How powerful are protest maps?

I think that the most interesting question posed by the readings this week (primarily Denis Woods) is the question how can a protest map be revolutionary and effective, because maps typically rely on data to make their point and the people who create protest maps use the same data that the government uses, or they use data provided by the government. This is because the research required to produce independent data is too expensive. Woods argues that because maps have been used as tools for the state for a long time that trying to use maps to fight the government is difficult. Woods described it as, “like spitting in the wind.”

It seems like an effective use of data is when the mapmaker forces people to view data differently. In 1971 the Detroit Geographical Expedition published a map of “Citywide Pattern of Children’s Pedestrian Death and Injuries by Automobiles.” The map indicated where children had died it also outlined black neighborhoods with a dashed line. The map illustrated a pattern that most of the children killed by cars were black children. The Detroit Geographical Expedition went a step further, zoomed in, and wrote, “Where Commuters Run Over Black Children on the Pointes-Downtown Track”

Woods also questioned the efficacy of placing importance on the data that the mainstream deemed important, this particularly related to indigenous mapping. He wrote,
“Indigenous map makers find that in the end they have to locate themselves on the invader’s map anyway, for, to say it again, it’s only in the invader’s courts that their land claims can be heard where, win or lose, their mere presence validates the state’s claims to authority…but the real problem is that no matter what the worldview and space-time conceptions of the people in question, they have to be bent into the worldview and space-time conceptions of the court or risk being dismissed as … unintelligible.”

I don’t agree with Woods, I’m afraid that to fight the system you have to learn how to fight within that system,. Or else work entirely outside of the system (something he suggests at the end of chapter 5) and create maps that would fall under the category of art rather than cartography.

Woods painted a pretty grim picture of the power of protest maps, I thought that the parish maps are beautiful, but some of the really powerful “maps” were the ones that Catherine D’Ignazio outlined in her book, “The International Encyclopedia of Human Geography.”I really liked Paul Harfleet piece, “The Pansy Project,” where he planted pansy’s where people reported being victims of homophobic attacks. I thought that Hartleet’s piece was even more powerful than the the Aboriginal people of Fitzroy Crossing who used a painting, to address the Australian National Native Title Tribunal. Hartleet is not using his “map” or his artwork to petition or be granted an audience with a figure of authority. His audience is the general public. And his artwork is quietly ubiquitous and therefore spreads the message to a wider audience.

Categories: Reflective Posts

Author:miranda shafer

Miranda Shafer is a freelance producer for the podcast, "How Do We Fix It?" In January 2015 She graduated with a Masters in Media Studies from The New School. She has worked for WNYC as a production assistant for Selected Shorts and as a producer for the series "Talk to Me." She likes hot media and cold weather.


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2 Comments on “How powerful are protest maps?”

  1. Jeremiah Pietroniro
    March 6, 2012 at 11:14 am #

    Miranda – you make a great point. When i was reading Woods I was wondering why translating your culture into mappable coordinates in order to be accepted by the ruling system is different from having your painting or song recognized by the court of that ruling system. I’m still working this out, but perhaps when the court recognizes a painting or song as valid evidence it actually changes the system itself, whereas the map changes the culture…

    • miranda shafer
      March 7, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

      Thanks Jeremiah, your analysis is very interesting,i.e. questioning whether a painting or song can changes the system itself, whereas the map changes the culture”

      Have a great spring break!

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