Friday, February 29, 2008

Maps and Violence

I'm still working on Steven's comment a few days ago. The thing I found so hard to digest was the violence implied directly to "the grid." I respect Steven's work a lot (sorry, part of my initial confusion was also not knowing who you were, Steven), and actually knowing he was the one making the response makes it clearer where he is coming from.

I had a similar reaction to elin o'Hara slavick's Bomb after Bomb: A Violent Cartography, which she presented a selection of at NACIS last year. Her art is a deeply-felt indictment of bombing as an anonymous evil: bombs kill without the killer having to directly face the consequences. Her maps with stains and wounds painted over them were really powerful stuff. The problem I had was her equation of cartography with the violence it enabled: she spoke of hegemonic mapping, of mapping as the anonymous-making of space. Maps as implicit in murders and bombings.

So here's my question: when, in general, are whole abstract systems responsible for the evil that people do while using them? There's a lot of powerful arguments for language (for example) being responsible for violence and for other perversions of humanity (think Orwell's Newspeak in his 1984). But Orwell himself was writing in language to make this point, and was not indicting language per se, but the control and manipulation of language from above.

Much cartocriticism works from the vantage point of cartography as the exercise of such power: modern cartography arose out of military and political power-struggles, out of desire to control. But one of the peculiar things about it is that while power has been the sponsor of cartography, the resulting maps themselves were in a sense a democratic, decentralizing visual expression.

One of the huge cultural shifts over the last umpteen hundred years, but especially over the last 500, has been that of lord-and-vassal relationships to citizen-and-citizen relationships. Of course power still exists and is exercised, but in the West only the mad kings and their followers these days seriously believe that God gives rights of power to kings, and that it flows down from them like mana. I find it hard to imagine a world in which my basic legitimacy as a person was based in my relationship to my lord and master rather than in the assumption that "I am a person and so I count."

Modern cartography—including the grid—reflects this humanist point of view, in that space is not privileged. We don't just make New York City bigger because it's more important; a mile is a mile is a mile. Kind of spatial one citizen one vote. Classed information are made larger and smaller not out of ordainment, but out of quantitative measurement.

So. Maps and violence. Maps, the grid and violence I should say.

I feel the grid. I am frustrated by the inability of my pidgin graphic tongue to speak poetry. But, that isn't what cartography was built for, and almost no-one speaks pidgin as their first language. But pidgin evolved to deal with places like New Guinea with hundreds and hundreds of languages: sure it would be great to sit and take the time with everyone we meet and learn the nuances of their mother tongue, but we are here to trade our goods for a goat.

It is easy to work backwards from the horrors that have resulted from some uses of cartography (and yes it is true, bombing would not be possible in a modern sense without cartography). But I would suggest the opposite is also true. In my better moments making maps, I feel like a native guide to a new place. I don't speak my charge's native graphic tongue, but in my pidgin, I can get him or her to a warm place to eat and rest. At cartography's best, this is true in general: it is a plain language, reduced to the smallest vocabulary you can get away with, which lets strangers meet and be cordial and hospitable, and smooths whatever business they need to do.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Collective geography

I've been looking at a 1996 article, "Experiential and Formal Models of Geographic Space," by David M. Mark and Andrew U. Frank. It's written as part of Mark and Frank's work in "naive geography," the study of common-sense, everyday experienced geography, with the goal of making GIS's more user-friendly and analagous to everyday geographic experience. The point of the article is that there is a divide between quantitative, measured, Euclidean (I say Cartesian, but same difference) geography, and geography as experienced by us as an immediate phenomenon. [disclaimer: I know this is a 12-year-old article in a field with a lot of reserach... bear with me].

The paper approaches this divide from a cognitive science angle, looking at how we categorize things instinctively, which is based not so much on a rigorous Venn-diagram sort of thinking (This is bird, this is not a bird) as an exemplar-centered way of thinking:
Rosch and her co-workers discovered that, in many cases, all members of a category are not 'equal'. For example, when asked to give an example of a bird, subjects tend to name robins and sparrows as examples far more often than they mention turkeys or penguins or ducks. [...] Lakoff (1987) later discussed this in terms of a radial structure for some categories. He noted that peripheral members of different arms of a radially-organized categories may have nothing in common, except different chains of resemblance to some common prototype.
It goes on to talk about "schemata" as an intermediary step in cognition between perception and understanding: schematic distinctions like "near and far" and "center and periphery" are models we use to process sensory information. The take-home is that in many cases we don't instinctively form categories and then file experienced objects within them; instead we form categories around exemplars, so that things are more or less "bird-like." Our organization of the world from experience has soft edges.

Getting to (to me) the meat of the paper, a distinction is made between two scales of spatial understanding:
Downs and Stea (1977, p. 197) distinguished perceptual space, studied by psychologists such as Jean Piaget and his colleagues and followers (Piaget and Inhelder, 1956), from "transperceptual" space that geographers deal with, and that we are focusing on in this paper. They claimed that "the two scales of space are quite distinct" (p. 197) in the ways people perceive and think about them. Later in the book, Downs and Stea (p. 199) contrasted the terms "small-scale perceptual space" and "large-scale geographic space." At about the same time, Kuipers (1978, p. 129) defined large-scale space as "space whose structure cannot be observed from a single viewpoint," and by implication defined small-scale space as the complement of this. The large-scale vs. small-scale distinction of Kuipers does not quite correspond to a geographic vs. non-geographic contrast, since as Kuipers pointed out, a high mountain viewpoint or an aircraft permits direct visual perception of fairly large areas. Nevertheless, we will follow Kuipers, and use the term large-scale space as he defined it, and small-scale space to refer to subsets of space that are visible from a single point.
Seems sensible enough, though it's a little confusing to a cartographer to have "large-scale" and "small-scale" reversed in meaning. The next bit goes into more detail about how we learn about small-scale space using sensory data with a lot of built-in cognitive processing, which is contrasted against "objective" Euclidean models of space which were originally formulated to make sense of large-scale space.

The argument (before the paper veers off towards its target audience of GIS-makers) is basically that the Euclidean model is not how we think about space in general, and it would be good to design geographic systems that take into account our innate spatial reasoning, which is grounded in the more fluid, less rigorous, and very relativistic way we innately create categories.

My problem with the paper is that it proposes a duality where I think there's a third player, and that's communal understanding. We all perceive our own peculiar space, things looming large and small in importance depending on our own specific background and our own specific immediate needs and goals.

I can tell you more about the details of the road, sidewalk, stairs and hallway between the parking lot and the door to my office than you probably want to know; this knowledge looms large in my internal geographic framework for my neighborhood. There are others who share my general daily pattern; they park in the same lot, enter the building and go up at least some of the same stairs. But most of them go to different offices, and all of them bring different judgmental frameworks (I hate ice and am annoyed by the seriously decayed roadway and sidewalk in front of our building. Others may find the sidewalk charming and enjoy the slippy sensation of ice underfoot). Nevertheless, there is a commonality to our geographic understanding: if there were a notable event in the street (a sinkhole swallowing up an entire delivery truck), we would be able to ask specific questions to one another about the space in which it happened. If I had to tell someone where I parked, it would be easier to do with someone who is in this group because we can all visualize how the parking lot is laid out.

This collective understanding is different than the individual cognitive framework I have developed, and it is different from a detailed numerical-Euclidean survey. A friend of mine habitually counts stairs, and so for her, a part of the description that looms large is the specific number of steps on each course of the stairwell. The common geography would say that there is one set of concrete steps outside, and to get to the third floor there are four sets of stairs with a landing between. (On the other hand, it should be said that there is no single common geography. My friend's detailed knowledge would fall into the common geography of blind visitors to the building, for example)

The averaging of all our experiences, the least-common-denominator quality of our knowledge, forms a useful and necessary basis for all our common local geography. It is the organization of this knowledge that allows maps to be made and used, and this is where Euclidean geometry has been extremely useful; it acts as a "neutral" meeting ground. We can all agree that the sidewalk here is 12 feet wide (once we agree that a foot is as long as this ruler in my hand).

The distinction between "large-scale" (i.e. large area) geographic space and small-scale experiential space is a false one. The reason geographic space (say a map of a state or a nation) is rendered in a Euclidean way is that it makes discussions open. This flies against the whole body of critical cartography, which posits that the Cartesian/Euclidean/Ptolemaic grid is an exercise of power. Power is exercised through that grid, yes, but this is possible because it allows sharing of information across large networks of people without extensive initiation.

So much of our theory is based on "creators" and "users." I don't think we really know how to talk about commonality except as a collections of individuals. I would think it would at least be an interesting exercise to start with commonality and see where that leads us...

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Long Strange Trip With the Old Maltese

When I try to describe the St Valentine's Day Massacre to friends and colleagues, and I usually get confused looks back.

It's an annual contest run out of La Cañada, California. When you pay your $49 entry fee, you receive a copy of the current Rand McNally Road Atlas and a book of instructions. There are very specific route-following rules a series of directions (e.g. "turn north on interstate highway after going through Minneapolis"). The contest is scored by how well you answer a series of questions about your route (e.g. "How many highway shields have you gone through since Dallas"). You follow the route... and this is where people get confused, because you don't actually drive anywhere. You follow the routes on the maps, "seeing" the sights (in the terms of the contest, seeing is passing with in 1/4" on the map). It isn't really about travel, except that it is. It's about following rules through a complicated piece of cartography, and avoiding getting tripped up by all the false turns and tricky easy-to-miss landmarks [er, mapmarks].

One of the things I enjoy is "driving by" places I know and love: my dad's summer place in Montana, our home in Minneapolis, my wife's family's homes in Colorado. I did part of this year's contest on vacation in Cedar Key, Florida and sure enough there I "drove" past it while I was there.

The contest is fully of corny, geeky humor. The Old Maltese and assorted oddballs (all with the initials "O.M.") show up to give you instructions. You are shifted from obscure vintage vehicle to obscure vintage vehicle. And you get weird place names pointed out to you.

I've talked elsewhere here about gaming as a way to look at maps as fiction. This is a peculiar subspecies of gaming map: using "real" maps as the stage on which real players play and work within a fictional framework. Like Risk adapted to a real world map. Or like (sort of) people who play out war games on maps of real places.

Mostly, though, its an excuse to spend a loving 20-30 hours with a Rand Road Atlas, and that can be just fine.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

26 Hours at the Festival of Maps (part 3)

"HereThereEverywhere" is an art show. You can see elsewhere on here what I have to say about maps and art, and about the art world in general. But I should say by way of talking like a politician trying to eat only 30% of his/her words: the problems of the art world in general don't make it any less possible to create really great works of art. I think I've quoted elsewhere my college yearbook quote: "the opposite of aesthetic is anaesthetic" (Duane Preble). Well, there are a number of really effective cartography or map-based an-anaesthetics here.

Artist in the show are:
Jennifer Bartlett, Christopher Cozier, Danica Dakic, Brian Dettmer, Josh Dorman, Gisela Insuaste, Joyce Kozloff, Karen Lebergott, Mark Lombardi, Shona Macdonald, Adelheid Mers, Vik Muniz, David Opdyke, Ellen Rothenberg, Michael x. Ryan, Paula Sher, Draga Susanj, Frances Whitehead + ARTetal, and Ben Whitehouse.

Josh Dorman paints with a collage technique. A 2005 project involved illustrating the lives and selves of five Alzheimer's patients, which he did by collaging disparate images including maps into what are essentially portraits. You can see a short clip about the the project here.
The clip doesn't really do justice to the way he deals with maps and how they communicate. There was one in particular that drew over topographic maps, changing place names to those of places in the subject's childhood in Eastern Europe, which I found especially telling of the ways dementia rearranges internal senses of space and meaning. Neat stuff.

Paula Scher is well known as a map artist. Her typographic map paintings are represented by a Map of the United States (see this image from a 2006 show of her work in New York). It's an interesting exercise to me as a cartographer; her style echoes "outsider art" to me in its obsessive qualities. Didn't do a lot for me as an an-anaesthetic, but interesting as a map style.

Brian Dettmer does dissected books, and other media constructions. He had two pieces in this show: M.I.A. is a map of the Middle East with all the place-names removed. As a conjunct between image and title I actually found it kind of moving. Kind of a cartographic elegy. The other was a dissected atlas, all the mapping cut away to reveal an orderly three-dimensional puzzle of place-names. Not moving, but fun and cool. See more of his art here, including road maps with all but the highways removed.

I also enjoyed Vik Muniz's photographs, from his Earthworks series, enormous images of common objects (scissors, for example) carved into the floors of open-pit mines. The one that spoke to me most about maps and mapping was an enormous ruler. Apprently you can see it using a KMZ file available on his website (click on "Gallery" and then uder "2002" click "Earthworks"). A giant ruler large enough to show up on a map, where the scale may or may not be accurate for the ruler "portrayed". Pretty cool.

The show's iconic piece (the piece you see when you come in, the piece on the cover of the show's promotional material) is by Joyce Kozloff, and entitled "Targets." It is a walk-into sphere, covered neatly on the inside with bombed locations, mapped in anonymous style but in garish colors. As with any sphere, the sound inside is disturbing and disorienting. I don't easily get claustrophobia, but I felt "targeted" and was made very uneasy. It bears spending a little time inside, letting it get to you...

There were as many again exhibitors as I've mentioned; these were the ones that really caught my eye. I could have easily spent another half-hour there. Great show, and it's up until April.

One more stop, the show at the Encyclopedia Britannica offices. Nice work, a lot of contemporary thematic maps and a handful of examples of early Britannica mapping. But a bit of a sideshow.

I was sorry not to make it up to the Newberry Library, and sorry not to have made it down in the fall for some of the other art-map shows. Many of them looked interesting. But the trip was definitely worth it, and again I strongly encourage mapfolk to make the trip down to Baltimore to see the show there this spring.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

26 Hours at the Festival of Maps (part 2)

This took longer to get back to than I had hoped. Work and vacation... the usual excuses. So, where was I?


We got up bright and early the next morning and headed down to Hyde Park. Tom and I stopped in to visit the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, a client (check out their new floor plan) and distributor of Hedberg Maps' Hyde Park map. Always a pleasure, and I picked up my copy of the accompanying book to the Field Museum show (see previous entry). Then across the street to the Oriental Institute for their show "European Cartographers and the Ottoman World 1500-1750."

First off, very nicely put-together show. Given the seemingly limited subject, they had a wide range of materials, nicely spaced and lit. It was a small show, two mid-sized rooms basically, but that was about right. I thought the highlight was an early 19th-century surveyed map of of Constantinople ("Plan de la ville de Constantinople et ses Faubourgs tant en Europe qu'en Asie levé géometriquement en 1776"). I know this was not the focus of the show, but what this map really brought home is how dependent the quality of hachure lines is upon the physical techniques: you can't get that kind of delicate line in offset printing. You can't even really get it with lithography. You just can't. You need engraving to achieve the kind of spidery but defiite line these 200-year-old maps posses. Just as you can't get the sheer physicality of a wood-block print (there were a few masterful examples of this technology too) any other way than by using relief print.

The show has several themes. One shows the movement of Ptolemy's Geography as a text from the Ottoman empire into Europe, its movement as a mapping source and technique back to the Ottomans, and the gradual superseding of Ptolemy by later explorations by both the west and east. A second section shows a variety of portolan charts, both Ottoman and European. Lovely things. Finally, there is a section showing the developement of city plans and maps from descriptive but non-scalar views through more scientific studies (my highlight was one of the latter).

We moved on to the Regenstein Library a couple blocks away for their show, "The Virtual Tourist in Renaissance Rome: Printing and Collecting the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae." I'm afraid this one was a let-down: I thought there would be more about plans and aerieal views of Rome, but it was mostly about the vagaries of printing souvenir views of Rome 500 years ago. Now I'm a sucker for printing history, but I found this, well, dull. Sorry. Luckily it was a quick diversion, unlike our next trek.

We drove out to the Brookfield Zoo to the west, for a promised show of "zoo maps." I was picturing a sample of maps of zoos around the world over time. You know, even a well-selected selection of, say, twenty or so would have been interesting. Instead we got what I suspect were reproductions of a half-dozen iterations of the Brookfield Zoo map, on two placards in the lobby of the Discovery Center, along with some pretty perfunctory text. Mildly diverting, but quite a let-down. I felt like I'd been oversold.

So back into the Loop. After a quick visit with Dennis McClendon of Chicago CartoGraphics, we hopped around the corner to the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Their show "Map This!" was a series of screened wall graphics surrounding the lecture hall/meeting room. A variety of students each tackle a theme about Chicago. It was perfectly all right, brought some interesting aspects of the city to bear, but nothing earth-shattering.

Taking our leave of Dennis, we made our way to the Chicago Cultural Center, for their show "HereThereEverywhere," the only art show we got to see, and the second highlight of the trip.