Metageographical Pavement

13. I had first noticed a set of faux bench marks while walking on a suddenly far less busy street. These pseudo-waypoints were not as part of networks of spatiality otherwise unseen, as fault lines or survey points, but days of social distancing made them seem voices of past inhabitants, written into the pavement I barely noticed in other years. If placed in the manner of a survey marker, their meta vein was a geographic joke, as if a hint at a past generation of geographers who lived in the same space, who planted the marker on the edge of the modest mini-park that a community devoted weekends to redesigning an empty parcel on weekends?

My enhanced attention to the urban environment grew as the silences of the pandemic transform my walks into explorations of birdsong as Prince Street in the early morning from about 6:15 when they start to rouse to 8:50, when swallows, crows, and sparrows exult in the absence of the sound of driving and construction to rouse themselves collectively. The chorus of calls and occasional song is a side-benefit of the eeery absence of traffic. Cries from magnolias and other trees seemed a soundtrack liberated from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, as birds are increasingly bravely swooping across the street–the sounds seem or suddenly transported the residents of the laboratory to my doorstep, an invitation to identify yellow-rumped warblers, California towhee, song sparrows, and finches beyond the cacophonous highly social corvids whose recent crowding the Bay Area bird population may have pushed out more melodious mourning doves and even kites. Renewed immersion in an aural sea of birdsong prompts me to consider new forms of inter-connection–birds had indeed become increasingly more vocal and entered new aural registers as ambient noises reduced; I was an unintended beneficiary of a new range of their register of trills, perhaps squabbling over open airspace as they mapped the return of long-unheard aural spaces of listening not only in residential neighborhoods.

Halcyon Commons, Berkeley CA/(c)Nancy Carleton

It performed the reverse operation of being lifted out of the city de Certeau so eloquently described in the  aperçu that began his reflection on city walking, but played perfectly with a problem of geographic comprehension: the disk disguised as a USGS marker announcing being at a precise geographic location, and suddenly throwing one up into a UTM projection–if hardly in the manner of a topographical place-mark, but using the familiarity of a contraction–and an indulgent taste for Nabokovian parenthetical phrases–in its text.

Halcyon Commons’ Faux Benchmark

The winking steel disc pressed into the pavement playfully declared itself the site to create an Earth sandwich, ludically describing itself as a global point designating whatever you made of it. The marker offered instructions to its reader that seemed from another age as well, echoing the Whole Earth movement of the early 1970s, by asking you react in antipodal relation to a spot southeast of Madagascar, or asking you consider this place on the curb of an improvised neighborhood park in a global context. If the curb was poured for the mini-park circa 1998–four years after the unveiling of the “navigational utility” of GPS–it cannily channeled Stuart Brand’s “Whole Earth” thought, and seemed to predate the hexadecimal coordinates. As much as offering bearings, it relished the vertiginous sense of global interconnection GPS promised to reorganize geographical knowledge–and one’s individual experience of the global map–around inter-related individual points as a public utility, and the common man, rather than a strategic tool of military specialists.

But how to date cement? The forward facing marking of a place that had no real significance appeared a sly cartographic joke, hard to date, but questioning the utility of GPS coordinates by enjambing them with an early modern spatiality as much as a postmodern instrument of geodetic accuracy. I laughed aloud. As I envisioned how soggy bread at the bottom of the Indian Ocean could create this ambitious “Earth sandwich,” geography seemed the ultimate mind game of displacement: the metageographic conceit threw me for a pleasant loop, as I recalled the optimism of the paperback “bibles” Brand published between 1968 and 1972, promising an uplifting comprehensiveness that Steve Jobs saw as an unlikely antecedent of the internet. The second marker provided an answer, resonant with a more chorographic idiom than the geographic conceit of terrestrial coordinates of the UTM.

Rather than a point in global space at all, it was a place in Berkeley’s attempts to accommodate pedestrian traffic, to preserve a sense of a tranquil walking paradise in a world of automotive transport, by pioneering a set of flags those on foot might carry as they crossed busier intersection to mitigate unneeded accidents.

Claremont and Russell St. Geomarker, outside St. Clements–Berkeley, CA

The seemed a residue of the globalism of the folio-sized softcover volume that curated a database, collating a cornucopia of DIY information, made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroids as a sort of luddite samizdat for dissidents of box stores or the business world. Steve Jobs remembered their amazing appearance “before personal computers and desktop publishing,” as prefiguring the promise of personal computers: Jobs called the volume the “bible of my generation,” a series concluding by the inspiring injunction “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish“–rather than, one can assume, moored in space.

The faux benchmark seemed just such an act of wide-eyed resistance with immediacy, an optimism one might expect to find in a neighborhood mini-park named “Halcyon Commons” that suggested a somewhat utopian vision of a radical geographic past. The issues of the Catalog–my late father was a proud owner; I spent hours trying to guess what I might mail order anything from its pages long before having a checking account–hardly prepared me for the distance of observation, but it seemed to jump out of the ground in the pandemic with welcome disorientation akin to looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Juxtaposing the global space of terrestrial coordinates with the mundane sandwich was the point of the marker. A USGS marker asked one to relate to the world, from where you are–“be here, now“–as much as abstract your geographic position; seeing the “sandwich” marker made my day, if it slipped from my mind. My next encounter with one of these pavement markers occurred months later into the pandemic. The third GeoMarker I encountered made me wonder if I lived in a neighborhood once full of radical cartographers, intent to inscribe the pavement with faux USGS topographical markers of the sort one found usually on mountain tops or in the nearby state parks, but in urban life, and made you reconsider your position as a street walker in more of a global context. Who planted these things? I was tempted to scoff at Berkeley performance art, or a distributed art practice piece, but hoped to mine the Berkeley-Oakland border by a radical geocaching, imagining kinship with a radical cartographer set markers in pavements for passersby who noticed to engage, as I met another marker just a few weeks later, that I almost missed, that promised an interest in reorienting my relation to the world. But the scope of re-orientation that this faux benchmark staked out–as if in a needed triangulation of previously found markers–promised a reorientation, shifting one from the smooth geographic surface of a projection to a place, even if this intersection was a place that was not, it told me, “where you expected to be” at all, and is most likely just a place to be lost.

The third marker, clearly pasted onto concrete more than sunk in the earth or cement recently poured, was more fully absurdist, declarative, and philosophical in tone, if it was clearly the same in its poetic address; it was not far off from the first, just down Telegraph Avenue, affixed to newer concrete in what might recall tufa. But more than a geographic imaginary at all, it seemed to kindly affirm that the real geographic space was in your head, rather than lying on the ground at all; it offered a place to restart one’s journey, rather than marking the site you had arrived. And I increasingly had come to appreciate its absurdist direct address, hungry for meaning; if I’d ever seen it before, now that I read its message it ha gained additional resonances in the pandemic in entirely unforeseeable ways.

“Reorientation” openly absurdly invited we shift our perspective on the world, but not by geolocation but something like its inverse: telling you that you are lost–rather than where you were–played with the whole notion of orientation, in a lovely pre-GPS way, dispensing with coordinates and asking you where you made that wrong turn that got you there, and encouraging you to wander in the city, rather than follow its straight lines, or if you were able to go back to where you came from, to leave this corner, because this simply isn’t where you ever expected to be, and if you shouldn’t have turned left on Telegraph Avenue, instead of right.

The absurdism of the direct address more indebted to Samuel Beckett than Mercator was welcome; in the pandemic, the marker spoke across time in what seemed as good a sense of orientation we have all started to feel. These were waystations that punctured any sense of confidence or assurance, acknowledging accident and happenstance of remaking one’s relation to space by improvising how one inhabited the paths that have perhaps become overly familiar to many of us, not necessarily trudging along downcast, but feeling a bit less interactive with the spaces where we live. It was so refreshing for a moment that the mapped talk back, and I relished that it did so in an openly destabilizing manner, rather than provide a promised point of reorientation at all. “Just return to exactly where you began to restart your journey again.” If only we could.

The kinship that all this made me feel was to a group of radical cartographers mapping new ways to inhabit the space I’d been living for longer than I’d like to admit. There was an archeological pleasure of unnoticed waypoints jumping out and finding a community lying before me in the ground. The public-facing waypoints–and I am sure there must be more, and became a bit desperate to find a third in the name of triangulation if not a fourth and fifth, if only in order to become part of the radical cartographer community, placed me in time and space on the Berkeley-Oakland border. These imaginary waypoints to a different sort of future than had been mapped seemed an invitation of sorts to join a project of radical cartography–a commitment to staying both hungry and foolish and resisting any sense of satiety and confidence that the world was fully mapped–lest we grow too removed from the neighborhoods and the world in which we live.

Or was the whole affair just a local adoption of a dated if recent piece of performance art? While I delighted in the juxtaposition of global and local, the marker by Halcyon Park followed how performance artist Ze Frank enjoined users to explore interactive platforms to make an antipodes sandwich over a decade back. The online performance artist sent many folks to the online mapping tool “find my the opposite,” as a path to connect to someone living in the antipodean relation to one’s position, on May 16, 2006, to use two bread slices to make an antipodean sandwich of global embrace: placing pieces of bread at an opposite one global position spark the rage for “antipodean sandwiches” as an interactive offline game, not in Berkeley.

Ze’s request to the spirited followers called “sports racers” had since 2006 prompted hundreds of “earth sandwiches” that traced lines of global embrace with entertaining abandon between Madrid and Auckland or Fiji and Mali. to “promote awesomeness” by a free online tool. Geoawesomeness, anyone?

As a luddite hack to processes globalization, Ze invited his viewers to follow a pleasurably crude platform to place themselves in a global context, in a GoogleMaps sort of hack. If Google Maps was launched for desktop as an interface to help people “get from point A to point B,” Ze’s 2006 hack was a mash-up giving new relevance to an early modern spatial conceit of antipodes that spawned a host of interactive imitators inviting users to place themselves on a global map, but by trying to making contact with someone in antipodal relation to them–in places that mapped antipodally onto solid land. It prompted a host of cartographic imitators online by 2020, search engines that had probably experienced a mini-boom in an era of social distancing. If the Tang dynasty Chinese called block-printed playing cards that were first block printed c. 1070 paper dice as they sought to find a term for these new games of chance, the hexadecimal coordinates GPS and Google put into the hands of map users allowed anyone with wifi and a tablet to use their phone hookups potential opportunity to contact someone at a specific antipodal point, or imagine them sticking their own heads into the ground in a virtual cartographic space.

As American audiences confronted the harsh fact they were in antipodean relation to the Indian Ocean, using two pieces of bread to make an “earth sandwich” seemed to come to terms with globalization with apparent DIY brio, and a bit of ingenuity while taking their eyes off the map. To be sure, the remapping of coordinates in peninsular Malaysia are currently moving with the Sunda tectonic plate, meaning, among other things, that the geodetic reference system demands some quick recalculation if existing bench marks are to be used for earth sandwiches. But it is good to know that these things happen, and that geodetic infrastructrues need remapping, even if this means potential difficulties for motorists, airplane pilots, and airplane passengers who depend in a globalized world on GPS. On a more personal note, my web-searches for “Antipodean Sandwich” disappointingly suggested the waypoint a radical cartographer had placed in the pavement near my house was but the diminished echo of something streaming globally. I could still smile while passing it.

However, given the dense accumulation of survey markers strewn around the East Bay, and the University of California, one was also a bit surprised that there was less of an attempt to stare back at the map.

4 Comments

Filed under Berkeley CA, mapping the US-Mexican border, San Francisco, Urban Space

4 responses to “Metageographical Pavement

  1. Thanks for this wide-ranging meditation on our sidewalks. They’re a palimpsest of East Bay history, a diachronous record in constant turnover, that anyone can start to read once they turn their eyes to their feet.

    https://oaklandunderfoot.com/

    • Indeed, it’s hard not to read a story of urban expansion and landcover change. The palimpsest of temporalities is cool to discover. I was amazed to find a Blake and Bilger stamp, as best as I can read of 1909, on my own block. The range of WPA strikes in many neighborhoods from Temescal to Sausal Creek evokes a large effort of local improvement, as well.

  2. Thanks for this wide-ranging meditation on our sidewalks. They’re a palimpsest of East Bay history, a diachronous record in constant turnover, that anyone can start to read once they turn their eyes to their feet.

    https://oaklandunderfoot.com/

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