Method 2:

The universal language of mapping as a tool for interaction and relational reflexion

Maps have had a hard time in the context of Marxist post-structuralist and postcolonial critique. David Harvey’s (1989) analysis examined the role of global images in the expansion of European colonial powers. Denis Wood (1992) employed semiotics to persuasively argue that the power of maps lies in the interests they represent. Mapping in this light always has a political purpose, and this ‘interest’ often leads to people being pushed ‘off the map’. But the very same arguments empowered the strategy of counter-mapping in critical geography, arts, and political and urban activism, making visible who and what had been under-represented thus far or entirely repressed from representation and revealing the networks of established power structures. While the world has been increasingly redefined in terms of dynamic and complex networks of mobilised and demobilised people, objects, and capital, ‘mapping has become a way of making sense (Abrams and Hall 2006, 12). Following Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s (1987) and Bruno Latour’s (2005) enthusiasm for the capacities of mapping, we argue that maps should be viewed not only as an appropriate device for the representation of mobility patterns; instead, live mapping is a great relational tool for stimulating interaction with mobile actors en route and for the evaluation of research findings. Our own practice was derived from a cluster of transdisciplinary fields between art, art-based research, and urban and cultural studies and was significantly influenced by the ‘ethnographic turn in arts’ (Rutten 2013) within our work – and also through collaborations we have conducted previously with activists, historians, anthropologists, and ethnographers. Hence, visual methods are not as exciting per se for us (see our own preceding work, Zinganel and Hieslmair 2013). The combination of mental mapping, abstract cartography, and cartoons that we apply in our project refers to the universal visual language developed by the Viennese Social Democrat, philosopher, and social economist Otto Neurath in collaboration with illustrator Gert Arntz in the 1920s (Keller 2013; Groß 2015). These tools, originally developed to analyse and communicate socio-economic developments to non-experts, represent the basis for all icons and infographics, including modern traffic management systems. The postmodern appreciation for the semiotic language of popular street architecture also introduced elements from the popular language of comics, including speech bubbles to literally make objects speak (Venturi and Scott Brown 1972). Given the capacity of comics to be easily readable and include non-experts, they have also been adopted for critical urban studies as tools for both semiotic and socio-spatial analyses (see Bittner, Hackenbroich, and Vöckler 2006) and for projecting visionary urban design and architecture (Corner 1999). On the other hand, during our research we largely followed the many calls for the development of mobile methods and visual representations (Sheller 2011). We also acknowledged the recent rediscovery of Drawing as an Ethnographic Method (2012–2015), which, inter alia, was influenced by Tim Ingold whose book Lines (2007) had inspired an art exhibition at Centre Pompidou Metz in 2013. And almost simultaneous with our own project, at the end of 2013 Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter started the research project Logistic Worlds: Infrastructure. Software. Labour (2014), which mimetically deployed cartography and info-graphics. In 2015 they presented a test version to visualise their research by appropriating a program for interactive computer games. In the same year Nick Sousanis, who also teaches ‘comics as thinking, had published his highly acclaimed non-fiction graphic novel Unflattening (2015). Finally, the notion of deep mapping, recently introduced in the ‘undisciplined’, interdisciplinary domain of spatial humanities (Roberts 2016) proposes a multilayered multi-media and format practice of mapping, very related to the strategy we aim for.

Parking between the railway station and the open-air market in Tallinn, transforming the vehicle and trailer into a giant drawing board.

Since vendors did not have time to leave the stalls during market hours we had to approach them more directly.



Displaying the path of the first interviewee immediately attracted others to tell their stories.

After a grandma had finished her business selling second-hand clothes outside the market, she was open to talking to us.

From live mental mapping to large-scale installations and animated graphic novels 

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.


The map on the back wall was drawn live on site while participants at a workshop in Sofia presented their interim findings to the audience. The mapping process therefore created a virtual network summarising the routes and sites these presenters had been speaking about.

The smaller double page map in the foreground represents a network of paths used by market vendors at Balti Jaama Turg, a Russian market in Tallinn. It also includes the route of an anthropologist from Spain doing his PhD about this market and our own research trip to Tallinn. The map had been redrawn at a medium size compared with the original drawing board on the trailer. Together with maps from other nodes alongside our research route, we created a kind of freestanding booklet.


The huge traffic sign at the back is a kind of ready-made object: an identical sign is placed at the entrance to the ferry port helping drivers to find the right track for getting onboard. We had the sign reproduced by a sign maker in Tallinn and took it in our Ford Transit to Vienna. It refers to both the heterotropic appeal of the harbour and the potential density of traffic here. But it also reflects the universal diagrammatic visual language developed by Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz in Vienna in the 1920s, a scientific basis for modern map making for educational purposes.

The folding trolley to the right contains six cartons of alcoholic drinks, a typical souvenir of a male Finnish Tallinn visitor, was labelled with a little diagram of the income and price differentials between Estonia and Finland.

The abstract diagram of aluminium tubes in the foreground represented the paths of seven ferry passengers juxtaposed with narrations of their individual travel experience displayed via headphones.

To listen to the audio tracks visit Method 3: Intervention in Public Space.

© Photo: Lisa Rastl

Retranslation and rearrangement of ‘maps’ and ‘objects’ for exhibition purposes, exhibited, for example, at Red House Sofia and the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna:

Animated Graphic Novel, 12 min. © Animation: Hieslmair | Zinganel 2016


To represent our findings on the use of buses for the management of the wave of forced migration in autumn 2015 we produced an animated graphic novel, showing the events at the Austrian-Hungarian border from the point of view of three bus drivers driving for different companies: the first drove Austrian tourists across the open border station before the event, the second drove Bulgarian labour migrants to Vienna and got stuck in the reactivated border checkpoint, and the last was hired by the emergency aid organiser to drive refugees from the Hungarian-Austrian border to improvised accommodation units in Vienna or directly to the Austrian-German border.


To start the video, please click on the image above.