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Intervention – ‘Thinking/Making Geographic Representation’

by Chris Alton, Zulaikha Ayub, Alex Chen, Leif Estrada, Justin Kollar, Patrick Leonard, Martin Pavlinic, Andreas Viglakis and Matthew W. Wilson*

...Geographic RepresentationFollowing a seminar in critical and social cartography at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, course participants set about writing a manifesto of sorts, a provocation in the thinking and practice of geographic representation. Our seminar discussions charted a renewal of geographic representation alongside the advancement of neogeography, the saturation of location-based services, the marketization of geodesign, the reconfiguration of the humanities toward the spatial and the digital, and the drumbeats of ‘big data’, the ‘death of theory’, the ‘quantified self’, ‘smart cities’, and ‘cyberinfrastructure’. In addition to identifying these various stratifications, we examined the destratifying potential of (more-than-)representational geographies, to ask: where and when are the moments of fracture, of potential deterritorialization? How might we examine the histories of these reterritorializations in mapmaking, to inform our social and critical cartographies?

Make art, not maps

Talk is cheap. So are pixels and kilobytes. To build is more labored than to destroy, and tending to our collective attention is the work of humanist scholars, artists, writers, poets, playwrights, and architects–not gaggles of open-source spectators and speculators. Let us build masterpieces for they are immutable. We would rather enter the ground in pursuit of ineffability than constantly lose face in the mangle in which we are all subsumed.

Harness confusion

How maps and mapping need to be rethought starts with a rejection of both the possibility and desirability of a world where the production of maps has been hijacked by a single technique monomaniacally focused on superficial clarity. This alone is maybe not so extreme or interesting, but in its place we would elevate confusion, disorientation and the uncanny as the values integral to a successful critical mapping practice. The best maps hold our attention by compelling us to reexamine the familiar in a new way. We argue that maps need to be less obvious, which is not to say illegible, and aspire to a kind of vaguely unfamiliar familiar. After all, why pay serious attention to a map showing something known in a familiar manner? To deeply engage with the viewer the map has to provide a sense of déjà vu, to grab their attention and imagination by giving them a sense of the familiar within the context of an overall confusion. Or the reverse. It is certainly a delicate line, but once one has captured a viewer’s attention this temporary disorientation can be remedied through an act of reorientation–of slowly reading the map–to produce the desired reading. The goal of maps is never to be unclear; the viewer should always come away with a sense of the author’s purpose, if not their intention. Rather, it is the process by which this clarity is rendered that governs whether a map will actually meaningfully engage with its audience. That which is easily grasped is quickly forgotten. Mapping needs to embrace and harness the power of confusion and learn how to use it to produce a mode of clarity not yoked to the lowest common denominator–that is, the infographic.

Embrace change

The map, as a processual creation, is continuously changing and undetermined. Maps are, indeed, always in a state of becoming–ripe for reinvention and filled with opportunity. How this potential energy is employed, however, remains an open question. The map is constitutive, as creating and interweaving worlds (both virtual and real, and perhaps necessarily both). Inasmuch as the line between the real and the virtual, the human and the machine, has become blurred, the map’s role as a force of creation should be considered within the scope of cartographic and geographic inquiry. The map is subjective, in terms of its production, consumption, and ‘prosumption’. As the sharp division between the first two positions fades, as each synthesizes into the final, the understanding of the map as objective in either sense is increasingly archaic.

Create change

We’ve explored not only the role of maps, but also the historicity of the geographic discipline, importance of visualization, relations with culture and conceptions of space, affective effects, cartographic practices, etc. We have come to see geo/carto as a discipline that links space and culture in the reflexive and productive practice of mapping as medium, i.e. the map holds the key to changing the way our world may be conceived and acted upon. This is quite powerful, to move from a reactive stance of studying spatial phenomenon to creating spatial phenomenon.

Confront power

Let us not appeal only to the online, the map must be able to be disappeared as quickly as it is created. If we believe that the ‘socio-spatial dialectic’ both enables space’s use as a weapon and acts as a trap, and that cyberspace functions within the same contradiction, then we are advantaged to move fluidly between tools. Go to a person. Tell her something. Tell her not to tell anyone. Draw her a picture if you have to. Fold it up and put it in her pocket and then tell her when she’s located the suitcase to either burn or ingest the letter. It’s not rocket science. Be literate in social media but generate as much small data as possible whenever possible. We can’t rely on open source for sake of not also opening space. The actual creation of space is happening everywhere without us already and it has always been that way. Architects and planners are largely irrelevant but for the sake of capital accumulation. In most of the world things happen and are built because they have to and they often operate better than we could construct them anyway. 1) Identify all of this as some sort of relationship of socio-spatial power; 2) Align with an interest that confronts power and collectively generate data that reveals the processes of domination; 3) Understand that crisis and sacrifice are everywhere at all times.

Unlearn

Design, specifically architecture, had a parallel struggle with geography when it comes to the mediation of technological media within the profession, which was greeted with mix receptions–those who are either for it or against it. The rise of BIM platforms in architectural practice and GIS in geography caused a dichotomous dialogue. Within their respective practices, these platforms were considered producers of ‘truths’ and dodged critique because of the governing agencies behind them. However, just as it is productive to produce with the use of such software, it is also productive to unlearn such ‘truths’. The practice of architecture pushes towards the production of design that is (trying to be) un-subjective to personal decisions, hence the site analyses and conceptual proposals to create buildings that are deemed of greater value with their supposed objective ‘truths’. This may be the same reason for the production of platforms such as GIS–in order to justify and legitimize the ‘truths’ in the way we produce maps.

Understand, then propose

If we’re looking for a kind of post-disciplinary, post-specialization future, then we like the possibilities for universalizing the structures of understanding our current globally-positioned milieu. It’s not just for cartographers and geographers to problematize the ‘black box’, both algorithmic and infrastructural, relaying the inputs and outputs of most human interactions today, especially if we listen to Stiegler and his pleas for engagement. To a certain degree, the kind of propositions design students make do not differ terribly from a kind of mapmaking. Design students, in their drawings and renderings, visually describe speculative configurations of extant and imagined spaces. If maps are propositions, then there is little difference between the propositions designers make and what they’re talking about, on a theoretical level, even to the point of being instructions of sorts toward future action, whether it is building or walking or tax collection.

Above all, engage

To recap: Talk is cheap. So are pixels and kilobytes. Influence and effect comes with practice. And practices. We are our productions–cartographic, academic, capitalistic. To shy from action for fear of false steps is to fail. Epistemological enemies are easy to create; active engagements are far more challenging. It’s time.

*Corresponding author: Matthew W. Wilson, Visiting Scholar, Graduate School of Design and Center for Geographic Analysis, Harvard University, matthew_wilson@harvard.edu / Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, University of Kentucky, matthew.w.wilson@uky.edu

This essay was first published at CriticalGIS.com on 7 June 2014.

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