Mapping in Arts and Humanities: an expanding field


As the academic year nears conclusion, and assessments are coming to an end, the conference season is gearing up again.

Several interesting symposia, workshops and conferences have just taken place (Mapping New Ground, at Northumbria University, or Geohumanities in Practice at Royal Holloway) and more events are coming up: Maps and Emotions (Washington DC on 1-2 July) and Mapping in Arts and Humanities Symposium (University College London, 27th June 2017). At the latter symposium Shannon Mattern will be key speaker.

Mattern has been writings eloquently about maps and mapping. Mattern notes that the ubiquity of maps make that maps should not just be preserve of cartographers, geographers and engineers, programmers and designers working on GIS systems or for that matter the artists who who ‘map’. Maps she argues, have been, but are now more than ever ‘media’. Mattern, as Associate Professor of Media Studies at the New School in New York, invites us as such to critique maps – and mapping- from the critical frameworks of media studies. It is indicative of an ever expanding and rich field of the geo humanities; the cross over between geography and the humanities. I will paraphrase the definition of GeoHumanities as ‘an umbrella term that has emerged internationally over the last 2 – 3 years to signal the growing interdisciplinary engagement between Geography and arts and humanities scholarship and practice. It incorporates other designated developments such as the ‘environmental humanities’, the ‘spatial humanities’ and the ‘urban humanities’. In essence, the term indicates how scholarship on key geographical concerns such as space, place, landscape and environment is advanced across arts and humanities disciplines’. This definition thus neatly defines this expanding field in which the trope of the map keeps recurring, and mapping is a key methodology.

Mattern did also make this valid point: whilst we are mapping everything, perhaps not everything can, or should be mapped? In this post from 2015, she acknowledges that sometimes, it is impossible to pin everything down to geographical data. She argues that the spatial turn often distorts the content. How do you map stories for example? How then, can we represent these ‘gaps in the map’ and allow them to be given full recognition without being able to, or wanting to fill the gaps? As Peter Turchi writes in Maps of the Imagination, “a fuller understanding of what we don’t know” – or, as Mattern notes of what we are not meant to know (e.g., what data is classified or otherwise obscured) – “is itself new knowledge, and redefines what we know. Omissions, intended or unintended, provoke the imagination.” (2009, 47).

Thus the process of mapping, rather than the outcome of the map itself, becomes arguably the more valid exercise. The lack of spatial precision is also of course acknowledged in the Cultural EcoSystems Services but the mapping methodologies by which we might define these, remains ill defined. But perhaps, that is exactly the point? As choreographer Claire Pencak noted in the Mapping New Ground? Seminar, exploring the space in between is where the interesting stuff happens and the improvisation process of mapping perhaps helps to articulate a fuller understanding of what we don’t know (Tuchi) and what we are not supposed to know (Mattern)? Mapping then, is placed very firmly in the field of the humanities.





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