Mapping as a form of participative knowledge transfer
The live mapping process is guided by the narrations of people we approached or by people who approached us. But it is also guided to a large degree by our own drawing experience: having the pencil in our hands, knowing the size of the drawing board, and anticipating the capacity of a drawing for variety and density; and by our knowledge about seminal references from the field of mental mapping, for example, Kevin Lynch’s famous study The Image of the City (1960), which analyses how people take in information from the city and understand their surroundings in consistent and predictable ways. While drawing we intuitively applied Kevin Lynch’s five elements that direct navigation in the city and memory of places: paths, streets, sidewalks, trails, and other channels in which people travel; edges, perceived boundaries, such as walls, buildings, and shorelines; districts, relatively large sections of the city distinguished by some identity or character; nodes, focal points, intersections, or loci; and landmarks, readily identifiable objects that serve as external reference points. But we also called upon other objects of relevance, such as the vehicles people use, places they visit, and goods they transport to create assemblages of routes, nodes, people, and things, and we expanded Lynch’s concept from the scale of a city to a transnational travel experience.
Trial and error
We first tested this method at ‘Balti Jaama Turg’ in Tallinn, a partly open-air market where predominantly ethnic Russians offer food, cheap clothes, and Soviet souvenirs.
Since our Ford Transit van looks like all the other typical vehicles used by the vendors, we could park it at a place between the main entrance of the market and the adjacent railway station, pretending to unload some stuff. After mounting white panels to the trailer, transforming it into a giant drawing board, we wanted to ask visitors and especially vendors about their own migration history (from then Soviet territories), their everyday routes from their homes to the market, and where and how they get their goods to sell. But since vendors cannot leave their stalls during market hours, we had to change our strategy: we walked to the stalls to draw sketches on paper first and then transferred them onto our oversized drawing board. The rather abstract lines representing the paths driven by our interviewees through the city were interrupted by comic-style sketches of significant buildings and of the means of transport used. And sure enough, the fragmentary diagram immediately attracted other people to tell us their own stories, which we then added to the drawing board, creating one layer after the other, blurring the boundaries between real and virtual nodes.
The experience of losing too much time for the very first interaction taught us instead to bring pre-produced sketches and maps to kick-off, steer, and accelerate the conversations. Initially, we collected all the maps completed in the field and packed them into a box on our trailer to show them at other places and stimulate interaction, both in the field of research and at academic workshops in Tallinn, Sofia, and Vienna. But for this purpose the size of the boards from the trailer turned out to be far too large. So we redrew them at half the size on double-sided pages of hardboard and mounted maps from several nodes together to create a kind of transportable freestanding booklet. Although this booklet was aesthetically quite appealing and was much appreciated by readers as it also offered a comparative perspective on the variety of nodes, the ‘frozen’ images were not capable of representing the dynamic aspect of the process of mapping – when the movement of a trip is retraced by the moving pencil on the board, continuously expanding the time and space of mobile experience. To overcome this dilemma we began redrawing our own mobility experiences live, in parallel to the classic paper presentations at workshops and conferences – a perfect exercise for self-reflection. Furthermore, we began dreaming about creating animated cartographies, which would take far more time to learn than we had expected.
Another challenging problem of retranslation appeared: when downscaling large drawings to the small format of printed publications – for instance, academic journals – details get lost and the spatial condensation eliminates the feeling of distance between places. We therefore developed a strategy of spreading the images over several pages and using a line representing the paths or routes to connect the images of nodes with one another, leading ourselves from mental maps into professional comic-style drawings.
From 2D maps to 3D installations
For the purpose of exhibition, the maps had to be reproduced and redrawn again and again, responding to the character of the site or space and the other objects in play to which the map is referring or contextualising: see, for example, the Bulgarian SOMAT case study with its very tenuous network diagram made of thin threads, juxtaposed with historic PR material about the company and smuggled goods from the drivers; or the Tallinn harbour case study, where aluminium tubes where used to represent the paths in front of a big traffic direction sign and a trolley with alcoholic drinks, the typical souvenir of Finnish tourists.
Structuring the narration in radically abstract path diagrams to represent the routes of people clearly references Harry Beck’s famous London Underground map of 1933, which was inspired by an electrical circuit diagram. Depending on the availability of empirical information, the scale of the paths depicted in such a diagram may change and be extended to isometric space–time paths. Or they can be augmented by the representation of data, inspired by Charles Joseph Minard, for example. The combination of data maps and timelines, drawn in 1861, in his portrayal of the devastating losses suffered during Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 (Tufte 1983) was adapted by Otto Neurath in the 1920s and 30s (Vossoughian 2008) and taken to an extreme in the 3D space–time paths introduced by Hägerstrand (1970). So two-dimensional diagrams have also been translated into 3D models.
The installation in Tallinn harbour, for example, combines the broadcast of an in-built audio channel and the display of documentary comics showing condensed accounts of (fictional) characters’ experiences. These personal narratives serve to juxtapose the macro-political knowledge represented by the aerial-view diagram and micro-political insights into individuals’ everyday lives – and, simultaneously, they offer visual or acoustic stimuli that motivate visitors to move into and through the installation.
Of importance here, with regard to the methodology of our cartography project – namely, the combination of macro-political and micro-political perspectives, mapping, and personal narratives in a single representational format – is our endeavour to attain a requisite degree of abstraction, reduction, and legibility, while at the same time accounting for the seriously ambiguous and multilayered interactions that take place in the everyday lives of (‘our’) social actors. Despite the clear agenda in our research to determine and represent the social actors’ paths, the sites, and other mapping factors that would otherwise remain invisible, we are increasingly aware that we run a risk of supporting the regimes that attempt to control and suppress these informal networks and activities. Fiction therefore plays a far more significant role in this project than in previous ones.
Animated graphic novels
Finally, we took on a challenge from the field of ‘mobilities studies’ by learning a technique of ‘mobilised’ representation that was entirely new to us: we began creating our first animated graphic novel.
In contrast to the frozen images of photos, maps, and drawings, animation is perfectly suited not only to the representation of dynamic movement in time and space, rhythms of flow, the starts and stops of movements, and acceleration and deceleration, but also to zooming in and out, scaling up and down fluidly between a macro- and micro-political perception of routes and nodes, switching from abstract maps to bird’s-eye views, road landscapes, vehicles, and close-ups of people, while the extensive use of drawings and the grade of abstraction defuses several legal-ethical issues related to the photographic or video (mis)representation of people.
The animation presented here is a graphic translation of our findings in the framework of a research project about the transformations at the Nickelsdorf Austrian-Hungarian border checkpoint in the autumn of 2015, when it briefly became a hotspot for managing the flow of refugees along the so-called Balkan route.
The animation is based on a drawing of the border infrastructures informed by statements by the mayor of Nickelsdorf, who was closely involved in the events. In a temporally and spatially condensed representation, the animation shows a succession of ‘border experiences’ from the perspective of three bus drivers: the driver of a tourist bus that passes through the still-open borders; the driver of a bus with labour migrants, who gets caught in the traffic jam caused by the flow of refugees; and a driver who was explicitly commissioned to transport refugees from the border crossing to the emergency shelters in Vienna, the train stations, and later to the German border. When the border between Serbia and Hungary closed the flow of refugees ended abruptly just a few months later, and the bus drivers could continue with their well-practised travel routines and rhythms – albeit now subject to random controls.