Revisit “The Known World”

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Way back in, oh, 2007, which  seems like ages and ages ago in web years, I reviewed a book for the Urban Design Review published by the Forum for Urban Design. The piece was about the now-classic (at least I would say it is) Else/Where:Mapping; New Cartographies of Networks and Territories (from UMN Press). Former Senior-Editor Geoff Manaugh commissioned the review and it was a pleasure to collaborate with him, as usual. In the stream between reviewer to various editors, a few things got lost and if you have yourself a copy of the Spring 2007 UDR, you would have a final print that I was not so happy with. Ex-Editor-In-Chief David Haskell, who no longer is with the Forum either, was kind enough to post a revision on the Forum’s website. Now that all that seems to have mutated into a new website iteration and a new cadre of people, the review is lost forever, I fear. Until now! I’ll repost it here because I, for one, was really impressed with the book and I think many of the ideas discussed are still relevant—if not moreso—in the current era of Google phones, Twitter, radical cartography, etc.

Else/Where: Mapping; New Cartologies of Networks and Territories

University of Minnesota Design Institute, 2006, 320 pages, $49.95

By Janet Abrams and Peter Hall, Editors

Reviewer: Javier Arbona

“The Known World: The State of Mapping”

Though I’ll call it one here, Else/Where: Mapping, subtitled “New Cartographies of Networks and Territories,” is not a book. It is a book-project, a meticulously designed object filled with cross-indexed essays and images using a custom cartographic visual language, which tends to get a bit distracting sometimes. Ambitious? For sure. To prove it, the back flap opens up to display a beautiful diagrammatic “map” by W. Bradford Paley that arranges miniscule images of all the pages and all the text lines of the entire book into an oval. Inside that oval there is a cloud of significant words used in common by all the authors, and these have been ordered in size according to the ones most repeated. So what do the standouts hint about what to find in this publication?World city urban Mapping people space design social network.

To produce the book, the editors, Janet Abrams and Peter Hall of the University of Minnesota Design Institute, assembled an unruly mob of artists, architects, and writers with their own various takes on “mapping,” a word deliberately chosen for its active, unfinished connotations. Fortunately, the resulting supermarket of contents brings together ideological opposites, albeit mostly from within the creative arts. Too often, I was left hoping for more of an exposé on cartographic tools, such as the interactive strategy table invented by Applied Minds Inc. and Northrop Grumman, found outside the worlds of art patronage and consumer design. Nonetheless, through the careful curatorial work of Abrams and Hall, as well as Deborah Littlejohn’s graphic design that attempts to unify the whole, Else/Where: Mapping stays close to its mission: to survey the challenge that the rise of the universalizing virtual network poses to previous analog cartographies of space and rebellious uses of the city.

Many scholars of urban design, planning, and geography are well aware of Michel de Certeau’s criticism of the celestial projection as an essential tool for spatial ordering and governing. From above, he wrote in 1984 in The Practice of Everyday Life, the imaginary eye-point “makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text.” De Certeau argued that the lived and practiced city began below cartographies; walking itself could be a form of eluding the bureaucracy of the space planner. Herman Melville might have agreed, suggests GPS artist Jeremy Wood in the first pages of Else/Where: Mapping,by way of selecting a Melville quote: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

But as David Harvey has wondered, what place is not filled by a space imbued with a sense of the universally agreed-upon calculations of money and time? Historically, maps created what he called “a new chronological net for human exploration and action.”We often forget the centrality of maps in the modern outlook, for they not only forge a mental construct of traversable, abstract and commodifiable space, but also allow us to determine the time it takes to get from point A to B (and, of course, how long to stay there). Even when we’re not looking at a paper or digital map, cognitive maps easily facilitate the classic time-is-money equation. Are there places that can be experienced beyond this regime? In a way, new communication networks, by compressing time and collapsing distances, only expand notions of abstract space into more areas of life, thereby challenging neither modern space nor time. Or so it seems.

That is the gauntlet thrown for Elsewhere: Mapping. Do networks (or, rather, their flattening into images) become a new level of intrusion that make invisible practices perceivable, and if so, perhaps subsuming more corners of life into that ever-expanding chronological net? Or, on the contrary, might the individual free herself from the oppression of maps by visualizing new cartographies of sociability and of identity, maybe even by creating new “true” places (if only at times virtual ones)? Designers in multiple disciplines, as the introductory essay suggests, are in a position to bridge the digital and the physical by mapping creatively. For better or worse, that is the power that they have, though not always aware of it.

In order to show how the contributors approached these problems, the editors divided their three-ring circus into four sections. The sections move from the theoretical— “Mapping Networks” in a sense lays the foundation of the network trope—to a final section called “Mapping Mapping,” which leans more on the empirically whacky, surreal attempts to subvert dominant modes of cartography. Here, the explosive, confetti-like paintings of geometric complexity by Julie Mehretu stand out as a salvo for imaginative cartography over the rational-informatic alternative.

“Mapping Networks” highlights the work of Bureau d’études, a Paris art collaborative that uses graphic design to expose the networks of business and government power. Deftly employing logotypes, dashed lines and a slick, commercial visual vocabulary, they attempt to create an image of flows that might indicate the connections between, for instance, the French state, Daimler Chrysler and Disney.

Bureau d’études notwithstanding, one of Elsewhere: Mapping’s best essays debunks this graphic sex appeal of some maps. J.J. King, whose research as a Fellow at the Design Institute served in part as a basis for this book, argues that, “These maps are highly complex and detailed but ultimately reveal the impossibility of making visible contemporary institutional relationships in a traditional cartographic form.” Referring to another so-called “knowledge map” of power connections (the famous “They rule” by Josh On and the Future Farmers), King asks, “How much closer does it bring us to understanding the power structure of contemporary capitalism than the statement that a few men sit on many boards?” He’s correct, and his essay was one of the few places where the new mapping gets its proper critical grilling.

Ironically, what is missing from much of the network mapping is geography itself, and this is where I ultimately disagree with King. It’s not impossible to make visible the institutional incest. Just look at William Cronon’s very unsexy (yet deceptively simple) maps in Nature’s Metropolis, where he charted loan defaults to show networks of power from Chicago’s development back to New York finance in the late 1800s. (I assume that those maps were probably drawn by an assistant and not by Cronon himself). Borders matter, and their presence can reveal much about where power lives.

Else/Where: Mapping also grapples with the notion that online conversation is a simultaneously situated and situating practice. Sadly, the book’s intellectual rigor seems to fizzle out when producing Antenna Design’s 2004 Civic Exchange competition entry—“a hybrid of street furniture, emergency alert signage and community bulletin board.” There is no analogous essay like King’s that wrestles with this project critically, and so one is left with a host of questions, not least of which is how one might differentiate between seemingly benign projects like Antenna’s and others designed for more sinister surveillance.

What I liked about Else/Where: Mapping, however, was that, after reading the introduction by Abrams and Hall I could gamble on making jumpcuts throughout, and I think it paid off. I don’t mean to discard the organization. In a sense, they created a zoning map, which I used to navigate this way and that. For example, one project that caught my eye was the work of Ben Fry of the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT. Fry promises to dissolve the cartography of the genetic into the design of information; as Abrams and Hall say, he is “finding ways to navigate in exponential landscapes of genomic data.” (More specifically: Fry makes three-dimensional models that reveal significant patterns in genetic coding.) What are the implications of Fry’s work? I was dying to know.

I found some suggestive thoughts, if not alarmingly positivistic, elsewhere in the book, where architecture critic and curator Ole Bouman wrote: “Now that the ordering of man and matter has become part of the movement of patterns of information, knowledge and capital, architects must change their maps to conform to the new reality.”
On a practical level, Fry’s three-dimensional information models appeal to scientists. But I can also imagine a not-too-distant future when cartographies like Fry’s will unite the molecular with the urban, shattering the uniqueness of the individual body. Is that an unavoidable future, a “new reality,” as Bouman thinks, or is it only one alternative? Abrams and Hall provide no final word, and maybe that’s appropriate for an audience that includes those who will confront that judgment professionally. But I shudder to think about the designers who will take home Bouman’s message as dogma, for they will revert back to traditional complicity.

Precisely mapped bodies could be managed at the level of particles, as Bouman suggests by the phrase “ordering of man and matter,” in accordance with the expansion of the chronological net into even the most interior places. And perhaps, through an ever-sharpening cartography, it is not implanted chips that will situate bodies in space; instead, digitized genetic material in a drop of saliva itself co-indexed with conventional geographic positioning in real time will serve the purpose better. I regret that the biological level of cartography was not sufficiently problematized in Else/Where: Mapping, because therein lies the danger of naturalizing the most invisible of all control mechanisms. Nevertheless, on the whole, this book is an incredible object to read, gaze at and occupy.

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