Monthly Archives: August 2013

Targeting Sites of Attack in Syria

Syria, for now, remains on the map.  But in the course of over two years civil war aged across Syria, the government of Bashar al-Assad has stock-piled chemical weapons as a last line of security in multiple sites.   President Barack Obama’s administration has made use of chemical weapons against Syria’s population a justification for military attacks against or intervention in the country.  But the prominence given to drawing this “red line” on the use of such weapons neglects to assess the pragmatic results of any intervention, and the nature of what form on-the-ground intervention in the relatively shifting state would take–or what ends such military actions would be able to serve.

The direction of the situation is not good, to be sure. The number of Syrians reported killed, abducted, gassed, or poisoned during the civil war over the past two and a half years, tabulated by Syriatracker, clearly centers the focus of violence around its capital city, Damascus, and is probably vastly under-reported:


Syria Tracker-  Missing, Killed, Arrested

The on-the ground situation is more complex than this map of reported violence:  especially if one looks at the disparate groups that have independently continued (or sustained) the ongoing rebellion against the Syrian government, or, even more strikingly, at the huge number of internally displaced Syrians, a number greater than anywhere else in the world; and the  number of Internally Displaced People is difficult to count; estimates are 4.25 million–almost 1 in 5 Syrians.  The consequences of this displacement are impossible to map.
The situation on the ground has provoked this displacement through the fragmenting of the Rebellion into multiple fronts.    An important and informative interactive Al Jazeera map of groups in the Syrian rebellion provides a far more complex measure of divisions among rebellious groups that have attracted different financial and military backing to overthrow Assad also challenging to map:  rebels on different fronts include the large Northern Front near Damascus to Aleppo Front, Idlib Front, and Eastern Front, some in uneasy relations to one another, and is worth examining in depth at its website, in order to understand the mosaic of divisions in a landscape whose sectors are often pointlessly divided between “rebel-held” and those where Assad is dominant:
Mapping Interactive Map of Syrian Opposition
Al Jazeera English
The above image of the fragmented nature of local control, and the independence of each group from one another, suggests the difficulty of defining a clear point of entrance and reveals the nature of ‘proxy war’ that has expanded over two years since the Arab spring, as the response to the Arab Spring of April 2011 that challenged the Assad dictatorship were almost randomly attacked by a violent militaristic security forces that echoed the violent tactics of Bashar’s father, firing live bullets into crowds of protestors and unarmed civilians, killing many innocent children, in acts of carnage and terror documented by Human Rights aWatch as killing 587 civilians and over 250 children that emulated the theatrical mass-assassinations orchestrated against Syrians by his father, Haifez al-Assad.  The repressive violence of these events, before civil war, increased the range of foreign bankrolling independent factions of rebellion, which is misleadingly cast as uniform by a map of anti-government forces as the below two-color map devised for Max Fisher of the Washington Post, which borders on intentional political disinformation:
if not patronizing in the uniform color by which it designates “rebel presence” as a single block, as if to erase the nature of what David Brooks and others correctly identify as a “proxy war” and “combustion point for further waves of violence.”
We are ill-served to understand the nature of this “proxy war” by the reductionist attempt to map ethnic diversities in Syria.  Such a map implies that the many sectarian divisions masked by the creation of the Syria’s borders account for instabilities among rebel groups, as if they are inherent in a multi-ethnic state as an amalgam of faiths destined to implode, regardless of the brutality of the two generations of the Assad regime:
Yet the divided nature of the country lies in part in the improvised nature of resistance to a totalitarian regime, and the culture of violence that has been normalized within the Assad regime and within Assad’s security forces–the notorious Air Force Intelligence (إدارة المخابرات الجوية‎), whose ties to chemical weaponry have been substantiated in the recent past.
The drawing of stark divisions between areas controlled by different fronts and subject to government control obscure the near impossibility of drawing these lines of distinction along clear territorial boundary lines–and prepare a deceptively simple image of Syria’s future.  One BBC news-map helpfully re-dimensions the local conflict, mapping government positions toward the coast and eastern cities, around holdouts and temporary redoubts of rebel resistance–although clear mapping of their division is difficult given the shifting landscape of alliances and lines of territorial defence among highly mobile guerrilla forces, who often tactically withdraw, rather than face military engagement, but can’t map the shifting lines of opposition or control–or the relations between the fronts that are themselves supported by different constituencies in a patchwork of strongholds:
Mapping Syrian Conflict BBCBBC/Syria Needs Analysis Project
The map poses deep questions of what intervention would mean without a clear map even available to be read.  They also reveal how much the debate about war is being waged not only in words, but maps.  The focus of global attention is not only on the violence that has divided the country for over two years, to be sure, or the humanitarian disasters created by the many refugee camps on Syria’s borders, but allegations of the use of chemical weapons.  Yet the mapping of Syria’s disasters and composition are central to any discussion of military intervention.
And we now have a map of where strikes might be directed against air force bases and sites of chemical production, courtesy Foreign Policy magazine, which uses a Google Maps template to mark the storehouses of potential chemical factories and air bases targeted as primary sites of missile attack:

Air Bases and Chemical Sites in Syria

What sort of a vision of Syria as a country does it describe?  The visually striking deployment of skulls-and-crossbones icons to designate locations of plants that produce chemical weapons is scary, and so much so that it almost evokes incursions by pirates along the Mediterranean coast–as much as sites of chemical weapons.  (Of course, such sites would not in themselves be targeted, but the decision to avoid them depends on the accuracy of military intelligence; the decision to target all pharmaceutical factories also poses a  future crisis for already over-crowded Syrian hospitals.)  But it suggests a rather blunt map of the notion of military intervention, and reveals the difficulty of projecting a limited surgical strike against selective sites that are removed from the Syrian population.

In the light of the relative military success of the long-distance bombing strikes into Algeria, it seems tempting and morally compelling option to end the violence and self-evident terror of gas attacks by unseating the Assad tyranny, or by providing Syria with a clear warning–although what it would warn we are not sure–against purposefully deploying chemical agents against its citizens.

The map raises many questions by marking so many facilities along Syria’s Mediterranean coast.  It makes one wonder how such a map became so easy to reconstruct–and the wisdom of allowing such a plan of attack to be rendered public on the internet.  For the map suggests that strikes can be easily launched, in a sort of war conducted from aircraft carriers at a distance against Iran’s close ally, firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at them from American warships moved to the eastern Mediterranean–although it’s relatively easy construction has led many to openly wonder why such a detailed range of options would be publicly leaked by the White House in such detail, even indicating the targets of a strike of one to two days against fifty specific sites.  (Reuters found redeployment of many key army, air force, and security headquarters buildings in central Damascus that might attract U.S. cruise missiles, and poison storehouses, if not sites of production, could be moved.)  Would it be worth the potential danger of hitting a storehouse of sarin or FX?

Targeting chemical factories, moreover, does not address the likely existence of available chemical arms–although attacks render their release more likely. Every chemical plant is not the producer of sarin and mustard gas.  In imagining the raids on the air-bases and potential sites of chemical weapons, the map takes advantage of a registry compiled by the  Nuclear Threat Initiative locating where weapons are either manufactured or stored.  Yet despite the offensiveness of chemical gasses, their repellent nature, and their close historical association with threats or attacks of terrorism, what sort of counter-attack on the Syrian population the government would unleash as a response to the attack is not clear.  The attempt to paralyze Syrian aircraft who might attempt to deliver them seems worthy, but the bombing of potential plants risky at best. Bombing sites of chemical production doesn’t sound like that great an idea after all, however, since this would most likely disperse the very gasses that they contain–with more dangerous effects than the uses of Sarin or FX against the Syrian population–if such targeting would of course not be intentional.  The incommensurable relationship between an air-raid or selective missile strike with storage-sites of chemical weapons has led several to question the value of such attacks, even after knowledge that the government may have intentionally used poison gas against its own citizens.  There is a small likelihood of eradicating more than a small portion of stockpiled chemical weapons in the country, since, unlike biological weapons, most probably will only be widely dispersed by such a blast–and conceivably hurt civilians as they more widely and rapidly disperse, considerably raising the bar for “collateral damage.”

How any such sort of attack will change “action on the ground”–and the questions of what military strike can alter the humanitarian and moral disaster that Syria has already become–remind us of the pressing need to have a clearer map of the action on the ground than a Google Map can reveal, as we examine consequences of a “limited air strike” beyond the hope to cripple the Syrian airforce or discourage the terrifying possibility of further use of poisonous gas against an opposition–and ask if a “limited air strike” is possible in this complex geopolitical microclimate.

Lastly, the mapping of clear targets and divisions within Syria’s boundaries obscures a hidden map of refugees on the borders of the country.  As well as having internally displaced millions, the fragmentation of fronts in the country have created a growing humanitarian crisis in camps on Syria’s borders, and the 3.5 million refugees who are estimated to leave the country by the end of 2013 for neighboring regions, further fragmenting and dispersing the country’s population:

map refugees Syria by 2013 3.5 mill

In this color-coded map, the largest number of Syrian refugees (more than half a million) are situated in Lebanon, and just less than half a million are in Jordan and Turkey, and smaller numbers in Iraq and Egypt  – 161,879 and 75,456. This map poses a problem of how each of these countries respond to the crisis:  such a data-visualization fails to render the different immediate challenges of each refugee family, their poverty, and their amassing on the borders of each region, rather than throughout the country.  In short, this is a humanitarian disaster waiting to be mapped.

Given the difficulty in mapping the multiple divisions within the country into rebel and government forces, and the crises of internal and external displacement of Syria’s population, we must resist seeing mapping clear targets of attack.  The maps of clear divisions in the country as a clear opposition of forces are distorting filters that are more distracting than they are informative, with overly neat and tidy boundary lines.  The complex conflicting rebel factions supported by backers, and the sort of power vacuum that would be created by significant and serious destablization of the country or desperate responses (or the shifting of responsibility) that strikes against the country’s remaining inhabitants might trigger.

Syria’s conflict of course exists not only as a map of frontiers and inhabitants.  Worldwide, it should be remembered, there remains significant opposition to military intervention, charted by Mona Chalabi and Charlotte Henry in the The Guardian’s datablog–not only because of longstanding alliances between Iran and Syria, or Syria and Russia, but exceedingly complex questions of what ends intervention would accomplish–and what outcomes it would produce, as well as how it would be sustained.


Condemnation of Intervention


Viewing the conflict in Syria not only through the lenses of national alliances, but by what can be best mapped on the ground, must become more central to US foreign policy objectives.  We cannot “chastise” or “wound” the Assad regime without realizing that we may wound the country, or erase it from the map.


Filed under Google Maps, Mapping Chemical Weapons, mapping ethnic groups, mapping rebel constituencies, Mapping Targets, Max Fisher, military maps, newsmaps

The New Face of Fire and the Mapping of Forest Fires in Yosemite National Park

The enormously destructive spread during the summer of 2013 of a wildfire that began just outside Yosemite National Park, as an illegal fire begun by a hunter spread to consume almost 5,000 acres of protected lands.  The scope of its spread challenges skills of mapping, and raises questions of managing wilderness and containing wind-driven flames.  Even at a distance of three years, the costs of the unmanageably rapid spread of fires is visible in the charred remains of burnt trees that stand, as carbonated sentinels, along the highways one is likely to enter Yosemite Valley.  They are reminders of the fire that began in the nearby Stanislaus National Forest and raged uncontrollably over weeks, consuming almost 260,000 acres of protected lands in the Sierra Nevada over two months.  Even today, expanses of scorched areas with limited green after-growth mutely pose the sort of questions we are compelled to return to maps to resolve, but that current techniques seem inadequate to resolve by imposing layers over a terrestrial base-map.

The mapping of fires is both a cutting edge technology of interactive web mapping, able to track progress, intensity, and rates of evacuation from burning lands with local burn rates with a degree of GPS precision able to synthesize a greater range of data about fires than we have earlier had at our control.  But are the maps of fires effective measurements of the scale of destruction or even the pathways of communication of dangers from fire–a danger increased with the growing number of unsupervised fires in wilderness areas where many homeless are increasingly based, and adequate resources not dedicated–and the spread of fire is simply not able to be that easily mapped.


The steep costs of such fires are not only unable to be comprehended, but so is their scale.  If we map fires to better understand their spread–and the speed at which they travel, as well as the violence of their impact on protected terrain–The cost of this inability to chart the rapid spread of the fire suggest the difficulty to grasp the immensity of the costs of its current danger to the Eastern Sierras–a monumental expanse whose protection constitutes among the most valuable of America’s assets–both the difficulty of charting the ferocity by which fires threaten to destroy, the need for their prevention, and indeed the costs of failing to conceptualize the destructive costs of fires’ containment.  For if the charred remains of dead redwoods and sequoia suggest the unstoppable progress of the fire in the hot summer of 2013, they remind us that increased summer heat threaten to incredibly steep costs and pose future challenges for mapping the spread of firespace.



Burnt-trees-stood-smoky-aftermath-Rim-Fire.jpgBurnt Trees Shortly after Rimfire Getty / Justin Sullivan


Burnell Falls--2015?  SierraNewsONline.png

Sierra News/Candace Gregory (2015)



The terrifying rapidity with which the 2013 forest fire spread to become the largest-ever fire in recorded memory in the Sierra Nevada mountains posed such difficulty to be controlled from the middle of August that demanded to be mapped, but its expansion challenged the adequacy of mapping tools.  The fire not only led to evacuations from the park as it extended into northwestern Yosemite, and to call for increased numbers of forepeople to control the blaze, as its shifting distribution and spread pressed so many firefighters into active duty to contain its growth, by both representing and masking its causes for and proportions and the difficulty of controlling its spread.

For although a number of fires occur yearly in Yosemite Park–either by lightning strikes, unattended campfires, or lapses of attentiveness, the specificity of the 2013 rim fires’ spread was due not only to its expanse, or proximity to  Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, but to the winds that drove it, which distinguished it from other fires that are more easily controlled.  For the rapidity of the spread of the fire distinguish it from the range of wildfires along the west coast that Ben Jones, using government data, mapped from 2002-2012 in Tableau.


Forest Fire Hotspots

Whereas most of the fires that occur in the western part of the country were during the summer months, and most were caused as a result of lightning strikes, the vast majority were less than a quarter acre in size–and only a handful (one hundred and fifty-eight in a decade) exceeded 5,000 acres.  The fire of 2013 consumed over 250,000 acres, making it a striking challenge and almost unique case to map its geography and spread–and providing an almost predictable worst-case scenario given the radical reception of the snow-pack in the Sierras that year–a decline that has only continued in recent years.


Yosemite Conservancy--Half Dome's Snow Pack

Yosemite Conservancy–Snow Pack around Half Dome


Much as the weather systems in the Valley and mountains are notoriously difficult to forecast or record, the winds–like the swaying of the slender Lodgepole pines, among the first to move into a burned environment, or the increasing density of trees across the Sierra Nevada, or the density of old-growth trees as the Douglas fir or Ponderosa pines that fill Stanislaus and Tuolomne counties, and run into the confines of Yosemite outside which they lie.  And yet we are compelled to turn to the maps that so elegantly charted the troubling progress of the fire over a sequence of days, drawing out the progress of forest burning over weeks, even as we were fed new maps daily, together with weekly composites, of the progress from which we were perforce geographically removed.  Watching and mapping the spread of the fire became increasingly dramatic and compelling precisely because of the difficulty with which it was contained–as if the fire resisted the abilities for synthesizing and bounding its own spread as it rushed in high winds across tree tops, breaching the boundaries of roads and approaching areas of denser settlement.

Spread of %22Rim%22 Fire Spread of the Rim Fire from August 19 to September 2, 2013, as reported on InciWeb. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

After consuming over 257,000 acres, the Rime Fire is 92% contained–two giant sequoia groves preserved–and trapped in a fixed perimeter at a low intensity, and the number of fire-fighters down from over 4,500 to 287. But the rapid expansion of the fire raises questions of containment, continuity, and scale beyond the categories we can most easily comprehend–say of cities such as Manhattan island, here trapped in the red expanse of blazes, or Berlin–images that adopt the familiar format of territorial maps.  For while these images effectively communicate the size of the region to which the blaze expanded, they also create a false equation by which to understand its origins, spread, or possibilities for its eventual containment.


Manhattan in Yosemite Blaze

Berlin Mapped on Yosemite Blaze


But such mapping of expanse provides little communication of the nature of its human causation, or of the difficulty in the reversal of its spread, while they impress its expanse. The values of measurement, scale, and proportionality which determine the construction of maps provide less value as criteria to map a fire that is able to leap from the underbrush to branches and the crowns of red pines, sugar pines, cedar, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir–among which fire travels in ways less understood by metaphors of terrestrial continuity, whose rapid expansion is facilitated and fed by decades of neglect at thinning forests on the park’s perimeter on account of substantial reductions of funding for adequate preventive firefighting by controlled burns of underbrush.  (And the consequences of such reductions will be felt further by drought and higher, where the  temperatures in the western United States bound to increase fire frequency by drying and warming landscapes.)

The result created something of a tinderbox in the Stanislaus forest, where the extensive undergrowth helped to ignite the fourth largest forest wildfire in California since 1932–a blaze that only slowed as it met far less underbrush in Yosemite National Park itself, where it also encountered far less dead wood, overgrown forests, and debris on the forest floor.

177184416Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


If the terrestrial map provides a poor visual metaphor for the communication and progress of the fire, maps also provide limited tools to understand the dynamics of fire containment.  To speak of “footprints of actively burning fires” in Yosemite Park not only misleads.  It mis-represents the abilities for the fire’s containment and impending danger of its astounding spread from a small canyon in the Stanislaus Forest.  Unlike the image implied by a single ‘footprint’ of clearly defined bounds, multiple fires that have spread from Yosemite Park’s rim into the park itself in ways that cannot a single block or region, as is by now increasingly evident with the spread of the fire Labor Day weekend into the San Joaquin valley and the spread of smoke into the Valley itself, obscuring the very views for which the park has been so long known with dense smoke and leaving a burning smell in the National Park that has not only symbolic resonances as a region of protected wilderness, but is a historic example of the protection of a preserve of wildlife and old forest growth.  It is difficult to register the destruction of space and place watching the spread of the fire’s leading edge over several weeks on an animated map of its almost unstoppable progression:


To be sure, the historical spread of fires in the park due to lightning strikes can be understood as a process of forest management, as Kate Wilkin has shown by using color-coded polygons to trace the quilt-like nature of historical fires in the mixed conifer forest in Illilouette Creek Basin in the Upper Yosemite wilderness.


Kate Wilkin

The quilt-like nature of historical forest fires in the park however contrast to the immediate ways that we map the progression of a fire.  The mapping of the expanse of a fire that crosses roads, boundaries, and other mapped lines poses problems that are not only cartographical in nature, but address the effectiveness of communicating the fire’s spread to the interested public–and the danger future wildfires pose.  The demand for compiling an updated image of the fire’s progress in the hopes to capture the destructive phenomenon that raged for several weeks and consumed an expanse of over 350 square miles–almost 100 of which lie in the boundaries of Yosemite National Park–and which threatens to overwhelm and destroy its precious landscape.  For most maps fail to embody the fire’s own contours, causes or impending expanse.

Repeated re-use of the “footprint map” of the fires in media outlets minimize the facts of its spread or existence of a clear perimeter around the “rim” fire by confining it to a fixed area, in ways that the animated map recapitulates in mapping the gradual if jerky expansion of an ink-stained red expanse to fill nearby canyons and valleys as it comes to border and surround the Hetch Hetchy reservoir itself. Indeed, much of the fire that has burned in the Stanislaus Forest has remained off the radar–though this has been where most of the burning has occurred–given the dominant media focus devoted to Yosemite Park’s wilderness–and the region’s iconic status as protected wilderness in the national imagination:  indeed, the fire is more compelling than the fourteen active or contained fires in the state that are mapped on the California State Fire Map by transposing CAL FIRE data to a Google Map of the region, replacing the usual pinpricks by swirls of red flames to denote alive fires, and white flames to denote those “contained.”  A “contained fire,” in this iconography, commands less visual attention, if not being discounted–despite the map’s benefits viewers, the remove of its map signs from the landscape they are overlaid is a particularly perilous way to foster public discussion about fire dangers.


Fires Contained and Burning in CA

Generic Google Map of Wildfires CA


The moral failure of abdicating abilities of creative mapping to communicate the process or movement of fires has severe implications for our ability to appreciate, understand, and combat their spread–especially in the benign construction of the containment of a fire’s spread.  Similarly, notwithstanding the intent to try to map the entirety of the area engulfed by flames, the mutable areas engulfed by fires and the discrete paths of its travel, and the travel of smoke or ash, are masked and left silent in the mapping of its “footprint.”  Unlike the “footprint” of a building, house or complex, indeed, the fire resists definition by boundaries, or to be easily controlled, although that image has been repeated in new stories about the “rim fire” that cannot be safely contained, as if to quell fears of the difficulty of drawing boundaries around its recently expanding brushfires that threaten greater destruction of the oak, pine, and older growth trees in the park’s upper reaches.  The 94 square miles of national wilderness consumed by fire in northern Yosemite over Labor Day weekend, up from only 74 square miles the previous day, have been unable to be contained because dense smoke obscures aircraft visibility sufficiently to obscure pilots who might otherwise drop water to contain the blaze, although they have since begun to fly once more as of September 1.

The difficulty to map changing nature of the fire–and the limits on firemen’s ability to control it–need to be better registered and more effectively communicated if it is to be adequately described.  For even if it is tempting to isolate the burning region as removed from the most-visited destinations in the park or locations of many campsites, the failure to map the fire both conceptually seems an obstacle in clarifying its dynamic–or even the plurality of fires that have begun to burn.  Given the small portion of the fire controlled, which grew quite slowly from 2% to 9%, given its poor accessibility, and, only more recently, to 12% and 15%–as if the doubling of the percentage under control could match the expansion of the wildfire, its mapping might better reveal the obstacles to control its spread, indeed, rather than process a set region or place that has been evacuated of inhabitants. It’s unclear, in short, how maps of the fire process the disaster’s scope or meaningfully present the relation of firefighters to it:  if not negligible, the relatively minuscule share of controlling its rapidly growing expanse rely on Google Maps to chart the fire’s expanse in relation to human habitations or sites of evacuation in problematic ways; maps of the fire’s perimeter and coverage inadequately represent the disaster’s situation or dimensions, and their re-use in most newspaper and media outlets confuse the fire as a human event–or an event that impacts human settlements–even though it surely does in part.  But the result is to confuse the object of the map, and the nature of the fire with its threat to residences near to or in the park, and the drama of resettlement outside the most threatened region.


Footprints of Actively Burning Fires--Google MapAugust 24, 2013 map of closures and evacuations in park


Fire Shot Aug 25Map the US Forest Service website, August 24, 2013


For the impact of the fire is surely its destruction of a habitat long preserved and sanctioned for wildlife in the Sierra:  a map of its relation to sites of human evacuation suggest only a small part of its impact in an area long preserved from settlement, by privileging areas from which residents have been asked to relocate or withdraw–and fatally confuses or misrepresents the nature of the fire by privileging its relation to human settlements and sites of evacuation, as if that would magnify its dangers.  The dryness in the forests that have contributed to their spread remain unmapped in such schematic projections, as are the currents of high winds that facilitate its spread, as the fire remains a block to be combatted and confined–its flickering boundaries in most maps of the region are a reminder of its extremely rapid spread. The inadequate nature of abilities to map its rapid spread inside the borders of Yosemite Park, or to control its rapid progress in the back-country just four miles away from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and then at the reservoir, posed deep questions of how to map the growth of and control over the fire, and the ways that maps of fire communicate a convincing relation to its spread by demarcating a fixed perimeter in red–or shading the entire firespace in red.

This is not to say that there is an absence of maps of the fire’s spread, but that they are–in general–absent form the news cycle, in its search to provide an up-to-date snapshots of the fire’s progress and the impact that it is having on human settlements. The spread of the fire from a canyon in the Stanislaus Forest  provides a compelling image of the spread in high heat with prevailing winds, moving in jumps from the upper branches of trees as well as passing along the dried out underbrush.  But few, as below, use an informative backdrop of the potential for fire-risk to plot the fire’s widening perimeter, compiling data of fire progression over the weeks of August 17-28 by GIS software to orient viewers to the fire’s rapid expansion and to the dangers of the fire’s further spread:


Fire Spread in the SierrasSF Gate, August 28


The powerful overlaps of data in the Esri map that integrates wildfire potential in the region with the fire’s spread uses layering of data to create a dynamic surface to map fire progression. In sharp contrast, images deriving from Google Map templates place pastel pinpricks to individuate sites of evacuation in the parks in a field of green, as if to allow us to read the spread of the fire a human story in a far more static map–relinquishing responsibility to map the spread of the fire.  More than providing actual or precise information, the maps are removed from the fact of the fire–which is oddly absent from them, as is the nature of the fire’s rapid spread.  The presence of the fire is even muted by the placidly pale iconic markers that Google Maps employ–periwinkle markers and a light green screen–seem antithetical to the violence of the very fire it charts, or the brush, oak, and pine that fuel its continuing spread.  One would not know that the fire has been burning for more than a week, or that it was in danger of consuming some 225 square miles, and could easily send out sparks a mile and half beyond its current perimeter.  As the rim fire in Tuolumne County, CA has expanded far beyond 150,000 acres–four times the size of San Francisco–little help or solutions seems to materialize for its extinction, even as huge amounts of flame retardant and water are dropped over the region by fixed-wing tankers. More recent visualizations of the fire incorporate the icon of an isolated yellow flame in a map of evacuations, closures, and shelters for evacuated outside the rim’s periphery.


Evacuations, Closures and Evacuation SheltersLos Angeles Times DataDesk, August 26, 2013


SF Gate, August 27, 2013

Yosemite Fire Footprint August 28SF GateAugust 27, 2013


But attempts to chart the huge damage of wildfires in terrain maps of the “rough footprints of actively burning fires” can barely communicate the progress of its destruction.  From a small canyon fire, the brush fire has consumed oaks, pine, and threatened giant Sequoia trees, in what might be the largest recorded wildfire in California history:   it resists being mapped.  In fact, rather than being contained, in other words, the problem of mapping a fire never more than 7% contained has not been confronted by the news agencies that pretend to map its spread.   The stop-action image of a bounded range of danger suggests an almost wishful level of control over a fire that has increased in size by over 10% each day, the slow growth of the proportion of its containment from 5% to 2%, back to 7% and then to 15%, if comforting, seem less statistically meaningful–especially with at least fifteen more days expected until the fire is contained in mid-September. How much more likely is the lack of control only to grow as it expands?

The map is mute on these questions, or barely registers a response.  More problematically, the maps “lie” in drawing clearly demarcated boundaries of control for the viewer, to use Mark Monmonier’s phrase in How to Lie with Maps, reducing the multiple effects of the raging fires to an entity mapped only in relation to settlement–despite its far larger destruction of the wild–erases how the fire has transformed the land. An early image from the Los Angeles Times confined itself to highlighting spot fires in the perimeter that was threatened seemed to conceal the fire’s rapid spread in almost every direction of wilderness in the National Park as much as they illustrate its danger zones:


Footprints of Actively Burning Fires--Google Map


If all maps are translations, the ability to translate how fires have spread from a small brush-fire of some 400 square feet in a remote canyon of the Stanislaus forest to consume over 250 square miles challenges the ability of any map.  The distribution of fires on August 23 was already less circumscribed, as the rim fire seems to have rapidly expanded along the mountain tops, light orange clouds providing evidence of recent burning.  Shifting mapping to a terrain-view, and measuring fire activity, raises an entirely different set of dangers, in this map of August 23, if the ring of fire still seems limited to the rim, and only vaguely suggesting the danger of its spread and the limits of being at best only 5-8% contained for several days, if containment has grown to 20%:




Indeed, the map conceals the lack of much of a strategy to deal with a blaze that has become increasingly difficult to contain save by letting it burn itself out.  While the map of boundary lines lain over a landscape map is removed from the nature of the fire’s progress, the recent perimeter of fire is oddly removed from the fire’s effects in comparison to the map of its progressive expansion from Stanislaus Forest to the border of the National Park.


Fire Progression from Stanislaus to Yosemite Park


A more recent map, including a further array of MODIS satellite-sensed thermal hotspots and active fires in an Esri overlay map provides a more realistic, if substantially scarier, image of its evolution as a growing heat source–the practical problems of mapping the fire’s expanse to an entire shore of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir also suggest the steep challenges of its containment.


Yosemite Fire Map August 28SF Gate, August 28, 2013

One of the deepest worry of many in reaction to the maps is of course the relation of the fire to the landscape.  The fire of course threatens the region of wilderness that the park was dedicated to preserve–a nationally sanctioned wilderness within Yosemite park whose pristine old-growth forests that have been enshrined in our collective memory within a long tradition of American photography.  The mythic photography of Yosemite’s wilderness was nicely undermined in Roger Minnick’s famous 1980 color chromogenic print of a visitor contemplating the Valley’s glacial waterfalls from Inspiration Point–her hair pinned up within a kerchief of its prominent sites.  Despite the touristic appeal of the region, the image of the natural splendor of sheer rock cliffs, waterfalls and trees remains a central to the American imagination of wilderness.




Some maps distance worries of natural destruction by placing the National Park at a reassuring distance from the raging fires, accentuating the fire’s distance from the Valley, and the old-growth regions of giant Sequoia–mapping the expanse of the park in relation to the more delimited region fires have spread, as if distinguishing the smaller bounded region that is burning from a much larger whole, as in this fairly uninformative map that seems to separate the fire from the park, which is silent about the pathways of the fire’s spread or expansion.


Three Times Expanded Fire


If maps draw boundaries, this map from USA TODAY draws a clear distinction between a red region of 133,000 burnt acres and the park’s wilderness.  But the problem of understanding the spread of the fire through the area gives rise to the deepest anxieties around its expansion, many of which focus on pressing questions of the relation of the fire to Hetch Hetchy, the dammed-up glacial valley turned man-made reservoir that has fed San Francisco and the Bay Area since the late 1930s, and to which the spread of the fire is perilously close–and firefighters continue to watch carefully a reservoir that is surrounded with blackened, defoliated trees for signs of new fires, beneath a black blanket of smoke.  As ash falls in snowflakes into the drinking-water reservoir, we are told repeatedly that purification systems are in place, although it is less often noted that the fire has interrupted the production of a huge amount of hydroelectric power, or that San Francisco Public Utilities Commission quickly spent $600,000 to purchase power on the open market at considerable cost, fearful of the imminent dangers posed by the fire’s rapid spread–and the perilous proximity of the blaze to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir have led its power plants to be closedalthough even after the fire reached the reservoir, we assured drinking water would still be safe.

Yet as the fire spreads, even at 20% contained, the threat of particulate matter entering the drinking water that the reservoir supplies is not over. Meanwhile, the older trees and considerable biodiversity that provided a rallying cry for the Park’s creation from the 1890s are now threatened, as, continuing the military metaphor of combatting the fire, the San Francisco Chronicle has asked if the giant Sequoia have “finally met their match,” as if preparing to say goodbye to the oldest trees in the park that Roosevelt loved–and that have lived in the park for over 1,000 years. The maps disseminated in the news do not often register the lack of rainfall in the region, often noted by some commentators on the fire but crucial to comprehend both its spread and the challenges of extinguishing the wildfire. Fires are not that uncommon in the state, or Northern California’s forests and parks, based on national climactic data; but if fire-risk is widely measured and announced, maps give immediacy to that risk:  over 400 square miles of forest fires are being combatted across the state by over 9,000 men and women. While the map may minimize the expanse of the Yosemite fire and its , and risks naturalizing the spread of fires across the state, a map of the eight fires currently burning in Northern California reminds us of the constraints by which they would be adequately able to be controlled.


Fires in NoCal Cal Dept Forestetry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), National Climactic Data Center, USA TODAY research 8:25


The multiple sites of wildfires, and the muting of the dangerous phenomenon by abstract icons, do remove relative the experience of the fire and its danger.  But the image of the designated area of wilderness perhaps most feared to be threatened and violated by this year’s out-of-control rim fire–the fear of whose loss may be tragically prefigured by the emblematic loss by incineration of Berkeley’s Tuolumne Family Camp outside the park, whose buildings and trees were obliterated by fire on the weekend of August 25, having served campers since 1925. The burning was commemorated in a recent public vigil in the city of Berkeley, CA, a poignant expression of loss amidst mind-numbing procession of images of flames. For the symbolic nature of burning in a pristine region of wilderness, less accessible by roads and less able to be travelled by vehicles, lies at a base of the many anxieties about the forest fire in the news.  Indeed, the sanctioned nature of the Yosemite Wilderness as distinct from a simple National Forest, and existing with its own decorum of wildlife conservation, and a relative minimizing of human garbage or refuse, and of power vehicles, is a preserve of wilderness region whose loss would be even more incalculable:






The demarcation of “wilderness” may seem obtuse, either as a designation in need of designating (in order to be protected).  But it reflects how few areas of wilderness exist:  the mythic pristine nature of the region, and the danger that its very inaccessibility poses to fire control, combined with the danger of fires to the densely forested area, filled with dry, dead wood as well as underbrush, making the fires so difficult to contain by firefighters or equipment, and suggesting something of an inevitable narrative of loss and destruction that works toward its tragic denouement. A significant part both of the compulsion and oddity of attempts to map the fire’s spread is the very contingent nature of any mapping of wildfires, and the fact that one is mapping something that is difficult to contain–as opposed to containing an image of nature readily comprehended in a map.  The purportedly unforeseen velocity with which the fire spread of course make difficult any single capture of events within a map difficult–and even more difficult than mapping lines of military engagement and war.   Metaphorically mapping the fire as engagements on a line of combat begs questions of how the fires might ever be contained–save by burn-out fires that attempt to stave the fire’s spread by controlled burns, downwind of the larger fires, between the perimeter of the main fire and a line of control.


Burn-Out Fires in YosemiteJae C. Hong / AP


These fires raise questions of the dangers of identifying the fire as a single entity in need of monitoring or control.  What is being mapped in a plot of burning trees, when fires in the upper branches notoriously jump from tree to tree, in ways difficult, or extremely challenging, to control from the ground?  Should one map vectors of transmission, and intensity of heat, as well as location?  Or the high winds that now threaten to carry the fire further north into the park? These are aspects that seem to challenge the conventional newspaper maps that use Google Maps templates to locate the fires–and are difficult to digest because they effectively rhetorically diminished potential impact of a fire that would so rapidly spread, even in trying to map it to discreet locations in space that have been identified as dangerous to human populations, obscuring the nature of the burning across the region.


Yosemite Fire Map LA Times


These maps diminish the danger of the fire in a sense, by omitting the extent to which the extraordinary dryness of the region will only lead the fire to spread rapidly. What is the way, one must ask, that fires travel or “know” space, or what sort of continuity exists for fires that the notion of a mapping of terrestrial continuity fail to show or reveal?  The question of the further igniting of fires, or the time-indexed travel of fires, is a bit more challenging to read, but far more informative as a model to understand the problems of how it can be combatted or contained, and the manner that it threatens to impinge on the so-called “green perimeter” of the forest itself–even minimizing the fragility of the perimeter that is shown as if it were a fixed line. More importantly, perhaps, they shunt aside questions of how the fire would be contained and provide limited public understanding of the disaster, by perpetuating the image of a contained disaster, even as banner headlines scream about the rapidity of its expansion in the air in a region that has long been parched without rain, and whose high risks for fire were long noted. This map, of August 23, provides a view of the initial spread on Friday, based on the US Forest Service’s Remote Sensing Applications Center (RSAC), based on the analysis of spectral bands in satellite imagery of areas with expanded wildfires better to visualize local variations in the intensity and spread of fires in expansive regions as Yosemite National Park:



And reveals its approach to Hetch Hetchy’s shores, and rapid spread to the center of the rim–and the set of consequent dangers to water supplies minimized in recent news reports of Monday, August 26:

Proximity to Hetch Hetcy

The spread is evident from the intensity with which wildfires spread during the previous day:



The value of this map, of course, is a primary concern with mapping the fire’s spread, then situated within the human settlement of the area, but using map conventions to fit the unique characteristics by which they fire spreads.  Already one can see the stark spread of the fire over an entire region, and the relative impossibility of containing the inevitable inward spread of the fire from the rim, toward what seems an inferno of dense pine and oak, as well as burning overhead threatened giant Sequoia trees and redwoods.


Proximity to Hetch Hetcy


Although the techniques specific to active fire maps are widely used specific to the Dept. of Forestry, a panicked tweet urgently worried that the fire’s spread had been minimized (and inadequately mapped) to reduce the extent of the fire by August 25, as if the spread of the fire toward the end of had been suppressed–and the proximity it seems to have gained to the Valley and to Yosemite Village.


Rim Fire latest MODIS map aug 25


The influx of large numbers of fire fighters from other states helped contain the fire, by last count, some 15%, a statistic that might mitigate its current spread. But little has been said in the media–until quite recently, and then only in select places–about the relation of this fire’s spread to a Congress that depleted needed funds for fire-fighting abilities or fire-suppression technologies.  If a casuality of the 24-hour news cycle, the budget cuts come not only from fiscal irresponsibility but a reluctance fueled by stubborn refusal of climate change deniers to recognize that the forests have become increasingly flammable, as water as diminished in such areas as the region of the High Sierra.  Even as the fire rages, the US Dept. of Agriculture mandated a spending freeze on forest restoration programs and firefighting budgets to help maintain fire awareness at high levels, although the Dept. of Forestry has spent more than a billion dollars on fires suppression this year, and 1.9 billion the previous year.  This may well be the unspoken story lying within the story, and the one whose effects are still waiting, tragically, to be adequately mapped.

 The drastic reduction in the Sierra’s snowpack has continued to raise alarms, but all too little has been done to contain or prepare for the need to contain wilderness fires, or the potential losses of nationally protected landscapes they risk destroying.
Reduced Snow Pack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in August, 2014

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Filed under data visualization, Mapping Yosemite Rim Fire, National Parks Service, western united states, Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Park, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Wilderness

On Viewing the Flattened Past

Immediate access to images, maps, and other information makes us wax nostalgic for postal delivery on a 24-hour clock, and stamped snail mail six days of the week.  Even the labor of licking and affixing a stamp seems antiquated now.


Google Classic


If the notion of allowing a thirty-day wait in red bold letters is the best addition to this artificially aged virtual post card, the app “Historic Earth” offered touchscreen reminders of the pastness present in a landscape that was ever mapped for a short time, in a neat if cautionary collaboration between university libraries and iTunes.

The re-use of maps that this app encouraged provide an interesting case of the circulation of older maps that digitization allowed.  It’s as if Google Earth teamed up with an expansive archive of older maps, allowing us to summon on screens images of place which retain feel and detail and of paper originals, which were georeferenced to modern maps of the actual positions where one stands, using the background of an OpenStreetMap to suggest a layering of a map of actual space.  (OSM is a crowd-sourced alternative to Google Maps that provides a platform to load maps inspired by Wikipedia, whose over 600,000 contributors offer GPS readings, often taken with simple handheld units, aerial photographs, and other geospatial data, in the largest collective mapping project on Earth; the non-proprietary notion of the map OSM uses lends itself especially well to “Historic Earth.”   The service is also popular  as an alternative to default backgrounds in GPS receivers.)  The astoundingly large trace-density of OSM in Europe alone make it a perfect model for providing a background for older maps, as is made clear in a map Eric Fisher plotted of its specificpoint density:



The value of such a comprehensive open-source database facilitated the very features of geolocation “Historic Earth” boasted as its central selling point–providing an easily adjusted template of even broader scope than the uploaded maps covered.  The concept of geoindexing a variety of older maps for daily reference is exciting, but the curiosity in  older maps of all places was  not uniform for all sites  even the marketers realized that the interest of split-screen historical maps of few places were as compelling as those of the built environment of New York City, and even these poorly translated to an iPhone’s small screen:

The contrast of a cut-screen overlay was :

Historic EarthTM 1885 iScreen


How did the OSM background help “Historic Earth” work  to view local landscapes through the screens of old maps?  On the one hand, the app “Historic Earth” provided a great way to appreciate the map as a human artifact–as well as, more obviously, an earlier sedimentation of human space.  The maps that were made available in the app–formerly available from iTunes at bargain basement prices of $3.99 (£3.99 in the UK), uploaded from digitized images of the Osher Map Library, synchronized to one’s own GPS-determined position.  Rather than map actual space, or presume a single point of view, the app offered users a form of virtual time-travel through scanned media:  the experience of looking at an archive or junk store (or glove-compartment) is collapsed into the real-time consultation of a range of maps of wherever you are; the maps rotate in synchrony with your current location–so long as that location has been mapped.  (The availability of maps of North American cities is evident in the below screen, for example, especially of the Northeast, LA, and Midwest, as well as parts of the Northwest around Seattle:  urban views, one would guess, would work the best on this sort of app.)




Representations of a geographic space were geo-indexed for viewers, who could choose the epoch, from among the available years!  The strikingly high-res app reflects the large collection of digitized maps of Historic Map Works, which already boasted a “geographic time machine.”   The app goes further than digitization by providing a crucial element of geocoding to index this sizable virtual archive of over one million property maps, old road maps, antiquarian atlases, nautical charts of oceans, star maps, and views of place.  Their digitized collection constitutes something of a veritable grab-bag of images–predominantly focussing on North America and including England and Ireland, and while this is not able to provide the universal coverage one would like, the collection mirrored a considerable market-share.  In short, the app provided access to the world’s largest single collection of geocoded maps, both to “map the history of cities, times, buildings and landmarks” and “watch the landscape change over time.”  Historical Earth offered viewers readily accessible proof that all landscapes had a history.

Whereas Historical Map Works grew out of the internet ancestry industry, with the somewhat interesting demand to ‘visualize where your ancestors lived,’ albeit in schematic form, the app offered a counter-map to Google Maps, or anti-Google map, at the same time that app’s coverage grew, by exchanging a standard or uniform Google Earth visualization for the proliferation of a multiplicity of maps from historical eras–raising questions, I suppose, of where the market lies.  The expansion of this app at a heady time of the expansion of totalizing catalogues of images on-line mirrors the extreme optimism of a widely usable web interface for digitized maps.  But the range of time that folks seemed interested in looking at old maps was limited, in comparison to other mapping software.  Unfortunately,  the app launched in October 2009 received mixed reviews, and folded the following year, despite the 32,000 high-resolution images of American cities and multiple antiquarian maps it promised to correlate.  But the app deserves examination as a response to the widespread digitization of images.

Historic Map Works met the antiquarian in us all with the desire for a material record of place, by allowing us to order our own “personalized maps” of place suitable for framing above the fireplace or in one’s library, a ready-made family heirloom.  In contrast, the app would allow one to flip through a variety of maps at any site, through views oriented relative to your actual position, providing a record not only of space but, documenting “changing space perception” as Urban Tick put it, by comparing the changing manners for representing the salient features of a place where one is actually located.  The special feature “lock frame when browsing maps” allows one to select a demarcated frame of reference–and a rubric for placing one’s position relative to areas of the maps one might want to consult–to make it far easier than dealing with originals that might demand a similar practice of orienting oneself to each map as one goes through the requisite period of initial orientation to gain one’s bearings.

But is this really not a diminishing of what one might call map literacy, or the ability for reading information from maps?  In a kind of antiquarian’s Google Street View, one can look through sepia-colored lenses at the past, condensed at a safe distance and with only an aura or hint of materiality, arrayed on the screen of one’s tablet or phone, adjusting the map by a slider in the same way that one reads Google maps, panning and zooming on a touch-screen, and in essence forgetting how maps are read.  It creates, as well, some wacky hybrids, so that one can imagine oneself keying one’s position to a mid-19th century map while strolling in lower Manhattan, by the same iconography of a Google Map:




That could be fun.  Or, if it would be any use, while driving in a landscape that you thought was familiar, but might want to see exactly how upper Manhattan looked and was mapped a hundred and fifty years ago:



Needless to say, it flattens history:  we see, rather than inhabited lands, lines of property (old real estate maps) and architectural views, all represented in synchrony with the present GPS-derived screen, with little sense of their evolution (make your own links) or social geomorphology, to coin an absurd phrase to capture the gamut of forces that shaped the world in its current disposition and form.
Speaking of dispositions and maps, flattening history on maps can work in at least several (or multiple) ways, even the end result is two-dimensionality.  There is something of a self-referential circularity to the practice of mapping–albeit a compulsive one of providing a total image of the earth’s surface–analogous to the use of OSM in the ill-fated if temporarily super-popular on-line version of Monopoly City Streets–but along the lines of the basic diachronic question, “Isn’t it amazing how much things have changed over the last 1,800 years?”   This underlies, and is even openly asked, by the Washington Post‘s Max Fisher in the synoptic survey of all world history in but 40 maps, a post recently cobbled together from varied sources.
It took more than the simple ten whose design Peter Barber of the British Library judged worthy to be named the ten “greatest” maps to sum up human history as well as effective cartographical communications and shifts in cartographical media:  to be sure, Fisher adapted the maps from a website boasting “40 maps they didn’t teach you in school, but essentially offers a Robinson global projection (or the variation of the Mercator projection that serves as the Google Maps template) to ask informed readers “how many of this map’s divisions are still with us today?” and break down a variety of economic databases or Gallup Polls on a multicolored data visualization.  Two measure such stereotypically quasi-racist questions whether national Muslims worldwide “believe in democracy rather than a strong leader” or view “religious conflict” as “a very big problem” in their countries:  these maps serve to reveal “big secrets” that we already suspected, in short, or provide us, as the map of countries that possess nuclear warheads; North Korea’s missile range, or the infographic that sadly compares economic inequality in the United States to the rest of the world–in each case transposing sourced data to familiar (if not generic) cartographical schema.
My favorite two are typical in being less about rendering space, spatial relations, or really even the explanatory ability of the map:  the first, revealing who “loves and hates America [i.e., the United States], an emblem of our current isolationism–
–and another that maps “self-love,” but also reflects the meaningless nature of emotional “liking”–in the sense, itself residing in that meaningless, promoted by Facebook culture–of where people feel “most loved yesterday” in the world:
Each map poses as a sort of revelation about global conditions in a pretty half-hearted way:  folks aren’t that happy in central Asia, but Americans and Canadians, as well as Brazilians and Australians and South Africans (and Saudi Arabians!), seem pretty well off!  One is tempted to read the greyness of Russia as a gruff “there is no data here,” but it is a more believable probably less than half.  The ‘map’ of Central Africa is sad, but does it map that much anyway, except what we already expected?  In spite of the global purview of each, re-use of identical cartographical templates in each of these images diminish their cartographical arguments–or obscure in intentional manner the power of the map as an argument.
Fisher’s map is likely to celebrate in somewhat jingoistic and reassuring fashion of explaining what one already knows, as in the affirmation of “where it is best to be born” whose broad swaths of blue and expanse of red only obfuscate variations in the economic data used to decide what “best” means:
It’s odd that Fisher only included two maps weren’t digital constructs or data visualizations for his post at WaPo.  Both of these are in fact newly designed maps, and both border on cartoons:  a historical missionary map of Africa of ca. 1908 and a 1990 map of a Russian political scientist Igor Pannarin, inexplicably chosen, prognosticating dissolution of the United States would split into six distinct pieces by 2010, each parts of separate sovereign states, in a reverse fantasy.
Only these maps out of those that Fisher posts make clear arguments, either as propaganda or wishful thinking (or fantastical projections)–but both do so in ridiculous forms.  The other maps, deriving from a digital sphere, celebrate the transparency of the map as an elucidation, that hint at ethical problems in the naiveté of the re-use and circulation of maps in the blogosphere that echo the range of ethical problems Ellen Ulman associated with the “digital environment.”
Perhaps this environment is yet another inflection of a post-modern condition:  does our ability to map most everything undermine or empty reading maps as sources or categories of information or to read them as descriptions of space?

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Filed under counter-map, digital environment, Facebook, georeferencing, Google Classic, Google Earth, Google Street View, Historic Earth, Historic Map Works, Igor Pannarin, infographic, Max Fisher, Open Street Maps, Peter Barber, Robinson Projection

Mapping Migrants’ Deaths along National Divides

Mortality is mapped to gain a grasp of geographical distributions of illnesses over space.  The mapping of death helps to embody the pathways of disease, and allow us to see otherwise inapparent vectors of transmission, which have historically provided crucial ways to assign meanings to a disease’s effects and pathways.  Even before the bacillus of a disease might be known or seen, the founder of modern epidemiology, John Snow, critiqued miasmatic theories of contagion by mapping the distribution with which cholera spread across London neighborhoods during the 1854 London epidemic, visualizing the disease as a social network of contagion by a dot map of neighborhood outbreaks that used a dot map to as proof that “nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump” whose water was a vector of transmission.  Far lesser incidence of deaths form cholera near other street-pumps provided a new way to grasp infection and disease.




The dot map of the deaths of migrants creates no such clear distribution, and has no sense of transmission form a single site.  But it forces us to acknowledge the deep problems of the criminalization of immigration on the Mexican-US frontier by charging its human costs.  The sites of mortality from hunger and thirst are tragically dispersed over a far great undefined space, but embody the human costs of existing border policy.   Bodies of migrants that were stopped during the course of their attempts to reach a new life in the US were clustered at a distance from the border but reveal the amazing distances many undocumented migrants travel before they collapse, without food, and most often out thirst and dehydration–in ways that force the viewer to scrutinize its mute surface of dots against a deceptively pastel base map in hopes to glean the stories of the individual migrants whose lives ended far earlier than necessary, and the stories of whose travails and travels can never be told, and is reduced to the finality of a bright red dot, arresting attention but disarmingly flat.  Over 2,000 dead migrants whose bodies were retrieved at a significant distance from the border suggest their desperation to make their way across the border by clandestine routes, and the extreme climactic difficulties that they face, with few adequate provisions for crossing deserts whose expanse they feel forced to travel to search for jobs–and increasingly by risking their lives to do so.  This is only a fraction of those who have actually died attempting to travel north, leaving detritus and lost objects in their wake that only beg deciphering.


GIS Mapping of Individual Deaths on Arizona Border





The terrifying distribution of migrants’ deaths near to the US-Mexico border over a decade are not tied to one place, but congregate along the borer itself, from which they bleed into the edge of the nation in ways that strikes one in the gut.  Their striking distribution in a set of overlapping red dots suggest the accumulation of a terrifying loss of life.

The deaths of migrants raise compelling questions about how we have allowed or tolerated the multiplication of the deaths of migrants who undertake cross-border transit, and the inhumanity of compelling migrants to undertake arduous voyages across long, uninhabited stretches of land and undue difficulties.  The maps invite us to with the scale of the loss of life and a universal problem of processing the undocumented, and compel us to try to arrive at a better process for managing the nation’s borders, based less on strategies of exclusion:   one is left silent trying to process the 2,000 corpses of migrants who died attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States–many found in different states of decomposition in the Sonora desert near Arizona‘s borderline with Mexico.  For the pathways of many migrants trying to circumvent increased border patrols has transformed the lands of many state counties into killing fields.  The recent plans to augment the place of stationed surveillance agents along the border by Donald Trump will not only compel more cross-border transits to be planned and accomplished, but place undue duress on the even greater difficulties to evade surveillance in the expanded borderlands through the interruptions of built boundary walls, and those who attempt to avoid apprehension or detection by travels through the desert.


1:3 border is fenced  NPRAlready Built Barriers and Walls (2013)


Misrach, Border SignsRichard Misrach



Mapping these deaths over the past decade reveals less of a single cause than something of a social pathology of heightened strategies of law enforcement:  despite increased border patrols, motion sensors, and new border fences, the Department of Homeland Security has been forced to create temporary morgues in refrigerated semi-trailers to accommodate remains, mobilizing forensic experts, and posing problems of mitigating migrant deaths.  Despite recent attempts to help migrants who travel through the high desert in an attempt to reach a highway where they can be met by setting up conspicuous water towers, mounting body counts have come to task the resources of many Texas and Arizona counties like Brooks County in southeastern Texas or Pima county in Arizona.  Even after autopsies and DNA sampling and identification, most of the one to two hundred corpses found so far in 2013 are unidentified.  The corpses suggest the crisis of the border as it exists is a crisis of management, as much as of policing, and of adequate supervision and attention to migration problems.

The remains of those attempting to cross the border make only the point of testing one’s sense of humanity against the recurrent tragedies and human casualties of the failure to deal with our borders.  The below map locates tragic deaths of migrants attempting to cross of the border, noted in red dots, against water stations placed in the region.  While there can be less of a single cause of these , poses problems of responding to their spike over the thirteen years.


Migrant Deaths and Water Stations, 1999-2012


The semantics of this map of migrant deaths across the Sonoran desert, a poster for Humane Borders/Fronteras Compasivas, bears contemplation:  whereas a map registers an abstraction of space removed from particularities, and a border line demarcates imaginary lines between states, often drawn by surveyors with adequate surveying tools, bounding regional entities of abstract names, the abundant red dots are markers of individual migrants’ deaths, and register actual effects of a erecting an insurmountable fence along the border-line.


A border patrol vehicle observes six miles of border fencing in Douglas, Arizona


Leaving aside the many documented instances of mistreatment by border patrols, the recent rise of deaths by starvation or dehydration raise questions about the defense of borders.  Despite diminishing net migration across the border in recent years, the discovery of remains of some two hundred bodies of migrants each year in the Sonora desert, as measured by the Arizona Recovered Human Remains Project, roughly a third of which remain unidentified, indicate divergences between the law’s intent and its effects.

The mapping of border deaths of migrants, many clustered against the border that they had crossed, make a case against our failure to formulate a comprehensive border policy as obstinately as individual migrants’ remains.


jp-REMAINS1-articleLargeRemains in Pima County Medical Examiner (Joshua Lott/NY Times)


It’s morally difficult to absorb the evidence of individual deaths, which densely overlap with one another near the border in a red field, let alone the skeletal remains of individuals who never made the cross-border travel successfully:  it’s perhaps impossible to sum up the loss of lives in maps charting the record numbers of migrant deaths around the Mexican-US border, dramatically risen to record highs since 2003, during the year after they were strengthened and reinforced at considerable expense.

What has such attention to the border with Mexico accomplished?  In the past year alone, US Border Patrols apprehended some  356,000 immigrants as they attempted to cross the boundary line illegally, considered to be roughly half of all attempts–at least 43% are likely to try to cross again; immigration reform has lent new urgency to migrants’ repeated attempts to try to cross the border after repeated detentions, moreover, since a “path to citizenship” would require prior residence.   (Roughly over 60% of such attempted migrants are construction or agricultural workers, largely male, half of whom claimed to have waiting jobs.)

This raises interesting questions of the ethics of mapping migrant deaths.  The number of deaths due to drowning, dehydration, or other accident occur as migrants try to secure a path across the border the United States shares with Mexico, and are pressed to seek routes of relocation across the desert or Rio Grande that evade American authorities who have come to police the zone–a region that is now policed as if in imaginary defense of the boundaries of the Old West or mythical frontier of the “fatal environment” that leads ranchers to ride horses beside Homeland Security officers, largely for symbolism or show.


John More:Getty Images-Cowboys on Borders(John Moore/Getty Images)

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Filed under border barriers, GIS, mortality maps, US Border Patrol, US-Mexico Border

The State of Emergency in Cairo’s Streets

With an overwhelming display of strength usually reserved for clearing Palestinian settlers from villages in the Sinai or Gaza, Egyptian police forces descended at 7 a.m. on the sit-in at Nasr Villages’s Raba’a al Adawiya Square, near to the Raba’a al Adawiya mosque in Nasr City; indoor viewers watched non-stop footage on their television sets.  Attempts to map the site have been oddly silent about the crackdown as an erasure of both a physical site of congregation and a symbolic site of open congregation, whose symbolism was tied not only to the mosque but to its autonomy–and less clear on how the symbolic connotations of the site mapped onto its destruction, for all the photos of both carnage and charred remains.

The demonstrations had been themselves some sort of micro-city, a testament to the organizational abilities of the Muslim Brotherhood, with entrances, checkpoints, and security committees.  Other sites to register protest emerged, but were more easily cleared because, unlike the Raba’a Square, they were far less open or established, and less clearly defensible, leaving the two largest sites of demonstration at the university in downtown Cairo and at the mosque; protesters congregated at the mosque from June 28, or before the Constitution was suspended on July 3, which became the epicenter of protest; after government demands to end sit-ins August 11, the Raba’a sit-in dramatically grew.

Clashes Mapped

The site of the “camp” itself, however, six miles in proximity to Tahrir square on an intersection of two-way streets beside a mosque, occupied a substantial chunk of civic space:


There was an initial attempt to map the “Morsi Sit-In” on the Al Jazeera network, as if to reaffirm its size.  But the template of Google Maps can hardly come to terms with the mini-city created by the organization of entrances and check-points around the mosque, let alone the violent nature of the eradication of protestors–steamrolling the place, dispersing protestors by fire and tear gas canisters, and violating the site of the mosque.  The occupation grew around the traffic hub of El-Nasr road, around the hub or nerve-site of the mosque itself, that convey its breadth and “infrastructure” as a movement.  The map’s red dots of settlements are densest around the mosque, and define the ring around the neighborhood that had been surrounded with entry points before the order was given for army soldiers and police to move in, firing tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd and advancing into the square, where fires burned as police reportedly arrested more Muslim Brotherhood leaders as well as protesters who occupied the square, and entered the mosque itself:  encampments burnt, the barricades surrounding the mosque destroyed, officers fired live ammunition as well as rubber bullets on retreating demonstrators, and protestors burnt tires around the last space the Islamic Brotherhood held in Cairo.

Mapping the Pro-Morsi Sit-In
satallite Nasr City

But the intersection of El Nasr Road in Rabaa al Adawiya functioned as a vital and living site in ways difficult to map without bodies.

Rabaa al-Adawiya

The entrance of armored bulldozers on August 14 seems to have intentionally obliterated any trace of the occupation of the square, where settlements had sizeably increased from August 11, killing upwards of upwards of 623 and wounding thousands.   Since vouching two months ago to protect Mohammed Morsi’s presidency “with soul and blood,” the protestors in Nasr City equated their occupation of the Cairo square with the occupation of Tahrir Square, a site earlier filled with anti-Morsi protestors, but  the initial site of and platform for anti-Mubarak protests:  Morsi supporters by the mosque promised sought to rest the voice from those in Tahrir who had called on him to leave in late June.  The protestors who have settled in the square have created a sort of miniature city, much as Tahrir Square had been, as a public space, complete with tents, lavatories, improvised kitchens, and even dormitories, giving it a clearly contestatory role in the city’s geography–now cleared of inhabitants, save improvised clinics, hospitals, and improvised morgues.  If Tahrir provided a sort of voice of the nation that call for Mubarrak’s resignation, and later for the end of the Morsi government, Raba’a seems something like a counter-voice of public debate:  the occupiers refused to leave until those at Tahrir disbanded.  While the al Adawiya mosque had been a site of site of assembly and congregation of the dissolved Shura Council–planning to convene its opening session from July 21, a site of a shadow government of Islam from July 21, in response to the disbanding of the Shura as a legal body.  (Although press coverage has focussed on the mosque, it has ignored the dual function of the mosque as an alternate site of governance.)  The mosque is now in ruins; the Al-Imam mosque also in Nasr City an impromptu morgue.

The territory around the mosque and the building was a focus of military aggression by Egyptian troops, as if the site of meeting needed to be obliterated from cultural memory. The response to the sit-in in Raba’a reveals it to be as politicized a territory defined by streets as the Parisian barricades, where every inch was contested.   The government’s prime charge was ostensibly that they had come to obstruct traffic at a busy intersection in Cairo, and obstructions had to be cleared from the site.  But the mass arrest of protestors and the violence of the response to clear the square, evident in the below photographs, suggest that a decision to obliterate any sign of their presence was the symbolic capital of Muslims in the city.  The notion of obstructions to traffic was not only a pretense, but a metaphor for how the Generals felt about the protest.

Indeed, to feign to hear to other voice within the demands than a traffic obstruction is belied by the extent of any material remains of the tents, houses, and dormitories that existed there, as if to erase them from a historical record as well as to preserve their control over a divided urban space.


egypt-woman-rabaa-580Mohammed Abdel Moneim/AFP/Getty

Cairo-august14-004Detention of demonstrators near Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque.  AFP/STR/Getty

6454e3a1-41d5-4d2f-be7d-0f923630c786_500AP/Ahmed Gomaa

Was the site of the mosque the target of such destruction? And after the fires at the Square, the mosque itself was burned, its sides were charred by smoke and interior demolished, as if to destroy the symbolic center of the protest itself that had provided shelter and refuge for debate from June:  after armed forces dispersed attempted to continue the sit-in in Moustafa Mahmoud Square in Giza, subsequently to the dispersal in Raba’a, protests marches have been organized in response from some thirty Giza and Cairo mosques to Ramses Square.

rtx12m95REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany


As violence spread into other neighborhoods in Cairo and to cities throughout the country, with churches and government buildings desecrated or destroyed, Egypt’s government declared a thirty-day state of emergency, and a curfew.  The next day, the deployment of armored vehicles around Tahrir Square the next day seemed designed to prevent the capture of another stage of public visibility.  Soldiers also stand guard over the ruins of the mosque where the protests began.

assess-popupBryan Denton for The New York Times

The square in Raba’a was filled with crowds from early July, according to Business Insider:


The site of the mosque and the center of the protest is now being swept clean, the crowds long scattered and dispersed.  The violence has spread to other neighborhoods and cities that might not be able to be clearly mapped, after troops violated the significance and integrity of the square.

Supporter-MOrsi Clashes

One might remember that a very different, if antiquated, image of the integration of mosques within the skyline of Nasr City, Heliopolis, and the surrounding neighborhood:

Nasr City Map

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Filed under al Adawiya Mosque, al-Adawiya Square, Cairo, Google Maps, Mapping Cairo, Mapping Morsi, Mapping Protests, Muslim Brotherhood, News Maps, newsmaps, Tahrir Square

Reading the Histomap

Not to be confused with the “historeme,” the ‘smallest unit of historiographic fact’ or narrative event in its singularity, the Histomap Rand McNally first printed in 1931 offers readers an assembly of singularities in color streams that, when fully unfolded, expands to five feet.

histomap2_smOne would assume the map effaces singularities or any singular historical narrative–the selective condensation of information to an image five feet in length in the Histomap can’t be beat for charting a balance of power among world cultures, reifying the state and racial difference as the metric by which to map world history.

HistoMap Upper Rubric

Convenience and efficiency are both premiums in its design.  As other early twentieth-century compendia of knowledge, the map glories in positivist  presumptions of mappability:  rather than offering narrative, the map offers the inverse, apparently obliterating any local meanings:  it homogenizes four thousand years not by relinquishing narrative structures, but using a racial rubric to map states’ “relative power.”

Histomap Rubric

The synthesis is not disinterested, of course, or as empyrean as John B. Sparks might have believed–or the publishers who sold it as dramatizing “the great adventure of mankind” so that it can be perceived at a glance, in a form that is clear, vivid, and shorn of elaboration.”

The metaphor of relations among world powers offers an optic for Sparks to digest world history by mapping “relative power of contemporary states, nations, and empires” among “Mediterranean Peoples,” “Alpine Peoples,” “Semitic Peoples” and “Mongolian Peoples” before such a conceptual model in fact existed, presenting unique streams of racial difference as objective and disinterested as a five-color map.

Rand McNally's Population Density Map

And readily represented.   Comparisons between cultures’ relative prominence provides coherence to order and organization of global history.  With lists of events and names disembedded and re-synthesized in a fabricated whole–and all recorded time rendered consultable on the indices of a regular and uniform timeline–the wall-chart maps a gloriously abstracted vision of time and space, in ways that demands the sort of intensive reading that is far less easily digested than Sparks probably hoped.


It’s hard to know what’s not to like about an “actual picture of the march of civilization, from the mud huts of the ancients thru the monarchistic glamour of the middle ages to the living panorama of life in present day America”–with its claims to orient yourself to the inevitable progress of world civilization to your doorstep–except pretty much everything.  The assurance with which it charts streams of empire would be reassuring–were it not for the many blind-spots in this “actual picture of the march of civilization.”

The genre of “historia mundi” had many competitors, including Edward Hull’s picto-cartographic 1890 Wall Chart of World History, which began from the Garden of Eden and “The Settlements and Races of Noah’s Descendants” from the Book of Genesis, in the fashion of a medieval European world chronicle, placing lineages of generational descent above panels mapping Ancient Egypt, the Persian Kingdom, the Seleucids, and conquests of Alexander the Great.

In the Beginning

Hull's First Age open book

The dense text of its synoptic information overload that demands being read with magnifying glass in hand–

Hull's Wall Chart

but neglects most all the Eastern Hemisphere before the discovery of America, and drops the Western, using “bright colors [to] denote those countries which are the subjects of world history prior to the discovery of America, AD 1498.”

Eastern Hemisphere

Sparks devised the Histomap as both more ecumenical and empyrean in its economic individuation of purified vision of history, and more global.  Its color-keyed streams are readily comprehensible consultation of the lay reader, but the green dust jacket assured prospective they would be overwhelmed by “the fresh realization of the very recent insignificant contribution to history of those we are accustomed to call great men,” as the map would leave them “enthralled.”

The Start of the Histomap

Starting from the Minoans and the Settlement of the Nile Delta, this occidentalist condensation of some four-thousand years “relative powers of contemporary states, nations, and empires,” is the distillation of an era of state-building–a narrative to which it accommodates the dynastic division of time among the Egyptians Ammorites, and Chinese, to digest their otherness in a river of time.  By erasing the Neolithic, as it were, the streams contemporaneously arise, like Athena from Zeus’ head, with the force of a declarative statement.

Each stream is distinctly separate, and as one wanes another takes its place to expand, in the uniform frame of mankind:

Each stream is separate

Geography (as globalism) is a big casualty in this visualization of time, indeed, as one stream–here the Roman–comes to fill the viewer’s field of vision from around 150 BC, as it fills not only the historical record, but the balance of world powers.  Although this was long before the notion of such a balance existed or was understood, this was the optic in which Sparks so skillfully visualized a universal history, and, more to the point, made sense to lay readers of the 1920s and 30s.

The notion of a balance of actual power is never explicitly defined, but informs the role of responsible custodian of world civilization–the frame or the tacit rubric of the flowchart.  This maps with the medieval blip of the Arab World before 1000 AD, or until the Byzantines, Franks, and Holy Roman Empire get their act together as European culture’s weighty forbears–

Medieval Blips

–a role that, after 1700, England temporarily occupies.  But, in the end, there is a sense of “sic transit,” as Anglophones and their satellites, from the United States to Europe and South America, confidently hold the lion’s share of three-quarters of the spectrum of world history–and Rand McNally still offers what it now calls the “Time Chart” of world history, suggesting the vision’s considerable success.

England will occupy after 1700

Buddha, Confucius and Lao Tse are situated in relatively thin currents of color beside the ballooning of the Median Supremacy, after which bulge the Greeks, culminating in the in Alexander the Great’s fairly sui generis empire, all of which normatized to the convenient dimensions of a synoptic flowchart that unfolds over five feet.

Buddha-Persian Empire-Confucius

I love this particular soundbyte on post-Confucian China:

China blurb 700-8--

Every culture makes its own maps; most maps are made for the cultures who read them.  It would be a neat exercise to map geographic coverage in these historical condensations over time, along, perhaps, with contemporary encyclopedia. Or even to take a purely visual example, the logo of the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History does well to juxtapose material evidence from historical periods with a nod to social issues and a changing ArtStor cast of characters, although ones who are similarly not situated in a geographic space.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Heilbrunn Cast of Characters



Filed under Edward Hull, Garden of Eden, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Historia Mundi, John B. Sparks, Rand McNally, The Histomap

The World Map between Workshop and Laboratory

It’s not easy to detect how workshops transmitted protocols of mapping or the content of maps before authoritative practices for recording geographic knowledge  Partly because of the difficulty to describe the transmission of knowledge in manuscript maps, and partly because of the foreign nature of terrestrial continuity in these maps, historians have tied the techniques of engraving with an ability to delineate and effectively demonstrate a geographic space that viewers could process and comprehend.  Tools of engraving afforded a flexible graphic syntax to represent the discoveries of the New World and diffuse the Ptolemaic models of mapping expanse on a uniformly bounded graticule of parallels and meridians from the early sixteenth century, but had earlier afforded a systematic symbolic structure to organize the terrestrial world.  Manuscript world maps based on Ptolemaic cartographical models vaunted their ability to orient viewers on the indices that embodied a continuous bounded expanse.  Yet the inventive abilities associated with the uniform graticule of parallels and meridians gained such demonstrative force in ways that were informed by a rich Mediterranean tradition of nautical charts, often discounted because of the association of engraved maps and modernity.

Yet the nautical charts were adapted in experimental ways as a foundation for assembling a record of terrestrial expanse.  Indeed, charts first registered shifting knowledge of the inhabited world, and a means to symbolize the expanse of an inhabited world:  indeed, the genre of nautical charting first described the inhabited world–the “ecumene“–as a format able to represent and indeed process the settlement of a terrestrial expanse greater than most viewers could imagine.


hmartellus world map


This small “world map” illuminated in Florence about 1490 was been described by Peter Barber as one of a critical map in world history because of how it registered Portuguese travels around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, and expanded the distance from Lisbon to the coast of China to 230°–expanding its share of the inhabited globe.

Yet rather than use spatial conventions for transcribing expanse, this small map,  adapted the conventions of nautical charts to do so–conventions that note coastal ports, promontories, estuaries, or coastal cities to map the settled world, rather than chart routes of travel.  But this small map, revising Ptolemaic cartographical dogma to accommodate Portuguese descriptions of Africa’s coast after Bartholomew Diaz’s rounding of what became known as the Cape of Good Hope, seems less designed for orientation than it envisions a comprehensive  coverage of the earth’s surface in the reduced format of a sheet about 200 by 120 cm.:  its elegant coloration suggests the reduction of a tradition of globe-making; indeed, Martellus  includes the newly mapped Cape as violating its lower ornamental frame, as if boasting about its greater comprehensiveness as a record of the known world’s surface; ports on the southern tip of Africa, way stations for sailors to southeast Asia, expand the world beyond a classical frame of knowledge.

Although the map is taken as evidence of its suggestion of a maritime route to the East that may have reached Columbus, who would have been encouraged by its apparent expansion of Eurasia to 230°, beyond earlier world-maps and beyond its actual size.  Although the map includes no graticule, a decidedly later map by the same cartographer with a coordinate grid also expanded the coast of Africa beyond the parameters of its frame, as if seeking to accommodate nautical information in an existing format:




Neither map tells us much directly about practices of mapping, but both raise questions about how nautical charts were adapted in deluxe manuscript world maps and about practices of transferring coastal locations in charts to terrestrial maps:  the first smaller image is perhaps more decorative or emblematic, and reveals minimal attention to islands or ocean expanse beyond Eurasia, but it similarly works to shape provisional knowledge of the terrestrial globe from heterogeneous sources.

The development of a uniform graticule of parallels and meridians would be privileged as a graphical form to chart the uniformity of terrestrial expanse.  But its adoption followed sustained experimentation in a tradition of manuscript mapping that is often neglected–but which provided a sort of laboratory for the expansion of a map of the world’s inhabitation, as well as a cartographical craftsmanship in which the mapmaker accommodated information without a set conventions and in makeshift ways.  This post returns attention to how the tradition of charting, associated with workshops, improvised forms to illustrate terrestrial expanse, often with minimal use of graticules of Euclidean derivation.

Manuscripts that synthesized nautical charts maps to fashion descriptions of the settlement of an inhabited world, unlike the oceanic expanse and locations of ports that were noted in nautical charts:  the material construction of such world maps offer stunning evidence of the plastic nature of mapped knowledge and the modern use of charts, by adopting existing cartographical formats to invest new knowledge-claims in maps, both by compiling a corpus of individual maps and redrawing extant cartographical forms, even though they do not follow such a clear protocol of bounding a uniform distribution of terrestrial expanse in the manner of global projections on a rigorous Ptolemaic model of conformal mapping.

The world map that opened the so-called “Medici atlas“–a sequence of eight maps that suggest aims of encompassing terrestrial expanse–reveals how maps acted as compilations of cartographical forms to experiment with recording terrestrial expanse in the same city where Martellus worked and enjoyed wide popularity.


Medicean Atlas


It’s difficult to know how these sequence of nautical maps in a single codex in Florence’s adopt a Genoese nautical chart to present a new model of map making, revising formats of charting widespread in port cities like Genoa to record sea-routes in order to provide a comprehensive pictorial rendering of inhabited space–the world map included not only the cities Ptolemy noted, but cities mentioned by Marco Polo, the Venetian traveller, as the Delhi Sultinate, and texts of the geographer Ibn Battuta, and charts.  It amplified its content through the addition of a sequence of additional maps, also of nautical derivation, of the Italian peninsula before manuscript maps of the Aegean, Black, Adriatic and Caspian Seas, each including cities and the last showing the landlocked closure of the Caspian sea, that oriented viewers to extra-Mediterranean geography with far greater precision than earlier world maps.

As well as revealing interest in the compilation or collation of evidence in maps, its revision of the template of an Africa unable to be circumnavigated and a closed Indian ocean probably responded to considerable interest in late fifteenth-century Genoa in regions of “Africa nondum cognita,” suggesting a clear interest in new working practices of mapmaking.  Alexander von Humboldt, who knew the map well, took it as evidence of a medieval knowledge of Africa’s circumnavigation–so difficult was it for him to separate the map from a register of what was known.

Perhaps the expansion of Africa to the Cape of Good Hope was drawn atop the existing map when the true form of Africa was known, or even added to the original chart in ways that emulated later prototypes, and in essence kept the cartographical compilation “up to date”:  if the case, suggested by the coloring of the map beyond an inked outline of the continent, it would suggest a new use of the map as a canvas that was altered at the same time as transmitted in fixed protocols or techniques.  It would also suggest a process of re-visioning the inhabited world by revising the pictorial content of the map to foreground its descriptive abilities.

Why was the manuscript “atlas” made, what readers did it address, and how did it construe geographical expanse?  Did it try to consciously convert the inhabitation of coasts so emphasized in portolan charts to descriptive and representational ends?

Is it representative of the expansion of the tradition of charting to newly communicative ends as a demonstration of worldly settlement?  The term “atlas” was devised by Mercator to describe a collection of maps, and its application to this volume of maps is, strictly speaking, anachronistic–the collection of maps are widely referred to by the term used by the Dutch cartographer and engraver Abraham Ortelius, under Mercator’s influence, in 1570 to describe his collection of maps, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, as an atlas–the compilation of maps exploited the comparative use of nautical charts to organize a record of cosmographical scope of comprehending the world’s expanse.  But the term is appropriate to describe this codex of maps, since it captures the persuasive ends of presenting a sequence of nautical maps of terrestrial expanse to offer claims of complete geographic coverage.

The world maps showing Africa as surrounded by sea predates by almost a century Portuguese circumnavigation of its cape.  The distinctive world map in the “Laurentian atlas”  clearly suggests the navigability around the continent and passage from the Atlantic ocean to Indian ocean–and considerable knowledge about the shape of Africa for an atlas of eight sheets dated 1351, but probably composed around 1370.  It is difficult to judge whether the map was drawn in its current fashion at that date–a time when few sailing maps extended south of Sierra Leone–or whether the original map of a Genoese chart-maker was redrawn, as some have argued, to comprehend later Portuguese nautical discoveries in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean.  The African coastline in the map included no toponymy on the coastline below Cape Bojador, the southernmost point of most earlier voyages.  Was an earlier chart revised, better to comprehend shifts in terrestrial space, earlier than the Martellus map pictured above, to better incorporate new nautical knowledge by extending the reach of Africa beyond Cape Bojador?


Painted Expansion of Atlas?


The map designed in the format recalling a chart and without any attempt to include indices of measurement or orientation may reflect the considerable interest in routes of trading to the East independent from land-travel. But also staked broader claims as a “world map” of terrestrial coverage in persuasive ways, evident in how it expanded the known limits of the continent to create a new image of inhabited expanse–using the chart as a canvas in ways that reflected some early fifteenth-century interest in assembling a map of the inhabited world.


Medicean Atlas


In place of the format of a nautical chart, the “world map” suggests a bounded expanse and form of distinctly modern appearance that has often disconcerted several readers.  (Charles de la Roncière wondered with bemusement at the prescience “de la forme reelle de l’Afrique avant le periple Portuguais” in the world map.)   It seems to have been redrawn in the fifteenth century to incorporate Portuguese discoveries, to register recent discoveries of alternate rendering of Africa’s distinctly modern form, beyond an ink line that the paint conceals.  Indeed,  no toponyms appear on the map south of Cape Bojador in the Sahara–the southernmost point of most nautical charts–in ways that seem to confirm the imagined form of Africa within the chart.  And the prominent location of  some of the Canary and the Azores in the Atlantic reveal subsequent alteration of the map on the basis of Portuguese charts, as if to update and revise its original form.  The revision of the genre of nautical mapping for new ends of comprehensive terrestrial coverage–in this case, by repainting its very surface–suggests a redesign of familiar formats of charting for new claims of geographic coverage to make a point about terrestrial expanse as the first translations of Ptolemaic treatises advanced a model of cosmographic–as much as cartographical–expertise.

The world map is clearly a compilation of varied forms of knowledge and geographic thought.  Despite the vaunted limitations on geographic knowledge of the later middle ages, this mid-fourteenth century world map reveals a striking synthesis of geographical knowledge to illustrate terrestrial expanse.  The volume seems to purposely compile existing nautical charts in a single volume, in the manner of an atlas, to satisfy demand for a record of global comprehensiveness; this map probably drew on Arab sources for its southward extension of eastern Africa down the Muslim Swahili coast.   Some emendation of the map is evident, moreover, detectable in the competing hands of an upright humanist script and more straggling cursive east of the Caspian Sea.  A nautical chart of Italy immediately follows the world chart in the codex, a map focussing only on its coast to the exclusion of its interior save the most prominent lakes:


ITaly as Nautical Compilation


This portolan chart suggests, however, a distinctly terrestrial subject, as much as a compilation of sea-routes.  And as a synthesis of the sequence of six nautical charts that complete the volume, its collation or compilation of charts is uniquely modern in presenting a comprehensive geographic record.  Its comprehensive view of the continent echoes the early fifteenth-century world map of Albertin de Virga, dated 1411-15, whose totalistic content it precedes in its synthesis of nautical charts to depict the inhabited world’s expanse–and which could have offered a model for its emendation–shortly after the first translation of Ptolemy’s manual of world-mapping in Rome.  Did Ptolemy’s newly translated treatise prompt such an early synthesis of available mapping forms to describe terrestrial–rather than nautical–expanse?




The newly persuasive nature of assembling nautical charts presented something of a canvas to stake global relations.  This world map presented sites for the exchange of meaning, but also a visual laboratory to configure terrestrial space,  transferring coastal lines from portolan charts to prepare open spaces of terrestrial expanse to be surveyed.

We often cast nautical charts as both impressive and regressive in contrast to terrestrial maps, because they leave the interior topographies so bare.  The inclusion of a more detailed African coast from the beautiful Portuguese Dourado portolan charts of the later sixteenth-century, for example, drafted in Goa around 1570, whose thickly-packed toponyms hug the continent’s north-west coast, listing ports and riverine mouths which seem the only areas able to be mapped or of interest.  It leaves the terrestrial interior unknown in ways that recall Joseph Conrad’s alter-ego Marlow, and d his attraction to the unknown African interior  in “The Heart of Darkness.”


Dourado Portolan, NorthWest Africa


The chart reveals something of an incommensurability between a known shoreline of coastal settlement and an interior, that was oddly perpetuated through the 19th century, where its limited notion of terrestrial coverage gained colonialist ends.  For printed maps of the mapping of continent limited to coastal African ports s to emptiness of the mapped interior–without any acknowledgement of local toponomy–in maps created the sort of “large, empty spaces” Marlow claimed to have seen, in maps “from the latest authorities” drafted in London in 1805, or the Lincoln & Edmonds 1819 map of the continent, both of which might have inspired Marlow’s voyage to Colonel Kurtz:

Africa Map 1805 %22From The Latest Authorities%22

Lincoln & Edmonds 1819 Africa Map


But if the chart is seen as a conservative force in world mapping, it was also a fertile tradition of its own.  Indeed, the notation of parallels and meridians in portolan charts popular from the middle of the sixteenth century in Europe suggests a clear concern in mapping new lands as well as encounters with coasts–much because they fit less clearly with mapmakers’ expertise.

This is evident, to switch subjects of cartographical attention, in the mapped image transmitted in Portuguese portolan charts of the coast of Brazil, similarly striking because of how it foregrounds the remove of coastal cities or hydrographic records of the Amazon from knowledge of inhabitation of the continent’s interior.  This nautical chart accommodated the practice of mapping on a graticule of parallels and meridians, even if comparable imaginative license is taken with the topography of the interior.


Duarado Brazil close-up


Indeed, the second of the seventeen maps in this ‘Dourado’ portolan map an interior strikingly similar to the lake on which Sir Walter Ralegh mapped the imagined city of El Dorado on the imaginary Lake Manoa in 1595, as fed by multiple freshwater ingresses; Ralegh’s map reveals less fantasy in projecting the voyage to El Dorado than a recycling of the very sailing charts he consulted in drawing up his plans to sail to Guiana.  A comparison suggests the staying power of the tradition of the Spanish and Portuguese nautical charts Ralegh so frequently consulted to plot his ill-fated expedition to an imagined city he detailed for viewers at the very center of his chart:



Ralegh’s re-use of nautical charts  created something of a laboratory to assemble the means to envision terrestrial expanse in the early fifteenth century Mediterranean world.

The portolan was, in multiple ways, a particularly versatile and inventive form.  It maintained a similar inventiveness across cultures in the Mediterranean, adopted into a tradition of Ottoman mapping through Portuguese prototypes.  Much as the ‘Medici atlas’ suggests a new mapping of the oceanic enclosure of Africa, the re-use of nautical charts for cosmographical ends is evident in the below image of world expanse.  The map was used to illustrate a Renaissance manuscript of the thirteenth-century cosmographer, lawyer and physicians Al-Qazwini’s “Wonders of Creatures and Strangeness of Beings” [Aǧāʾib al-maḫlūqāt wa-ġarāʾib al-mawǧūdāt], also stored in the Biblioteca Laurenziana.  The map below retains conventions like a cinnabar Red Sea sketched below the Holy Land, spider-like lakes and ports crowded inland that seem to perpendicularly hug the shore, the description of tripartite continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa below testify to its terrestrial coverage.  Scattered trees, fill unknown lands and almost random rows of mountainous barriers mark the limits of known Africa–an cosmographical record of  the inhabited three continents of the world Al-Qazwini had described in the tradition of classical geography, rooted in describing terrestrial inhabitations, rather than climactic zones or schematic spatial divisions–notwithstanding the depiction of a bright crimson Red Sea.




Geography meets cosmography in this world map, deriving from nautical charts.  The image of planetary eclipses in the same elegantly illustrated volume suggests a similar cosmographical intent in this deluxe compendium, that echoes the sense of the terrestrial map as a mediation of abstractly purified knowledge, now removed from the craft of the nautical chart-maker’s craft.




The cosmographical scope of the image in the thirteenth-century encyclopedia re-used the format and conventions of nautical charting to make cosmographical claims, similarly to the re-drawing of the Genoese chart in the mid-fifteenth century for making newly comprehensive claims.

Indeed, one can detect something of a similar use of records of nautical charting for cosmographical mapping in the adoption of Portuguese charts in the fragment of a 1513 map that the Atlantic the Ottoman admiral Piri Reis presented to the Ottoman Sultan Selim I in 1517.  The fragment discovered in the shelves of an Istanbul’s  Topkapi palace in 1929, drawn on gazelle parchment, incorporated four Portuguese portolan charts, eight Ptolemaic maps, and some twenty mappae mundi, according to the admiral’s inscription, in a luxurious map of expansive proportions, of which only the sheet depicting the New World and western Africa survives:

Piri Reis

In the decades after its discovery, this map was taken as grounds for grandiose claims about pre-Columban geographic knowledge–claims with limited validity.  For Piri, the map’s surface provided a field to combine an image of global expanse in a complete whole.  He worked, he tells us “from eight Jaferyas of that kind [e.g., Ptolemaic maps, which he dated to the age of Alexander the Great] and one Arabic map of Hind [India], and “from four newly drawn Portuguese maps which show the countries of Sind [Pakistan], Hind and Çin [China] [all] geometrically drawn, and also from a map drawn by Qulūnbū [Columbus] in the western region” or islands of the new world, so that by “reducing all these maps to one scale this final form was arrived at, so that this map of these lands is regarded by seamen as accurate and as reliable as the accuracy and reliability of the Seven Seas.”  He took the testimony of seamen as the standard of trust, but the value of a format “geometrically drawn” suggested both its comprehensive and cosmographical value–a main purpose, no doubt, of the presentation map given as a luxury book to Sultan Selim I–making it all the more quixotic that the director of the palace library, Halil Edhem, handed it over amidst a bundle of discarded materials to  Gustav Adolf Deissmann when Deissamn searched for non-Islamic material in the Topkapi.  (So suggestive is the map’s situation of islands and accumulation of detailed coastal promontories that it was taken as grounds for a lost “pre-classical” culture of mariners familiar with Antarctica for Charles Hapgood or of the mathematical calculation an azimuthal projections made with active extra-terrestrial assistance by Eric von Däniken from a spaceship located above Cairo; theories that misread the map as an actual projection had little basis, but are nicely rebuked by the cogent case made for its nautical origins on the Turkish 10 million lira banknote.


(The fragment of a lost manuscript map depicted to the left gained such wide traction precisely because of its elegant  argument for ordering the known regions of the world.)

The nautical chart provided by its very open-ness a basis to expand a canvas of the inhabited world before conventions of map projection insisted on the world’s bounded nature.  The flexibility of the format allowed the assimilation of a varied range of sources and authorities–from Marco Polo to Ibn Battuta, as it were.  We can appreciate the open-ness that the re-use of nautical charts as canvases in contrast to the very different nature of the world map in another manuscript of Al Qazwini’s treatise, now in the National Library of Medicine, painted in around  1537  by unknown illuminators in western India.  The map is far more schematic–if not traditional–form, removed from the tradition of charting:  the image of the world is replete with marine sinuses and undulating rivers that link bubble-like lakes, with a bulbous Horn of Africa pointing to the overlapping waves in the oceanic expanse of the Arabian sea.

al qwazwini  1537 w india


The vitality of a manuscript tradition of mapping provided something of a laboratory for the material re-imagining of an earthly space in which increasing physical details were readily inscribed.

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Filed under Africa is a Continent, Mappaemundi, Mapping Africa, mapping the ecumene, Nautical Charts, portolan charts, protocols of mapping

Attempts to Map Music

Phrases from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to “the Velvet Underground” defined a new metaphoric space for Rock music to occupy and create during the nineteen-sixties.  It’s no surprise, then, that the London underground map–that icon of Englishness designed by the engineer and draftsman Harry Beck in 1931–has been transposed to define relations among bands with such success in an encyclopedic mapping of genres of rock.  By taking the transport map as an inspiration, one can map a network of musical bands and styles, examining both intersections and alternate paths of varied musical groups and the imaginary relationships they have to one each other in easily comprehensible ways.

The historic reduction of all surface details in the map, in which Beck accentuated direct routes the tube offered to navigate the city, rather than urban topography, employed a circuit diagram to chart the London subway disregarding geographic relations for a clearly legible network map.  The iconic conventions of linkages in an ideal space rather than a geographically correct map, serves well to map musical bands and styles–where Pop Rock intersects with Punk, runs side-by-side with Alternative Rock and intersects every so often with the determined Black Heavy Metal Line–unrooted from geographic reality but graphically displayed in a concise (if blunt) highly readable syntax:  as Beck sought to “tidy up” existing maps by “evening out the distance between stations” and “straightening the lines” to “give a needed clarity to exchange information to tube users who were on the go,” the color-coding of its routes created a model for communicating information even when removed from its geographic subject-matter or exact spatial relationships.



Many of bands which Alberto Antoniazzi included as tube stops within his popular Rock’n’Roll Metro Map foreground groups prominent in London’s music scene.  In fact, in its focus on London’s underground, the choice of template for the map reminds us in its stretch of prominent bands from the Beatles and the Who to Depeche Mode, or from the Sex Pistols to Radiohead to Coldplay presents an inevitable British hegemony in selecting the London Underground as its focus, although Spinal Tap lies on the far more American-centric Heavy Metal Black Line.


RockMetroMap View



The nostalgic English-ness of the Beck map just seems something of a sign of the transhistorical centrality of London in the music scene–even if it also suggests the degree to which as “the tube maps masks and distorts realities,” in Ian Russell’s words, its modernist space has “become its own reality, entirely abstracted from the work it ostensibly represents,” as a model–Joe Moran has observed–although it is copyrighted by the London Underground, as was discovered by Simon Patterson to his chagrin.


Great Beaer


To return to a map rendering legible a more limited network of contemporary music, there is ample sign of time’s passage in the Rock’n’Roll Metro Map, which consigns both the Beatles and Rolling Stones to the end of the Green Line of Pop Rock Stars, with little differentiation, a status they somehow shared with the Beach Boys:  to be sure, all are pop, but relationships are just not clearly mapped or continuities appear jarring.  Despite the authority of the map’s model, Antoniazzi informs us that if “the map is just a personal vision of the music history of the past decades and not a real visualization of it, that’s because the number of artists and influences are impossible to be visualized in a 100% objective way.”

But it often reads like an index to someone’s CD’s–not too mention being dominated by men.  I like how the red line moves from The Stooges to The Dictators, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Clash, Buzzcocks, and Cramps, but relations among them are often unclear or at the border of suggestibility–the transit from The Who through The Eagles to Velvet Underground is quite a jump on the line of Pop, and the placement of the Ska band The Specials at a major intersection between Reggae, Rock, and Pop, and Bjork occupies a major exchange of her own.



Green Line's End


The famous map Harry F. Beck completed for the Underground in 1931 has become an icon of London, with almost as much nostalgic value as evocation of place.  Its popularity extends far beyond what Beck imagined, partly due to the appeal of its modernist simplicity and symmetrical organization of rail space:  the arrangement of the web of trains in ways that viewers can readily read has acquired that odd function of a map as both a designation of place and an innovative system of arranging meaning.  The Rock’n’Roll Metro Map clearly capitalizes on that identification with place, indeed, to remind us of the centrality of London in the Rock scene–or map the world of rock onto one place as if it were a microcosm of world music.



beckmap1Map of the Underground (1931)


The transposition of stations to bands to those of stations can’t help but remind one of Dorian Lynskey’s ambitious if somewhat similar mash-up of the tube map and music scene by exploiting links of lines to suggest stylistic breadth of influences, in an attempt “to plot the history of 20th century music on the London Underground map devised by Harry Beck in 1933.”  The pretty implausible choice in mapping forms not only worked, but Lynskey’s map gained sufficient cartographical respectability to be sold at the London Transport Museum:  for Lynskey, who undertook this with sheets of construction paper and magic markers, the map made sense since “The different character of each line lent itself to a certain genre,” and so Pop, which as the common currency that intersects with everything else, here occupies the Circle line, while classical music, viewed as less influential and occupying its own sphere, was appropriately relegated to the Docklands Light Railway by its creator.  Beck’s map is so iconic that its choice seems nostalgic for a time when Rock music seemed located in one place–or had an epicenter of its own–and some coherence and uniformity, in an era when music first started being available online–which may very well even more specifically apply to the recent Rock’n’Roll Metro Map.

The Lynskey map offers may rewards as a neat reading of music history, as well as many of the problems of framing the fluidity of musical performance in the formal integrity of the map, even as it provides opportunities for detailed scrutiny.  Say, for one, the cool placement of Michael Jackson near Minnie Ripperton, in a totally different line than Burning Spear, whereas the ska band The Specials are rather brilliantly placed an exchange of Reggae, Rock, and Pop.

Livesely detail

There is a broad-ranging Catholicism here, as the tube stops comprehend Jazz and Soul, and extend to Country, Funk, and Electronica, and, despite a focus on the British that seems also at times a bit obscure, there’s a respect for lines of Hip-Hop, DJ’s and the avant-garde in the fifteen lines, including the odd amalgam “Classical and Sound-Tracks.”

But there are occasions of mapping that could elicit intense debate from some, like placing Bob Dylan as a mere station on the Green Line, diminished by juxtaposition to the Rolling Stones who albeit rightfully occupy a nearby triple exchange:

Livesly Detail #2-DylanTo be sure, any map of this sort came in for some intense criticism when Lynskey first posted it, pointing to the absence of numerous bands from lines from the Talking Heads to Joy Division, and some oddities, like placing the British modernist Harrison Birtwistle between Terry Riley and Philip Glass.  London-obsessed in its fetishization of the Beck map, one commentator on the Guardian blog found it the work of “the most stereotypically self-indulgent Guardian wank I can think of”–the huge labor of organization is impressive, if the obsessiveness of linking the Kinks to Radiohead seems obsessive, and riding from Mahler through Penderecki to Danny Elfman a waste of time.

But the intensive sort of map-reading and patriotism Lynskey blends allows a mental indexing and erudition that seems less assiduously pursued by Antoniazzi in his Rock’n’Roll Metro Map, or at least in Version 1.1, which seems a bit provincial and a bit more nostalgic in its use of a Tube Map.  It also employs the clever conceit of placing artists crossing two genres or linking music styles at the intersections of imagined sonic tube-lines, to be sure, if these might be quite different–Radiohead is now a major hub, as is Nirvana, Coldplay, and Green Day, and Antoniazzi’s erased twentieth-century precedents of other musical genres in favor of encyclopedism of a somewhat presentist bend that doesn’t have the historical depth that made Linskey’s amusing.


Intersections on Antoniazzi's TubeLines

Despite the Rock’n’Roll map’s claims to authority, it carries far less of a thesis or explanatory heft than Greil Marcus put into his classic “secret history” of the twentieth century and not only because the map is a bi tongue-in-cheek as a riff on a popular icon:  despite the claims to organize tube lines in the manner of Beck’s famous map, the relationships it sketches among bands is not particularly clear moving from station to station, from The Police to Fleetwood Mac to Television before arriving at the joint tube stop occupied by Devo.  More prominent bands stand at prominent exchanges, but the map seems to be about switching out place-names more than a guide:  the legend withstanding, it’s hard to read this infographic as an ordering device; and though I like the spirit of the acronyms noted in its legend, it seems to rely even more on the nostalgia of the unity of rock in a single tube map.

infographic-influential bands


Part of the problem is indeed of taking the city as microcosm of the world, or pantheon of rock.  There’s something going on here about the primacy of the local or London as a music hub; despite some prominent Americans, the map is English-centered, the category of “the most influential” being dominated by groups canonized into British tastes or top 40 beside such somewhat nostalgic acts as Siouxsie & The Banshees, Depeche Mode, Billy Idol, and Duran Duran.



The questions of gender parity are just as large.

It’s not that the map doesn’t chart “the most influential rock bands” (as claims its legend) but, rather, that despite there being something in the authority with which any map creates as a network of relations, it’s easy to see that its map’s appeal as being based on that substantial grounds–or even as having a staying power that long in the current music scene.  It’s a bit of a memory game, however, that employs the nostalgic format of the Beck map to reconcile earlier with more contemporary bands to place them all on the scene with equal authority.

‘What would it mean to try to map music?’ is a question that’s received a number of responses in multiple blogs, however, of which the unfolded Metro Map is one ancestor–an ancestor that suggests the coming of age of musical bands with a newfound legitimacy, as much as it orients the viewer.

 Rock'n'Roll Metro Map Big

Of course, the map maps London as something of a hub, given that claims of mapping the relations among bands are a bit strained since they overlap on an existing structure–as “alternative Maps of the World superimpos’d upon the more familiar ones.”

Of course there are plenty of counter-maps to the notion of placing London as world music capital–in fact, they proliferate.  A map of New York’s musical topography, boasting of its riche, roots composers of a far wider musical discography to image the city as site of inspiration, as much as musical community, without venturing underground:


NYC Musical Origins


The 2011 project meant to display the vibrancy of the music scene in one place–Seattle–now migrated online, is a worthy  ongoing collation/genealogy of Grunge.  The detail of that expansive map, obsessively compiled, suggests one massive problem any mapping of the modern music scene creates, as comprehensiveness and crowding create above 40 linkages among bands, and the size raises serious difficulties of being able to display the map so it can be easily read:




There’s not much sense that this is something one could easily ready, but there is tremendous interest in mapping musical links among bands, using the word “map” to plot genealogies of tastes or clarify one’s tastes in digitized form.

Such “maps” create a memory of musical filiation with a new authority.  They reveal a cultural metastasizing of the map in recent times in the media and blogosphere, with but a token sense of orientation–as well as a need for processing a huge discography backlog, now demanding explication, elucidation (lest it be forgotten or misunderstood).  The map offers something of a clarification both in relation to a burgeoning of musical tastes and styles, sometimes in the hopes of  locating music in its geographic setting, or, vice-versa, playing with the remove of music from place.

But is this a cultural studies prostitution of word usage?

That increased remove of music from place is indeed real, and not only market-driven, given the widespread sharing and migration of sound-files.  The phenomenon of mapping tastes cannot be said to reflect a simple geographic distinction, moreover,  of urban v. rural– at least not in terms of consumption in markets according to this infographic, which Ben Sisario shared, that reveals the huge markets for Country music in both New York and Los Angeles–two huge sites of the music trade, true, but also a testament to the way tastes trump place:


So what does a music map map, and why do we want to map sound?  Apart from the interest in mapping genealogies, for a sort of closet erudition and appreciation of music history as well as of the record collections in your imagination or on your wall, the map is a way of investing fixity to the sounds you like, offering not only a library, but illuminating existing relations in a coherent landscape you can survey.

Taking another approach to the phenomenon of mapping music, one might ask how much the 2011 map of Seattle bands so masterfully designed by Rachel Ratner, Keith Whiteman, Golf Sinteppadon is about making a legible map to boast their own expertise in understanding an especially dynamic local music scene.

That maybe doesn’t really matter, given the adoption of the language of “map” as a sort of meme in graphic design–there must be a reason why the notion of mapping has interest here, and it seems to have to do with both a search for legitimacy and authority, as much as a need for clarification, as well as a sort of archiving of the unmapped nature of online music, now removed from the social forums that defined the listening of music since the eighteenth century–the availability of a huge range of music and “if you liked this, try . . . ” algorithms.  The self-made ‘Seattle Map’ is after all something like a web, linking bands in up to 30 or 40 connections, of considerable complexity:




The stunning ability to create online algorithms of taste, similar to those used by Spotify or other music providers, has  encouraged the graphic visualization of a burgeoning of bands and music that is available online.  Part of the problem is selectivity, of course:  if we have 80, 000 artists, mapping them creates the question of how comprehensive we have to be, and if we can even create something like a unified map at all, or will require a map as large as a city to record it all.

A focus on smaller sets of relations might be a good way of mapping around central nodes, although this is a fragmentary way of mapping or a fragmentary mapping exercise.  The result is more often a sort of sketch, both of influences and commonalities, if one imagines musical “neighbors” in the manner Paul Lamere has:

Beatles' Neighbors


This makes some sense, although it is approaches a relativistic notion of a map, re-centered in relation to questions of proximity–a useful way of mapping music, given the limited correspondence of taste to place, even if one would like to integrate–or map–the two, even if only in maps of local musical scenes.  Relational maps of performing artists are increasingly popular symbolic tools, however, if only as forms of propositions.  These RAMA”–Relational Artists’ Maps provides a way to interact with large amounts of musical data as in the stemma of classical philologists, but which overlie its branches of relations on genres to map the categorical terrain into which new bands migrate in imaginative ways:


If all maps are proposition, this sort of diagram fits the bill, getting beyond affinities to suggest the mapping of sound onto a soundscape or terrain.
There are clear benefits of mapping musical style, and Paul Lemere has created on his blog Music Machinery something like a generational genealogy of musical style, mapping not only musical space but what he calls the “artist’s space,” clarifying the questions of influence culled from listening to music ranging from a fan’s fifty years of listening in a tree-like graph of influence of the family of the Beatles that respects the space of each individual artist as musician:
Any map projects subjective preferences, and so the online questions of mapping musical you like should not be discounted as a map of taste.  The System of Gnod features a website of gnoosic, ostensibly designed primarily to ‘help’ its visitors find music they like on the basis of a set of hidden algorithms on its interactive Music Map, which generates a “Map of Music” that places any musician or band in a map with some definitiveness:  selection of the name of one artist will generate a sort of word map that one can pore over with interest as a die-hard fan, as it conjures up a slew of related bands in a word cloud that places the relation to the artist alone to clarify something about one’s tastes, as much as the nature of the music scene or the models of the musician.  Part of the coolest part of the maps that this site generates is the swirling around of parts of the word clouds that it generates, as varied lines of relations are busy assuming a distinct onscreen pattern that responds to the value the user enters.
The “Map of Music” is so relative that each frame possesses an extreme absence of continuity (or logical consistency, some would say) by privileging of subjective impressions over anything like objective ends, despite the authority of its word maps.  This is perhaps evident in the cloud generated for “Bob Dylan,” which Greil Marcus might select if he ever used this site even though that’s something I can’t imagine:  directional orientation means little compared to relative proximity to the artist we see in this map.  There’s a sense of likely coteries are created in the clusters that surround Dylan’s name in “his” word cloud–is Bob Marley really closest to Dylan, or is he usually found in an entirely separate aisle of the record store of one’s mind–and even musical categorization–in the record store?  And is placing Freddy Mercury on the margins of the map only meant to convey distance, rather than a sense of relatedness?
Bob Dylan


And if one maps Radiohead, shown above as adjacent to Bob Dylan, Dylan is suddenly more remote from them than Led Zeppelin, complicating the matter about how one can use this as a way of ordering information instead of negotiating taste:




If one attempts to locate “Bob Dylan” in the word clouds that correspond to Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, and George Harrison–all musicians who appear in Dylan’s word cloud and are plausibly linked to his work for multiple reasons–it’s striking that he doesn’t appear.  Although Bruce Springsteen reliably does and The Band make a show in some, these maps boast being both discontinuous and distinct.  (Maybe I don’t know Dylan so well, though.)


Van Morrison

Leonard Cohen 2 (noname)

George Harrison


And The Band, typical of a whole bunch of 70’s white guys, seems to be a category that Dylan has transcended, even if Tom Waits and the Talking Heads are on the peripheries of.


The Band


Let’s not get lost in these maps–a quality that makes them maps, I suppose.  But I did, however, find this map of The Clash pretty entrancing, but perhaps because it managed to vividly remind me of my High School:


The Clash


This is something more than a word cloud in this “map,” since it creates a sort of sonic territory of the imagination.   But the process of mapping Music on this site is a bit more of an indulgence of fandom, than a predictor of taste, and might not be worth the term map unless preceded by “preference.”

And what of relations to place, to ask the obvious?  An entertaining (and possibly quite profitable) map could be created of the lists of performers in the New York subway.  It would probably sell briskly, especially to foreign tourists looking for how to experience the city at low cost.

A creative tweaking of the notion of a “music map” translates maps to formal media of the musical, as in this adoption of the NYC Subway Map, designed by Google programmer Alexander Chen.  There is a sense in which all maps of music run against the Romantic idea of music as the transcendent, giving sounds an objective location by placing them on the map.  Chen imaginatively created an animated version of a classic map of the New York Subway system of 1971, and then overlayed the intersection of subway lines with the plucking of viola strings so that the assembly of the map created a local sort of music of its own.  The animated video also exists as well in a real-time version even more compelling, since it is generated by the departure of actual subway trains, and is also far more aesthetically appealing.  Chen employs in both the beautiful and historic 1972 modernist mapping of Massimo Vignelli, which formed part of an overhaul of the all subway signage’s graphical design.

Vignelli’s modernist mapping individuated subway line’s paths by bright color lines, illustrating their respective routes by corresponding colors to transform the historical sedimentation of a tangled web into an emblem of timeless clarity–in the way that a map is supposed to do–and then gives it music of its own:



This remaking of this iconic route-map–an icon of design, to be sure, even if, as Aaron Rutkoff noted, “New York City’s subway system has never had just one map” and “beyond the officially approved version, there’s a long tradition of rogue adaptations”–respects the graphic elegance and beauty of the map to make music of its own.

The question of how to map music creatively beyond genealogies may also have generated such burgeoning attention to music maps online.  Something like this seems to go on in Laura Cantrell’s map of subway routes in New York, using a modern version of the iconic map with her own soundtrack, in something more like an app, launching songs along subway lines that intersect with her own chosen sites of influence, each song an imagined itinerary of its own.

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Filed under Alternative Rock, Harry Beck, Mass Transit Maps, Rock'n'Roll, Rock'n'Roll Metro Map, Soundscapes