Thursday, October 9, 2008

The world's a stage, and we are but poor stagehands

I’m having, as usual, a great time at NACIS here in Missoula (I'm writing this in the lobby of the Holiday Inn between sessions). We started with MapGiving, a new initiative to organize and collect efforts to create maps pro bono for good causes. Our kickoff event was a grueling 12-hour marathon, making what ended up as a first draft of a map for the Hank Aaron State Trail in Milwaukee.

Oddly, what I keep coming back to so far, which has very little to do with any of the conversations I'm actually having, has to do with performance and stage setting. Now, in the Western theatrical tradition, the stage setting ought to be a neutral space for a performance to take place in. A big fancy setting requires a big fancy performance. In other cultures (I'm thinking here for example of the ras lila plays my mom spent some time among in Vrindaban in India), the setting is itself a sort of performance.

My view of how maps work increasingly works with this metaphor. The performance is the specific narrative information, the "story" that is being told. In the case of what we call "reference" maps, that performance is expected to be played out by map users identifying relationships, routes and patterns upon the stage setting of the map. For propaganda and other persuasive maps, the map itself makes a performance, enacting arguments as part of the product.

What Denil, Krygier and Wood and much of the rest of modern cartocriticism all have in common, is the realization that the western idea of separating stage setting from performance is an artificial one. The way we draw the setting for our argument is itself an argument for what background will be used in the discussion.

I still think there is a useful distinction to be made in looking at the stage and the performer as distinct, simply because they are experienced differently. When we look at even a Wagnerian stage setting, a ras lila with flowers pouring from the ceiling for an hour continuously, an evening at Red Rocks, we are in an environment. The performers, on the other hand, we perceive as persons. So perhaps this is a useful distinction: where is the thing we are taking in a "person", and where is it a "non-person."

More food for thought.

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