Mapping Culture [panel]
Fee Plumley, Kate Chapman, Brenda L Croft, Cheryl L’Hirondelle
Presented by ISEA2013 and Vivid Sydney
MCA, 8 June
Maps are curious things. They purport to show us an objective, readable representation of space and yet their capacity to deceive is limitless. Aside from possible inaccuracies, the map cannot ever measure the real. The map is not, as Gregory Bateson reminds us, the territory and “and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps. The territory never gets in at all…Always, the process of representation will filter it out so that the mental world is only maps of maps, ad infinitum.” So why bother with them at all?
Maps matter because they work by encoding perceptions of the space within which reality transpires and in doing so they encourage their readers to bring the reality depicted by the map into being. Maps persuade. They allow us to imagine a space that is always just out of reach and in doing so they act as instruments of power. Unquestioned, maps lead to unquestioned power by seducing us into believing that their way of seeing space is the only possible way in which it can be apprehended.
How then to resist the power of maps? Make your own. This is the common place occupied by the four speakers in the Mapping Culture panel held at the MCA as part of ISEA and Vivid Sydney. Fee Plumley’s nomadic art project, the really big road trip (http://www.reallybigroadtrip.com/), provided the catalyst for bringing together three other singular but interconnected cartographers.
Kate Chapman is a US geographer and technologist from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team who have most recently been working in Jakarta on crisis preparedness and response. The Open Street Map Foundation is an international not-for-profit organization whose aim is to support the distribution, growth and development of free geo-spatial data, allowing communities and individuals to make use of that data for their own purposes. Chapman spoke about the difficulties faced by communities when they attempt to meaningfully represent the real issues that they face, such as the distribution of poverty, as abstract symbols on a map. Another problem is finding ways to give these communities access to the mapping tools that they need. One solution has been to distribute paper maps to people who can then use these as the basis for building more culturally significant maps based on mutual agreement. In the longer term, the foundation aims to build mapping capabilities in communities through the delivery of online training in the use of digital tools for map creation.
Cheryl L’Hirondelle is a non-status/treaty nêhiyaw/âpihtawikosisan (cree/metis) interdisciplinary artist and singer/songwriter from the land now known as Canada. L’Hirondelle spoke about her online/offline work nikamon ohci askiy : songs because of the land (http://www.vancouversonglines.ca/). Commissioned by Grunt Gallery in Vancouver, the work began as a kind of psychogeographic dervice as the artist walked the streets of Vancouver while mapping the space through song. As she walked, L’Hirondelle paid homeless people she encountered to listen to her sing. Conversations with them were recorded and used as part of an online installation where listeners can navigate the Vancouver streetscape as it is translated through sound. The online component of the work also cannily translates traditional understandings of how data is mapped in databases. When she was asked how to characterise the ‘values’ of each data set of recorded sounds so that they could be used in the online representation of the work, L’Hirondelle explained that she subverted the use of alphanumeric tables and substituted them with the “tipi pole teachings” of her own Cree culture.
L’Hirondelle’s use of the word ‘songlines’ inadvertently led her to an encounter with another artist currently exploring the ways that maps are made and understood. Brenda L Croft is a member of the Gurindji/Malngin/Mudpurra peoples from the Northern Territory. She spoke of her recent attempts to retrace and rediscover the important walking places of the Gadigal people in Sydney. In contrast to the work of Open Street Map, Croft is interested in how one might move from mapping the observed to mapping the invisible or the vanished. Like L’Hirondelle, and in collaboration with her in the future, Croft aims to walk the streets of her adopted home, Sydney, in an attempt to remap and thereby reclaim spaces that have been cartographically occupied by others, thereby challenging both the power of maps and the maps of power.
All of the speakers on this panel challenged the audience to rethink our assumptions about how maps are made and how they operate on us. They recalled for me geographer Doreen Massey’s formulation of space, it’s “potentially disruptive characteristics: precisely its juxtaposition, its happenstance arrangement-in-relation-to-each-other, of previously unconnected narratives/temporalities, its openness and its condition of always being made.”
Lisa Gye is a Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.