An Atlas of Radical Cartography, ed. Alexis Bhagat & Lize Mogel. (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press) $35.00
If healthy social change on any level requires both informed understandings of problems and realistic strategies to form solutions, what tools can be used to illuminate social ills and offer feasible resolutions? How about maps?
As An Atlas of Radical Cartography suggests, all maps contain political agendas, often behind a facade of objectivity. Maps have both the power to reshape conventional thinking and facilitate plans for change.
Exploiting the incredible power of maps, An Atlas of Radical Cartography offers a collection of ten politically engaging maps with accompanying essays. All the authors are activists in specialized fields, and together their work of maps and essays cover a range of issues from identity, migration, land use, energy and imprisonment. The difference between these radical cartographers and most mapmakers: these “wear their politics on their sleeves.”
While dealing with serious issues, the authors carefully craft their works in engaging ways, often shedding light on alarming and underreported issues. The Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA), for example, provides a map of the many CCTV surveillance cameras that sprang up around Manhattan since 9/11. They bring attention to the question of the overabundance of watchdogs, and show routes of least surveillance around the New York island. In a separate work, Trevor Palen, conversing with the organization Visible Collective, describes John Emerson’s CIA Rendition Flights between 2001 to 2006. Palen details his field research on “torture taxis,” the planes the CIA used to move illegal detainees.
Other works use a biting sense of humor to illustrate their points. Pedro Lasch in his map and article “Latino/a America” envisions the Americas without any boundaries. He discusses how a map can show traces of immigrants travels. His work explores how globalization enforces boundaries to loosen the flow of capital while preventing movement of people.
As the authors of An Atlas of Radical Cartography focus more on exploring social relations than geography per se, some writers map topics instead of physical space. Ashley Hunts; “A World Map: In which we see” maps a thought diagram of contemporary capitalism and shows how bodies are caught up in it. She describes her work as a “Diagram of a Very Large Complicated Machine”.
The articles in this collections are better than self-congratulatory, they are not free from self-criticism. Jai Sen, who worked on dwelling rights for the working poor in 1980s Kolkata, describes how a community of people were likely preserved because of their existence on maps made by the company he worked for. Still, Sen asks what might the maps made have looked like if the citizens themselves participating in the mapmaking. Perhaps their interests would have been better served.
As pop culture commercializes social change, capitalizing on its trendiness—you can empower Darfur with your new Urban Outfitters graphic-T or save half of Africa with the purchase of U2’s new album—An Atlas of Radical Cartography breaks the norm. It offers refreshingly clever illustrations and informed discussions on pertinent social issues with a convincing belief that “This slow, cumulative and constant work across many scales of action is what creates social change”. Its contents are both accessible and necessary for any sincerely interested in social issues.
Ted English is a teacher of first-year composition and a graduate student of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Oklahoma.