Critical Geography, Spatial Theory & Everyday Life

Official symposium flyer.

Official symposium flyer.

I attended the latter part of a symposium convening graduate work exploring questions rooted in critical geography, spatial theory and practice, and theories of everyday life. Georgia Tech Computer Science graduate student  David Stolarsky presented A Biological Map, a City Map, and not a Map. David showed us mapping projects that are hacks of existing technologies – i.e. as temporal and spatial aspects of his everyday life. He uses a program called OpenPaths that can track your location history, visualize where you’ve been, and upload the data to a website. He is also using a balloon technique (see image below): cities or places he frequents bulges out and other places curve inward, becoming smaller. This creates a personal or biological-type of map similar to pre-colonial maps of the world.

Image by David Stolarsky, 2012).

Image by David Stolarsky, 2012.

I videotaped John E. Williams’ Blueprinting Segregation for the Future: Race and Transportation Planning in Postwar Atlanta, 1944-1979 (my tiny camera picks up the sound of the zoom but you can still hear the talk).

I am collaborating with Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College for Africa Atlanta 2014 and a Westside Communities Alliance university-community engagement project. STEAM2 (Science Technology Engineering Art Math and Mapping) links historical maps of Central Africa from the Georgia Tech Archives and the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Belgium, with a place-based curriculum for Westside youth. Building upon STEAM as well as an initiative of the National Science Foundation to engage underrepresented groups in STEM through the Arts, STEAM2 staff and students across the liberal arts, city planning, and computing will implement and assess an initiative that threads mapping with the arts using digital media. In a related project with Georgia Tech’s Office of the Arts I plan to introduce the work of contemporary artists Julie Mehretu and Sanford Biggers who make use of maps in their work.

Julie Mehretu. Photo by Emmet Malmstrom.

Julie Mehretu. Photo by Emmet Malmstrom.

Biggers repurposes historical quilts made by American slaves that may have been used on the Underground Railroad as signposts signaling stations or safe houses. His work re-imagines the cultural and historical artifacts of the past using materials of the present. Relevant aspects include star charts (maps) that are divided by astronomers into grids, then used to identify and locate stars, constellations and galaxies. Many of these quilt designs are based on the polar and Cartesian coordinate systems in mathematics, for instance, the use of half-square (equilateral) triangles. Biggers’ reuses quilts to incorporate geometric diagrams and organic images. Mehretu’s paintings and drawings refer to elements of mapping and architecture, achieving a calligraphic complexity that resembles turbulent atmospheres and dense social networks. Architectural renderings and aerial views of urban grids enter the work as fragments (lines, shapes), losing their real-world specificity and challenging narrow geographic and cultural readings.

(Left): Sanford Biggers. “Untitled,” 2012. Photo by Nettrice R. Gaskins. Courtesy of the artist;  Figure 3 (Right): Julie Mehretu. “Grey Space (distractor),” 2006. Courtesy of the artist.

(Left): Sanford Biggers. “Untitled,” 2012. Photo by Nettrice R. Gaskins. Courtesy of the artist;
Figure 3 (Right): Julie Mehretu. “Grey Space (distractor),” 2006. Courtesy of the artist.

I spent some time brainstorming with IAC staff last week. I shared an idea for incorporating the concept of lifelogging using digital media to map participants’ movements through their communities, to juxtapose with physical maps, or artwork. Lifelogging (also known as e-memory or sousveillance) is the act of capturing aspects of a person’s everyday life such as images, sounds, activities, documents, conversations, and even thoughts, and storing them digitally. Participants would then select which parts of their lifelogs they would like to share and create Personal Meaning Maps that can be used as AR overlays on physical maps. Personal Meaning Mapping (PMM) is a technique developed specifically for museum learning, in which an individual’s knowledge and views about a particular topic are investigated prior to the person entering the museum and again after the visit.

Lifelog system overview.

Lifelog system overview.

The new Memoto lifelogging camera. Courtesy

The new Memoto lifelogging camera. Courtesy

Testing AR markers on a mural-in-progress, at West Hall High School in Oakwood, GA. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Testing AR markers on a mural-in-progress, at West Hall High School in Oakwood, GA. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

This mapping project would support key aspects of my current research – i.e. identifying specific aspects of techno-vernacular creativity that can facilitate learning through exhibits, activities, interactions, and through cultural scaffolding. Cultural scaffolding emphasizes students’ unique cultures and experiences to increase their academic success [Gay, 2002]. Cultural scaffolding as a knowing and learning tool can create new uses for digital media that is supported by existing research (ex. augmented space). Keiichi Matsuda theorizes augmented space as “a group of emerging technologies that are unified by their ability to overlay physical space with information.” In the next diagram we can see how the creation of personal narratives and information captured as lifelogs can be translated into augmented reality applications.

John Smart, et al. "Metaverse Roadmap: Pathways to a 3D Web." Courtesy of the authors.

John Smart, et al. “Metaverse Roadmap: Pathways to a 3D Web.” Courtesy of the authors.

My research merges mental representations and multimodal interfaces with developmental and cognitive-historical processes through which these representations emerge and are subsequently created and used. In the chart below I show a system that captures and translates work from communities of practice that have developed a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems.

Representational system for the "cognitive-computer artifact".

The representational system for the “cognitive-computer artifact”.

Combined with lifelogging and augmented reality my idea of modifying personal meaning maps (as an interactive art project) can be used to teach young people how to map out their own understanding of a concept based on their own experiences, and connect their ideas with appropriate connectors (physical, digital or virtual artifacts). Concepts such as diaspora can be expanded upon, made more relevant based on the artifacts they collect and incorporate into a public artwork. I think this idea is a practical, community-based, and cultural application of critical geography, spatial theory and everyday life.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53, 106-116.

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