. It hosts numerous events each year, and its lively and diverse programme includes lectures, discussion panels, conferences, concerts and seminars aimed at academics, university students, school pupils, creatives and the general public.

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