The map is not to blame

This article has originally been published on The Drouth, Scotland’s weekly web journal for literature, art, politics and informed critical commentary.

Dear Hunter are designers, map makers and ‘cartopologists’ who engage with the supposedly empty spaces of borderlands, ex industrial landscapes and wherever their blend of art, architecture and anthropology is most needed. Reaching into both past and future, their distinctive practice shows how the map is never more powerful or effective than when treated as a verb.

At Dear Hunter, we make maps. The more we produce, the more we come to the realisation that no single map can do justice to reality. This wouldn’t be a problem if map users also realised this, but in our practice we often find there is little diversity in the type of maps in use and often, what maps are available are used for purposes for which they are hardly suitable. Take this map used by the UvA (Amsterdam University) to let students and staff find their way on Campus Roeterseiland for example. It shows a division of the buildings conceived from the perspective of facility management, and does not do justice to how the buildings are actually experienced, resulting in a lot of wandering and searching. Instead of improving the map, there’s an information desk where staff are constantly occupied, showing people the way to their destination.

Image: Map of Roeterseilandcampus, UvA Amsterdam, 2017.

The poor UvA map is not to blame, neither are the maps used within design practices. It’s just that more maps are needed. In this article, shaped by examples out of our own practice (i), we’ll try to give insight in the relation between everyday life, the mapped representation of it and its (im)possibilities.

The magic of design

Let’s focus on design and urban planning. It took us years of working in architectural practice to realise that we were converting spaces which we didn’t knew very well, apart from a brief site visit, some photos and Google Street View. Designers and planners increasingly work all over the world, and without a thorough and specific knowledge of the everyday life on location, urban and architectural interventions lack integration, seem alienated from their surroundings or just don’t suit the needs of life in- and outside them.  It is partly for this reason that we experienced an increasing demand for participation of the user and/or (future) inhabitant within design processes. People want to be heard and design needs to take their needs into account. In most cases, the road towards a fruitful co-design process is still a bumpy one.

Just as the map is not to blame, neither is the designer or urban planner for the tools that are given: the kind of maps they are used to, digital drawing- and data systems, the available information on the history of the place, preferably visual and chronologically ordered so they have something to hold on to or to refer to. The everyday life, the specificity of a place, the inhabitants’ perspective – how to deal with that? Out of our teaching in various architecture schools, we learned that there’s no single course offering design students a hand in how to grasp, document and implement ‘the everyday’. They learn to analyse buildings, spaces, they learn to look at historical maps, they learn to design. But how to ‘catch’ the atmosphere of a place, the less tangible aspects that are specific and, in the end, partly decide whether an intervention succeeds or not isn’t an explicit part of the curriculum. There are architects and planners that do try to work with local character: unfortunately, in articulating their method they do not get beyond ‘drinking lots of coffee on the site’ (ii) or ‘I just felt it needed to be like this’. It all seems to come down to the gut feeling or genius of the designer.

The start of a practice 

So, about six years ago we said farewell to our jobs and set up our practice of map-making. We would come up with the everyday for them, we thought. From there on, not only our practice arose, but also our search for what – to us – a map is, could be and should/could evoke. At first, we were not even conscious of the fact that we needed maps in order to observe & communicate. We experimented with workshops in which inhabitants drew their surroundings. We wanted to be closer to the people inhabiting a certain location, so we bought two shipping containers and converted them into tiny houses, enabling us to live and work on site for months. More and more maps we drew ourselves, based on descriptions of inhabitants.

Our (academic) network grew. Through that we became conscious of anthropological and ethnographic methods and started to apply them in our map-making. However, instead of writing all findings down in words, common in these human-related disciplines, we translated and ordered them geographically, trying to make the reality of everyday life explicit in time and space. Cartopology, our own one-word answer on the question of what we ‘do’, was born.

On Cartopology

Cartopological research takes place through the practical investigation of multiple ways of making and of knowing. Firstly, the anthropological self-reflexive research practice whom focusses on methodologies in the making emphasizes the open, interventionist, constructive and risky nature of research. Secondly, as cartopologists, we make maps by means of – and during – fieldwork by using ethnographic methods, more precisely through participant-observation.  In this way, we collect material not only by observing the research location and participants, but also by actively engaging with that location and the activities that take place on it. This requires becoming integrated into the participants’ environment while simultaneously also mapping what is going on.

By doing so, we learn empirically from all everyday practices of living and acknowledge that all knowledge that we produce is relational and constructed in specific situations and thus intimate. We try to conduct our fieldwork positioning our self as ‘not knowing’ and have trust in the estrangement and susceptibility of ourselves as curious researchers. Through fieldwork, we learn with the participants and our environment.

Drawing transboundary

With cartopology, we aim to join knowledge that would otherwise remain within the boundaries of a discipline. Interfering within different fields (artistic and scientific but also between families of disciplines related to architecture & design, urban planning and cartography and those related to human behaviour) includes also interfering within different notation systems and notational sensitivities. Each discipline is specifically trained to work with ‘their’ kind of documents. By means of a visual language, cartopology provides a common ground for those multiple kinds of documents. We (and with us, many other related map-makers) make use of drawing, because we experience that these can be ‘read’ and appropriated by both scientists and non-scientists, related to different disciplines. Using parts of both families of disciplines creates a dialect, establishing common ground to achieve multidimensional knowledge of the mapped subject.

Drawing what you see to find out what you don’t see

Besides the fact that drawing establishes a visual language, it also enforces strictness while observing and looking. The more we observe, the more we know what to draw. The more we dive into the world we are observing, the more we can connect with it. Collecting observations through drawing creates that necessary intimacy. Being at the drawing table and mapping the location’s narrative, we turn to abstraction, dealing with proportions, scale and orientation. The relation with the location changes from being part of it towards looking at it ‘from a distance’. The dialogue between the observation on site and the notation at the drawing table, or between the local intimacy and the abstraction of a drawing is where the understanding and visualizing of the (often hidden) narrative of a location happens. Drawing is not simply documenting what we see, it is a craft through which you learn to see. Seeing, in the broad sense of gaining insights.

The single map problem

Developing cartopology as a method, our ambition was – and still is – to make maps that are ‘richer’ than the ones we knew from our time in architecture practice and thus should be considered when designing. But we also realized, and this became clear very quickly, that, despite cartopological maps offer something ‘different’, they also lack a lot. Although we somehow hoped that we would be able to represent a location ‘better’ than the maps we have seen before, we were still far from being able to replace the maps normally used by urban planners. No matter how dense we made them, a designer cannot work with our maps only, too. (S)he needs so much more, like technical data, morphological and geological information, traffic data and knowledge of cultural and historical values.

This made us realize even more that you are nowhere with one single map, which is exactly the reason why we wholeheartedly started to make additional maps ourselves. Even more importantly, with a single map you’re looking at a situation from a single perspective or with a single aim. The tourist map wipes out all that its maker considers of no importance to the tourist (whoever that may be) and the map alongside the road when entering a town might show parking but doesn’t inform you about the economic prosperity of the various neighbourhoods.

That’s why we think learning to read maps is important, especially for designers and design students, so they understand that every map is a very limited and unique representation of all that’s out there. It certainly misses more than it includes, but with that: what is included, might give a valuable perspective on a certain situation.

A brief and framed history of maps

Keeping in mind the fact that every map has a specific function led us to have a look at various maps that we thought we knew. Most maps we come across aren’t (primarily) meant to navigate with. It may be the main reason why people use Google Maps, but even in this tool lots of other things are integrated: it tracks your behaviour and tends to give you recommendations based on different parameters like interests, location and time. “Are you hungry? Here’s a restaurant you might like.”

Before functionalities such as these existed, lots of maps were made to impress others, to show how rich you were, how much you knew about the world and – of course – for military reasons.

To us, some of the various ‘functions’ of a map come beautifully together on the image below. Mind the detail that has been put in the sea monster, compared to the coastline. It is unlikely that sailors were able to board a whale and execute rituals on them – it’s a matter of combining the known with the unknown, stories with geographical information, facts with faith, hope and belief:


“The cartographer reveals on the surface of the waters creatures which are normally concealed in the depths, allowing the viewer to participate in a privileged and supernatural view of the world. The monsters represent the revelation of hidden knowledge.”

Chet Van Duzer

Image: Sea monster, ‘St. Brendan’s ship on the back of a whale’ as reproduced in the book: Van Duzer, Chet. Sea monsters on medieval and renaissance maps, British Library, 2013

Here we touch an essential point: ‘hidden knowledge’ or the joining of various elements like narrative, the everyday, habits and the place where all this happens (in this case the Atlantic Ocean West of Portugal). In lots of maps this has been the case – these maps seem to have the capacity to be read by both scientists and non-scientists and relate to different disciplines, exactly as we aim to do with our cartopological maps. We like to put it simply down to this:

Everything takes place. However, the everything and the place have been mostly regarded apart within various disciplines. Out of our own practice we can illustrate this by – again -pointing towards architecture and anthropology: there’s maps and spatial representations with a lack of ‘subjective’ experience in the one and descriptions, stories and a focus on the human, the subjective without a specific spatial framework in the other:

“Because every story took or takes place, cartopological maps find themselves at the intersection of two families of disciplines: those born from a spatial perspective (architecture, urban planning and cartography) in which the use of plans based on standardised notational systems are pushing narrative and nearness into the background and those born from a fascination for human behaviour and interaction (ethnography and anthropology) in which the one-directionality of a written outcome minimizes active role of spaciousness.”

Marlies Vermeulen

So, the everyday has already been depicted on maps successfully, it seems. In that sense, cartopology isn’t new, apart from the articulation of how to do it. Apparently, the problem is twofold: grasping and depicting the everyday but also translating it on a map that can be used and read by others. There are various examples that, just like our cartopological maps, specifically aim at depicting the everyday, starting from the Psychogeographers:

Psychogeography developed among European and American avant-garde revolutionary groups in the late 1950s and 1960s. It was later taken up in a range of cultural contexts and has come to be associated with creative, intimate and historically attuned explorations of hidden places and narratives of place. Any overview of the topic necessarily includes both phases. The first is replete with references to the small but influential Neo-Marxist group called the Situationist International and to its principal theorist Guy Debord. The second phase commenced in the late 1980s when psychogeography was both rediscovered and reinvented as part of a broader turn toward the importance of place within popular culture, art and literature.”

Alastair Bonnett

Currently, there’s a vast number of mapmakers referring to psychogeography but also to more recent practices like radical cartography, subjective mapping, social cartography, behavioural mapping and design sociology. Out of our own network, Mitch Miller (dialectograms) and Annelys Devet (Subjective Atlases) are well-known examples, but their work is mostly to be considered within the art world. Regardless of their aspirations, we cannot see their maps bridging the gap between disciplines and impact urban planning processes. However, and because of the reasons mentioned above, design and urban planning could and should make use of these sources structurally and substantially.

Let’s have a look at Google maps again. At first glance it offers a ‘technical’ representation of the world, focused on mobility and navigation. However, with a closer look and a critical eye you will find narrative in there, too. Certain places are mentioned, others are not. Top view and street view sometimes depict different situations in time. Moreover, there is the possibility to ‘add’ to the map as a user:

This example, but also the maps we produce, show us that a single map, no matter how rich it might be cannot be the main argument for making decisions.

Maps & language

Work must be done to bridge the gap between faculties, between disciplines, between art and science. As cartopologists, we try this in various ways: by producing cartopological maps but also by reflecting on them, relating them to – and testing them in – various practices, fields and disciplines, in order to have them added to the tools of the designer/planner, and, who knows – in the near future – also the anthropologist. Although we hoped we would be able to deliver the map with which a designer or urban planner could work, we now believe the answer lies in a multi-layered reality, where various representations of the same place and/or topic together add to the understanding of it, in a non-linear way of reading space. The only way to succeed in this so we can come closer to a more inclusive way of representing is (1) to make more maps and (2) teach how to read maps and realise that every single one offers only a peephole to all that is out there.

It’s a matter of learning languages in order to be able to understand each other. The map-maker should master notation systems and speak in the languages of the various disciplines, not to create an Esperanto for maps but to incorporate grammar and a common dictionary in maps and representations to be able to have disciplines talk to each other – through the medium of the map. Because everything took, takes and will take place.

(i) Dear Hunter consists of Marlies Vermeulen (1986, Tielt, Belgium) and Remy Kroese (1981, Heerlen, The Netherlands). Since 2014 we execute fieldwork and produce maps for various clients, mostly in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany but have also worked in Finland, France and Spain. We teach research skills at universities in Maastricht (NL) and Brussels (B).

(ii) Architect Francine Houben in an interview on Dutch Radio 1.