An Atlas of Radical Cartography – Plotting power

July 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: Oyster #82, June/July 2009.

In an age where globalised communications, mass immigration and cheap travel have made borders and nation states more fluid and ambiguous than ever, a new art book project re-plots our notions of the map. Dan Rule chats with Lize Mogel from An Atlas of Radical Cartography.

It could be any rudimentary map. Fine, hand-drawn lines make out a river called Tolly’s Nala running north-south and a slender tributary marked “Boat Canal” bridging off to the west. Chetla Road snakes through the map’s midsection, flanking the river before winding its way to the canal and past a huge expanse marked “Factory” to the northwest. A railway line sweeps along the document’s southern fringe. To the far west is a station called Kalighat.

But the map’s real detail is between the major buildings and arteries – between the usual markers of urban geography. It is in the gullies between road and river, the dead space in a factory shadow. Here, these spaces are alive. Hundreds of tiny, numbered squares and rectangles sprawl out in tight, busy clusters. It is housing.

The document is part of a series by architect Jai Sen and social activist group Unnayan, which was dedicated to mapping the ‘unintended city’ – the so-called ‘unauthorised settlements’ or slums existing within East Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 1980s. It was used to ascribe the disempowered a place in the city that was otherwise unrecognised and to act as a vehicle for lobbying Calcutta authorities for residents’ basic human rights, housing rights, addresses and identity in the greater scheme of the city.

The map and its associated essay Other Worlds, Other Maps is the first of 10 that comprise remarkable new book An Atlas of Radical Cartography. The project, curated and edited and by New York artists and activists Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat, draws on a host of artists, designers, activists and cartographers to question and re-imagine ingrained perceptions of the map as definitive and apolitical.

“We’re taught to think about maps in a straightforward geographic sense,” says Mogel, tonight chatting over Skype from her home in New York.  “But for both me and Alexis maps are very political.”

Mogel frames the map as a “tool of power”. “Traditionally, maps were created by the State or the church and cartography was an arm of the State,” she contends. “Cartographers worked for royal courts from medieval times and up and maps have been used by the military since that time.”

“We say in the introduction to the book that a tool of power is of use to whoever wields it. To make a successful map you don’t necessarily need all of the data, and in any case data is very subjective, even if it doesn’t present itself that way.”

It’s a common theme that runs through the maps contained in An Atlas of Radical Cartography. For example, Routes of Least Surveillance, a 2001 project by the Institute for Applied Autonomy, charts the influx of unregulated surveillance and CCTV cameras in Manhattan in the wake of September 11 and offers pedestrians the most effective routes by which to avoid the lens. Other projects, like Trevor Paglen and John Emerson’s map of secret CIA “rendition flights” in which terror suspects would be kidnapped and flown to secret prisons, take familiar cartography and subvert it with new information, while Pedro Lasch’s more abstract Latino/a America challenges the borders between North and South America, marking the two as the one huge Latin continent. Mogel’s From South to North, meanwhile, charts the effects of unchecked international trade and shipping on community and landscape.

The work’s outwardly political and socio-cultural objectives encourage a critical engagement both with itself and more conventional maps. We find ourselves asking questions of just what sphere of detail are the maps really showing us and why? Who decides which details are worthy of being plotted? What are the implications of those decisions?

“Some of these projects are meant to make people think differently about space…while others have had very specific effects on individuals,” says Mogel. “Like with the Latino/a America project, Pedro gave these maps to people who were crossing the border and they carried them with them as they were crossing.”

“Then there is Unnayan map, which was used to influence planning that then had an effect on a community in Calcutta, but didn’t come from that community itself – it was a layer placed on the community by architects, and Sen is very critical of that and he wonders what those maps would have looked like if he’d made them with the community. So there are all these different layers.”

While the book’s critical orientation is a central focus, perhaps what makes An Atlas so compelling is its engagement with aesthetics. Comprising a clean, perfect bound volume of essays and 10 striking, poster-sized maps packaged in a solid card slipcase, the project is picture of handsome contemporary design.

“We got maps from artists, from cartographers and there was a huge range of things. In the end we decided to focus on these highly aesthetic maps that were mainly circulating in the art world or the art/activist world. We felt that aesthetics were important and that these maps were design objects; these projects really harness the communicative power of design in 10 very different ways.”

“So we were also interested in design as a strategy…and we feel that these maps visualise the connections between pieces of information and space in very interesting ways, and you know, we thought people might actually want to look at them,” she laughs.

In this context, the projects objectives are simple enough. “I guess we’re interested in using these strategies for activist purposes, and educate people about the issues described in the maps and the essays, to create more discussion and more action around these things,” she says.

“And you know, for me, I think there can never be too many maps.”

An Atlas of Radical Cartography is out through IDEA Books


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