Mapmaking as resistance: The political art of cartography

0 Posted by - February 12, 2008 - Blog

Maps are about order – ordering things and ideas into patterns that help us make sense of the worlds we live in. They are tools for helping us organize material reality, and they are tools for helping us organize the imagination. After all, Columbus’ crude maps with their irregular lumps of landmass scratched on pieces of parchment did as much for moving his ships about as they did in organizing imaginations around ideas of colonization.

These are the premises for An Atlas of Radical Cartography (ARC): the ability of mapmaking to organize relationships of power, and our ability to challenge who has traditionally had access to these necessarily political cartographic resources.

This new publication from The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press is a collection of 10 maps and 10 essays. We find a variety of discussions going on in the maps – about the politics and corruption of NYC’s waste system, about squatter settlements in Kolkata, about American intelligence rendition flights, about the growing border infrastructures surrounding “fortress EU”, about the flow of ideas that has brought us to this place in history where we are struggling for our lives against a neoliberal organization of ideas and materials that threatens the very existence of democratic societies.

Jai Sen’s map & essay about a neighbourhood of unauthorized settlements in Kolkata reveals some of the real politik power of what might seem to be a simple drawing…

Jen Sai and others mapped informal settlements, the impromptu roads that had formed among dwellings built alongside canals, railroads, vacant land. They called the project the “unintended city”. These maps helped in the preparation of detailed planning and housing proposals demonstrating how existing settlements could be legally settled on surplus land rather than demolished as part of urban renewal projects.

The iSee project is a comprehensive map of surveillance cameras in Manhattan and suggests least-surveilled routes that individuals might want to take and reasons why they might want to do so. The accompanying essay about “tactical cartographies” discusses ways maps can be used strategically to challenge and subvert existing orders of power. iSee was a response in the aftermath of 9/11 to rising civic paranoia and the ubiquitous installation of video surveillance throughout the city by both city officials and private individuals and companies. The map is intended to intervene in assumptions about decision-making . By bringing public attention to the decentralized construction of what, in the end, emerges as a complex surveillance infrastructure, the map becomes a way for citizens to enter the discussion.

The water map of Los Angeles has a certain resonance as we move into a period of history where citizens must fight with private interests for access to adequate water supplies. The map maps the invisible links that connect human activity and the places water comes from and goes to when flushed away.

The map of waste flow in NYC takes a different tack. Here, the flows of waste are mapped through the flows of power in the NYC waste disposal system — from elected officials, to commissions, into networks of organized crime, and finally within the tenuous links to citizens and communities. It is a tale of corruption, extortion, murder & trash told through the complex interweavings of formal and informal power.

The map titled ‘U.S. Oil Fix’ is perhaps one of the most visually arresting of the maps. In it, the United States is linked with all of its oil suppliers through a network of arrows whose thickness is proportional to the amount of oil flowing from that country to U.S. soil. On this map, the US is an octopussian hydra with tentacles reaching to every corner and cranny on the planet, a hungry addicted beast. The links between U.S. foreign policy and oil consumption become all too tragically clear.

And finally, there is the map of the processes and forces of globalization, in what essayist Avery Gordon describes as “the restructuring, the shape the capitalist world system began to take in the last quarter of the 20th century. It turns out to be a crisis machine, after all. The map charts the socio-political mechanisms by which capitalism has been attempting to solve its most recent large-scale accumulation crisis”. This map is a slightly insane, almost psychedelic organization of ideas showing links between market forces, the destabalization of social infrastructure, social death and the rise of stateless societies; between disintegrating communities and refugees, prisoners and migration; between capital flight and the flight of the state and people; between the formation of empire and free trade zones, ghettos, prisons, and disaster zones. And so on.

There are 10 maps and 10 essays in this collection, all of which are fascinating, confounding and illuminating in some way, in the way they reorganize patterns of meaning in the world to create new meaning and suggest new ideas. Maps are, above all else, tools created in service of some pressing urgency for order of a kind. An Atlas of Radical Cartography is an attempt usurp the traditional relationships of power when it comes to cartography, to wrench the powers inherent in mapmaking away from institutional forces and to use them for upsetting and challenging existing political relationships.

Anyone with an interest in challenging assumptions about power and in challenging relationships of power themselves (and who is looking for new tools to do it with) should have a look.

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