Thursday, July 31, 2008

World Flag clichés

So I have a backlog. I've been on vacation. Sue me.

Adbusters has a contest on for a new One Flag:
The time has come for a radical shift in priorities. We are now faced with some of the most daunting global challenges in human history. These are real targets, worthy of our problem-solving skills, ripe for our intervention. Yet those who have the vision to rise above national and political boundaries still have no symbol to rally under. We invite you to create a flag – free from language and well-worn clichés – that embodies the idea of global citizenship. A symbol that triggers pride and cohesion, whether worn on a backpack, displayed on a door, or flown on a flagpole. A symbol for anyone to declare membership in a growing and vital human cooperative. We invite you to prove that design has a real role to play in the fate of our world.
Free from language and well-worn clichés. I like that. I'm afraid I really don't like flags, so the whole idea seems problematic. What is a flag but an instant cliché? And why are clichés such a problem? They are yet another tool for social cohesion: again I argue it's the imposition of that cohesion that's the problem, not the voluntary cohesion itself.

I am reminded of the annual Barbara Petchenik Children's Map Competition, which is all cliché.
Holding hands around a globe. Two hands cupping a globe. A globe itself: globes are clichés! The "blue marble" image of Earth is a cliché! So what?

Sunday in the Park with Joe

We had a lovely visit in New Haven with Joe and family. Well, New Haven was pretty muggy, but their apartment was pleasantly air-conditioned and it was great to have time to catch up with everyone.

Joe and I like to talk when we visit, and we managed to sneak a few longer conversations into the visit. Basically rehashing previous discussions, and I think (Joe can argue with me) realizing we were saying the same thing more or less, but in a different dialect. I think. Maybe. Ten days later and my memory grows dimmer... And those little kids are distracting.

Our main sticking point had to do with the idea of neutrality/arbitrariness. I like the former because to me it evokes Switzerland: there's nothing inherent in that patch of land that makes it "neutral," it's just agreed that it is, and so it functions usefully as a place intentionally outside of international alliances and conflicts. Joe likes arbitrary in part because of its root in "arbitration": an arbitrary decision is originally one reached through arbitration. But I think we realized we basically agree, that utter objectivity/neutrality is impossible, but that finding pidgins and setting arbitrary benchmarks allows people to work with one another.

Where the conversation really got interesting I think is where it veered into religion. It feels to me like a lot of the background to this blog is at root religious: the conflict between objectivists and subjectivists looks a lot like the conflicts between universalists and "specifists" in my Quaker meeting and in the world as a whole. To me, the point is not which one is right; the point is that both are necessary, and finding a Grand Theory of Everything should be the goal. That might look like nestling one inside the other, or explaining one as a social function and the other as a personal function, or one as temporally long term and the other as momentary.

Who can say...


For jollies, I also attach a link Joe sent me from Archinect, trying to rethink the architectural plan, another orthographic representational school. A map really, of planned space. Anyway, some intriguing suggestions of how to turn the Plan on its head and bring it out of the camphor-filled cubbyhole it's been relegated to.

My only question as a cartographer is, where's the ground?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

When usefulness has passed

I always come away from Steven's pages feeling simultaneously held to a higher standard and frustrated by something unnamed. This morning glancing through it, I got thinking about "usefulness" and how Steven would think about it. Thinking back to an earlier post about eugenics, and how a big part of where it went wrong was in thinking of people's "usefulness."

I ran Google on "usefulness has passed," and came up with an archive article from the NY Times, 1917. Mayor Mitchel of New York, speaking at the cornerstone laying for a new institution for the feeble-minded on Randall Island in NY City:
"True, eleven of the buildings on this island dated back to before the year 1869, so the institution, by the life of in the City of New York, was old. Those buildings, Commissioner Kingsbury said, had not been built as the buildings of the cities bf old, to endue a hundred or a thousand years, but it looked from the way they were used, from the tenacity with which the city clung to their use after they had become useless, that the city regarded them as built to last a thousand years, no matter what their condition. That was the trouble with the institutions on Randall's Island; though the buildings were constructed to last but a few years and had outlived. their usefulness, they were treated as if they were there to remain forever.

"In an institution such as this the buildings should last no longer than their usefulness, and these buildings which are being erected today, under this appropriation of $1,600,000, ought to endure no longer than their usefulness, and when the day of that usefulness has passed, because better methods have been found for the treatment of the who may occupy them, because better methods of construction have been devised and more scientific of treatment, then these buildings must come down and new buildings take their places that will meet the higher standards of a later date. That is progress, and nothing short of it is progress.
Not sure why I find this such an interesting piece of random retrieval, but I do. The backside of usefulness is uselessness and disposal. When a thing or a person is valued for function, than when the function ceases, it needs to be gotten rid of. Like the "feeble-minded" in the eugenics way of thinking.

Like outdated maps.

I have a bunch of outdated maps in my library. I like how many of them look (I have a particular predilection for John Bartholomew's mapping from the first part of the twentieth century, and for oil-company maps of the immediate post-WWII period), and so I find them useful as a reference, and I hang on to them. But they are not useful in the same sense that I rely on an up-to-date map of the world; the old maps tell me about ways of communication that have been passed over, and ways people thought the world could be looked at "usefully" 100 years ago.

Big American cities have a history of tearing down old buildings that are no longer deemed "useful." Minneapolis tore down large parts of its downtown fringe in the post-WWII era (notably the Gateway District). More recently, we've seen a movement to gut the buildings and refit them for modern use (like the building my office is in, a former seed company headquarters and warehouse).

But can you do that for information that has gone stale? What use is a bus schedule from 1954? A TV schedule from 1970? A street map from 1890? They have become relics, clues to help us figure things out about the past. They themselves are not renovated for present use, but preserved like house museums.

What about weeds, plants we do not deem useful?

When we have a task at hand, having useful tools for the task makes sense. When we have tools at hand, do those then make tasks? At what point do those tools them impose themselves back on us?

Thanks, Steven.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Exemplary cartography

A few months ago, I talked about "Experiential and Formal Models of Geographic Space," by David M. Mark and Andrew U. Frank, mostly in terms of its discussion of experienced vs measured space. But the piece that keeps coming back to me is the distinction between two ways of defining something:
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.
The ideas turned up recently in a discussion at Meeting about Quaker identity... we don't have a catechism, but neither is it an "anybody can call themselves a Quaker" sort of thing. I realized mid-discussion that exemplar-based definitions actually work quite well for Quakers: what we have in common is no one aspect of belief or habit, but a "direction" towards a common ideal. We come towards that ideal (in specific, it was suggested that the Friends Testimonies are the common center) from a lot of directions, meaning there is very little we identifiably have in common throughout the Friends community, but what we share is that common set of ideals we all one way or another strive for.

On the walk home today, it occurred me that the same sort of exemplar-based commonality is true of the art world. I was walking through our building, which is filled with artists studios, and has an open studio every first Thursday of the month, and as usual I was struck by the utter variety of presentations. What on earth do they have in common?

What they have in common is reaction/reference to a common body of visual creations. Some choose to imitate the physical form (paint, pastel, frame, canvas), others the subject matter (landscape, portrait, etc), still others the philosphical emphasis (beauty, truth, ineffability, effability) of some portion of the corpus of western art or of non-western traditions that are generally accepted into that corpus.

But as a whole, there is little or nothing one can say about everything done in the arts world. What makes it art is that it follows one or more traditions of that arts world.

What drives cartographers crazy is when artists dbehave the same way about maps: an artist makes something that follows some aspect of the corpus of the cartographic tradition, and calls it a map. But it doesn't share all or a majority of the aspects, or an aspect the cartographer in question feels is crucial, and so the artis calling it a map feels like presumption, or false advertising.

What's interesting to me personally is that I came to maps out of a desire to make something that looked like a map, not out of a passion for geography specifically. I was playing at maps, really, when I made my first maps back in junior high school—play subsidized by school time, but play nonetheless. I did a lot of making things that looked like "real" things as a kid: a friend and I set up a pretend company that published magazines and travel brochures, flags, and made models. It was a lot of fun.

So like artists who are trying to make something that follows the spirit and/or form of the arts traditions, I started out with a goal of making things that "looked like maps." No ontology, just imitation. But perhaps because maps are such an ontology-grounded field, I've wound up on the other side, grimacing at some piece of art that in no way functions as a practical tool, but which the creator claims is a map.

And they called me an studio art major. Harumph.