Visual Essay – Mapping

July 14, 2011 by  

“Space is a part of an ever-shifting social geometry of power and signification”, this is an inspiring  quotation    drawn from Doreen Massey’s Space, Place and Gender and immediately it puts light on two  major ideas  underpinning the understanding of space: its non-neutral and non semantically univocal  essence, and its intrinsic  conflict. Space harbours a wide spectrum of semantic nuances and potential  political definitions and thus produces  continual challenges in terms of interpretation and agency. “The  map is not the territory”, even if it is thought to be  so, but an interpretation, a graphic and linguistic  exposition of a portion of territory and how ever it strains to be  scientifically irrefutable, the discursive  component shines through mainly in the very moment such codes are disrupted. The elaboration of  alternative maps make overt that “maps, like art, far from being a transparent opening to the world, are but a particular human way of looking at the world”. The idea of embracing alternative tube maps came to my mind because I was already familiar with Alex Roggero’s Underground to Everywhere map where he replaced the tube stations with the immigrants’ city according to the main ethnic minority living in a specific area. This travel book is in every aspect an homage to the author’s wanderings across the city and a sincere admiration to the vibrant, Babylonic and multicultural London. The author himself mentions several alternative tube maps which have been produced during the years. The tube map itself is not scientifically accurate but it was designed in such a way, so readable and clear, that has become hugely popular and iconic. Moreover, a recent visit to the Museum of London gave me the idea to insert in my visual essay some samples of hand-drawn maps which are displayed at the museum entrance in order to further underline the discursive, subjective aspect of the act of mapping. In partnership with Londonist, readers were encouraged to submit hand-drawn maps, focussing on their own experiences and connections with certain areas of London and obviously the aim was not to provide a factual representation of the city but to capture the different and variegated personal projections on the cityscape. The galleries themselves, which go through London’s history from when London was just a piece of desert land to the very present, are full of fascinating maps, each revealing a peculiar sphere of London according to the point of view and the intention of the composer. Booth’s poverty maps, based on his survey into life and labour in London from 1886 to 1903, assess varying levels of indigence and criminality in different districts across London, graphically accessible through a colour code, so for example, dark blue stands for ‘Very poor. Casual, chronic want’, while black stands for ‘Lowest class. Vicious, semi criminal.’ The textual level of the mapping process discloses diverse perspectives on the emotional and biased degree involved in any act of representation and this leads us to think that the entity represented, in this case the city of London or at least a portion of it, is to be found where more or less codified and official discourses and a multitude of singular experiences meet. Regarding this, it is very illuminating to address Proboscis’ Urban Tapestries project which, combining mobile and internet technologies with geographic information systems, looked at how people could actively map the environment around them and earnestly share this ever-evolving body of knowledge. This kind of collaborative mapping hints at another aspect implicit in the mapping process: its blatant lack of innocence suggests a potential political use, either as a tool of coercion and possession – unequivocal, for instance, is the case of Imperialism as Edward Said suggests – and as an instrument to reclaim and re-conquer one’s own right to the city and to build an alternative organic mutuality.

I see mapping as a central issue in Proboscis’ work not only because several projects have focussed on contemporary perceptions of the human, social and natural landscape around us – see for example the Liquid Geography ebooks series – as well as on fertile and rewarding ways to affect it, but their general conceptualization follows the mapping procedure. Proboscis’ approach simulates an unexpected plot, a thorough exploration, rich in ramifications, bends and junctions, sudden and unpredictable directions.

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