A Broader Cultural Dialogue:: A Discussion on Mapping and Cosmology

During the last five years, viralnet.net has posted numerous mapping projects, mostly as sub-themes embedded in each release. Radical Cosmologies has its roots in artistic mapping and in many ways our current project parallels the creative use of cartography, participatory practices and interdisciplinary investigations of artists such as Fallen Fruit, Phil Ross, Norman Klein, Mariam Ghani, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey. The following is an online discussion between two of the Radical Cosmologies curators, Lea Rekow and Tom Leeser. The thread begins with looking at mapping as a creative cultural practice and ends with discussing new ways to think about representation and experience through an alternative cosmological model.

Part 1::
A Broader Cultural Dialogue...

LR:: What is your perspective on how [and if] contemporary artistic mapping practices engage in a broader cultural dialogue? What are the physical, semantic, technological and cultural environments from which the work emerges, or with which it intersects?

TL:: Firstly, you've identified a critical tendency—“contemporary artistic mapping practices.” We can break this tendency down into two parts—one that considers mapping as representation and metaphor and the other as experiential practice. Both parts of this tendency emerged from a twentieth century art vanguard and has since evolved into a cultural and political hybrid. It's now a multimedia and network based practice that shares common vocabularies and methods with other disciplines.

You also imply that there is a “broader cultural dialogue” derived from mapping as a contemporary art practice. Maybe we can ask—do the two parts of this artistic mapping practice engage us (the culture) in a broader social-political dialogue about space?

The answer to that question I believe, is yes.

Mapping and cartography, through the centuries evolved as a practice that incorporates to this day the disciplines of design, art, engineering, mathematics, geography and astronomy. The map is algorithmic—it extends our vision beyond the physical and into an imaginary space. Until the nineteenth century aerial views of our landscape were only achievable through fanciful representations and crude techniques of spacial visualization. Not until the twentieth century were we able to photographically record an image of the entire planet and map it with extreme accuracy using computer imaging.

The ancients in spite of their technical limitations, created extensive maps that represented their trade routes, empires and cities, along with their heavenly paradises and their hells. Maps have been equally reliant on belief as well as materiality. In other words, mapping served to delineate and frame the world into social, philosophical and political narratives. Maps answered the nagging ontological and geographical questions (even in very inaccurate but highly expressionistic way)—Where am I, where am I going and how do I get there?

During the Sixties the art world built off of early twentieth century anti-art practices such as Dada and Futurism. Specifically through performance art and conceptual art we have come to accept art making that incorporates research, documentation, the body, movement and language. The multimedia work from the Sixties embraced practice and process as its foundation. We also have cultural practices today that draw from the Sixties adoption of non-traditional mediums and anti-aesthetic concerns. These new practices share a common ground with contemporary participatory art, social networking, and online activism.

Artistic mapping is part of this common ground. It now serves as an interdisciplinary device that allows artists to document and frame the invisible and track the unseen. It allows us to contextualize formal and conceptual strategies that serve as the basis for much of today’s media based art.

Mapping no longer takes space and simply renders it two dimensionally (or three dimensionally) for purposes of navigation or demarcation. Maps can now move beyond mere representations of our physical environment, they can function as catalysts for our ideas and social interactions. The indigenous Australians are a good example of a non-western people who have used multipurpose artistic maps. They have been using paintings as “dream tracks” and songs, stories and dance as “songlines”—to generate a psycho-geographic mapping and cultural system that marks land boundaries, explains past histories and defines the paths for spiritual journeys.

We are also seeing new definitions of mapping that include collections and archives of objects and ephemera. A good example of this is the Prelinger Library in San Francisco.

The Prelinger Library is a collection of donated and found used books and ephemera. The library is archived and shelved in a way that allows for and encourages wandering, letting the titles of the books themselves suggest new paths to ideas. The architectural space of the library can function as a frame or container for the elements that collectively compose the map.

The “broader cultural dialogue” emerges out of our creative use of maps as contemporary devices of wonder and inter-personal narratives. A “remapping” of the map itself, so to speak.

LR:: You are implying that mapping practices within the arts have relocated to a more hybrid space where the work is more about process and cultural dialogue and less about object and reflection. So, do you see an intent to move the cultural map, rather than just document it?

Is there an emerging movement that is giving birth to new signifiers or codes that have not otherwise been seen, and do they provide new data?

TL:: I'm saying that mapping practices employed by artists have relocated our traditional use of cartography beyond the representation of geographic spatial data in ways similar to the Aboriginal songlines. Mapping has become a tendency in contemporary art practice that is representative of the disciplinary reconfigurations brought about by the complex social and political ruptures found in the present state of culture and technology.

According to media artist, James Benning, artists are people “who go out and report back.” I think as a culture we tend to collectively reflect, study and document cultural changes after they are expressed though individual or collaborative creative practices. This is where a cultural map can come in handy for those who venture into new territories after the artists have laid claim.

However, I don't see new cultural movements being authored solely by the imaginations of individual artists. Cultural movements are not the result of spontaneous combustion. The idea of a meta-narrative describing a progressive movement has come and gone with modernism. I see new cultural movements as co-emergent responses to existing movements and tendencies from multiple different sources and disciplines. An artist's intent needs to be stirred (not shaken) by a healthy dose of both indifference and openness to the world—followed by a potent chaser of cause and effect. Cultural developments and trends emerge through social acts of questioning and living. That's why Josef Albers thought that good teaching was giving the right questions rather than having the right answers.

The hybrid space that you refer to tends to be representative of the in-between space we find ourselves in during this particularly accelerated cultural moment. We're in an in-between space that confounds and subverts our traditional definitions and categories of academic disciplines and creative practice. A contemporary culture  has to take into account the cross-over and bleed through of information, knowledge and media in our socially networked environment. It must also represent the existence of the real and the virtual and the transformations and slippage of one to the other.

Maps are a result of mapping, a record or document of an act. They are an artifact of where we've been—a memory, as well as where we could be going—a possible future. What separates the artistic map from the geographic map is an indeterminism that points to our present state of becoming. X no longer marks the spot, it marks the way.

The artist collective Fallen Fruit is a good example of contemporary mapping. Fallen Fruit uses mapping to “get people thinking about the life and vitality of our neighborhoods and to consider how we can change the dynamic of our cities and common values.”

By investigating the boundaries between private space and public space, Fallen Fruit discovers a common bond between neighborhoods and people by walking. The maps that the collective produces are the records of group walkabouts that expose “boundary issues” as well as examples of sharing and exchange. They're also useful, enabling us to find a good, decent and free neighborhood orange or lemon.

Maps, Archives and an Architecture of Displacement...

I'd like to loop this back to the original question—“do contemporary artistic mapping practices engage in a broader cultural dialogue?” I'd like to talk a little about the global mapping structure of electronic archives and the work of Mariam Ghani, Adam King and Latoya Egwuekweas.

We are becoming obsessed with documentation and data collection. This obsession takes on a compulsive recording of communication data (images, sound, text, etc) and then sharing that data through social networking systems like Facebook, Twitter etc. In the process we have commodified our data, we have become our own medium. We have colonized ourselves as Norman Klein likes to say.

The broader cultural dialogue resides in a paradox of searching a virtual space and the tracking of our non-physical data. The cultural dialogue forms out of fragmented narratives, which are shared via a realtime system of codependent production and distribution— social medium that both stores and transmits within an architecture of displacement. The traditional binaries of communication have collapsed, revealing the producers and the consumers to be neither here nor there, abiding in  an archive of transience.

Here's a paper by Adam B. King from Indiana University. The paper details the difficulty of mapping the “unstable terrain” of the internet.

The cultural dialogue is in constant motion within the electronic archive. This archive is made up of routers and switches that facilitate the connection of disjointed global vertices. Once connected, routed and switched, these separate nodes take on an appearance of physical congruence. Their connection enables a collective relationship that ultimately supersedes their individual identity and divergent characteristics.

Here is a map by Paul Butler from Facebook—his map visualizes “friendships.”

This is a map by Latoya Eguwuekwe. It displays the U3 unemployment statistics across the U.S. It illustrates our collective relationship both geographically and economically.

This is a map that displays the geography of recession.

Two forms of communication emerge, one comes from the dominant network as a whole , and the other by multiple voices that travel through the system as undertones or “soto voces.”These undertones form a subset of connections or a series of backchannels characterized by a position of resistance. These backchannels echo within the global network. They leave traces of their travels which are sometimes pilfered and re-routed into other levels and subsets of relational activity. Ultimately by viewing the myriad of traces at any point within the process, we see a nested imprint or a three dimensional map that charts our collective memories—memories that are realized by performance and activism.

Mariam Ghani is Afghani-American, an activist, writer and artist currently living in New York.

Ghani speaks in a “soto voce” about “unwritten histories”, social memory and something she calls “warm data.” Warm data, she says, responds to “place and moment” and takes the “form of several nested and linked collections.” Two works in particular emerge from her collection of warm data, they are “Points of Proof” and “Index of the Disappeared.” They are works that are realized by performance and activism.

These projects speak to the current cultural dialogue and the idea of memory as performance and social erasure. She discusses the issue of memory and archiving in this roundtable discussion with Richard Rinehart.

Ghani and Rinehart conclude that archives are social memory and without them we would all simply forget. Her work, “Points of Proof”, is as much about forgetting and transience as it is about defining a map of power, social narrative and the formulation of national identities. She frames these works as a “community based inquiry” about cultural displacement and the “human costs of public policy.”

“Points of Proof” traces the  erasure and deportation of Arab and South Asian immigrants who were detained on immigration violations immediately after Sept. 11, 2001. The narrative that is constructed is an alternative history, composed of research, digital media, installations, written texts and community-based interactive projects. All of the work is documented and now currently resides online.

Ghani's working strategies embrace codependent production and distribution systems in the context of “histories, places, identities and communities which are constructed and reconstructed.” The content is composed as a documentary of multiple vertices which are then mapped not so much as an archive but as an active index. Mariam Ghani is just one example of the many “soto voces” that travel through the backchannels of the global network.

Part 2::
Mapping A Radical Cosmology...

TL:: This part of our discussion extends our discussion on mapping to its relationship with cosmology. The crossing of these two subjects echos our interview with Dan Goods.

Dan Good's project “Big Playground” reflects your original inquiry—“does contemporary artistic mapping practices engage a broader cultural dialogue?”  Dan's project visualizes and maps the scale of the universe using a grain of sand as a metaphor. He frames his mapping practice as a  poetic gesture. The use of the poetic is something that interested Gaston Bachelard, expressed by his idea of anthro-cosmology in his book “Poetics of Space.” Anthro-cosmology is a way of defining a cosmology through a physical experience of a body and space.

We haven't talked about the relationship of the body to space through mapping. We've been mostly focused on mapping as process and representation. Do you think we can define a radical cosmology by injecting the body and our experience of phenomena into a multi-dimensional map that seeks to articulate multiple points of view?

Could dance be the appropriate medium to use for mapping in time, given its use of movement and multiple interacting bodies? Phil Ross has been experimenting with dance to visualize micro molecular data—it seems that movement can also work on the macro scale for mapping new cosmologies.

LR:: Firstly, let’s talk about recording physical space in a more traditional sense. The body in space as a mapping device (in relation to the arts) has roots in the practice of psycho-geography. In 1950/60s France, Guy Debord developed the concept of psycho-geography, challenging what cartography is traditionally understood to be, through generating unconventional maps of unseen landscapes of histories, actions and impressions, to elucidate the social fabric that dominates spatial environments. Debord proposed that “society which eliminates geographical distance reproduces distance internally as spectacular separation.”

In his widely-known Psycho-Geographic Guide of Paris, the map has been cut up, and the city represented as distinct neighborhoods. The “felt” distance between areas are visualized by spreading out the pieces of the dissected map. Theoretically, by “drifting” through the city, a deriver can discover atmospheric, ambient qualities of place in distinct areas. He used red arrows to indicate the most used crossings between these urban “islands” separated by flows of motorized traffic.

At the same time, in 1957, urban sociologist Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe mapped the daily movements of a young Parisian girl over the course of a year to create “Trajects pendant un an d’une jeune fille du XVIe arrondissement.” His goal was to provide information for urban development policy. This research in urban social anthropology and the architecture of working-class family life was to bring attention to the needs and desires of the people, and to bring awareness to decision-making around the material configurations of space. In 2011, Adam Trowbridge used an open source iPhone tracking application to remap Chombart de Lauwe’s map. Similarly, WalkSpace, by Conor McGarrigle is a walking art iPhone app. that allows the user to navigate a route through a cultural journey. There are numerous examples of this type of work being produced now (so many that I will refrain from naming any here), that incorporate multiple participants within a single map or “output”. Though this is mainly an urban political practice, there are several artists out there that are exploring rural environments in profound ways through the “performance” of walking, to create artwork in an attempt at understanding place. Bill Gilbert in the Southwestern United States or Australian artist John Wolseley immediately come to mind, though this practice traces most famously back to Richard Long.

In all these instances, the body can be seen as a performative device—whether through the act of walking, dance, research-in-action, or whatever—that explores how mental space is shaped by place, and how psychological impressions are superimposed on a landscape. Within contemporary conceptual practice, using the body to map in this way is often used as a method to understand or assemble spatial, fluid, sculptural form and experience (social and cultural). In my mind, these psychological experiences in physical space all constitute personal cosmologies—one’s own conception of one’s own universe. Many of these—let’s call them psycho-cosmologies (psycho-geography has been somewhat superseded these days)—attempt to articulate multiple points of view. Many of them utilize locative media in walks, field trips, or river drifts, or record sound or interviews in an interdisciplinary fusion of themes—or networked performance—if you will.

Bruce Chatwin, author of “The Songlines”—a novel that explores the Aboriginal Dreamtime—explains that the Ancestors, or gods, “created themselves from clay, hundreds and thousands of them, one for each totemic species” and that “each totemic ancestor, while traveling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints…”[4] Chatwin goes on to say that these “Dreaming-tracks lay over the land as ‘ways’ of communication between the most far-flung tribes” and that “a song can be thought of as both map and direction-finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country.” Chatwin articulates how in this way, Australia could be read as a “musical score” or visualized as “a spaghetti of Illiads and Odyssey, writhing this way and that…readable in terms of geology.” If this isn’t radical cosmology, I don’t know what is.

Coming back to a contemporary parallel, the networked performance, usually enabled through social and locative media, became popular years ago through “flash mobs”, those spur-of-the-moment, minimally structured public gatherings, mostly of strangers without any visual identifiers, who performed a collective action and then disbanded anonymously.  The phenomenon started as apolitical, but became political with events such as the Reclaim the Streets action that provided support for the striking Underground staff in London in 1999. In such instances, public space was semi-spontaneously reconfigured via communications networking. This is an example of a very multi-dimensional action that relied on collective participation enabled through text messaging. After texting became a service that one had to pay for, the phenomenon quickly dissipated due to the expense. Now, with the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, networked performance is making these events possible again—and on a larger scale (we can see this from what occurred with the mass protests that culminated in the fall of Mubarak in Egypt recently).

Manuel Castells describes physical and social network space as embodying one of two separate spatial forms: 1. the space of place (localized material place and location) or 2. the space of flows (the intangible space of information, communication, services and capital flows, location-free and continuous in that it can transcend time zones etc.).[5] However, one can read the relationship of performative action, space, and technology as manifesting in a very connected and interdependent way. Arts networks are using an array of strategies and tactics, such as theatrical apparatus, creative uses of technology, performance, and so on, to engage in cultural reclamation that activate our communities.

Connecting our ideas through the creation of micro-actions, emerging alliances, and counter institutions, allows the production of alternative spaces to open up for staging actions and practicing social engagement—interventions, disturbances, events, applications, and so on—perhaps these actions can be seen as micro-cosmologies that are dependent on networked constellations.

Micro-political systems do not do necessarily alter the macro structure, but if these small elements are well conceived and organized, these micro levels of information and exchange can, little by little, impact on the overall welfare of a society, to instigate real transformation. Micro movements are important because less motivated individuals can participate in actions (rather than fail to act), effecting the relationship between macro-political-economic phenomena and micro-social behavior, individual psyches and response. These forms of social organization and collective resistance then become mediators between the macro and the individual. In the dialectic of individual action, micro-social organizations, and micro research proposals, can confront macro-economic dominance, and in rare circumstances, shift social relations of power.

Now let’s get back to the body and artistic explorations into the molecular. There is much scientific research within fields such as biotechnology, genetic engineering and DNA technologies, pathogenic manipulation, pharmacology, etc. but there is far less attention devoted to studies involving natural molecular processes, or even basic biometrics. One artist who is exploring the premise of biometrics mapping is Christian Nold. He uses locative media with multiple participants to create regional Emotion Maps. A very different kind of biometrics project is Pulse Room, 2007, by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, who uses participants heartbeats and converts them into light pulses in a large-scale installation of three hundred lightbulbs in which each participant’s pulse is visualized. Pulses are recorded and can be used to collective configure the installation—or a micro-cosmology perhaps.

You mention Phil Ross’s Molecumersion project. What I would find more interesting – rather than trying to replicate chemical patterning with scientific accuracy (if I understand his project correctly), is to be experimenting with how dance (personally I would like to investigate meditation), has a direct molecular effect on us as an organic system. Dr. Candice Pert wrote a book on the subject back in the ‘90s, entitled Molecules of Emotion.[6] Pert’s neurochemical work mapping peptides and their receptors with circuit diagrams of anatomists (among a host of other research) shows the wiring of the brain’s electrical communication paths between the nerves, axons, and dendrites, to see which pathways had receptors for endorphins, and which could receive messages from other peptides. Pert eventually wanted to create a color-coded map to show the interaction of the brain’s chemical and electrical systems. I know a lot of dancers at the time that were exploring her work in regard to concepts of the subtle body.

TL:: So let's narrow this down a bit—I sense that you're connecting Debord's psycho-geography, which you describe as an unconventional mapping system of “unseen urban landscapes” with Manuel Castells's description of physical and socially networked spaces

You state that Castells's idea embodies two separate spatial forms—place and flow. You go on to describe “flow” as “the intangible space of information, communication, services and capital flows, location-free and continuous in that it can transcend time zones etc.”

However there is something here that gives me pause- I don't think we can define ”flow“ as a ”form“, given that information is materially formless. Traditional mapping is concerned with representation using visualization and sonification as devices. Mapping takes a form (the land, urban environments, heartbeats etc.) and renders it into other representational forms (the map, animation, the art installation etc.) There is a reductive tendency at play here that still renders the information from the experience as representational output. There is also a concern with conflating the real with the virtual at the expense of direct experience.

The interesting thing that I find in Debord's work is his use of the body in a new “ritualized” system. A system that he hoped would produce a new urbanism. The representational map was less important to him than the result of the deriver's physical walking and the formless concepts of “the unseen landscapes of histories, actions and impressions.” He was interested in mapping the social and cultural effects that geography had on the deriver's direct experience—not simply as a means to represent information output. Dan Goods states it nicely in his interview as putting ”our daily life in perspective both visually and experientially.“

Phil Ross's “Molecumersion” project shares some of the same issues as Bachelard—“Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.” Phil Ross seems to me less concerned with producing another form of accurate representation for effect (like Latoya Egwuekwe)—rather he is interested in creating an experiential effect on the participants by using the body as a conduit to actually sense the information. It seems that Debord and Ross are using the formless “flow” of data, the material form of place and the sensations of the body—together, to constitute an aggregate—a hybrid mapping experience.

Ritual is used this way in many cultures to reconfigure a participant's psychological state into a participatory cosmological system. We mentioned the Australian Aboriginal walkabouts earlier. The mapping enables something that the participant can experience not just conceptualize—almost like a script that is realized only through performance.

Are we looking at a new “unitary cosmology” that has goals and motives similar to Debord's “unitary urbanism?” A unitary urbanism being the synthesis of art and technology constructed according to new values of life. Can a new “unitary cosmology” move beyond conceptualization and representation to a new synthesis of art and technology using experience?

LR:: All this radical kind of artistic research is diverse in nature. It moves past critique of space within Anglo-American academic practice, to more actively participate in social engagement. Crossing boundaries with sociology, political theory, philosophy, psychology, cultural studies, urban planning, and hard science (to name a few categories that are easy to define), the research of artist-geographers acknowledges the centrality of the “spatial turn” taken across the social sciences and humanities (Phil Hubbard, Edward Said, Stuart Hall, Michel Foucalt, Raymond Williams, and others). As thinkers on place and space are attempting to grasp the complexity of cultural phenomena, thinking on globalization, the nature of our information society, and its relation to the concept of space within economic, social, and political thought (Jean Baudrillard, Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, Manual Castells, Amartya Sen, Paul Virilio, etc.), all grapple with concepts of the “real” and the “virtual” in contemporary existence—reiterating the concept of space as Crang and Thrift describe as “everywhere in modern thought”. [7] Consequently, within the arts, we have begun to increase our use of practices that encompass tools and metaphors relating to geography. This does not mean to say that artist/practitioners consider themselves geographers (though some such as Matt Coolidge, Trevor Paglen, or Merle Patchett, hold degrees in the discipline). Rather, artistic contributions that somehow utilize or relate to applied geography, the sciences, media and information technologies and economies, policy-oriented studies, action research, cartography, environmental issues, the economy, and social processes, make exercises in, and influence both their own discipline, and beyond. But I guess that’s not narrowing things down any.

 TL:: It does narrow things down- we've focused these creative mapping practices into something we can probably call- “radical  research.” The nature of the radical can be found in these cross disciplinary investigations that result not in representational avant-garde artworks but actual lived experience. A virtual and physical experience that goes beyond the horizon of our urban landscapes and resides outside of the traditional Cartesian model of space.

This brings us back to the century old question- Where do we define the boundaries between art and life in contemporary cultural praxis? Radical research is similar to ideas that David Graeber has put forth in his essay “The Twilight of Vanguardism”. The age of vanguardism in Graeber's view is over and has been eclipsed by an anarchism “based on the principles of compromise.” Anarchy according to Graeber is based on action and discourse, which is similar to the direction that we've been charting with our discussion on cosmology and mapping. We can define what is radical by the experiences derived from actual social activities. This is what Graeber describes as a practice of “autonomy, voluntary association, self-organization, mutual aid and direct democracy.”

I'd like to wrap this up with an excerpt from Robert Smithson's “Provisional Theory of Non-Sites.”

It compliments our conversation regarding creative mapping, representation, experience, social activities and space. Smithson describes the tension between the “site” and the non-site” and in the process he discovers a “new sense of metaphor”—a similar tension can be found between representation and experience. Radical Cosmology can now function as a new metaphor for space and the displaced body in a global (and collapsing) networked culture.

The Non-Site is a three dimensional logical picture that is abstract, yet it represents an actual site. It is by this dimensional metaphor that one site can represent another site which does not resemble it—this The Non-Site. To understand this language of sites is to appreciate the metaphor between the syntactical construct and the complex of ideas, letting the former function as a three dimensional picture which doesn't look like a picture. “Expressive art” avoids the problem of logic; therefore it is not truly abstract. A logical intuition can develop in an entirely “new sense of metaphor” free of natural or realistic expressive content.
It could be that “travel” in this space is a vast metaphor. Everything between the two sites could become physical metaphorical material devoid of natural meanings and realistic assumptions. Let us say that one goes on a fictitious trip if one decides to go to the site of the Non-Site. The “trip” becomes invented, devised, artificial; therefore, one might call it a non-trip to a site from a Non-site.


[1] Guy-Ernest Debord (founder of the group Situationist International) defined psycho-geography as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.’

[2] Debord, Guy-Ernest, 1955. Introduction to a critique of urban geography, Les Lèvres Nues, 6. Available at: http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2
[Accessed n. d.].

[3] Thesis 167, Society of the Spectacle (La Société du Spectacle), 1967, by Guy Debord. Available at: http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/fr/pub_contents/7
The full English translation of his 221 theses entitled the Society of the Spectacle are available at http://library.nothingness.org/

[4] Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines, p. 13, Penguin Publishing, New York, 1987.

[5] Manuel Castells' Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell Publishing, United Kingdom, 1996 (reprint 2000, 2010).

[6] Molecules of Emotion: The science behind mind-body medicine, by Candice B. Pert, PhD, 1997, Touchstone Publishing, New York.

7] Mike Crang and Nigel Thrift, Thinking space, 2000, p.1. Routledge, New York.