[…]A globe about the size of a grapefruit, a perfectly detailed rendition of Planet Earth, hanging in space at arm’s length in front of his eyes [and displaying] all the maps, weather data, architectural plans, and satellite surveillance.[i]
It was reading this – from Neil Stephenson’s 1993 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash – and science fiction like it that inspired me on the path of studying computer science. A few years later I was enrolled at one of the UK’s premier Cybernetics departments, where our homework assignments involved transfiguring the messy, ambiguous world into a format that a computer could understand and respond to. Lots of things like figuring out how to get a robot to identify and manipulate a coloured ball placed in its test environment, or tracking cars in the uni car-park from real-time surveillance camera feeds.
It also seems to have inspired the CEO of CIA-funded Keyhole, Inc to develop what would eventually become Google Earth.
As science fiction, it’s a power fantasy: a resonant mythology of voyeurism and omniscience that seduces with the prospect of observing an object in detail from the safe distance of an isolated, untouchable viewpoint.
The map as a form of spatial knowledge operates under the central epistemological dogma of the scientific method: faith in the ability to isolate aspects of the world as a system, and yourself as observer from what is being observed.[ii] From an extra-terrestrial vantage-point the map demarcates nations, city districts, zones. Looking down from a ‘god’s-eye-view’ it draws out borders and boundaries, observing the world as a static tableau of legible, abstract, discrete but interconnected elements.
In practice, it represents a drive to ‘make sense’ of the world through the dominant discourse of techno-science, fuelled by a burgeoning ecology of digital capture devices. A project of technology-driven rationalisation which – driven by the forces of late capitalism – is creating a totalising system of spatial knowledge; ubiquitous, homogeneous, and normalised.
While not unique, Google Maps has emerged as the de facto map provider, and its dominance has led to a standardisation of cartographic choices as its competitors undergo a ‘Googlification’, adopting the same mapping conventions, emulating their fonts, symbols, colour scheme, road width, etc.[iii] Through Google Maps’ near-universal use in embedded mobile applications and websites, it provides a theoretical unified globe-space for representing all spatial information on earth.
With the prevalence of mobile mapping and navigation tools, those on the ground are finding it useful to turn their binoculars around and see everything from a distance, isolating themselves from their intimate surroundings: for me this meant my first few hours in a new city were viewed through a calculated route on a map displayed by my phone, as I rushed to arrive at an appointment on time. The ‘conceived spaces’ of maps are superimposing themselves on the ‘perceived’ spaces of everyday life, to the point where our day-to-day world is a cyborg, augmented space.
But the ubiquitous modern map isn’t disinterested or complete. What’s missing is kept quiet. Spatial theorist Michel de Certeau points to the progressive historical shift in the form of the map, moving away from its origin as itinerary toward an aesthetics of technical diagramming that denies its contingency and partiality.[iv] Pictographic representations of maritime mapping expeditions have been replaced by north arrows, scale indicators, abstracted symbols, and service watermarks that claim a position of objective neutrality.[v]
It privileges certain details, connections, and causes over others, pointedly ignoring the concept of change and time altogether to produce a static representation. The visible consequences can be humorous or tragic. At the whim of ‘stale’ GPS navigation data, drivers barrel through rivers that were once fords, drive the wrong way down one-way streets, plant their 18-wheelers into the arches of low-clearance bridges.
The phenomenological effects are more subtle: with the seductive promise of getting more from it (and the requirement that we do everything as efficiently as possible), the mapped city becomes something facilitating optimised, directed engagement – demystified, rationalised, and understood through productive logic. Its businesses laid out, streets diagrammed, and the particulars of its traffic regulations intimately accounted for to enable the provision of optimum driving directions. In contrast, even the most lush countryside is a desert, bereft of the nodes and conduits of capital (the shops or roads) that make for fertile mapping ground. There’s a sort of insanity to painting the world’s forests, jungles, and bush all the same colour (“color: #CBDFB1”).
People have tended to get quite annoyed at being told the world is just for commodified existence. In the late 1950s the Situationist International formed to fight what they considered the capitalist degradation of life, as exercised (for example) through a mechanistic, totalising account of the city. They encouraged playful critical practices that challenged the legitimacy and dominance of the official map and generated alternative accounts of space.[vi]
These practices were research methodologies for investigating the ‘Psychogeographical’: a field of study described as the ‘specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’[vii] One such practice, the dérive, involved drifting through the city without aim or consideration for formal boundaries, neighbourhoods, or paths; the researcher tasked with taking note of their feelings of the city, areas that attracted or repulsed them, directing their flow.
The psychogeographical maps produced by such practices are fantastical counter-claims to the restricted, official representation of the city; a form of ‘radical cartography’ that appropriates the map as an ‘instrument of power’ as part of a broader emancipatory project.[viii] Radical cartography can effectively challenge the explicit claims of authoritative maps, but it’s limited to being oppositional. It fails to propose an alternative form of knowledge.
There is another model altogether for the generation of knowledge, however. One that doesn’t deny the place of the author in the account, and that’s comfortable with its partiality and contingency: the tour.
My own art practice looks to critique reductive maps using the form of a tour, picking out the spatial stories and performances involved in the operation of mapping apparatus. Taking various established and emerging mapping technologies – laser scanning, photogrammetry, geolocation tracking – my works re-appropriate them as expressive mediums, altering their outcomes to introduce an affective element which is normally absent.
In Demonstration, laser etched figures are offered as a research tool for investigating the temporary emotional landscapes of spaces of civil disobedience. The material particularities of the space are considered subordinate to the emotional, and squares, roads, and obstacles should be formed ad-hoc out of whatever comes to hand (a tissue-box or stack of books for example). The researcher is directed to roleplay the different actors in the scenario in the style of a child playing with dolls or toy soldiers. The play-through of the situation should be considered a legitimate form of knowledge-creation akin to, say, the simulations a material engineer would run on a composite aircraft wing.
Josh Harle, Demonstration, 2011, laser-etched figures, 5 x 2 x 2 cm.
In Berlin, a ‘map’ of Neukölln, Berlin is produced by reconstructing the spatial relationships between video-frames of a walk. The work suggests the aesthetic of GPS tracking ‘breadcrumbs’, but presents it as a video performance without reference to absolute position, streets or even buildings. The result is the outcome of a short, intimate frottage against the city.
Josh Harle, Berlin, 2011-2014, spatially reconstructed video
In Making Sense, a small robot endlessly navigates the gallery space, using cutting-edge cloud-computing and computer vision technology to reconstruct it’s path as it goes. This reconstruction is projected in real-time onto the wall of the gallery space. Disrupting the map, the robot’s performance of the space is marked through a chalk trail left as it continues its journey.
Josh Harle, Making Sense, 2014, robot, iPhone, chalk pen, data projector, ‘the cloud’, 45 x 35 x 30cm.
Josh Harle, Making Sense, 2014, robot, iPhone, chalk pen, data projector, ‘the cloud’, 45 x 35 x 30cm.
The works seek an alternative form of (spatial) knowledge-creation that departs from the productive outcomes and rationalising tendencies of their constituent technologies, and reaffirms the importance of performance in the creation of meanings of space: performing a sort of conceptual dérive away from their usual path, subverting their logic of capture.
They share their methodology with fictocriticism, an approach to producing knowledge which departs from the traditional use of an objective, authoritative voice. In striking contrast to the scientific method’s foundation on isolated variables and impartial observation, fictocritique present accounts as contingent, provisional, and tentative; a tour or recounted story rather than a map. The researcher-author isn’t positioned outside the territory they are discussing: they speak from ‘on the ground’, and acknowledge that their viewpoint, experiences, and associations colour their observations.
Fictocriticsm has been utilised by contemporary anthropologists (Sariola, Douglas- Jones, Muecke, Latour) as a way of avoiding oversimplification in their account of the world. Taking inspiration from Bruno Latour’s ‘Compositionism’,[ix] it proposes a critical style that attempts to build pragmatic accounts of the world evaluated not on the basis of truth versus fiction, but (since all arguments are constructed in one way or another) on how well constructed they are.[x]
By not claiming totalising truths, they avoid the oppositional politics of map vs map. Where maps present reductive models, fictocriticism attempts to maintain the vitality and richness of its descriptions through compositions made up of ‘heterogeneous chains of association’ that connect together such things as ‘the European Union, the beef market, prions in the laboratory, politicians, vegetarians, public confidence, farmers, and Nobel prize-winning French scientists’ (as assembled in Latour’s description of the outbreak of CJD in Europe).[xi]
Allowing such disparate connections to be articulated continues Psychogeography’s challenge to the neatly structured, isolated elements of the map: a challenge paralleled by Gaston Bachelard’s argument for the significance of the oneiric in our experience of the home[xii] and de Certeau’s description of an ‘”anthropological,” poetic and mythic experience of space’[xiii] in which familiar-sounding street names may unconsciously guide a tourist’s path through a strange city.
hrough these heterogenous associations, fictocritical accounts operate like artworks, articulating connections that would normally be filtered out as part of the creation of a readable map: ‘mixing dreams with memories’,[xiv] and providing a model of knowledge as verb rather than noun, tour instead of map.
Latour’s famous critique of scientific knowledge-production points out the social construction of research, and the importance of powerful allies in its success.[xv] Cross-displinary art projects often appear to be an attempt by the artist to gain some of the perceived intellectual rigour and value of scientific knowledge by association; trying to befriend some of its allies.
In healthy tension with scientific rationalism, fictocriticism offers a compelling, theoretically robust alternative for the artist. It stands as a rallying cry to then to remain confident in art’s implicit value as a form of knowledge-production, rather than playing second-fiddle to scientific knowledge. After all, it’s the traveller’s tale rather than the map which remains valuable even once the landmarks it speak of have long gone.
[i] Neil Stephenson, Snow Crash (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 106.
[ii] This dogma privileges vision – detached and reifying – over other senses like touch, hearing, and smell that involve an implicit immersion in the world. See Juhani Palasma, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (Hoboken, NJ: John
Wiley & Sons, 2008), 12.
[iii] Timothy R Wallace, ‘Google Maps: Homogenizing Our Landscape’ (paper presented at the Is Google Good for Geography? Web2.0 and the Political Economy of User Generated Geographical Knowledge, Las Vegas, USA, 2009).
[iv] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 121.
[v] Denis Wood, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas (Los Angeles: Siglio, 2010), 13.
[vi] Simon Sadler, The Situationist City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 5.
[vii] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a critique of urban geography’ (1955), trans. Ken Knabb, in Engel-Di Mauro, Salvatore, ed. Critical Geographies: a collection of readings. Praxis ePress, 2008, 23.
[viii] Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat, An Atlas of Radical Cartography (Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press, 2008), 6.
[ix] Stephen Muecke, ‘Motorcycles, Snails, Latour: Criticism without Judgement,’ Cultural Studies Review 18, no. 1 (2011): 50.
[x] Bruno Latour, ‘An Attempt at a’ Compositionist Manifesto’,’ New Literary History 41, no. 3 (2010): 478.
[xi] Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 113.
[xii] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space(Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 15.
[xiii] de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life,93.
[xiv] Muecke, ‘Motorcycles, Snails, Latour: Criticism without Judgement’, 49.
[xv] Bruno Latour, Science in Action:How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (Boston:Harvard University Press,1987), 62.
Josh Harle is a multidisciplinary researcher and new media artist. His research investigates the virtual spaces generated by emerging technologies, our encounters with the world...