cartography

Maps of the Imagination

I began my project, Maps of the Imagination, wanting something more than a traditional map.  I believed that if I asked others to draw a map of an intangible place, of somewhere they had to imagine completely, the results would be fascinating and a challenge to interpret.

I summarized my trouble with asking others in the introduction of my atlas:

To illustrate how maps are more abstract and more personal than popular belief, I asked twelve people to create a map of his or her imagination.  The task was not easy; the participants, including myself, all struggled with how to portray something in a tangible form that doesn’t literally exist (at least in the way that each of us could see it, with our eyes).  I did not give any instructions about how to create the map outside of using a sheet of paper.  Mo matter how confused the participant looked or how many questions they asked, I would not clarify the information any further.  In this way, their responses would not be influenced by my own conception of an imagination.  

Many people asked me for clarification and I simply refused it to them.  Each map turned out different and wonderful in its own way.  However, the maps all followed similar trajectories, falling into one of four categories:

  1. Maps that looked like maps, either by identifying specific locations or by incorporating roads,
  2. Maps that depicted a single image and needed to be interpreted with semiotics,
  3. Collage maps of words or images, the latter also needing to be interpreted with semiotics, and
  4. Maps that tried to reach for something larger, expressing the abstraction of the imagination.

Once I identified these categories, I could fit the individual maps into each one and analyze them based on readings from Turchi, Wood and Hall.  Finding the quotes themselves was initially challenging, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed by rereading and searching for specific keywords.

After this, the only struggle I encountered was formatting the words and images next to each other in Word before changing the whole atlas into a pdf.  Like most things outside of text in Word, there was only one way to put an image on a page by itself: multiple page breaks and columns.  I can proudly say that I will be better at this the next time around, however.  I have Word figured out and can reproduce the work much faster.

All in all, I like how the Atlas turned out.  The maps given to me by others were more than I could hope for, and each one helped to solidify the points that the authors were trying to say about maps.  In the future, I’m going to look at maps with a much more critical eye.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Making My Narrative Atlas

Obtaining all of the data for my narrative atlas, titled Feats and (De)feats of Association (a play on a quote by Robert Frost), was actually the easiest part of creating it. The Rowan University Writing Center (RUWC) is a relatively small space wherein the subjects are mostly standing still for long periods of time, making their locations easy to chart. It was finding a ‘narrative’ that really challenged me. Hopefully, I pulled it off.

First I started with an introduction:

Being a graduate assistant at the Rowan University Writing Center (RUWC) for the past two years, I spend a lot of time there—taking in the sounds, images, and movements that exist inside it. If you talked to me before I started Visual Rhetoric and Multimodal Composition this semester, I might have told you that I could explain every detail and happening that goes on within that space. And perhaps I could, but there’s a lot more to understanding a place than being able to pick out any detail about it.

Sometimes, you have to isolate things in order to better understand them. To see everything, in a sense, is to see nothing. Meaning cannot be made from an overwhelming blob of information; it can only be made from reaching into that noisy body of numbers, pictures, and words, pulling things out, and throwing them together like chemicals to see what kind of new compound they might make. As Robert Frost wrote, “An idea is a feat of association,” and this was exactly my intention when mapping the RUWC: to pick out different parts of its space and see what other parts conflict, compliment, and add to each other. It can only help me do my job better—seeing things in a different way—along with reinforcing the idea that maps reveal many things about our culture.

Much like other kinds of narratives, my narrative atlas has characters. There are the tutors, who are my coworkers and the tutees that come in for help. There are the tax volunteers, whom I will refer to as “Tax Workers” so that they better correspond to their “Tax Customer” counterparts (though they are taking a free service). Also, much like other narratives, this series of maps presents conflict and tension at times between these characters.

I intended for the first two maps of the atlas to establish the RUWC’s mission for readers who might not be entirely sure what a writing center does. By mapping the populations of regular tutees and literary vs. nonliterary posters, I got to illustrate the purpose of the RUWC while showing its continuously modified methods of outreach. Furthermore, establishing the place acts as a narrative move—showing the reader the ‘setting’ of the place wherein the action of the story will take place.

Once the setting is put in place, I move on to the conflict between us and the Tax Workers and Customers over the RUWC space. I did my best to characterize them, consistently making them blue and us red. What this turned into—perhaps naturally—as a series of maps that looked a lot like war strategy maps. Such maps were fitting for me to appeal to, and allowed me to frame my narrative as just that: a war. Of course, I had to acknowledge that this was a hyperbolic telling of a petty conflict over space, but using war-like maps worked as a strong exercise in finding and understanding meaning in visual rhetoric.

Once the conflict was established and the plot moves forward, I start to filter my interpretations through a Denis Wood-esque cartographic analysis of the rhetorical moves I was making. I think my most astute analysis came in my last map, “Invasion Pt. III: Compromise.” Here, I analyzed my use of color as a means of separating space:

Invasion Pt. III

The division implies a separation of space, as opposed to specific objects. And, much like the maps of North and South Korea or Israel and Palestine, the straight and distinguishable line separating the central space of the RUWC suggests that there is some sort of cooperation (be it stable or unstable) and understanding between both parties.

In other words, I’m exploiting a widely-understood code: state separation. Making one half of the space red and the other blue touches on separation—and perhaps even a post-conflict separation in my case.

I feel good about how my narrative atlas turned out. I’ll probably look at maps a little differently—particularly at who wrote it and what they might want from me as a consumer, voter, reader, worker, etc. And if I persuaded anyone with my map in any way, I apologize, but I guess that’s the nature of maps.