Sunday, June 28, 2009


I had a good exchange with John Krygier recently—thought-provoking as usual. It got me thinking more seriously about the experience of maps as performance. I know very little about performance theory, and much that I have seen I find frankly impenetrable. But I know a little about performance itself from having performed. So what I'm going to outline here is a framework that may well overlap what more experienced theorists have outlined. In any case, it's getting my thoughts down in a more thought-out form. Any recommendations of relevant and not-too-thickly-jargony performance literature is welcomed.


The aspect of performance I've been reflecting on is the centrality of the performer. Humans pay more attention to (and have more cognitive tools to explore) other humans than any other subject. So it makes sense that looking at another person is qualitatively different from looking at something that a person has made. An actor is different from a stage setting, no matter how elaborate that set.

I've made the analogy before of cartography being fundamentally about the "stage setting" for a performance about space, that perforance not necessarily being performed within the map. Well, any serious performer will tell you setting is an integral part of performance (for that matter, so is the audience). The whole thing, the entire constructed experience, is the performance.

And yet, there is something different about the designated "performer." It's a person, and so we instinctively pay more attention to that person. I think it may be that simple.

To me, this puts a new spin on the whole idea of attempts at "objectivity," in which the biases and idiosyncrasies of individuals are intentionally de-emphasized. The idea is, while maintaining a clearly human-made voice, to partly "un-person" that voice. It's not exactly the same as what I'm describing, but it is a useful device in a number of ways.

First, it allows the user to put her or himself directly into the performer role. Thus a "base map" is like a karaoke track. It fuctions a lot like the "voice" of a recipe. I had an interesting discussion with my wife Ingrid about this the other night. She reads a lot of food writing, and she confirms that it is common practice, even when the prose style is very fluid and personal, to then drop out of that personal voice into the "recipe voice", in which instructions are neutral. The goal is to de-emphasize the personal viewpoint of the author and to put the reader directly into the driver seat.

Second, it allows for the creation of the idea of a "common truth." This drives many contemporary carto-critics crazy, because they believe the common truths modern cartography has been emphasizing are fundamentally false, leading us straight to the destruction of our ecosystem and so ourselves. But on a smaller scale, it is often useful to have available a "referee voice." It's why we've always had a role in our societies for judges of one sort or another. And by putting off the personal voice and adopting an un-personed voice, we make that more possible.

I'll admit that second one is a loaded bomb. Before you all pile on, let me just ask you to consider, not whether it is right and good for us to do this, but whether it is a basic human reaction to seek someone speaking in an "neutral" voice.

I'm not sure exactly how the idea of anonymous monastic performances done for the glory of God (the Book of Kells, for example) fit into this, but I think they do.


Ther other thing that's been on my mind is the priveleged place of performance. Larry Shiner (whom I've discussed earlier) talks about the creation of contemplative frames for the fine arts (the concert hall, the gallery wall, the silent library) as being a big part of those fine arts distinction from "craft" or "artisan" work. Something analagous happens whenever we recognize a performance is taking place. It is different from ordinary social space: we do not expect performers to have the same relationship to those around them as they would when they are not performing. Some of it is a matter of allowing for concentration, but some of it is also that performances are specifically about "setting aside space" to allow for a different experience.

It feels very like the suspension of disbelief that is essential to fiction.


And that's all the ideas I have energy for tonight. I'm going to call it good.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pretty Maps

I've felt out of the loop for a few months, busy with other stuff. There was a thread recently in Carto-Talk about GIS folks and "pretty maps" that got me going. My response was:

It's the phrase "making the map pretty" that gets me. I don't make pretty maps. It's like saying that the fine arts are about pretty pictures.

The world of modern cartography isn't about pretty, though sometimes that is a pleasant side-effect. It's about clarity and effectiveness as a visualization tool. But the same things that make a picture pleasant to look at (pretty), are core parts of effective, clear communication: awareness of emphasis, harmony and contrast of color sets, attention paid to the framed shapes and to an overall sense of visual balance. What makes a good piece of modern cartography work is that attention to these things is not in the service of "pretty"—a vacuous word—but in the service of meaning and understanding.

I'm going to recommend an obscure book that really helped me parse this out, by one of my favorite illustrators, Molly Bang. It's called Picture This, and I really enjoyed it.

I think what people who talk about pretty maps don't get is that visual harmony is not the same as pimping your ride. I came to cartography from graphic design 19 years ago because I didn't want to do any more ride-pimping. There's a distrust of design in some quarters because it is, in the wider world, often used to deceive and entice; it's an advertising and marketing field in large part.

And so, I think, some people resist the idea of cartographic design because it sounds like covering up the data with some rhinestones and lipstick. They believe that a map that is "plain" and unadorned, is one which is most honest.

But what I think most folks don't realize is that "plain" is not the same as "lazy." Plain is just as much of a carefully crafted visual statement. I certainly have made that mistake in my personal life: I'm a lazy dresser, and I think I sometimes excuse myself by painting myself as "plain." The Amish put a fair amount of effort in preserving their sober dress: cleaning, ironing, etc. That's different from slapping on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.

"Pretty" is a straw-man used by those who want to get out of making a map work visually, by equating attention to visual flow and structure with propagandistic manipulation. Good "plain" design is just as much work, and requires just as much attention to design as an effectively pimped-up map will.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Kate Stanley pointed to this lovely piece from the NY Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg. An excerpt:

The surprise wasn’t just being reoriented so abruptly. It was also discovering that an unfamiliar world lay a few dozen yards off a road I drive all the time. In a way, the unfamiliarity of that world has been eroded now by driving through it once.

The more I think about that seam between the familiar and the unfamiliar — and how it feels to pass from one to the other — the clearer it becomes that humans instinctively generate a sense of familiarity. You can sense it for yourself the next time you drive someplace you’ve never been before. Somehow, it always feels as though it takes longer to get there than it does to get back home again. It’s as if there’s a principle of relativity, a bending of time, in the very concept of familiarity. The road we know is always shorter than the road we don’t know — even if the distances are the same.