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Notes for a talk given for Golan Levin's Interactive Art and Computational Design students, January 19, 2016.

Some Approaches to Critical Cartography

Notes for a talk given for Golan Levin's Interactive Art and Computational Design students, January 19, 2016. This was a lecture given in advance of their first big assignment, which was to make a map.


"The Map is the perfect symbol of the state."

#####Mark Monmonier, How to Lie With Maps

  • When I first read that sentence, it totally killed me because it seemed so self-evident and yet I hadn't really seen it put so succinctly.
  • The act of visually defining a terrain isn't always linked to conquest, but it is tied to the pursuit of what James C. Scott has called legibility--that is, some abstraction that demonstrates the "realness" or legitimacy of an argument or an idea. The state becomes "real" when you can point to its borders, comprehend its scale and vastness, when you can look at it. The arguments for specific housing and loan policies become "real" and "valid" when they're put on a map.
  • That idea and pursuit of legibility persists today, and has been in some ways further complicated by the infinite varieties of data that are available to people and governments. I feel like there's a weird psychic link between old medieval world maps and real-time crime centers full of screens and these totally weird, ridiculous diagrams of national security "information awareness" systems.
  • For a long time, the knowledge and skillset required to create maps was treated as a highly privileged form. In China it's actually technically still illegal for non-government actors to even make maps.

More of a thing != democratized thing

  • It's easy to forget the ways in which the imperialist legacy of legibility permeates cartography today, when the tools for making maps and tools for understanding where things are in general, like GPS, are easier and easier for people to use. The internet definitely transformed the relationship people have to maps (particularly their everyday dependence on them), but it didn't necessarily completely "democratize" them any more than the internet itself ushered in an age of perfect democratic utopia.

Google And Its Discontents

OpenNews Project on Map Disputes
Atlas Obscura: When Google Goes Blind
  • Some useful examples of this come from arguably the biggest actor in transforming how we live with maps today: Google. On the one hand, they've made it incredibly easy to see the world--but they've also carefully curated how people see that world, sometimes by changing the borders of disputed territories based on where users are viewing the map, sometimes by colluding with governments to obscure things on the map, and sometimes protecting their own assets through obscuring things on the map (something I learned while trying to find and visit Google data centers).

The West Wing Clip All The Map Nerds Show To Normal People To Make What They Do Make Sense

  • And, of course, maps impose or reinforce specific power dynamics not only because of the data they choose to disclose or obscure, but also in the way that data is framed or shaped. (I kind of hate myself for using the West Wing clip but damn it, it's effective)

###The Point Is

  • Maps are instruments of power--both in their ability to be tactically applied to literal physical conquest and in their ability to shape or shift narratives about or within different places.
  • The concept of critical cartography or counter-mapping is rooted in mapmaking that actively engages with or challenges existing power dynamics. So these are a few different examples of techniques used by different mapmakers and artists to use and think about maps critically.
  • Some of these examples are of things I've made, some of them are by people who inspire me, and it's a far from exhaustive selection of works or methods. I feel kind of weird putting my own work in that whole set but honestly, it is kind of useful for me to step back and look at what is mostly pretty old work and think about what it's doing within this cartographic practice. I apologize in advance.

Deconstructing the map

Jenny Odell, Satellite Collections

  • One way to engage with maps critically is to not make a map at all, or to take apart and rearrange the map. One of the things I like about this approach is it demonstrates how sometimes the most effective map (in this case, effective maybe at making an argument or posing an interesting question) isn't necessarily an entirely legible one.
  • This is a piece by Jenny Odell, part of a series in which she collages together like elements from satellite imagery. And what I love about them is they kind of make those objects really unfamiliar by placing them next to each other, by deconstructing them, to the point that you kind of want to really understand the how and why and history of those objects--circular farms, swimming pools, etc.

Ingrid Burrington and Carey Chiaia, Pieces of Baltimore

  • This is the first real map I ever made. It's a puzzle. I went to undergrad in Baltimore, which is a city that proudly declares that it has over 300 neighborhoods--and they're not really being hyperbolic. Most of them are distinct neighborhoods, even if they're only maybe a four block-by-four block-sized neighborhood (there actually is a neighborhood in Baltimore that is that size, and it's called "Four by Four").
  • So I made this jigsaw puzzle map of Baltimore neighborhoods with my friend Carey Chiaia, and we took it around to some festivals and events in Baltimore and basically used it as a way to talk to people from Baltimore about Baltimore and its neighborhoods.

Josh Begley, Prison Map

  • Josh Begley's Prison Map is one of my favorite examples of something that is illegible as a wayfinding tool but is a far more rhetorically legible map. He recognized that representing prisons merely as points on a map was merely overwhelming and not necessarily compelling beyond a quick glance. By instead visualizing a satellite view of every single prison, devoid of context, it's easier to look at the architectural patterns of the prison-industrial complex, understand what I think he has previously described as its "visual vernacular."

Adding temporality to maps

  • The other thing I love about Josh's map is that it's this infinite scroll that a viewer kind of has to endure or go through, which is another useful way to change the way people look at a place--by experiencing it temporally.

###Paul Rucker, Proliferation

  • This animation by Paul Rucker demonstrates this really well--it's also a map of prisons, presented as a time lapse, with corresponding music composed by Rucker. And it's like ten minutes so we can't watch the whole thing, but one of my favorite parts of it is seeing the speed of the time-lapse change over time, visualizing the actual rate of the rise of the prison industrial complex.

###Ingrid Burrington, National Business Park 1996-2013

  • This is a map I made about 2 years ago looking at how a specific place changed physically in relation to some political shifts. So this is an office park next to the NSA. It's called the National Business Park, and it's kind of a weird place that I won't get into huge detail talking about, but basically it's full of defense contractors working on boondoggle contracts for the government.
  • And when I started doing background research into the buildings themselves, I realized the office park's footprint had this really particular timeline. Really I didn't set out to map the office park--I was writing an essay about it--but it seemed like visualizing it might make the problem I was looking at clearer. So I went looking for aerial imagery and older maps of the site and was able to better see that office park expansion and how it mapped out to the ramping up of defense contracting as a result of the War on Terror as well as specific NSA projects contracted out during that time.

Wesley Goatley and Georgina Voss, Familiars

  • Of course, another way to complicate timelines in maps isn't to show something across the long duration of history but as it exists in the moment. This is a project by Wesley Goatley and Georgina Voss that projects real-time data about local logistics and transport infrastructures in the immediate vicinity of the exhibition space (in this case, Brighton, a small city in England that's in immediate proximity to National Rail routes, Gatwick airport, and close enough to the sea to be able to see passing container ships).
  • Another thing I really love about Familiars is it kind of fucks with the romance of the "real-time" data streams on a map--because it's the only thing on the map. You can't navigate with it, you can't connect it to anything except itself. It takes the thing that generally goes unnoticed in everyday life in a city (logistics systems) and make them the only thing to look at in a city.

Mapping the unmapped and Unmapping the Mapped

  • Which goes to one last tactic that is useful for critical cartography, which is basically to map things that typically go unseen--privileging otherwise obscured knowledge or offering an otherwise unnoticed perspective.

Rendition Flight Mapping

Trevor Paglen and John Emerson, CIA Rendition Flights
James Bridle, Anatomy of a Failed Rendition
The Rendition Project
  • This is not necessarily an easy task, of course--you have to find the unseen data to begin with. The process of even documenting things like CIA rendition flights of suspected terrorists is way, way more work than the map itself. So while I really appreciate the creation of the maps I do wonder how they could better call attention to that process and that labor, maybe. (Shoutout to The Intercept's Margot Williams for being among the first reporters to figure out how to track those flights.)

Ingrid Burrington, States of Uncertainty

  • This is a project I made in 2012 for a show about unrecognized and secessionist regions--not necessarily contested regions like Tibet and Palestine so much as regions like Transnistria, a Russian-backed secessionist region in Moldova that's technically been "independent" since 1991.
  • And so there were these kind of in-depth profiles of different secessionist and unrecognized countries and their conflicts, alongside this map which removes every landmass except for the regions I'm looking at in the show. The point was mostly to try and understand how borders and the ephemera of nation-states like flags and coins, even the existence of governing bodies, are not really all that makes a place "real."

Institute for Applied Autonomy, Routes of Least Surveillance

  • Or, another form of unmapping might be to make a map that makes its viewer unmappable. This is a project by a collective called the Institute for Applied Autonomy in which they collaborated with the ACLU and a group called the Surveillance Camera Players to document all the CCTV cameras in Manhattan and design walking routes that let the viewer avoid as many surveillance cameras as possible.

Caveats/Concluding Notes/Elsewhere

  • This is, of course, a really limited scope and these examples could cover a wider range of topics or concepts. Trying to fit every interesting critical cartography thing into one 25-minute talk was kind of not a thing I felt prepared to do.
  • There's other things that the works cited do related to scale (more how people physically interface with the map than projections) and it's pretty telling that two of the pieces cited employ sound.
  • I sometimes joke that I started making maps because at the point in my life where I got into them (around the same time I was finishing undergrad), I didn't really know where the hell I was. It's not a very good joke for various reasons. But it's true, and the point is I find it extremely helpful to recognize that we do not really live in a world of fixed points but a world of contingencies. Working with and through maps is, for me, a useful way of working with and through that reality and finding a kind of peace with it.
  • In terms of other texts or sources, here are a few not necessarily favorite things but ones I realized too late I should cite or talk about in greater detail (again, this is far from exhaustive):
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