Beyond the map: an experiment in affective geographies

In this paper I use a recent research creation project and its mobile component (the TiP lab) to draw attention to the importance of regarding the city as an entanglement of sometimes evident, sometimes hidden naturecultural geographies and more-than-human encounters. I argue that while official narratives are not interested in narrating such vibrant multidimensionality, traditional cartographic practices don’t seem to be able to seize them.

From: Roberta Buiani



Fig. 1 Transitions in Progress. Parkdale Amphitheatre (the Parquette), Sept. 2, 2015. Photo by Yvonne Bambrick

Fig. 1 Transitions in Progress. Parkdale Amphitheatre (the Parquette), Sept. 2, 2015. Photo by Yvonne Bambrick

It’s a warm early day of September in Toronto. We1 cycle across the Dufferin Street underpass that separates the recently gentrified “West Queen street West” area from Parkdale. Fastened to the back of my bicycle is the TiP (Transitions in Progress) lab, a mobile artifact scheduled to make four distinct stops on the Queen street corridor, in order to collect memories, objects and stories from residents and passersby. The idea is to conduct an in vivo investigation that will render the city as a multilayered and multivocal ecology, rather than as an entity that follows a predominant economy. Our first stop is the “Dufferin Amphitheatre,” a space for public events located at the entrance of the neighborhood. Here, we invite passersby to interact with us and with our artifact.

Participants happily oblige with much enthusiasm. We offer archival snippets and historical fragments; they contribute small objects, memories and commentaries. The so-called Amphitheatre is just a name on the map. Everybody knows it as “the Parquette”, a place where people sit and observe the frenetic traffic of bodies and vehicles, and contemplate the jungle of high-rise rapidly filling the horizon just across the underpass. Our participants speak fondly and passionately of the neighborhood, engaging in polemics about accessibility and transportation delays; telling us stories about plants disappearing, public spaces being replaced, or nocturnal creatures magically materializing at night, leaving traces of their feasts the next morning.

Where does this cacophony of voices and footprints lead us? Is it possible to map the different ways in which people experience the city’s spaces and neighborhoods? Would we be able to capture those flows, which unevenly criss-cross the city in both visible and subterranean ways?

Historically, mapping has been known for enabling cartographers, planners, epidemiologists and activists to draw and define land demarcations, neighborhoods’ property and real estate values, as well as national geographic configurations. As we increasingly rely on a variety of automated systems of measurement, we can perform a variety of mapping tasks: GIS help us manipulate and manage different types of spatial or geographical data, while GPS devices promise to give orientation performed in real-time or based on a specific time frame. In both cases, data retrieved produce maps that highlight specific phenomena and population trends, by accommodating multiple views and historical layers. Framed through these multiple cartographic views, the city is presented to us as fixed and bi-dimensional. However, there are hidden naturecultural geographies animating the city, more-than-human encounters, a vibrant multidimensionality that official narratives won’t narrate and that traditional cartographic practices don’t seem to be able to seize. The spaces of connection and exchange between the natural, the social and the historical that we experienced during our bicycle ride across the city do not emerge from the numerous cartographic portrayals available, be they about figuring its real estate treasure, its mobility, or its green canopy. All we see in maps are discrete dots, straight lines and well-demarcated areas. Dressed as impartial data, maps transmit homogeneous narratives, ignoring the other invisible geographies that constantly form and un-form the city. In fact, the ephemerality of the stories captured by our mobile artifact, those encounters and diverse humanity animating each neighborhood differently, exceed the geometry of the map, escape documentation and evade reproduction. Those relations, those encounters, those exchanges come attached to the moment during which and where they occur. Once they are donated and incorporated into the TiP lab collection, they become part of a heterogeneous assemblage, an artwork, or an exhibition. They are the affective geographies defining the city.

Fig. 2 Transitions in Progress. Collected specimen. Parkdale, Sept. 2 2015

Fig. 2 Transitions in Progress. Collected specimen. Parkdale, Sept. 2 2015

In this paper I use a recent research creation project and its mobile component to draw attention to the importance of regarding the city as an entanglement of multiple vectors and as the locus of the above affective geographies. In exploring ways to seize the complexity of the city, I interrogate the ability of contemporary mapping devices to capture, and valorize, the vectors and registers through which the human and the non-human, people and infrastructures shape the urban landscapes in which they dwell and through which they pass. With its in vivo investigation directly into the visceral intimacies of the city, the TiP lab is neither posing as an alternative cartographic method nor as an exercise in creative mediation (Kember & Zylinska, 2012; Parks, 2013). Rather, its particular approach is an attempt to draw attention to, and to initiate new epistemological approaches to think past cartography as a self-contained, mechanical practice.

Un-mapping Toronto

“Transitions in Progress: Making Space for Place” was a response to an international call to engage with the themes of migration and mobility. The project consists of a mobile lab, an exhibition and a website, seeking to explore the complex naturecultural layers shaping the city of Toronto. Thinking about what constitutes mobility and who/what is allowed or forced to migrate – especially in Toronto, a city often praised for its diversity and its multicultural coexistence – prompted a series of reflections about the mapping systems currently used to monitor and celebrate the city as a complex structure. The preliminary fieldwork and the subsequent series of performances conducted during this project proved to be particularly revealing: it was in fact immediately evident that there was a discrepancy between the interconnected and overlapping human and non-human layers traversing the city of Toronto and its cartographic depiction.

This discrepancy can be ascribed to the obligations of cartographic conventions to treat these layers as separate and autonomous, when it is clear upon inspecting their entangled constitution that they shape and build the city in both visible and invisible ways. For instance, the diversity of the city is equally missing from topographic representations and commemorative/tourist maps, as well as from maps that use geospatial data to identify mobility flows and other trends and transformations in the city and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Significantly, this absence is more extreme in technologically-enhanced maps. Despite the large amount of data that have made possible these maps, the stories displayed are limited in number and intricacy, in order to maintain a certain clarity and focused perspective. Finally, maps do not reveal personal, yet important factors about why, or how individuals are traveling.

More importantly, this absence indicates some palpable (and uncomfortable) omissions. Generally speaking, traditional top-down mapping depicts the city through given narratives, producing unified, yet simplistic portrayals. In the case of Toronto, these narratives celebrate the early (British) capitalist spirit manifested through a disproportionate emphasis on colonial landmarks and on real estate worth; and an idea of diversity as a cultural mosaic (Kelley & Trebilcock, 2010), revealed by the homogenized and sectorial rendering of its neighborhoods. In this scenario, voices of those who didn’t fit these preferred narratives were effectively erased, their presence deleted from documents, stories and of course, maps. In addition, the urge of celebratory and topographic maps of the city and neighborhoods to display boundaries and highlight visible, monumental, or simply popular landmarks not only disclose their tendency to assert a well-defined, distinctive identity, but also their acceptance and dissemination of unified given narratives.

Recent maps constructed to highlight general trends across the city (like traffic at rush hours, or general mobility within the city) are also useful to understand how these narratives are reproduced. Hidden underneath the perceived machinic neutrality of the data sets they display (Halpern, 2015), and by their significance as mere containers rather than produced artifacts, these maps both testify to the increasing, yet invisible depersonalization of the city’s protagonists and actors, and to the perpetuation of unified – because selective and exclusive – narratives over a territory that is, however, anything but simple.

Jason Farman observes that while “Reality is three-dimensional, rich in detail, and far too factual to allow a complete yet uncluttered two-dimensional graphic scale model…, a map that did not generalize would be useless (Farman, 2010)”. In addition, cartographic practice is based on a process of extraction and simplification that suppress “..truth to help the user see what needs to be seen (872)”. What “needs to be seen” is both constituted by a series of hegemonic views and perspectives, by visual conventions and signs that cartographers are obliged to respect, and by the public’s familiarity with points of interest and common narratives.

It might be futile then, to re-invent mapping or to create completely new models that fully accommodate the diversity, the connected-ness, and the multilayered-ness of the city. However, I wonder whether it is possible to expose and re-adjust the misleading ways in which cartographic representations are presented to us as reliable and accurate, by using non-cartographic and performative methods that draw attention to the complexity of the city. Thus, rather than relying on technological aids, the mobile lab built for Transitions in Progress (TiP lab) sought to engage with the city’s structure and its multiple protagonists through a material, in vivo, and bottom-up approach. Of course, this approach requires that radical choices be made: First, engaging with the city “from the ground up” means having to pay attention to the micro-dynamics that shape and transform its neighborhoods and its creeks, rather than to its general configuration. Second, this approach puts the researcher directly in contact with the territory and its geological and physical layout. For instance, the decision to run the TiP lab into specific neighborhoods was both based on symbolic motivations and on physical constraints. The city of Toronto consists of a urban grid with streets that run parallel (East-West) and perpendicular (North-South) to Lake Ontario. Geologically speaking, Toronto is located on the southern portion of the Canadian Shield (Freeman, 2008, p. 26) sitting on a slight North-South slope. While Queen Street was chosen because it traverses the wider length of the city, it was also deemed to be the most accessible because of its flat layout. Furthermore, Drawing on both researched and perceived considerations regarding the historical, natural and social transformations of the city of Toronto, it was decided that the TiP lab visited four neighborhoods located at major intersections on the Queens street corridor: Parkdale, Trinity Bellwoods, Church/Queen and Riverside; and that it engaged with the space and its inhabitants during a four-day period. Queen Street is a popular street that has been subject to countless urban, natural and human reshaping. However, its transformations have been unevenly acknowledged – if not utterly neglected – in the city’s public consciousness. This includes different migration flows in and out of the neighborhoods it crosses, and different plans for revitalization, gentrification, and commercialization affecting its residents in a variety of ways. In all cases, accepted narratives about these neighborhoods have prevailed over less popular stories, leaving behind many blind spots.

The decision to focus on one street and on four neighborhood only was both rewarding and limiting. Rewarding because the direct contact and the level of intimacy with the local that the project required revealed surprising details that no general survey or technological device would have offered; limiting because issues of accessibility prevented us from venturing in other neighborhoods less known or far from the downtown core. Overall, the current approach was driven by a necessity to move away from established methodologies and forced partitions, from socially exclusive interests dressed as scientific neutrality, and by a desire to credit and emphasize the contribution of those communities and individuals that had been actively erased from the map of the city and, de facto, from the city itself.

Self-contained Neighborhoods

The city of Toronto has long been known as a city of neighborhoods. Their diversity is frequently celebrated as an exemplary case of multicultural coexistence, made immediately visible by their ethnic differentiation, and a vibrant and diverse cultural scene. In fact, this diversity comes to us filtered, homogenized, and sanitized, through overarching narratives linked to noticeable landmarks, thus revealing the city’s early emphasis on the values of real estate. Man-made, hence immanent, or clearly visible constructions are mostly preferred to ephemeral details and transitory objects or to natural elements that may provide daily orientation to the local population. In a similar way, the population inhabiting given neighborhoods is also defined through features that privilege fixed ethnicities or historically-established communities rather than through their cultural dynamicism and the physical or symbolic residues of their transformations. Arbitrarily demarcated by the city council and BIAs (Business Improvements Areas), neighborhoods’ geographic boundaries reflect the objectives and interpretations of these institutions, with their main features being determined by their facades, rather than by their intersecting and interacting networks of naturecultural, historical and infrastructural layers.

When BIAs formed over 40 years ago (City of Toronto, n.d.) they contributed to consolidate the boundaries of each neighborhood according to the administrative and economic necessities of the then hegemonic culture (mostly a colonial culture), or according to the ethnic and cultural distinctiveness of its population (e.g. their race, their ethnicity or their language). Visual clues tend to define these original demarcations. However, these clues are often anachronistic and only partially reflect the social and cultural configuration of the city. In celebrating the history and the culture of the neighborhood, they tend to be made fro the enjoyment of the non-resident, rather than for the person living and animating the neighborhood. In fact, these visual clues and displays seem to assume that the population of a given neighborhoods is monolithic and homogeneous. In addition, these demarcations fail to acknowledge the history of the area and to credit its previous socio-cultural substrate. Well-designed boundaries marked by illuminated symbols and multilingual street signs (fig. 3, 4) indicate neighborhoods frozen in time and space: while these cultures used to animate those spaces, they have often moved elsewhere, or have dispersed, often radically transforming these neighborhoods.

Figure 3 Street signs in Little Italy and (fig. 4) Chinatown. Toronto, 2015

Figure 3 Street signs in Little Italy. Toronto, 2015

Fig. 4) Street signs in Chinatown. Toronto, 2015

Fig. 4) Street signs in Chinatown. Toronto, 2015

In Toronto for instance, Chinatown or Little Italy (but it can be also Little India or Greektown) hold regular festivals and commemorations to celebrate traditional food and cultural rituals (such as the Good Friday procession). These public events attract a considerable crowd of former residents, new residents, and tourists. However, their significance is mainly symbolic, since it celebrates a specific culture, but not the neighborhood where the culture resides. In fact, neither is the culture in these neighborhoods as homogenous as it transpires from these public programs and festivities, nor have the Chinese and Italian communities always stayed in the same place. In fact, these communities have been migrating within the city on a regular basis. In some cases, planned reconfigurations of the city or gentrification trends pushed them out of a location. In other cases, formerly poor families moved to upper class, better-located or more spacious neighbourhoods. For example, before relocating at Spadina and Dundas in the 1950s, Chinatown occupied the North West section of the neighborhood known as St John’s Ward, which was demolished almost completely to make space to the new City Hall in 1961. Interestingly, this neighborhood had once been a slam and a hub for immigrants. Before the Chinese community, Italian and Jewish immigrants had settled in the area. The Ward was Toronto’s first Little Italy before it followed the Jewish community west to College Street (Lorinc, McClelland, & Scheinberg, 2015). Today, there exist several smaller Chinese and Italian conclaves in Toronto. Yet, it is in the historically recognized neighborhoods that festivals, celebrations, and signs of their respective cultures can be found.

When ethnicity is not the first attractor, neighborhood’s boundaries emphasize real estate landmarks such as Victorian monuments and preserved houses. In this case, architecture becomes the focus of celebratory and tourist maps. For instance, when the Riverside BIA made the decision to reclaim the history and specificity lost when the then Riverside village was annexed to the city of Toronto in 1884 (Riverside BIA, n.d.), resorted to use a few architectural landmarks to reclaim its past historical identity while simultaneously promoting its businesses. The BIA disseminated a series of tourist maps that highlight Victorian and Romanesque buildings such as the Broadview Hotel (now on the verge of becoming a boutique hotel), the old post office, or the former Dominion Bank (now the site of a high end designer store) as the most important definers of the identity of the neighborhood (fig. 5). This emphasis prioritizes Riverside’s early Twentieth’s century splendors when rich adventurers and entrepreneurs moved in right after annexation, turning the former village into an up and coming place for entertainment located just across the river Don. However, the buildings portrayed in the map were built after, not before annexation. The prevalently working classes once occupying the village, people who built its later infrastructures and contributed to its overall growth, are only briefly mentioned with those – now redeveloped or renovated – lots they once inhabited left unmarked on the map. Interestingly, though signs of old cottages can’t be found in any map, they are still visible in the neighborhood. Hidden in side-streets, their odd shapes and details are increasingly merging with the surrounding ongoing redevelopment projects.

Whether we deal with description of areas of the city, whose ethnic communities are delimited within specific boundaries, or with neighborhoods in search of an identity, maps provide orientation, both topographical and ideological. In doing so, they leave behind important omissions. As in the case of the historical map of Riverside, what is missing is the acknowledgment of, and how different migration flows – both to and within the city – have transformed and re-shaped the city’s appearance, leaving ephemeral traces of the comings and goings, of the settlements and displacements of always arriving newcomers. In addition, maps are unable to differentiate between those human protagonists who reside, and those who work in, and still animate, a particular neighborhood.

Fig. 5 Riverside BIA. Map produced for the Riverside Walk, 2014-15

Fig. 5 Riverside BIA. Map produced for the Riverside Walk, 2014-15

What is also missing is any acknowledgment that these neighborhoods have been built on top of indigenous strata of habitation, as if before the infamous 1787 Toronto Purchase marking the treacherous British appropriation of the indigenous territory on top of which Toronto rests, the land were empty and unpopulated. Since then, Indigenous remnants have been carefully ignored or actively removed, leaving only sporadic and empty reminders in a handful of street names or in activist gestures of counter-cartography (“Ogimaa Mikana,” n.d.) (Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, 2015; “Ogimaa Mikana,” n.d.).

During an interview, investigative journalist Tim Groves expressed the importance of the above counter-mapping practices as ways to recover neglected histories. In the “Missing Plaque Project” Groves researched and produced a series of posters documenting hidden or forgotten chapters in the history of Toronto – a riot that was ignored, a neighborhood vanished etc.–, which he would then disseminate on site. The information contained in these posters was noticed and acknowledged in a number of circumstances, forwarded to city officials, and resulted in the production of official permanent plaques. However, Groves points out, once these stories are accepted as part of the official history of Toronto worth being remembered, they go through a process of “sanitization” that turn them into happy ending stories or tone down any violence or conflict (Sutti, 2015).

Maps do not seem to be interested in the non-human population of the neighborhoods: urban animals, herbs and weeds, venerable trees have no place in the maps of the city and its neighborhoods, but contribute to shape it in significant ways. According to Lisa Parks (2013), it is necessary to acknowledge these elements by engaging in a form of “creative mediation” that “experiments with different modes of mapping, Earth observation, and mediation (Parks, 2013, p. 15)” in order to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of locations simply marked in a map. During our exploration with the TiP lab, it was clear that animals made major contributions to the neighborhoods. However, we were not merely interested in acknowledging such animals, but also in the stories, mythologies, and sentiments that these animals were generating and that, it appeared, many residents were sharing. In other words, our interest did not lie in identifying the protagonists, or what made the neighborhood, but in the ways in which these protagonists were engaging with each other, that is, in how they shaped it. For instance, raccoons are almost ubiquitous in the city, being filmed and spotted in the most unlikely locations, but neighborhoods such as Parkdale, with its wide backyards, are particularly affected by the presence of these well-urbanized animals. Their nightly debaucheries are well known to residents who appear to see these animals as equally annoying and amusing. In the area of Trinity Bellwoods Park, a rare albino squirrel is considered by many living in the surrounding area a symbol of the park, his sightings being treated as almost mystical and his appearances being subject to a variety of photo shootings.

The above considerations evoke questions about whether it is possible to re-dress the current narratives disseminated by the dominant system of official mapping and visual storytelling, and restore the view of the city as a complex, vibrant and diversified entity. More importantly, I wonder whether the voices of those who have been neglected, completely obliterated from the urban environment in favor of arbitrary and preferred narratives, or sanitized in favor of more tourist-friendly or guilt-inducing narratives, can be made to re-emerge.

Cartographies of Power

The above critique of mapping and the questions they elicit may have no solution. In fact, by definitions, maps curate and simplify in order to become comprehensible. The cartographer is only partially responsible for making decisions on the significance of landmarks and points of interests, as he/she is indeed responding to and reflecting a specific socio-cultural meaning-making (Caquard & Cartwright, 2014). For this reason, merely adding missed points of interests or missed details that the observer does not necessarily recognize as meaningful may not help mend neglect and fill historical absences. According to Tufte, conveying efficient communication of complex quantitative ideas without running the risk of providing too much and too confusing information is rarely achieved. For him, the problem is more technical than ideological. Among the risks that mapping might engender, Tufte warns against the creation of “Chartjunks”. The necessity to pass data through a selection process that only retains certain ad hoc or preferred elements might either result in trying to group too much information in the same visual product, or to provide superfluous information or decorative details. The most extensive data maps, Tufte illustrates, place millions of bits of information on a single page before our eyes. According to his cognitive analysis, in front of a good chart or a visualization sample “our attention goes directly to exploring the substantive content of the data rather than questioning technique and methodology (Tufte, 2001, p. 20).” Conversely, if crucial information is missing, or if too much information is displayed, the viewer is unable to reconstruct a complete picture of a phenomenon.

Caquard notes how “The history of cartography cannot be dissociated from narratives and is actually infused by metanarratives (Caquard, 2013, p. 137).” He introduces MacFarlane’s concept of ‘story maps’, described as “forms of spatial expressions that embody our personal experiences of the environment and contribute to creating a deep understanding of places (137).” MacFarlane opposes these story maps to grid maps, which he identifies with the roadmap. Grid maps “make the land-scape dream-proof, impervious to the imagination” and “encourage the elimination of wonder from our relationship with the world (138)”. The distinction between these two categories does not imply a subjective versus objective dichotomy: in fact, neither are grid maps dream-proof, nor are story maps necessarily promoting a deeper understanding of the city. While plain topographic maps of the city of Toronto may fall under the category of grid maps, the city boundaries, its areas of interest and its street names carry and perpetuate dominant narratives that have determined the history of the city as a colonial enclave, that is, since it was made part of the British Dominion. The stories narrated by the grid maps are technically uncontestable, and therefore provide no room to accommodate alternative voices. If we follow McFarlane’s definition, tourist/commemorative maps like the one of Riverside are story maps. Although they certainly embody a deeper knowledge of the urban environment and encourage the viewer to explore spaces “as places” (Caquard & Cartwright, 2014), they do so only for a limited portion of the population, by disseminating a familiar and habitual history that prioritizes one prevalent voice over the myriads of voices emerging from its residents.

A map like the one disseminated by the Riverside BIA uses landmark buildings to produce a homogeneous narrative that attempts to recover or to create a particular identity. On the one hand, this narrative is meant to consolidate the community through a collection of shared stories and notable buildings. On the other hand it seeks to represent the neighborhood as a unified whole in order to make it attractive to a potential visitor or outsider. However, regardless of the –internal, or promotional – goals of this map, the subjects it chooses to display share with other maps of the city one overarching theme: it assumes the acceptance of certain cultural practices and traditions, and aims to privilege a specific economic order, whose main objective is to improve business and wealth for a diverse, yet homogeneously thinking population. For instance, while the emphasis on historic buildings and the acknowledgement of administrative establishments are there for direction, they allude directly to the biopolitical management of the city (hence they are not specific or unique to the neighborhood) and to the resilience of its colonial order. In fact, in suggesting what to look for while roaming the city, this emphasis familiarizes us with architectural structures and styles that remind us of the past, yet still celebrated, and still accepted, British cultural and social domination; it makes us accustomed to these bricks and buildings, as if they stood for the city itself, indicating what should and what should not be preserved, thus legitimizing a unique type of history (Victorian, Edwardian, and neoromantic, built by the settlers, not by the immigrants, by the working classes or the indigenous populations), architectural structures (the high-rise in the financial district, which testify to the capitalist principles driving the city) and commercial attractions (the places of mainstream entertainment and shopping centres which, it is assumed, pleases the masses). Thus, maps direct and advise the viewers towards a given life-style, define the models they should aspire to, distinguish between winners and losers, visible and invisible. These directions are not coercive or artificially imposed, but are accepted as commonsensical, owing their credibility to the naturalization of the map as an artifact providing an objective, thus authoritative view (Farman, 2010).

The perception of objectivity is eventually intensified by today’s increasing use of satellite imaging and data analytics to produce augmented cartographic maps and geolocated data visualizations. Although these maps are invaluable at casting a light on unexplored facts and under-researched phenomena regarding a specific geographic area, or on phenomena that could not be easily studied without the use of mobile technologies and data visualization techniques, the data they collect are selective, both by choice and by necessity. By retrieving and aggregating data from mobile sources such as public transportation or cell phones GPS devices, as well as from public surveys and phone interviews, GIS analytics and geolocated data visualizations seek to address issues that may help municipalities improve their road circulation, their air pollution or their green spaces. Besides their main purpose, these maps narrate stories about the transformation and mobility of the city.

However, choices to investigate specific areas to study tend to highlight busy, valuable, or areas linked to business, possible development or work concentrations. Thus, the data collected and displayed follow rationales that reinforce default narratives of power within the city, namely, assumptions about what constitutes power, desirability, and success. For example, urban planner and data analyst Justin Miron’s online street tree mapping system (fig. 6) focuses on the up-and-coming neighborhood of Beaches-East York (Miron, 2016). The app is designed to allow users to visualize street trees by categories and diameter. The goal is to “comprehensively visualize street tree data that can be used for various purposes (real estate analysis and urban forestry, as examples).” While the plan is to expand the study to include the entirety of the city of Toronto, it is not a surprise that the pilot project concentrates on the Beaches, an area known for its lakeshore broadwalk, its residential desirability and its well-preserved natural landscape, whose real estate value has been constantly increasing in the past decade.

Moreover, the methods used to collect and display geolocated data present technical constraints and limitations that contribute to a general de-personalization of the city and its neighborhoods. For example, the morning home-to-work travel patterns map produced by Jason Li for the “Transportation Tomorrow Survey” (“ECM Blog,” n.d.; Transportation Tomorrow, 2006) uses anonymous data sets provided through a series of phone interviews and data from Transportation vehicles collected by several municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area (Data Management Group, University of Toronto, 2011). Using GIS to identify and lay data geographically, Li represented the “migration flow”, volume and destinations of commuters by modulating circles, curves and colors. The resulting map doesn’t discriminate between the types of commuters, as mobility patterns are measured without any consideration of who is traveling for leisure, work or other reasons, all aspects that were included and well documented in the original survey.

Fig. 6 Justin Miron: online street tree mapping system 2015

Fig. 6 Justin Miron: online street tree mapping system 2015

In both cases, the subjects of the surveys (the street trees and human beings) are treated discretely, as a series of dots and vectors. These “dots” become pure conveyors of a particular set of information. Human and non-human are conflated, simplified and averaged as just dots on the map. One wonders who or what these dots stand for, for example, whether the trees hold any particular significance for the neighborhood, whether their presence is linked to specific personal stories, what is their relation to the surrounding environment and its nearby architecture, or what motivate people to travel across the city. Moreover, with the map only displaying selected and quantified aspects, such as quantity and diameter in the first case, and mobility as a broad term in the second, other qualitative aspects such as the frustration generating from commuting, the relation between the commuters and the city infrastructure, as well as other complex human non/human interactions, cease to become worthy of our attention.

 Fig 7 Jason Li. Morning Home-to-Work Travel Pattern Change in Toronto and Surrounding Areas 2015

Fig. 7 Jason Li. Morning Home-to-Work Travel Pattern Change in Toronto and Surrounding Areas 2015

According to Monica Brannon, “the increasing quantification of place imbues commercially produced images with cultural ideas of techno-authority, in contrast to subjective, humanistic experiences of space, resulting in a reduction of complexity and heterogeneity (Brannon, 2013, p. 273)”. As the devices producing maps such as the one mentioned above become increasingly transparent, “ideas about human sense perception become intimately linked to a transformation in the definition of intelligence and rationality; this merger between vision and the reformulation of reason underpins contemporary biopolitics (Alpern 2015)”. The maps are believed to consist of real, first hand, raw data, rather than mediated and translated data. Interpreting the alleged empirical value of these data, that is, treating them as fact, leads the viewer to forget that “this scientific objectivity is typically situated and privileges those in power. The reading of objective space is indeed a ‘reading’, an interpretation that is never outside of the culture that produced such a reading (Farman, 2010, p. 876).” As a result, the politics, the choices, the exceptions, or even the multiple actors making up these maps buried underneath “raw data” are no longer acknowledged or questioned.

For Dalton and Thatcher, “In a world of quantified individualization, understanding the contextual value of place is significant and powerful. Relying solely on ‘big data’ methods can obscure concepts of place and place-making because places are necessarily situated and partial (Dalton & Thatcher, n.d.).” Dalton and Thatcher’s criticism of big data speaks to the necessity of becoming aware of the processes of mediation involved in the representation and datafication of space. When we collect data and lay them onto a map, we go through processes of translation (we make a map to transmit its meaning using another media language) and mediation (we magnify, resize, filter the content according to the features and the capabilities of a specific medium), in order to unravel and re-entangle the layers through which the landscape is perceived and constructed, historically and materially. In most cases these mechanisms are perceived as mere affordances. It is the outcome we are drawn to, not the processes through which a map has been achieved. As a result, we tend to overlook the transformations that the content undergoes during mediation, and fail to notice the potentials and the losses that these transformations bring about. Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska ascribed this failure to pay attention to the mediating processes to the false divisions and problems associated with any debate on new media. The “clear-cut distinctions and categories” that separate real and virtual, organic and informational, promote a perception of maps as autonomous artifacts, thus producing a disconnect that prevents us from understanding how the complex and multifaceted relationships being played in the world are filtered technologically and socio-culturally (Kember & Zylinska, 2012, p. 3).

Kember and Zylinska urge us to rethink the way new media are traditionally understood as enablers or producers of specific and finite objects with their own functionality and aesthetics. Rather than “moving the debate of new media on,” they argue, we should be “moving on from the debate on new media and, in doing so, focusing on the concept of mediation” (Kember & Zylinska, 2012, p. xv). Kember and Zylinska thus call for an interdisciplinary and playful approach to media as a tactic for revealing the mechanisms of mediations involved in their formation. The invitation here is to shift our attention from the focus on the map as a finite artifact to the relational nature and socio-political situatedness of its content.

Towards an ecological approach

Ruth Panelli explains that human geographers have long acknowledged the complexity and interconnectivity of life, as “relationships within the everyday, the iconic, and the ethical qualities of sociality are shown to include a set of more-than-human encounters” occurring between people and the non-human (Panelli, 2010). In other words, while human life is always mediated and facilitated through objects, organisms, infrastructures that are other than human, or non-human, it also becomes entangled with these items, to the extent that it is no longer possible to think of the “human” as self-contained and autonomous. Sarah Whatmore identifies the “more-than-human” as the excess of the human, which is constantly made and remade through assemblages, networks and systems, and is located at the “feverish borders of animal/machine, social/material, flesh/information, cultural/natural (Whatmore & Thrift, 2005).” In this case, mapping is not sufficient to make these complex and intricate intersections manifest, as it tends to isolate specific problems and to observe single issues as self-sustained.

Farman emphasizes the importance of accessing and comparing different maps as a way to gain a deeper knowledge of space. He notes how GIS programs such as Google Earth, and, more recently, Google Maps are an improvement to the previously available mapping systems available, as their semi-collaborative nature and their social network qualities may grant the viewer the ability to stir “spatial debate of maps within maps”, thanks to their user friendly configuration and the enactment of “new levels of interactivity and user agency (Farman 2010, 872).” Thanks to these systems, users are now able to compare different historical periods by juxtaposing one map on top of another; they can now add images retrieved from archives and personal collections; they can manipulate them, by adding their personal notes and memories, their collective knowledge, and proposing different or alternative narratives. In other words, users and larger communities can create their own personal or alternative story maps.

Inspired by the potentials of Google Map and Google Earth, an initial attempt was made to create a collaborative map of Toronto to accompany the TiP lab. The map could be filled with stories, images, commentaries from casual contributors. The hope was that a collective story of the city would emerge and that forgotten voices could finally surface. However, the impersonal look of the map and the discreteness of its making (Buckley, 2011), as well as the constraints given by the parameters of the platform; the general difficulty to convince random individuals to share their personal lives; and the commitment (even though minimal) it required proved to be obstacles to the formation of a truly vibrant map. In addition, issues of accessibility were a major hindrance to the elderly, people with disabilities and the poor.

Importantly, while the prospective map could easily accommodate the presence of those non-human actors and objects that so importantly affect the life, the natural landscape and even the infrastructure of the neighborhood, it pictured them as separate items, seemingly having no apparent connection with each other. Those more-than-human encounters evoked by Panelli and described by Whatmore failed to materialize. It was soon clear that while this collaborative map could act as a valuable curated archive leading to a rather rich, and certainly different understanding of the city, the modulation resulting from the intense and often unexpected interactions and meaningful amalgamation of the human and the non-human, their encounters with everyday and unexpected objects, and their politics of coexistence would remain submerged. Ultimately, the trouble with this map, as much as with the other self-contained maps encountered during the preliminary research phase of the project (grid maps and story maps, GIS and data visualization) was its inability to evoke those “..literally moving things, things that are in motion and that are defined by their capacity to affect and be affected” being mobilized by the human bodies and subjectivities, which Kathleen Stewart defines ordinary affects (Stewart, 2007).

Whatmore suggests that a more-than-human research practice should be located in a “disciplinary in-between” that accommodates a variety of methods, practices and co-production. In other words, as Guattari suggests, one should focus on the coexistence of different instances of the mental, the natural and the social (Guattari, 2000). That is, a new view of and material approach to the city as “ecology” – a system comprised of the interactions among organisms, the natural forces, as well as those human-made artifacts and human-caused phenomena that participate in making and transforming this system (Plutynski, 2008) – rather than “economy” – a system of exclusion and compartmentalization managed through rules and agreements.

Panelli argues that a complex ways to interpret such entangled relations can be found by looking at indigenous perspectives. Juanita Sundberg describes how indigenous authors in the Americas rely on epistemic traditions that fit many worlds. In these pluriverses, “..animals, plants, and spirits are understood as entities, the totality of which participate in the everyday practices that bring worlds into being (Sundberg, 2014, p. 22)”. Importantly, indigenous research refuses to engage with the “split between nature and culture as if it is universal.. a meta-narrative rooted in Enlightenment thinking and globalized through colonial discursive practices (21). ” Thus, indigenous research promotes an empathetic relational way of knowing grounded in the nexus of materially being-on-the-land. The Zapatista movement, for instance, advances the notion of “walking with”: this is a form of solidarity built on reciprocity and mutuality. By physically “walking and listening, talking and doing”, each individual is able to engage freely in a variety of ways and to experience such activity differently: In fact, as we humans move, work, play, and narrate with a multiplicity of beings in place, we enact historically contingent and radically distinct ontologies (24).

As an artifact operating at the level of the territory, the TiP lab could not rely on digital data collection or on readymade maps. In fact, its proximity and its immediate connection to the city fabric and infrastructure made it possible for the lab to receive objects, stories and other essential information directly from the residents and from the observed surrounding environment. As a result, its content constituted a very heterogeneous collection, since it came unfiltered through top-down – technological or human –selective process, or through an automatized series of standardized signals or data aggregated through pre-determined parameters.

The TiP lab carried old documentary artifacts and archival material such as old photo reproductions of particular street corners printed on acrylic transparent sheets, which served as analog augmented reality pieces: participants could observe the transformation through which their neighborhood had gone by juxtaposing each sheet to a particular location. While this material was meant to initiate conversations about the life and history of the neighborhood, it tended to lead to rather diverse and often unexpected visual or aural reactions that spoke to the molecular richness of the neighborhood and of its dwellers. Even when the responses to this material reproduced some conventional narratives of the city, the negotiations and the dialogues that had brought them to light were far from predictable. Thus, the processes of exchange and the dialogues initiated by and through the Mobile lab acquired increasingly crucial importance, as they constituted a live manifestation and a testimony of the multiple ways in which each neighborhood and its habitants are profoundly and differently intertwined. The shifting of attention that the TiP lab facilitated from trusting and testing a – mapped, processed, extrapolated – space to exploring the processes of communication and exchange, or the “encounters” between humans and non-humans revealed a much richer and nuanced universe whereby the historical and the material, the technological and the political, the architectural and the geological, the visual and the linguistic engaged in countless combinations.

TiP Lab. Sept. 2, 2015. Analog AR on Acrylic Sheet. Photo courtesy of Yvonne Bambrick

Fig. 8 TiP Lab. Sept. 2, 2015. Analog AR on Acrylic Sheet. Photo courtesy of Yvonne Bambrick


Affective geographies: hyper-cartographies and the impossible archive

By using a bottom up strategy, rather than relying on the top-down perspective of the traditional map, the TiP lab focused on the material processes of mediation between human/non-human, nature/infrastructure, as revealing clues of how the city and its voices are made themselves known. In fact, it is important to notice that although the four visited neighborhoods have all undergone and are currently undergoing considerable transformations that can be ascribed to phenomena such as annexation, gentrification, social and professional mobility, or aging of the population – all phenomena that can be generally measured through census, geolocation, or topographic data – , these transformations were perceived and occurred in radically different manners. Thanks to the TiP lab in vivo approach, it was possible to observe the way in which the sense of community that characterizes each neighborhood contributed to shape or mitigate the impact of these transformations. These aspects only emerged from conversation with the residents and because of the physical presence of the lab at places of gathering within the neighborhood. For instance, Parkdale’s residents spoke fondly of the solidarity they received from their community, as if the area consisted of a city on its own, and not just another neighborhood only separated by an underpass. The tight-knit community some of them had formed made them confident and only mildly concerned as new young professionals moved into the neighborhood. This behavior was very different from what transpired from the area surrounding Church and Queen, where community centers and charities seemed to be of little help to the disenfranchised and the working poor, while many seemed to find more comfort in the warmth of the local 24 hours McDonald’s or in the company of the chess players gathering on the churchyard of the Metropolitan church.

The presence of the TiP lab gave the opportunity to a number of individuals to describe their everyday lives by narrating anecdotes, reporting on their coexistence with the newcomers that had started moving into the neighborhood, as well as on their sometimes nostalgic, sometimes surprisingly optimistic thoughts on the past and future identity of the city and their neighborhoods. The opening of a coffee shop or a grocery store, the planting of a tree, the establishment of a community garden affected the existence of these individuals in different and sometimes profound ways. A variety of people, from parents, to professionals, persons with mental illness or disabilities, the homeless, narrated their stories of survival and daily routine, speaking eagerly about political views and complex experiences with the neighborhood, its urban fabric and its natural specificity.

It was somewhat surprising to discover that a number of regular dwellers were not residents of the neighborhoods. Besides those regular commuters for work, some would sometimes cross several areas of the city to reconnect to old acquaintances, or to participate in community they felt part of. This was the case of a group of Portuguese and Vietnamese elderly who frequented the West Neighborhood House of Dundas and Ossington: having left the neighborhood to live with their sons and daughters in the suburbs, they would return every week to participate in creative activities, to share food and to check the transformations of the neighborhood, noticing how the vegetation on the front lawns had changed, and how the herbs they grew for cooking or as medicinal remedies had been substituted with less utilitarian flowers.

As stories poured in, they were meticulously recorded. One of the initial goals of the “Transitions in Progress” project was to match the in vivo operations of the TiP lab with an online archive comprising of a well catalogued collection and a growing collaborative map. Little objects such as transit transfers, cigarette butts, herbs, and small donated artifacts were carefully collected in petri dishes, forming a mobile museum that served as testimony of the multifaceted interpretations, the diverse stories, and the multiple intersection between human and non-human experiences of the neighborhoods. As well, the unusual receptacles borrowed from scientific practice were both trying to transmit the rigor characterizing this collection and stood as reminders of the difficulty of creating a taxonomy that would articulate their relational origin and significance. However, the heterogeneity of the material and the relational significance that accompanied them became a major obstacle in creating a meticulous and well-ordered archive that visitors could browse. Importantly, once catalogued, how could these objects be re-connected to the stories they had come with?

The activities undertaken with the mobile lab revealed the complex and somehow ungraspable relational qualities of the objects, the stories and the locations explored. In fact, it was as if each object, each location, each story showed different layers, led to multiple connections, making them impossible to document, to describe or, more importantly, to catalogue accurately. In fact, not only was their significance multiple, and nuanced (as if forming some sort of hyper-cartographies), but it also rested on the momentous experience, on the very process of mediation of their occurring. As soon as the transactions initiated by the TiP lab1) were complete, the objects were donated, the stories narrated, they had potentially become part of an archive, but the archive had lost its original significance. While the statements that the participants had so generously uttered had been religiously recorded, once stored in a hard drive, they had become disembodied, as they were deprived of their context, losing their vibrancy. The approach followed by the TiP lab made archiving impossible, not only because the objects to be catalogued no longer expressed the emotional gestures implicit in the transactions, but also because their multiplicity and relational value were substantial hindrances to establishing a proper cataloguing system.

The goal of the project was neither to uncover the complexity emerging from the city’s urban fabric, nor to create an exhaustive archive. It was an explorative attempt to discover and bring to life voices and protagonists that otherwise would not have emerged. Second, the TiP lab experimented with an approach that does not rely on top down methodologies or on given categories, but that interacts in vivo with constantly reshaping entities and subjects. Once traditional approaches are abandoned, the more-than-human entanglements that modulate simple gestures and the processes of mediations that define experienced multiplicities obliterate any spatial determination, letting the world become evident in its ungraspable complexity. The experience emerged from the TiP lab served to emphasize the necessity to acknowledge these complexities. With its material presence, and its itinerant purpose, the TiP lab was no counter-mapping alternative, but served as a way to emphasize how hegemonic narratives, through cartography and mapping technologies, had made some key protagonists voiceless, and had flattened the complexity at the heart of the city. But rather than suggesting alternative mapping methods, or a series of precepts and recommendations to better capture the world, the TiP lab generated a few performative moments that invited the participants to look beyond comfortable boundaries, demarcations and taxonomies, eventually opening up new epistemologies of learning.



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  1. ( Transitions in Progress, Making Space for Place is a collaborative research-creation project between Elena Basile, Valentina Sutti, and Roberta Buiani. Its performative/explorative phase took place on Sept. 2-3-4 and 12 and was followed by an exhibition on Oct. 19-23 at the Paul H. Cocker Architecture Gallery, Ryerson University. []

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