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Performative Mapping

The Graduation Show 2017 includes a presentation on the two readerships – research groups – at DAE. The readership in Places and Traces recently published the results of the four-year research project TRADERS, funded by the European Union. Its aim was to explore and develop ways in which art and design researchers can contribute to engaging the participation of citizens, policy makers, private partners, and other actors in public space and public issues. Although participation in the fields of art and design is a thorny issue, the results show that a deliberate choice to run some risks eventually pays off. What can be learned from stumbling and hesitating? How can performative mapping help unveil realities in the city that were previously unseen or unimagined?

By David Hamers and Naomi Bueno de Mesquita (readership in Places and Traces)

For the last four years (2013-2017) DAE’s readership in Places and Traces participated in the European research project TRADERS (short for Training Art and Design Researchers in Participation for Public Space). It is an example of an international EU-funded collaboration between academic institutions (universities and art and design schools), including private and public partners in a variety of fields such as the arts, design, architecture, and public administration.

The research was aimed at exploring and developing ways in which art and design researchers can contribute to engaging the participation of citizens, policy makers, private partners, and other actors in public space and public issues. Like other professionals engaging with public issues, artists and designers struggle with several issues that need to be addressed from both a theoretical and practical point of view. For instance, dealing with different interests is one thing, but how should opposing values be handled? How can people’s local and individual experiences be translated into more general insights? How can abstract concepts such as agency and empowerment be put into practice?

Questions such as these are related to pressing issues in a variety of societal domains. In the cultural field, for instance, many artists and designers have left their studios. They engage with societal issues by collaborating with multiple partners in real-life practices. In this way, they are faced with questions such as what it means for an audience or a public to participate, and what is asked of a professional to create (design) conditions for participation. In the field of education and research, to give another example, art and design can help bridge the division between different types of knowledge, paying attention not only to cognitive but also experiential (embodied), intuitive, and emotional aspects of producing and transferring knowledge. In TRADERS a set of approaches was explored to enable art and design researchers to play a relevant role not only within academia but also ‘out there’ in different societal domains.

Reflection in action
TRADERS offered five early-stage art and design researchers and one sociological researcher a PhD-training programme. Each of them tested and developed a specific approach – a method that practitioners and researchers in art and design and related fields can use to ‘trade’ or exchange with multiple participants and disciplines in public space projects. The six approaches are intervention, performative mapping, play, data mining, modelling in dialogue, and curating.

One of these six approaches was developed by researcher Naomi Bueno de Mesquita at Design Academy Eindhoven. Her project Performative mapping centres around digital mapping as a spatial practice that helps understand existing configurations in our urban environment and enables us to reconfigure them. This approach focuses particularly on how the design of the interface of digital maps influences the capacity of the interface to create and change spatial relations. Mapping in this approach is organised as a collective endeavour, enabling multiple actors to participate in negotiating different perspectives on public space and public issues.

In Trading Places the set of six art and design research approaches are addressed not in an abstract sense, but by taking a more hands-on, ‘reflection-in-action’ approach. This fits well with DAE’s way of developing and conducting design research. Both TRADERS and DAE address not only theoretical and methodological issues, but also practical issues by – in the case of TRADERS – putting participation to the test in a variety of practices, and discussing these from a variety of perspectives. One example of how this is done, is a case in which Naomi Bueno de Mesquita uses digital performative mapping to explore how undocumented immigrants experience ‘their’ city (in this case Amsterdam), and how citizens can engage with them by using a mobile phone map app that Naomi designed.

Performative mapping
Maps are products of a design process. There are a lot of decisions to be made and every decision influences the final outcome of the reality that is portrayed. Naomi’s interest lies not in ‘finished’ maps, but in the phase in which decisions are made, where maps can take new directions, where, in Naomi’s words, maps are ‘performed’, made and remade. To perform a digital map is to ‘interface’ between conflictual points of view, between the physical and the virtual, between the tacit and the explicit, between the known and the yet to be discovered. It is in this in-between state where change can take place, where change takes its place.

In this account maps are not merely seen as representations created by a cartographer, but as practices constitutive of multiple actors. The performative approach sees mapping, furthermore, not simply as taking place in time and space but also being capable of constituting both. As landscape architect James Corner stated: ‘the agency of mapping lies in neither reproduction nor imposition but rather in uncovering realities previously unseen or unimagined, even across seemingly exhausted grounds. Thus, mapping unfolds potential; it remakes territory over and over again, each time with new and diverse consequences’ (Corner, 1999, p. 213).

The practice of cartography has taken an interesting turn with the digitisation of maps and the public appropriation of digital tools; the clear-cut line between map maker and map user has become blurry and contested due to applications and software that allow people to (re)make maps. Digital technologies cannot only give people agency in the choice of data to be mapped, they also enable them to participate in the production of meaning (making sense of data) that is inherent to map making. Nevertheless, if we want to determine if and how agency is foregrounded in the cartographic praxis, it is imperative to study the mediating interfaces; to examine the affordances and enabling power of interfaces as mediators in the process of sense-making. Only by examining mediating interfaces, it can become clear how and to what extent certain design choices allow for appropriation and collective co-authorship of spaces and their representation in maps. In this quest, Naomi is especially interested in voicing people who are less likely to participate in public (space) issues or who (because of various reasons) have limited access to the public realm. The following case study shows some of the aspects of how she strives to do this.

Mapping Invisibility
In January 2015, Naomi in collaboration with Platform Scenography and Wereldhuis Amsterdam organised the workshop Mapping Invisibility in Amsterdam. The workshop formed part of the programme Out of State, which took place at the Frascati theatre. Out of State brought together a range of researchers, artists, architects, and writers/journalists to engage with and reflect upon the condition of undocumented citizens residing in Amsterdam. For the workshop several undocumented immigrants from Wereldhuis Amsterdam were invited to take part in a collective mapping exercise together with other participants. The workshop was set up with a clear question in mind: What are the hiding strategies of being ‘illegal’ in the public spaces of the city? The project’s aim was to investigate the everyday practice of the undocumented citizen and to look for ways to make part of that practice visible and perceptible for others, precisely because much of the life of the undocumented is about invisibility.

Six small groups were formed, each group comprising of at least two cartographers, an undocumented immigrant (the guide) and a workshop participant (the guest) who walked the city together for the duration of four hours. The walk itself was tracked via a web application on a mobile phone with GPS, and visualised in real-time on a digital map that could be viewed on a website by other people present at the theatre. The walk was structured by a legend which was set up as follows: a week prior to the mapping the participants were sent an email asking them to reply with feelings they thought undocumented people may experience while walking through the city. The most mentioned words became the map’s legend. On the day of the workshop, the undocumented citizen(s) guided the participant(s) to places in the city with the chosen feelings in mind. For example, when the feeling ‘disconnected’ was mapped, some undocumented had a clear place in mind to go to (leaving a thick line of this place on the map), while others felt it to be a continuous mood and therefore kept walking (leaving a thin line on the map). The digital map was evolving while the workshop was taking place. A total of four words – ‘stressed’, ‘powerful’, ‘happy’, and ‘disconnected’ – were mapped and one hour was planned for each feeling. Changing from one word of the legend to another happened at a fixed time and by all cartographers simultaneously. Each time a new feeling was being walked, the trajectory had a different colour. The longer the cartographers stayed in a certain location, the thicker a line would be drawn on the digital map, this way communicating the importance of a place in relation to a feeling. This was relevant for the visualisation of the diverse ways of responding to the same feeling.

The conversation between guides and guests was recorded along each track. In the dialogue with the undocumented co-citizens the participants could evaluate preconceived ideas about the chosen words. They could, for instance, check to what extent the selected feelings matched the feelings experienced by these people in their daily lives. By discussing issues such as these, participants could probe the map’s legend during the mapping; a legend that was not a given in the first place, but constructed together with the participants. Throughout the workshop the map’s legend remained a point of departure for debate; a meeting point between the participant and the undocumented. In effect, in this mapping, changes to the legend were suggested and discussed by the cartographers.

Moreover, the participants could discover these people’s diverse perceptions and uses of public places. For instance, a number of hiding or camouflage strategies were discovered, such as lingering in the library or pretending to be waiting for a train. It became clear that certain places and routes were avoided, such as streets with cameras installed. Paradoxically, these places became ‘visible’ because they remained unmapped. Furthermore, places and things that triggered certain memories and feelings were mapped and photographed. For example, one undocumented associated a land surveyor’s tool seen on the street with the feeling of ‘powerlessness’. The gauging rod reminded the man of his desire to work, and the fact that it was unmanned made the feeling even stronger. As the mapping progressed it became apparent that some things collectively trigger a certain feeling. Pedestrian crossings, for example, raised the level of stress in the whole group because, as Naomi understood later, of a higher chance of being caught there.

In the walk that the participant and undocumented performed, the latter was the navigator. Nanna Verhoeff (2012) and Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink (2015) denote that ‘navigation is not only directional, pointing the user where to go, but also an act of construction. Therefore, navigation is a procedural, experimental and creative form of both reading and making space’ (Groot Nibbelink, 2015, p. 98). In this case the undocumented directed the user where to go / join him, at the same time, where the guide would bring the guest was also influenced by the predefined legend and the directions the dialogue was taking. The navigational aspect here lies in the direct interaction between the guide and the guest that shaped the walk. In this process, a space of engagement is constructed. This space of engagement, both a result of transferring knowledge as well as feelings, is proposed as an intersubjective undertaking, where taking the time and effort to encounter the other, either face to face or by retracing someone’s steps (as will be explained in the next section), are the prerequisites for creating a space of engagement. The space of engagement constitutes both an engagement with the subject itself; the undocumented or that of being invisible, as well as an engagement with the subject of mapping; mapping’s enabling ability, to act and speak.

The result of the collectively performed cartographies (the drawn GPS lines and the pictures that were taken) were screened in real-time at the Frascati theatre – the main venue for the programme Out of State – serving as a conversation piece for the people who were present at the theatre at the time that the workshop was taking place. As a public debate emerged around the map, the undocumented had the ability to steer the direction of this debate without jeopardizing their fragile position; the design of the application was made in such a way that the undocumented could stay anonymous. The participants of the workshop said that participating in the mapping left quite an impact. One of the participants who works with undocumented on a daily basis (Naomi found out later that he worked for the Dutch immigration and naturalisation service) said that this was the first time that he was actually able to experience their perspective. He invited the undocumented to his house after the workshop had finished. A couple of months after the workshop some participants told Naomi that the walk was etched in their memories, as some places they pass by on a regular base are now permeated with the stories of the undocumented.

Consecutively to the walk and live performance of the unfolding map at Frascati, there is a third way that this workshop can affect participants. The results of the audio recordings were stored in the form of a location-based archive so that after the day of the workshop the stories / testimonies / memories and/or impressions would become available to ‘the public’. It is not the undocumented themselves, but an audiotrack that you follow. The mobile phone functions as a navigational device in which the sound is pointing you where to go. The invisible storylines can be picked up at any time by going to the departure point and downloading the track as an MP3. When you start moving, the track will play and the story is revealed. If you wander off the original route, the sound will fade out and you will have to find your way back on the track. It is only by being physically present in the exact same location and by following the same route that the story unfolds. Public space in this way becomes an archive of personal stories that can be unlocked if one – carrying the right equipment (a phone and a pair of headphones) – tries to engage by synchronising direction and pace.

Different time frames are at play and become blurred in the experience of the listener of the audio track: the current moment of listening, the moment the story was told, and the moment that the story is describing. Aligning with these undocumented citizens produces a number of effects. Not knowing what is coming next while trying to stay on track causes uncertainty. The fine line is in consonance with a daily recurrent theme for the ‘illegal’ immigrant; one of hiding and becoming public. Furthermore, the workshop makes the stories of the undocumented latently available in the city’s public domain, while tracing someone’s steps (through the urban fabric) and words (in the audio storyline) becomes a situated and literally grounded way of transferring knowledge. Knowledge in this case explicitly includes feelings, both the original feelings (stressed, powerful, happy, and disconnected) that guided the cartographers, and feelings that are newly produced – experienced, transferred, transduced by way of the different ‘interfaces’ – in later phases. As one is guided by the storyline, the listener’s way of walking with their particular movements become visible to the urban passers-by. For instance, one of the undocumented immigrants told a story about a specific situation where – on the day that the story refers to – he parked his bike and got arrested. However, nothing is to be found there the moment the story is listened to. Urban passers-by might become curious as to why someone is standing still at a specific location while staring at a concrete wall.

Walk, stumble, hesitate
In the workshop Mapping Invisibility navigation involves interaction, between guide and guest as well as between this group of actors and their surroundings. In the previous section, interactive navigation was described as a practice of both reading and making space. Considering both ways of relating to space can help us understand the workshop’s merit in the context of participation issues in general, and its added value for the TRADERS research project and DAE’s contribution in particular.

Reading space in this workshop means reading the urban landscape that the workshop’s participants navigate from a number of preselected perspectives, i.e. four feelings chosen by the participants. These perspectives / feelings constitute a legend that enables the participants to co-create a digital, real-time map while walking and talking, by walking and talking.

To understand how this reading of space in this case involves making space, the workshop’s navigating practice has to be considered as a practice involving mapping. Mapping in Naomi’s view, as well as in the view of DAE’s readership in Places and Traces (reader David Hamers, Naomi’s PhD supervisor), is a verb. Mapping is an act. It is performed. Referring to James Corner’s view on mapping, this act is not one of reproduction or imposition, but rather an act of ‘uncovering realities previously unseen or unimagined, even across seemingly exhausted grounds’ (Corner, 1999, p. 213). Thus, mapping enables the workshop participants, using Corner’s vocabulary, to unfold potential: ‘it re-makes territory over and over again, each time with new and diverse consequences’ (ibid.).

By being a mapping practice, reading space can become making space, unfolding ‘new realities out of existing constraints’ (ibid., p. 251), both by exploring new routes and by experiencing and interpreting existing ones from a fresh perspective. This space, these realities, do not only refer to the physical space of the urban environment that is navigated, mapped, read and re-made. They also refer to the space of engagement constituted by taking the time and effort to encounter the other – first by exchanging stories in a face-to-face dialogue and later by using a mobile phone to download these stories and hear how they unfold digitally, again, anew.

Neither during the workshop nor afterwards does walking necessarily mean keeping a steady pace. It involves coming to a halt, for instance in places where the guide remembers some incident and experiences a feeling included in the mapping workshop’s legend, and needs to reflect on this. Walking can involve stumbling, dodging and turning around. Along similar lines, talking in this case includes remaining quiet every now and then. It may include hesitation, for instance when the guide is looking for words to share thoughts and feelings, or when participants engage with what is shared with them.

In this respect, the workshop fits in a tradition of public space design research and design education at DAE. Both in the research of the readership in Places and Traces and in the design curriculum of the Public-Private department, stumbling and hesitating, tracing and retracing, mapping and remapping, and listening and listening again, are used as methods to explore what was ‘previously unseen or unimagined’. In this way, familiar routes and daily routines – ‘seemingly exhausted grounds’ – are deliberately interrupted. In Naomi’s workshop participants are literally stopped in their tracks. They are provided with an opportunity to discover what was hidden from view and rethink what they thought was happening in their city. The workshop stages an unfamiliar yet oddly recognizable city; it forces (or enables) participants to engage with what Michel de Certeau (2002, p. 96) has called the ‘disquieting familiarity of the city’. Together with their guide the participants explore and re-make a territory and reflect on the consequences this has, both in everyday life and in professional practices that involve public space and public issues. The city that seemed familiar can become unsettlingly unfamiliar, which raises questions regarding to whom the city belongs and who belongs to the city. Whom do we welcome in ‘our’ city? And what does ‘our’ city offer those who may not feel very welcome?

Mapping Invisibility, however, also renews DAE’s ways of engaging with public space and public issues. Until recently, the digital technologies that play such a central role in the workshop, had a relatively minor position in DAE’s design research and design curriculum. Of course, high-tech equipment and digital methods are used in an increasing number of design (research) projects, yet low-tech approaches still predominate, with a considerable number of projects deliberately celebrating the analogue as part of a revaluation of the crafts. Although projects such as these certainly offer valuable contributions to both the design practice and society, the fast-paced development of the digital, the virtual, and the connected in public space and their relevance for the public domain demands designers and design researchers to engage more in-depth with web technologies and locative media. The space that is unlocked by GPS, online maps on mobile phones, augmented reality applications, and other related digital technologies may be considered virtual; it is real in its consequences.

Mapping Invisibility and the research into performative cartography of which it is part can be a stepping-stone in this regard. Combining the socio-spatial and the digital, the workshop helps participants explore participation in an urban environment in which some feel at home while others may feel alienated, not by considering participation as an abstract concept, but by putting it to the test in a practice of ‘interfacing’ and ‘interacting’. As a design practice, this case of performative mapping creates the conditions in which the qualities and limitations of different forms of participation, both mediated and face-to-face, can be explored. By using the generative power of digital technologies – i.e. creating a real-time map, and storing and unlocking invisible storylines – combined with experiencing the physical characteristics of public space and engaging in a dialogue about the more elusive characteristics of the public domain, some of what so often remains invisible can be revealed and reflected upon.

It is this combination of acting and reflecting that allows the design in this workshop to become design research. By acting, the workshop participants make something visible. This has consequences. The participants affect something, while they are also being affected themselves. By reflecting, insights into what has been made visible and what and whom has been affected can be discussed and shared, first among the smaller collective of workshop participants, and then, perhaps, also publicly. In this way, a workshop such as this entails both collaborating in a collective act in public space, as well as participating in a public debate. Participation in the fields of art and design is a thorny issue. The inherent tension between inviting people to collaborate in a joint process while simultaneously introducing de-familiarising elements (Shklovsky, 1917), makes participation ‘risky’ (Huybrechts et al., 2014). The research of DAE’s readership in Places and Traces as well the research in the TRADERS project deliberately chooses to run this risk. This requires that art and design research is not regarded in the same light as time-efficient processes that offer clear-cut (design) solutions to problems in public space, but as practices in which stumbling and hesitating are valued as vital qualities in exploring the city. Participation in such explorations means going back and forth, exchanging looks and thoughts, negotiating the urban environment and urban conditions.

Corner, J. (1999). The agency of mapping: Speculation, critique, invention. In Cosgrove, D. (Ed.) Mappings (p. 213). London: Reaktion Books.
De Certeau, M. (2002). The practice of everyday life (originally published in 1984). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Design Academy Eindhoven’s Knowledge Circle. (2017). lexiconofdesignresearch. com. Accessed on 1 September 2017.
Groot Nibbelink, L. (2015). Nomadic theatre: Staging movement and mobility in contemporary performance. Utrecht: Utrecht University.
Huybrechts, L., Lee, Y., Schepers, S., & Ho, D. (2014). Participation and hybridity. In Huybrechts, L. (Ed.) Participation is risky: Approaches to joint creative processes (pp. 91-179). Amsterdam: Valiz.
Shklovsky, V. (2007). Art as technique (originally published in 1917). In Richter, D. (Ed.) The critical tradition. Classic texts and contemporary trends (pp. 775-784). Boston / New York: Bedford / St. Martin’s.
Verhoeff, N. (2012). Mobile screens: The visual regime of navigation. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

(This article is based on three chapters from the book: Trading Places: Practices of Public Participation in Art and Design Research. Hamers, D., Bueno de Mesquita, N., Vaneycken, A., Schoffelen, J. (ed.) Barcelona, 2017. The full text of the essay was published in the Graduation catalogue 2017))

TRADERS has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no. 608299. The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Published: 24-Oct-2017 12:00
  • Design research In practice

    Book Trading Places: Practices of Public Participation in Art, for sale during the Graduation Show at DAE