Not “from above”, not from “far away”: data sculptures as counter-cartographies


This article was inspired by a call for participation from the Journal of Creative Geography "You are here", edited by the School of Geography of the University of Arizona for an issue about counter/cartographies. 

The Flood necklace datasculpture was submitted as a form of counter-mapping, both tactile and sensible, but also involving a slow making process and another kind of relationship to the data and the river it concerns. Sculpting environmental data is a proposition to map geographical entities that goes around the "from above" and "far away" traditionnal views to open new ways of embedding and transmitting "sensible knowledge" about spaces and places.

The call for participation drew from counter-mapping and critical geography authors. It opened with inspiring quotes from Natchee Blu Barnd and Liz Mason-Deese:

“Any dominant form of space or spatiality stands as, and is, power, as it structures particular values about, views of, and practices within the world and reinforces these structures by shaping encounters to match that world.” ⁠⁠⁠— Natchee Blu Barnd, Native Space: Geographic Strategies to Unsettle Settler Colonialism.

“Counter-mapping practices build directly on the critiques of official cartography: its role in establishing and maintaining the nation-state, colonial conquest, and capitalist social relations. These critiques also show that the map is never, despite all its proclamations, representative, rather, the map itself is productive.” — Liz Mason-Deese, “Counter-mapping,” in The International Encyclopedia of Human Geography

...and was an invitation to acknowledge the power of geographic knowledge to shape the world in its image (for better or for worse), as well as an invitation to "radical reimaginings of space, place, and landscape that demonstrate the possibility, necessity, and contours of other worlds — worlds yet to come into being or worlds already here but at the margins of dominant geographic representations and itineraries".

Geographical knowledge as power, and the domination of the “from above” and “far away” views of the land

Landscapes evolve at different time scales. In the context of the Anthropocene, such movement is even more dramatic, fast and deployed on big scales than ever before. Mankind has altered landscapes for millenniums, from cutting down forests to the beginnings of agriculture, city building, road constructions, and now massive-scale mineral and biological resource extraction associated with growing urbanization at a global scale. Natural bodies such as rivers and mountains also move following natural forces such as erosion, sediment and geochemical fluxes, despite being nowadays more heavily influenced by human activities.

Yet, most of our representation modes remain -such as our mental images of the Earth itself -seen from above, as composite images (1) looking seamless and perfectly clean, thanks to complex (and often invisible to the end-user) technological operations from the satellite capturing pictures to the processing and rendering of the data to our terminals. One can have a very good visual idea of what the planet looks like from far away in space, but be representation-deprived of its own territory and surroundings, especially regarding the historical evolution of what is around. Who knows where the river used to be? Or where the last flooding got to in the city streets? Where the glacier used to come down to in the winter months thirty years ago? Which kind of forest there were before the construction of a new mall or a new highway? The memory of local communities is essential for such knowledge to be transmitted. Photography as a medium also plays a central role in the practice of historical geography. It is extensively used, along with satellite pictures, LIDAR data and other geoscientific tools, to gain knowledge about glaciers (2), lakes, rivers, coastal areas, forests evolutions…

How to tell one river’s or mountain’s story without reducing it to its physical, mechanical and “only now” dimension has become an act of counter-mapping, an act of putting the bodies (our human bodies) back in the field, but also to consider that what we call “the environment” has a historical-thickness, has changed and moved for centuries, that places are inhabited (by humans and non humans) and can’t be understood through the only perspective of naturalism and its exploitative counterpart. Static representations are also to be challenged, as it is difficult to get a dynamic representation of something that appears too big, or move too slow for humans to see and deeply know.

The overwhelming domination of the “from above” views show where objects lie but don’t allow for any historical knowledge to be dynamically represented, nor from any kind of local, sensible and tangible knowledge to be visible. Such maps are “rational” maps and images, maps put together to navigate, assess, locate, know where to go, where to build, and where to dig for mineral resources, oil or till for agriculture. “From above and far away” maps and images are co-constructive of Western modernity and started as colonial tools to conquer, classify, and assess the exploitation potential of one territory. Empires and nation-states are territories and border-based political entities, thus making “from above” maps a key element to political and military power. Most of the tools and technologies used nowadays have been shaped by this political and military history, bringing along forms of representations that in return contribute to shaping how we view the places we inhabit. As humans grasp the planet, the need for real-time information has also dramatically increased: we have never monitored our Earth so precisely from above, from methane suspicious emissions and leaks to forest fires, deforestation, floods or carbon emissions, and weather events in real-time (and even, foreseen in the future). Yet, many landscape-observing skills and mapping capacities “from the ground” have been lost, except for a few native people still living on their land who managed to keep their knowledge alive and/or for a few artists and researchers actively working on the question of the critical space representations from specific grounds.


Re-embedding time and materiality into cartographies

One consequence of the domination of the “from above and far away” views is that to compare the evolution of a landscape or territory over time, researchers (whether they are geologists working on several million years timeframe, or urbanists working on a few decades period) are usually forced to lay several maps or photographs from different dates in front of them, and/or to query a database that will do the same operation for them and do the overlap digitally.

This was the problem met by geologist Zoltan Sylvester, who is working on ways to understand river meandering through time (3). Indeed the question of how to represent stratigraphical evolutions through time has been a fundamental question in the field for several decades. The idea to place time on a vertical axis emerged in 1964:

In stratigraphy, there is a classic paper by Harry E. Wheeler that was published in 1964 in Geological Society of America Bulletin, which describes this idea that geological cross sections can be better understood by placing time on the vertical axis.

Zoltan Sylvester

Drawing from his academic field and combining this research questions with the use of computation tools, Zoltan Sylvester built a 3D printed model of a river meandering through time, thus embodying in one object knowledge that would usually require the consultation of dozens of different maps and an complex process of information processing and comparison to be readable.

River meandering 3D model, made by professor and researcher in geology Zoltan Sylvester

When I started working on how to represent the history of the Loire river in France, I though about its major events first. For instance, when were the biggest floods, and how is the river flow evolving through time? Rather than trying to describe the river’s physical body through a visual tool, like all maps do, I wanted to explore a more abstract way of providing descriptive and accurate information. Of course there were many other ways to explore this, through the taste and aspect of water samples, through in-situ photography, through plastic creation molded from the river banks, through literature or video creation… I chose to start with some clay I had bought a few months back from the Loire valley (Terre du Fuilet), in a small, about-to-close clay pit. I started by shaping one simple dataset as clay spheres embedding data about the Loire’s recorded floods since 1800. The data were easily accessible online from the public institution in charge (DREAL Centre Val-de-Loire), and require very simple technology to be produced. The idea of having a necklace of spheres in a chronological order was inspired by the work of datasculpture artist Loren Madsen, and his piece Worry Beads :

Worry Beads, 2014-2018, by Loren Madsen. Turned wood, rope, 40′ long, 19″
The diameter of each bead is proportional to the number of people killed by terrorists that year

The experience of physically manipulating the data through clay was in itself interesting. If I don’t remember every single data point by heart, I do have a sense of how many I made for the 19th century floods versus only a few for the 21st century. I remember that it stops in 2003 (no major flooding event has been recorded since). I also remember vividly the weight and feel of the 2 most important floods (1846, 1856) (made in white clay), as they are significantly heavier and bigger than the others. I did some research and found out they lead to a new national river management policy during Napoleon’s regime that shaped all french rivers containments we still have in place today.


After completing this first datasculpture, the need for a more exhaustive view on the river’s flow history emerged. It is sometimes easier to get interested in major events that left more visible traces in the landscape (and people’s memory), than in regular, mondain evolutions, less easy to track but more representative of one river’s full history and “daily life”. A new project representing the Loire data flow monthly since 1950 has emerged to perpetuate and enrich our counter-mapping action.


Between geography and art: Doing Creative Geography

Bringing together the theoretical foundations of geography and its conceptual richness (from founding figures such as Vidal De la Blache to Augustin Berque’s work on mesology, from Yi-Fu Tuan’s work on place as a sensorial experience to the work of Olivier Lazzarotti on the ways of inhabiting…), with the “sensible knowledge” making capacities of the arts, Creative Geography is an emerging field of research and creation that has been defined by the editors of the You are here journal (by the University of Arizona, Geography department). The journal editors define Creative Geographies as such:

"Creative geographies are critical engagements of/with landscape, space, place, environment, and other geographic themes by way of artistic expression and practice. The scope and methodological directions of creative geographies are broad, experimental, and ever expanding. 
In this way, you are here sees creative geographies as an amorphous and transdisciplinary space. As editors, we are particularly interested in how creative practices and geographic imaginations intersect with critical knowledge traditions and locations on the “margins” of dominant geographic thought, knowledge, representation, and practice. 
These intersectional and in-between sites are rich with insight, discovery, transformation, critical perspectives, and new ways of thinking and knowing. Our journal aims to provide a platform for these conversations and subsequently expand the boundaries of geography from the view of its margins."(4)

Datasculpture made from environmental and geographical data are one proposition to conduct research-creation projects in the field of Creative Geography. We wish to contribute to this field and to help its development, as our times call for new modes of representations and philosophies to inhabit our world in more sensible and inclusive ways.


Sources

(1) This composite dimension of the “global view” of our planet has been discussed during a study day led by Simone Fehlinger at the Cité du Design (Saint-Etienne). 20th January 2022. Online: https://www.citedudesign.com/fr/a/open-ddl-1-2034

(2) In our interview with the photographer Grégoire Eloy about his book “ASTER” featuring satellite pictures compiled by glaciologists to study the melting of glaciers at a global scale, we also talked about the importance of historical photography. The Morraine non-profit, lead by the glaciologist Pierre René, published a book based on historical photography to document the disappearing of the french Pyrennean glaciers.

(3) In his interview on this blog about the making of the river meandering 3D model, Zoltan Sylvester explains in more details how he came up with such research questions and with the idea for making this river meandering datasculpture.

(4) You are here: the journal of creative geography, is using the term of Creative Geography to define an area of research and creation capable of producing other forms of representation of geographical knowledge, at the margins of dominant and traditional geographical literature:

 https://geography.arizona.edu/youarehere 


Cite this blog post
Anne-Laure Fréant (2023, January 22). Not “from above”, not from “far away”: data sculptures as counter-cartographies. Datartefacts. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/nh5a

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