detour 216_via Field Notes 4
*Drafted shortly after completing our workshop; see detour 208
Apart from thanking the organizers and all the participants for providing me a wonderful occasion to think about mapping in a focused manner, as well as for enriching my understanding thereof through amazing examples, concerns, lessons learned and methods, with the workshop just over and my impressions still very vivid, I would above all like to revisit a question I raised in one of our discussions: “Do we expect too much of maps?” This question came to me in reaction to what seemed to be an expectation shared by some in the group, that maps should not simply visualize social change but change social circumstances and/or bring about urban transformation. I strongly doubt this would be a reasonable expectation.
One of my most deeply rooted convictions about research in all fields of academia and the arts is that it should have social change as its horizon and goal. This means that we as researchers should constantly and realistically ask ourselves which outcomes of our work might help facilitate change and how. But no scientific outcome alone, however brilliant and however honestly pursued it might be, will do the job, as changing social relations is a collective effort, a call directed at as many different people as possible, not just a few—especially not just a few researchers, from our comparatively privileged position. People, neighbors, housing cooperatives, women opposing the many faces of patriarchy, farmers organized against land grabbing, environmentalists fighting against extractivism, oppressed communities dealing with the abuse of armed power, and many others, do that job day by day, in all parts of the world, and wherever they are, it is up to researchers to step in and provide help with scientific and artistic tools, including mapping.
From documenting ongoing social struggles and thereby creating wider support for them, to making data normally restricted to governments or hegemonic groups (and, increasingly, certain firms) accessible to collectives engaged in resistance, there are many ways of backing social change. Additionally, I would mention something I have attempted and even achieved sometimes, over the past several years, while working with the inhabitants of a self-organized settlement in Dhaka and seasonal migrant laborers in Bangladesh as well as India. I am thinking of occasions in which the research itself gets collectivized: an experience that, in my opinion, pertains to social change at a deeper, “structural” level. By “collectivizing,” I intend that the very process of knowledge production, not just the final outcomes, is opened up by the researcher to include the questions, doubts, representations, constraints, biases of the social groups involved; and to allow these to impact, contaminate, and influence the research. I am aware this means rethinking how research is usually carried out: namely, as a highly specialized endeavor by individuals or teams of experts. Some might find this a bit radical, but when in the course of a mapping process the participants started to speak of our map, or even appropriated it fully by speaking of their map, I saw us get one step closer to achieving the aim of social change, which, for me at least, involves transforming power and class relations.
To avoid misunderstandings, I am not at all saying that mapping is only legitimate if it is participatory (participation, in my opinion, is far too often a misused and perhaps also a misplaced approach). It has simply been my experience that “collectivized” mappings, by pluralizing knowledge and mirroring plural cognitions and re-cognitions, plural everyday life experiences, as well as desires, teach us that space is more complex, more multi-layered, more easily manipulated, more malleable, than it might usually seem. Of course, we can and should use highly personal desires, phantasies, dreams, perceptions, wishes, and imagination in mapping.
As I think of all this also in connection with Richard Sennett’s lecture on craftmanship, which the organizers asked us to watch before the workshop, it occurs to me that the proposition of collectivizing shifts the focus from maps to mapp-ing—with “mapping” being understood as crafts/wo/manship evolving in durée, or over time. Sennett also speaks of resistance in this lecture, just interestingly not in terms of “struggle” or “opposition” to political or social pressures but as something “internal,” something that each of us encounters, for example, in the process of research. When something goes wrong, one is forced to slowing the pace, says Sennett. This can be because of material obstacles setting us back; more generally, because the social circumstances are almost always ambiguous, ephemeral, and exposed to change with the actors themselves changing. Either way, mistakes and unexpected incidents mean that we mostly build our skills irregularly, bypassing, or adapting to, obstacles and “bumps.” Narrowing this down to our occupation with mapping, I would conclude by saying that there can be no universal and pre-established “modus operandi” but only many ways of mapping, each including and even presupposing some degree of resistance and ambiguity.
One way this resonated with me linked to how “mental maps” made their entrance in my project Archives of Movement. In order to explore how people-on-the-move perceived regions and the changing landscape in particular, I had initially intended to lead conversations about the topic while moving. On site, this proved impossible due to the highly crowded and very risky means of transportation used by many of my interlocutors. Vis-à-vis this “bump,” I took to inviting them to draw on paper the paths of their journeys and recall the qualities of the landscapes they found most salient after arriving. Eventually I was extremely happy about these mental maps, whose production often turned into an occasion for extended storytelling (no different than other exercises in mental mapping), as they mirrored particularly well the territories with which the participants were most acquainted and to which they felt most attached: their territorial belonging so to say. In a second step, we overlaid the drawings with a satellite image of the same area/region, which revealed how spatial perceptions and their representations depend on, but do not necessarily match, the time needed to move in physical space.
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