NPA & Art

Vernacular Mapping

Populist Artist and Artist Collective Work Relating to People’s Atlas Projects.

by Jayne Hileman and Rebecca Zorach

Because mapmakers and visual artists share skills, materials, and techniques (if not always put to the same purpose), they have been closely linked throughout history. Maps in the European Renaissance developed in tandem with ever more sophisticated painting, printmaking, and woodworking techniques. Printed and painted maps were often included in art collections. For example, the Gallery of Maps at the Vatican, a luxurious collection in a high-prestige location, suggests that they already straddled the boundary between art and information, appreciated for aesthetic qualities as well as strategic or navigational needs. These and other official maps imply what David Harvey called “absolute space” in his 1973 book Social Justice and the City: the space of borders, boundaries, the control of ownership and access, space as managed and policed, often visualized in a bird’s eye view that implies objective truth. But these official maps do not exhaust the possibilities that lie at the intersection of art and mapping.
Harvey offers other terms — relative space and relational space — that may be more helpful to our exploration of the intersection of art and maps as it relates to Notes for a People’s Atlas (1).  “Relative” space suggests that space is produced as a set of relationships among objects (natural objects, the built environment, things and persons), and “relational” space goes one step further to view space as existing only within those objects through their embodiment of relationships to others. This understanding of space opens up the more subjective and subversive realm occupied by the populist maps collected here.
Maps may be the materials of art; they may also serve as its subject matter. These two approaches mingle in the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who collaged and painted on US maps, using them as icons to be altered and critiqued. But when artists (as many have done in recent years) invent new maps and new mapping techniques—when they view mapping as activity as a crucial element of their practice—then we are closer to the realm of AREA’s Notes for a People’s Atlas project. In the Notes for a People’s Atlas, the city map serves as a container to be filled with information, memories and associations, invention and commentary. As with any visual representation, maps involve abstraction and concreteness, presence and absence; they also involve politics. While many maps express conventional ideologies about space and nation, others present the viewer with enigmas, or attempt (more or less successfully) to make visible the invisible. Maps may offer individual fantasies, ironic commentaries, or rebellious reinscriptions. Here, we identify a number of themes within contemporary art that can serve as points of reference for the NPA project.

Worm’s Eye View

Reverend Howard Finster

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau contrasts the “strategic” view from above (for him the now impossible view from atop the World Trade Center in New York) with the “tactical” view from below, that of the pedestrians “whose bodies follow the ups and downs of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.”(2) The People’s Atlas and other analogous people’s maps suggest that the pedestrian, the individual “down below” can read as well as write — but it is a different kind of reading. What does the map look like when it’s not from a bird’s eye view, but from the perspective of the worm? Cultural landscape scholars and geo-philosophers as well as artists provide other parallels and insights into the spatial, visual, personal, and political aspects of populist mapping. They suggest ways of thinking the map as personal and space as emotional (in the vein of the psychogeography of the Situationists) and imagining autonomous trajectories. Questioning spatial hierarchies in midcentury America, the unconventional landscape architect J.B. Jackson created ways of seeing vernacular architecture and everyday America in travel journals that introduced alternative maps of the urban landscape. Jackson redirected his earlier geography training as a combat intelligence officer in France during WWII toward different ends. In his 1957 essay, “The Stranger’s Path,” he published maps that relate the experience of entering towns as a non-tourist stranger. The essay and images rethink urban experience by approaching from “the other side of the tracks,” from the bus or train station, perhaps an immigrant seeking a job (3). In articles and images in the journal Landscape in the 1950s and 60s, and from lecterns at Harvard and Berkeley, he opened up a radical approach to cultural landscape and architecture studies in America, inspiring others such as Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, best known for their influential book Learning from Las Vegas (4).
Populist models of imagining space can provide ways to understand the history and energy fueling people’s map-making. Self-taught artists’ work relating to popular culture, indigenous tribal mapping, folk art roots in mapping, and the creative commons of DIY makers offer avenues for visual and theoretical connections to the Peoples Atlas initiative. Katherine Harmon’s Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination (2004) surveys popular mapping and charting, as well as artists’ mapping. This collection of images combines artists’ maps with an array of unusual mapping practices (4). In this collection, indigenous Siberian Chukchi peoples’ dream destinations of the night map, and the hallucinatory vision maps of the Tukano peoples of the Amazon, show aspects of tribal mappings. Different American biblical visions appear in anonymous metaphorical maps popular in the 19th century. The Falls of Eternal Despair and The Gospel Temperance Railroad Map, give visual, landscape-based spiritual directions on how to progress from a state of depravity to a state of righteousness. Self-improvement maps, like New Map of the Journey of Life: The Roads to Happiness and Misery, and The Road to Success, point to the persuasiveness of metaphorical places. More optimistic about human fate than the earlier religious maps, self-taught artist and preacher Reverend Howard Finster maps the many paths to paradise, with different routes for Odd Fellows and Methodists, but a with shared juncture in “All Roads One Road Headed the Same Way” (1978). Many of the NPA maps share the focus on the personal, and some also partake of the urgency and idiosyncracy of self-taught artists like Finster, sometimes sharing aesthetic sensibilities as well.
Contemporary Chicago artist Michael Ryan has recorded his everyday pathway in a series of finely inked line drawings and precise charts, whose spare elegance elevates these everyday routes to zen draftsmanship in his Chicago Projects 1999-2001. ( Paula Henderson’s Chicago: The Extended Remix completely rearranges “the city of neighborhoods”, in a painterly act of desegregation, remixing rich and poor, north and south sides, in this historically segregated city. Denis Wood’s work considers an expanded, experiential idea of mapping and the poetics of spaces. Growing out of his teaching of architecture students, his work visually mapping the Boylan Heights neighborhood in 1982 and several books on mapmaking and the nature of maps demonstrate his sense of the intertwined aspects of relational, relative and absolute maps. More likely to represent light from Jack-o-lanterns on porches than street signs in his mapping projects, he has promoted a poet’s vision of mapmaking, as an alternative to the absolute information in floor plans and maps (5).

Hidden Histories

Personal trajectories are often, as the 1970s feminist slogan suggests, political. William Pope L’s documentation of performance crawls through the streets of New York, sometimes dressed as Superman, like The Great White Way, (2002) bridge the personal and the political, as he pictures paths of daily struggles of African-Americans in urban America. Pedro Lasch’s project, Latino/a America, began with his giving identical maps of the Americas to 20 people he knew would cross the Mexican/U.S. border between 2003 and 2006. He presents the eight worn maps returned to him after their journeys ended in NYC, with texts of his conversations with these migrants and travelers. The Calcutta organization Unnayan mapped and organized unauthorized settlers from 1978 to 1990. Unnayan provided visual representations of marginal settlements of the unintended city of Calcutta, mapping the modest dwellings of laboring poor, on what was “vacant land” in official maps. In the second phase of their work, 1988-90, they mapped the history of settlements of ordinary people in Calcutta over the centuries (6).
Personal trajectories that belong to those whose experiences rarely surface at the level of the official map open possibilities for another type of populist mapping: the hidden history. Al’s ’68 Map of the Westside in AREA Chicago’s issue #7 (68/08: The Inheritance of Politics and the Politics of Inheritance) maps Al Johnson Sr.’s personal memories of life on Chicago’s Westside, where he witnessed the ravaging of the neighborhood after the assassination of Dr. King in 1968. On a double-page map, illustrated with location photos, words speak of places lived, the destruction of the neighborhood in 1968, and surprise at the transformation of the same place 20 years later. The project combines excerpts from Samuel Barnett’s interview with Al Johnson Sr., for the Chicago April 1968 oral history of project, with Monica Barra’s photos and notes; Dave Pabellon’s overall design pairs a lean brown map of the west side of Chicago, with bands of text and image, creating a stark record of Al Johnson’s personal history.
Hirokazu Kosaka’s projects can be described as populist ethno-geography. For his Ruin Maps, this Southern California artist asked participants, often Japanese-Americans who had been forcibly interned during WWII, to draw memory maps of former lived places. For a 2007-08 residency at the Seattle Art Museum, he invited participants to create memory maps and reflect on the city’s neighborhoods-in-flux. He translated these maps into a series of minimal woodcut prints collected under the title Mappa Mundi, the Latin term for a medieval world map (7).

DuSable's Journey

Adapting the secret symbol language of veve and anafourana, born from West African sign languages, brother and sister Houston Conwill and Estella Conwill Majozo have developed a metaphorical cartography, which merges secret slave languages of the Americas with modern civil rights history in public floor maps. With architect Joseph DePace, they designed an inlaid floor map cosmogram, DuSable’s Journey, in 1991, for the Harold Washington Public Library in downtown Chicago. Tracing the routes followed by the first permanent settler of this city, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a trader of African and French ancestry, from his native Haiti, the design charges the space with rings and crossroads, familiar imagery of the African diaspora. The map links DuSable with the first African American mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington. At the center of the cosmogram, the “King’s Line,” named for Martin Luther King, intersects with the “Malcolm Line,” for Malcolm X — signaling two orientations of the U.S. civil rights movement. Quotations from Washington’s inaugural speeches form a border ring around the capsule history. Set into the foundation level of this public library, it’s a walkable map, a public art project and a historical marker. Du Sable’s Journey takes the graphic form of a cakewalk, a circle dance performed by slaves for slave owners in the South, which has become a symbol not only of oppression but also of expression and survival.

Counter-Cartographers Mapping Networks

Sometimes histories map themselves in art, as in the nineteenth-century quilts made to provide coded geospatial guidance to freedom seekers escaping Southern slavery: the code is not always readily deciphered because it was meant to be obscure to those for whom it was not meant. But histories are also hidden through oppressive ideologies and neglect. Alongside hidden history is the hidden present of the operations of power. To twentieth-century spatial thinkers, the modern city was a bewildering experience to be theorized and mapped. For the twenty-first century, it is the global scope of the flows of wealth and power that require mapping in order to understand the broader context for popular struggle. An early and associative example is Öyvind Fahlström’s jam-packed cartoon world map of 1972, which wildly combines pithy global data about World Bank Loan sites, Vietnamese napalm burns, indigenous anti-colonial movements, to mention just a few of many topics, with a zany, bloblular drawing style and labels that suggest the incorporation of messianic text into the paintings of self-taught artists. Joyce Kozloff integrates her son’s warrior drawings with revisionist collage maps of various imperialist sites, in works like Boys’ Art 7: British Fleet, Falkland Islands, 2003, and (North) American History: Popular Uprisings, 2004. Her beautifully made interior globe environment, Targets, 2000, lures one in to see maps of places the U.S. has bombed since 1945 (8).
Tech-savvy counter cartographers respond to the ways in which power obscures itself by creating transgressive adaptations of maps, using the scientific traditions of cartography to subvert authority. Since 2000 the French collaborative Bureau d’études has produced maps, charts, and diagrams of the global flows of power, finance, commodities, pollution, and information. The Institute for Applied Autonomy and the Surveillance Camera Players have mapped routes to use to avoid CCTV camera surveillance in various cities, drawing attention to the technologies of power. Many other collectives like An Architektur, the Beehive Collective, Counter-Cartographies Collective, 16Beaver, CCRED, and Compass Group, engage the skills and group energy of members to produce research-based, complex maps and websites, rendering connections and sites of power visible to puncture the official story. The Counter-Cartographies Collective’s Disorientation Guide to UNC Chapel Hill, 2006, is a dizzying collection of layered information, which presents UNC as ”…a functioning body, … a factory, …producing your world.” (9)
Maps from An Atlas of Radical Cartography, and the accompanying essays with the exhibit and book from the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press, survey some of these groups’ projects, providing a grimmer international perspective on alternative socio-political mapping. Crisp, digital precision describes the paths of forced relocations of suspects for interrogation, called extraordinary rendition, in Trevor Paglen and John Emerson’s CIA Rendition Flights 2001-2006, based on information from Paglens and A.C. Thompson’s book, Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights. (10). This crowd-sourced project compiles information gleaned by planespotters, radio enthusiasts, journalists, and researchers to map what can be known about rendition flights — but also to attest to the impossibility of fully revealing and mapping this information because of the ways in which power conceals itself.

Ecologies and Economies

Many of the approaches discussed above combine in work that addresses the intertwining with human and non-human ecologies to map the land, human impact on it, and ways of addressing the problems this impact creates. Helen and Newton Harrison have a long history of integrating map information into the planning and exhibit presentation of their many land and water restoration projects from the 1970 to the present. Considered as pioneering eco-artists, with visual and conversational tactics for promoting change, they also have an impressive record of having their ambitious projects realized. Their Vision for the Green Heart of Holland, a cultural presentation of detailed regional growth mapping, has been adopted by the Dutch government as a working development plan for central Holland, Situated in interdisciplinary spaces of visual art, land-use planning, graphic presentation of data, and poetic conversation, their work integrates scientific and geographic data with visionary space-use projections. Approaching public space with an ecological attitude that decenters the human species, and well-informed by environmental research, their work links with peoples’ mapping in their visual logic for common good, and in their model for shared, inclusive process (11).

The energetic and crowded centerfold map, Region From Below: Power Plants by Compass Group, in AREA Chicago # 9 (Peripheral Vision), compares regional Midwest sustainable cultural activism by Native Americans with the urban activism of Pilsen /Little Village environmental activists in Chicago concerned with the air quality near two coal burning power stations in their neighborhood. ADM hovers at the margins, and permeates the map as a corporate presence.

Working from AREA Chicago’s template, Jayne Hileman took the mapping process into the south side of Chicago with her map, Public Schools and Public Golf Courses, in AREA Chicago #6 (City As Lab). The map drew attention to the curious mix of public schools, and public (& private) golf courses on the south side of Chicago. In an area better known for brownfields and industrial blight, public and private golf courses provide “green space” and proliferate in the south and southwest suburbs of the city. The map raises questions about the nature of the “public”; public golf courses are “pay-to-play” (a term with troubling connotations in Chicago politics), while public schools depend on property taxes for support and reflect deep inequities in American education.
The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) works with students to map items of interest to youth. One notable example is the New York City Garbage Machine; other projects have mapped water and food distribution and housing histories. Classroom settings have also been enormously productive for People’s Atlas maps.
In the People’s Atlas projects carried out in US and international cities, often instigated by artists and art organizations, maps have been made in workshops, public community gatherings, classrooms, and parks, and by individuals using on-line maps. The many maps are a small visual sample of empowering ideas like people’s history projects and a hands-on, low-tech reclaiming of personal space and place from GPS and Google Earth. Working from a map template of the geographic space they inhabit, contributors to Peoples Atlas projects in various cities in this collection bring many approaches to their interpretations of a map. These peoples’ maps reflect, at a grassroots level, much of what contemporary artist collectives and artists are imagining in their extended studio practices. There’s a lot going on.

1) Harvey, David (2006) Spaces of Global Capitalism, Verso, London, (chapter 6).
2) Certeau, Michel de (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 141.
3) J. B. Jackson (1957) “The Stranger’s Path,” Landscape 7, no. 1, 11-15.
4) Groth, P.  and C. Wilson (2003) Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies after J.B. Jackson, University of California Press, Los Angeles.
5) Harmon, Katherine (2004) Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, Princeton Architectutral Press, New York, 178.
6) Wood, Denis (1992) The Power of Maps, The Guilford Press, New York.
7) Sen, Jai (2007) “Other Worlds: Other Maps, Mapping the Unintended City” in Alexis Bhaghat  and Lize Mogel (eds.) An Atlas of Radical Cartography, Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press, Los Angeles, 13.
8) Harmon, Katherine and Gayle Clemans (2009) The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 33-41.
9) Wood, 189-190.
10) Disorientation guide:
11) Paglen, Trevor and  A.C. Thompson (2006) “Torture Taxi,” Melville House, New York.
12) Greenhouse Britain Harrison Studio and Associates, 2006.

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