Mapping and its Discontents, Berkeley, CA

Posted: November 2, 2013 in gallery or event viewing
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Last thursday I caught a flight from NYC to SFO to attend “Mapping and Its Discontents” at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California. As a day long symposium the event focused on critical and counter cartography. It was sponsored by the Global Urban Humanities program, a collaboration between University of California Berkeley and UCLA. I was drawn to this symposium not only for the theme (obviously) but also for the map contest the event held titled “See Through Maps: Maps That Lay Bare Their Point of View” as well as a range of speakers including Rebecca Solnit, Dennis Wood, Laura Kurgan, Annette Kim, Zephyr Frank and Katherine Harmon. The day flew by as each presenter drew me into well formulated discussions about the history and symbolism of cartography, their personal work and philosophies with a summary and criticism from a respondent following the presentation of each speaker. 

Dennis Wood, known for being a well accomplished artist, writer, cartographer, intellectual and former professor of environmental psychology and design at the College of Design at North Carolina State University opened the symposium with a talk on the origins and symbolism of power inherent in maps. In his talk Wood stated that prior to ~1500 a.d. mapping as a professional / state tool did not exist. From ~1500-1700 there was an explosion of sporadic map making across the globe from Japan to Russia to Spain; an activity that coincided with the formation of the modern nation-state. Wood argued that although maps had been created prior to 1500 a.d. their role was not as important. What this means is that maps became an artifact that assisted in constructing the nation-state, or in his words; “as maps affirm the state, the state affirms the map.” Despite the map’s evolution in modern times and its appropriation for allegorical methods as well as artists, Dadaists, Situationists, and modern day activists and data-viz the map still remains a tool of the nation-state. For example we currently are witnessing fighting over school and election districts mapping; two areas that greatly influence the lives of everyone in the United States.

Both Laura Kurgan and Annette Kim gave presentations about their work in cartography and spatial thinking that encompassed the realm of counter-cartography. Kurgan, a professor at the Graduate School of Architectural Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, director of the Spatial Information Design Lab and co-director of the Advanced Data Visualization Project spoke about being the first artist to appropriate de-classified government satellite imagery during the mid 1990’s. The work she created from the imagery included photographed landscapes that are unusually a single color but represent uniquely critical or contested spaces. Two were a completely white area that was part of the ANWR (Artic Wildlife Refuge) in Alaska, a controversially planned oil well drill site, and a completely blue area representing 0˚ Latitude and 0˚ Longitude, the point of origin for Cartesian plotting all geographic data. Kurgan also created a very powerful map of Brooklyn, NY that thematically represented the amount of money being lost from each census block due to prisoner incarceration. This map provocatively reframes the prison debate by demonstrating that a large amount of capital is being taken away from poor neighborhoods within inner cities.

Annette Kim, a professor at MIT’s department of Urban Studies and Planning and director of the MIT research group SLAB spoke about developing methods for Spatial Ethonography and critical cartography . Kim’s projects involved mapping sidewalk life in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam in order to progressively influence that city’s planners. Her approach actively seeks to change the current swath of similar looking data-visualization that has gained growing popularity in the past decade. Her methods included creating non-euclidian and cinematic maps of parts of Ho Chi Minh city. As street vendors face constant harassment and persecution from police Kim sought to bring the lively and highly networked sidewalk life to the planner’s attention with success; she was able to get the planners to step back from their maps and actually walk the ground of the city to make qualitative observations that would influence the planning process. Kim’s work is provocative in the sense that it asks us the question who are using maps? In Ho Chi Minh city it appears to be the city planners, construction companies and tourists but not the people living there and participating in sidewalk life. Thus she asks us to consider how as cartographers we can humanize our work through doing research on the ground instead of only relying on data.

There were many other speakers I would like to mention more about but the main take aways from the conference I saw were as follows:

  1. Cartography needs to become more democratic, potentially this means that it evolve into a form beyond cartography to escape it’s legacy and association with the nation-state. To this I would add that the practice of cartography needs to become more inclusive.
  2. Designers, researchers, and cartographers must make our maps more humanistic through the use of qualitative research performed on the ground, often in a participatory nature.
  3. Maps are not necessarily the best method to display information or data; consider using spatial thinking to create forms of visualization that are photographic, cinematic, or diagrams.
  4. We should consider the power relations at work when it comes to maps. Rebecca Solnit speaks of how a paper map empowers the user while relying on Google Maps implies a sort of obedience of the user to accept the information Google is providing such as directions to a place. Additionally, what are maps choosing to depict and what are they not? We need to question this when looking at this is important for identify a map’s hidden intention(s).
  5. Maps exist as arguments or propositions and are not objective. They embody the biases of the map maker. This can be a good thing for maps have the potential to make the “invisible visible” as with counter-mapping. 
  6. Similarly, data is never objective or inherently “raw”. It has always been created with a bias and as such we should never treat it as unbiased or entirely true.
  1. David says:

    Nice article. We’re proud of our biases which are only enabled by Open Data. We’d love to see more companies do this.

    • chenrick says:

      thanks David, open-data is definitely a plus for creating transparency in gov. Though I think we still need to work towards making this data more accessible and meaningful to others.

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