Interview with Charles Denby : Subversive Cartography

This is an interview I did recently with Charles Denby, Geography student from Kings College, London.

What do you think maps do?

I think that maps can make people see places differently. The maps I’m interested in are not necessarily maps that are tools to get from A to B but tools for getting lost or maps that provide routes around your local area. It doesn’t really matter about the scale actually. It’s about getting off the main roads, taking the side roads and going places people wouldn’t normally go. That’s where the Wandermap stuff comes in in terms of the work that I have done.

My travels by bike created a desire to make the traveling experience better by changing where we went. Rather than sticking on a big road you take a smaller road even though it would be slower. In Mongolia, for example, there are few roads and it was possible to go anywhere and anyway theoretically but it wouldn’t make much sense to go there and speed quickly across the map.

Do you think maps can be useful means of communication?

It would be nice if they could be used more for that purpose. They are used in a lot of places like the London Underground map as an example. They are used to make complicated information more understandable. There are maps that represent networks. In design research you might map out ideas. There is a paper called 'The Reservoir' by Terry Rosenbery (Goldsmiths Design), that is about mapping out areas of interest that form islands with open water in between them. The open water represents possibilities. It’s about finding new and interesting connections and ideas.

Mapping is a huge area; almost as huge as language. We are living in an age where mapping could come into its own. One of the main reasons for that is the internet, communication technology and computers. We are so used to the printed page being reproduced but there is massive potential for organizing and representing information in different and unique ways.

New ways to read for example. How is reading evolving? You have Kindles and such devices that are remaking the printed page in a digital form. I went to a talk yesterday by a guy called Richard Stallman who had a lot to do with inventing the free software movement and the birth of Linux, the free operating system. He was talking about DRM 'digital rights management' or 'digital handcuffs' as he put it.

Buying things through iTunes with the iPod or books bought from Amazon with your kindle restricts your freedom through DRM. That's not good for mapping because it locks the way people access and consume information in a particular way because its dictated by Amazon.

Do you think maps have the power to inform or deceive?

The map is not the territory. You’ve heard those stories of (people) taking their Iphone into the wilderness and expecting to be able to use it to navigate. They don’t get signal and need to be rescued. So it’s a question of the uses of technologies and the possibilities that people expect to get from technology with mapping capability.

Perhaps there are unintended deceptions happening like deliberately (or unconsciously) mapping things in a particular way or viewing a particular geography in a way that directs you into a particular way of acting, which may not be in positive way. It’s about what you 'don’t know that you know'.

Do you think maps can challenge you to think about the world in a different way?

Yeah, my work has been influenced by the Situationists and their 'Theory of the Derive'. They primarily walked and created a activism and architectural theory through community and action that worked from the ground up (as a different type of society).

Maps influence the way people move. Architectural blueprints are maps that plan space and locks people into ways of moving. Maps serve as a plan for the world. One kind of mapping is rational and deterministic and another is qualitative and psychological. The bias has been to the former in recent history.

What maps did you use before you went on your travels?

I have different approaches for planning navigation for a a trip. For Mongolia, I looked at online maps such as Google maps and Google earth. I know that I’m not going to get all the information I need from the internet so I bought a paper map from Stanford’s; a good map of Mongolia . I had a GPS which didn’t have any roads on it but it did have towns so at least when we got lost we could move in the direction of a town.

The thing that we noticed when using a GPS was that we didn’t ask people for directions so much. We relied on it and therefore developed a kind of 'tunnel vision' due to the perceived security offered by the device. The computer says it’s here so it must be here, so why isn’t it there? So we ended up getting frustrated about it rather than using some other approach. We were caught up in trying to master the technology. That is how it might have got in the way. Asking people for directions was another way to open up other opportunities so being invited into people’s yurts or going in an unusual direction.

Do you think those maps made you think about Mongolia in a different way?

I don’t really think they made me think of Mongolia in any other way. I had a sense of the route in my head. It was never anything other than an idea of a route. Having a route and doing a route are very different things. We cycled 5 days on the open steppe and it was flat and boring so we changed our minds and went to the mountains because it was more challenging.

We started off with the map but then we continued based on the reality of the experience. The map is a starting point, it’s good in that sense. Everyone needs a starting point (and a truthful and reliable one at that). Thats a question of education.

How do you think what you have produced is different to other types of maps?

Wandermap started off as a way to approach a particular place in London: Lincoln Inn’s Fields. It was to 'disrupt the proper' of the space, in order to navigate it in a different way. I was interested in the 'Derive' and that influenced how I would approach that space. I envisaged people could go for a walk with a simple altered map. Most of the map was hidden so the map was literally only the starting point. Then to get over the existential problem of having no structure, simple common geometric shapes are draw in to navigate the space. It’s not anything special but I was surprised by the results.

It was a nice experience to walk with people and have them see their local place in a different and creative way. As we went along, I had them make drawings and observations, I asked them a series of questions and they would make lists of things that caught their eye along the route. I analyzed their emotions. I have some background in website development so I made an experimental tool in Actionscript. The application allows people to draw on it. However it wasn’t where I wanted to go with the project. It felt like a dead end because it seemed too rigid in the way that it worked.

After doing a few maps I was encouraged to keep progressing with the ideas. I had a good idea of the overall theories and concepts so I put that into images and displayed it at end of year show. I put together a manual which said how to do a derive (these walks). A toolkit that extends it further may form my final project. The overall aim is to live adventurously and understand what it means to be free. A manual, tool kit, manifesto and a practice to actively do it - to bring together the philosophy and the practice.

Why did you pick Lincoln Inn Fields?

I did a lot of research into it. It was interesting how the lawyers played a large part in creating the 'proper', whereas for a while in the same space you had homeless people living there who subverted the law during the 90s. They got kicked out by the lawyers for being unsightly. This behaviour has a history.

Beside the square is the Royal College of Surgeons. Back in 1800 they used to bring dead bodies there to be dissected and the lawyers didn’t like that. They were going for a nice walk and someone was bringing a dead body past- not a good look. It was all to do with keeping the sense of 'proper' and order; their idea of it.

The homeless now have an understanding with the wardens that they have to be away by six in the morning in order to keep up appearances. After a while you wonder what the purpose really is. It serves a purpose to have order so people can go about to carry out their activities and that order emerged out of a perhaps more (in some way) disorderly situation. There were reports about the area being rife with petty crime. That was important in the past but now people are used to behaving in a particular way and having discretion and tolerance for other people.

I don’t advocate that government should be taking away all of a sudden because it’s what structures everyone’s reality. It would be like the summer riots without the fire services. Those that are categorised as 'out' of the system and are actively 'disavowed' or ignored suddenly appear in a very real way. Architecture structurally informs the hierarchy and order within that system.

Architecture is in a quandry, torn between its essence and what is in demand. When other areas develop so fast (the largely immaterial network technologies for example) there is a conflict in reality between the opportunities offered by the communication technologies and the infrastructure. It becomes obvious when you understand it. Mapping is a way to make these discontinuities, absurdities clear and real and gets conversations going to form new ideas and movements.

How do you think you’re different as a cartographer?

I wouldn’t really see myself as a cartographer, more an area of interest. I have looked at the work of other people such as Katherine Harman, a book of qualitative mapping called “You Are Here”. That’s one area that I really like. There is another book called "Else/Where". I like the data visualization stuff; "Information is Beautiful" by David McCandless. He seems to have a monopoly on that. There is 'Newsmap' which visualises news from Google news.

I have been influenced by other people on my course. A guy did a book, which is left in the library and people navigate by finding the places in the photos. I like the way she is interested in narratives through maps and journeys. For example, doing a journey and recording your perceptions of time whilst walking up a hill. Time is an important question at the moment with technology and this obsession with speed.

I went to Dubai for work last year. I don’t fly often. I still find it astonishing to climb into that elongated room and sit in a cramped seat for seven hours watching rubbish films and then be 8,000 miles away. I think it is really important to not lose sight of how weird that is. Psychologically it is problematic.

There are people who are deal with the question of speed like Paul Virillio; an urbanist and social theorist. Mapping is a question of time aswell as space. Time is to do with relative motion so time is to do with mapping. A map is precursor to moving or acting at some point. That is the whole point of it.

Do you think that your map is trying to subvert other maps?

There are two futures. One future is a predictable future is an increment of what came before and the other future is the unpredictable future and that is the real future. I would say that time fits into both these categories. There is one type of time which is incremental and predictable; the time that you set on your watch which is in chunks. Its nice to think that's how time works. You know how much time you have in your life and therefore you can have a schedule or a calendar. You can fill it with spectacle and activities or whatever you like.

The thing is that by looking at time in that way is silly because it means you are not respecting the other kind of time. The other kind of time is about how you perceive time which is a serious matter. It is always a balance between the two... You get these Indians guys, mediating and having infinite time. It’s because they have a completely different view of time. It’s easy to say “scientifically that doesn't make any sense” but that is because the science only sees things in terms of the quantifying technology. Modern technology and modern physics are all about quantifying things although in fact is it still trying to find the meaning and nature of things; even quantum physics.

If you could describe yourself as a cartographer how would you describe yourself?

Maybe a cartographer is a way of being. Have you heard the phrase 'footage for footage'? You walk and then you get a narrative from the walking so you get a journey in your memory and you can write a story about it. You can take photos and you can make a gallery exhibition and you can do a video about it. I'm talking about someone who is a cross between a cartographer, walker, adventure, photographer, observer, philosopher, archivist, writer. Instead of writing in prose why not be writing in maps- a language of maps? Structure stories as maps.

What do you think a cartographer’s role is in society?

I think it has a lot to do with the way that people move and the way that people access information. There is a lot of power for whoever is creating the maps and for whoever is getting the cartographer to make the map. This is because you can structure the way that people move and the way they structure information. A website and is a kind of map because it structures the way that people access content.

You can privilege some information over others. You have to be careful. It’s worthwhile keeping a good eye on how maps are used for controlling (this can stretch to architecture, or town planning, or even the design of the Olympic Games stadium). It’s about being responsible. There are cartographers that make maps in service of what already exists and those that make maps that reflect and comment on the path.

What attracted you to make maps with doodles?

When I was travelling, I came to the realization that if I wanted to have a good travel(life) experience, it didn’t matter where I went, but it mattered that I went to places that took me out of my comfort zone and that it is different for everyone. It’s also about breaking routine patterns of thinking and movement.

What impacts have your travelling on your life?

The ideas of my travels area always entering back into my life. A map is a medium of communicating information in a particular way or it’s about encouraging people to act in a particular way so for me I’m trying to pass on information to other people that might benefit them.

What did you choose to use Google maps as your base map for your Flash tool?

It’s my limits as a programmer. Flash has only a Google Maps API available. I’m not a brilliant programmer, it’s not my forte.

Why did you use terrain view as the default?

It was the clearest, most uncluttered one for my purpose. Ideally the map would be able to focus into a location and choose ways to alter the map from a library of stuff that the community had contributed. You would be able to put different shapes and pictures of stuff over it, old maps over the top of it. You would be able to mess around with Google maps, so it just showed waterways, or alleys.

Do you think there is anything subversive about the maps that you make?

I would say that they are a different way of thinking about maps. There are a lot of people happy with their lives, but some people are dissatisfied with their lives and want to make a change. I felt like that and decided to go on a cycle tour and see where I ended up. It evolved from there because other people were involved. Very soon the thing becomes collaborative. The 'map' of the idea gets completely out of control and impossible to keep a handle on.

My inspiration for travelling came from a dissatisfaction of doing same thing day after day in an IT job . I made a decision and acted on it, which was the most difficult part. Then you realize that the reality of carrying out an idea is different from the original idea. Some people want to do journeys to get around the world the fastest. They sacrifice the experience for the sake of the idea, which is very much a particular mentality of doing something and not the only way.

Have you ever challenged authority in any way?

I question things that don't seem to make sense and acting is not the same as talking, writing, thinking, planning.

Do you think its had an connection with your life and your maps?

The maps are a starting point for getting ideas into a structure or project. It’s a collaborative medium, a way to show information in a structure way.

How do you think a map is a good way of visualizing information?

Mapping is something you can do collaboratively. It links to drawing, which is something I love and something that I should do more of. Maps and drawing link together in an inventing process, that is always about a group of people inventing something. Im not really getting anywhere with this question.

Do you know any other map makers personally?

Luce. I enjoy visiting the Royal Geographical Society. A friend has been working on mapping Caribbean nature reserves.

Is there any that have particularly inspired you?

My tutors, Terry Rosenberg is very interested in drawing and Psychogeography. Iain Sinclair.

Are you aware of organizations such as OSM?

Yeah I did a website for an organisation that mapped Georgia for OSM. I used an OSM map of Asia just recently when I went from

Are you aware of any other groups?

There is a that Look up Placehacking. The stuff they do is amazing. There is this whole dirty side to the city this whole ditry murky sort of grimy underbelly and London is great for that and that’s a fascinating area. The Situationists envisaged being able to run over the top of buildings. There is power structure to do with 'access'. Only rich people can go onto to the top of buildings and see stuff and get the fancy views from a penthouse or restaurant (or can they). So the whole thing is about subverting maps and envisioning cities of the future as well as seeing the world differently and learn to make the leap and 'act' in whatever form that may take.

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