Do we live with an imperative to map? At the Taubman College’s Winter 2014 Emerging Voices lecture, Bjørn Sletto discussed the implications of not mapping. Do we lose something if we do not map? I was excited to hear Dr. Sletto lecture after receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews from other students and faculty. His lecture did not disappoint.
Before proceeding, I must make an admission: I was the student responsible for showing Dr. Sletto around campus and took him to the airport. Through my interactions with him outside of the lectures, I got perhaps a much greater sense of his work than other lecture attendees. Regardless, I have tried to be as impartial as possible here.
Dr. Sletto, an Associate Professor of Urban Planning at University of Texas at Austin, spent the last ten years working with the Pemon of Gran Sabana and Sierra de Perija in Venezuela. While there, he ran participatory mapping workshops with tribe elders, residents, and children to understand how the community understood and demarcated their physical landscape. He began these participatory mapping workshops when the Venezuelan government changed the land acquisition and use laws for indigenous tribes. This resulted in the Pemon’s increasing interest in “Western” mapping to reify verbalized knowledge while communicating it in a manner the government could understand. The need to map in order to preserve land rights is what Dr. Sletto terms “insurgent mapping.”
At some point, Dr. Sletto’s work seemed to diverge from the technicalities of capturing verbal knowledge in physical mappings to theoretical epiphanies concerning the purpose and mission of mapping. This is captured within the carefully curated process of translating multiple hand-drawn maps into an aggregated “Westernized” digital map, describing the process as a theoretical exploration of memory and imagination. What are these theoretical aspects? In his lecture, Dr. Sletto offered six theoretical implications of mapping, stating that maps are…
- …rhetorical devices.
While these various aspects of maps were carefully culled from analyses of indigenous hand-drawn maps, these theoretical constructs were not applied to Dr. Sletto’s own maps. The application of these concepts to “Western” maps would have made a compelling argument for why the students in the room should take heed of these lessons. While the architecture students in the room may understand the theoretical implications of mapping from their studio courses, this is, perhaps, not common knowledge to most planning students. More explicit examples of how these concepts affect “Western” planning would have concretized the theoretical implications of mapping the physical environment.
Regardless, the question posed in the end is whether there exists a “duty to map.” Given the theoretical implications of mapping, especially with regard to memory, propositions, and narratives, is there an imperative to map? Dr. Sletto concludes that there is, at least for the Pemon or other marginalized communities. Given the concept of “insurgent mapping” many marginalized communities have an imperative to show how and where they use land as a protective measure. However, Dr. Sletto noted in the Q&A session that mapping is a double-edged sword and that localized knowledge, once geolocated and “Westernized,” could easily be pitted against the communities. This is not dissimilar to a recent project in Nairobi where matatu (informal bus systems) were recorded in “Western” maps, and the city government co-opted the maps to impose new laws upon the informal routes .
Dr. Sletto left us with many questions regarding mapping and how it is, or should be, used -- perhaps that is precisely what he wanted. I will certainly be more cognizant of why I map and what I am representing after listening to his lecture.