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Living Cartography


ATLAS OF DESIGN, Volume 1. Timothy R. Wallace and Daniel P. Huffman, editors. xi + 81 pp. North American Cartographic Information Society, 2012. $35.

2013-01BRevsStallmanFA.jpgClick to Enlarge Image“Cartography,” wrote Denis Wood in 2004, “is dead.” He argued that cartography is increasingly irrelevant as a profession, as a mode of claiming power over the land and as a set of stylistic devices—the everpresent North arrow and scale bar, the neat line boxing off map from page. In 2012, it isn’t difficult to find support for his claims. Since the introduction of computer-based geographic information systems in the 1960s, paper maps have mostly ceased being the authoritative storage medium for geographic information. Their role in military conquest and political control has been supplanted by, among other things, the triangulated irregular network elevation data, used in geographic information system (GIS) software, which help guide drone missile strikes. The navigational maps that many people in the United States rely on presently (on smartphones, on the Web and in global positioning system devices) lack neat lines and North arrows completely, and they flout the stylistic conventions of traditional cartography.

The North American Cartographic Information Society’s inaugural Atlas of Design lavishly demonstrates the ongoing vitality of mapmaking, if not the profession of cartography. The atlas brings together 27 pieces, ranging from whimsical experiments at the intersection of mapping and art to detailed maps that appeal to the aesthetics of objectivity, clarity and neutrality that are closely associated with cartography as a profession. Ryan Sullivan’s Portland Finger Plans use the shapes of human hands to map aspects of the city, such as bridges, light rail and regional location. These simple, graphically striking maps raise questions about scale and the relation of domesticity to the city. Brian E. Stoll’s Empire of Torentine: A Political Map, a reference map of a completely fictitious country, manages to catch both ends of this invented art–science binary. The maps were selected from a field of 140 entries by a panel of six judges. Each of the pieces is accompanied by a one-page (or shorter) essay in which the designer or cartographer explains some of the decisions behind the work. Unfortunately, for most of the maps, the accompanying text doesn’t address the contextual questions that came to my mind, about the map-maker’s background, for instance, or how the map fits into a broader project.

In their introductory essay, “An Argument for Beauty,” editors Tim Wallace and Daniel Huffman make the case that cartography is design. As they put it, cartographers are people who “care about how the map looks.” In keeping with the broader mission of the North American Cartographic Information Society, the editors argue for a refocusing of the work of cartography: from a sole fixation on the science of accurately and legibly representing data about Earth’s surface and the phenomena that occur on it, to a practice that includes the aesthetic and design processes that take data and produce “something worth looking at. . . . something that acknowledges the human need for beauty.”

Daniel Coe’s map, titled Willamette River, Oregon, is a striking example. Coe describes his piece as “half map, half painting; somewhere between science and art.” Willamette River indeed looks at first like an abstract painting—the page is covered in a deep blue hue, with swashes of white tracing a curve in the foreground, surrounded by lighter blues and whites. The effect is like an image of a lightning bolt or a Harold Edgerton photograph of smoke diffusing. This quality persists even as the accompanying text reveals that the image is the display of high-resolution elevation data within a 50-foot range in the river’s basin. Dark blues are higher elevations, bright white the lowest. By revealing a wide range of detail inside a relatively small range of elevation, Coe’s map makes it possible to see the subtle influence of the river’s hydromorphology on the surrounding land.

Williamette River exemplifies one of the major tensions in the Atlas of Design. The piece is at the same time a striking and relatively abstract artistic composition, a procedurally simple display of digital elevation data (numbers map directly to colors), and the final result of a complex process of data gathering and manipulation. One of the major factors now changing cartography is that the GIS data available are so detailed and complex that it is impossible to make a legible, objective map that shows “just the facts.” Such a cartography would go beyond even Jorge Luis Borges’s and Lewis Carroll’s fictional one-to-one scale maps, because, for example, laser-derived LIDAR (short for Light Detection and Ranging) elevation datasets contain not just one reading for each latitude–longitude coordinate, but a cloud of returns tracking the different layers of forest canopy, buildings and the like.

The ready availability of massively large geographic datasets makes even more evident the impossibility of mapping that is neutral, objective, complete and legible. The work featured in the Atlas of Design demonstrates a range of possible responses to this tension. Bill Rankin’s A Taxonomy of Transitions and Larry Orman, Alexandra Barnish and Diana Pancholi’s Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Residential Patterns lean toward the side of legibility, demonstrating new techniques for mapping population data from the United States decennial census. Orman, Barnish and Pancholi mask out areas of San Francisco that don’t have residential development and color-code the remaining blocks by majority or plurality racial/ethnic group. Rankin’s map makes the case for dot-density mapping as a way to complicate the usual picture of intraneighborhood racial homogeneity. Both maps, however, rely on collapsing the range of racial and ethnic categories in the U. S. Census (which, since 2000, has included the option to self-report race/ethnicity or identify as multiple races or ethnicities) into just four or five groupings.

Aaron Straup Cope and Stamen Design’s map=yes forgoes many of the characteristics of a traditional street map in order to force readers to think more closely about the underlying technical structure of large-scale geographic data, in particular the data collected as part of the OpenStreetMap (OSM) project. Started in 2004 as a response to the lack of freely available street data in the United Kingdom, OSM is a volunteer-run geographic information database that covers the entire world at a high level of detail—a street map equivalent of Wikipedia. The detail and accuracy of OSM data now rival that of any commercial database, but unlike many other databases, OSM treats geographic data agnostically. The OSM World database is a collection of lines, polygons and points that are differentiated from each other—roads from fences from sidewalks from borders, lakes from buildings from skate parks—not by their place in the database structure but by the tags associated with them. And because the OSM data span a variety of languages and cultures, those tags sometimes vary from place to place and from contributor to contributor. Whereas many mapmakers (and the OSM project itself) filter and generalize the raw OSM data before displaying it on a map, map=yes pulls from the unfiltered tagging database in order to display all polygons tagged “building,” “leisure” or “trunk.” Nothing else shows on the map. What results is a fascinating and beautiful record not of the city of London itself, but of a particular subset of the OSM database.

Cartography and design are much more than the making of objects—they are also the thoughtful study, theorizing and critique of what it means to make maps. Huffman and Wallace argue that “design and aesthetics matter, because . . . form is integral to function.” Throughout the book, however, individual mapmakers fall back on hollow understandings of the relationship between design and objectivity. For instance, some of the writeups reiterate a distinction between the map’s objective content and, as two of the essays put it, “technically unnecessary” stylistic novelties— which seems to run counter to the spirit of an atlas of design. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t devote space to a discussion of these diverging cartographical philosophies. The absence is disappointing, especially given the recent blossoming of scholarship around questions of mapping, representation and design. Perhaps the next edition of the atlas will take cues from Lize Mogel and Lex Bhagat’s An Atlas of Radical Cartography (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press, 2008), which pairs each map with a longer text critiquing and analyzing the map.

The essays included in the Atlas of Design aren’t long or detailed enough to seriously address the questions its images raise, and in this aspect the book makes an unfortunate case that cartographic theory can somehow be removed from mapmaking practice. The book’s beautiful and intricate maps, however, are a tribute to the state of the art of mapmaking. They will leave any reader thinking more deeply about data, cartographic representation and the relation between art and science.

Tim Stallmann is a cartographer based in Durham, North Carolina. He is a member of 3Cs, the Counter-Cartographies Collective, a transnational collective of artists, scholars and activists who work to render new images and practices of economies and social relations. His work focuses on using maps as tools to build community power, particularly around racial and economic justice.


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