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America invertida - Joaquin Torres

CARTOGRAPHIES OF INVISIBILITY: A reflection on the potential of maps and diagrams as socio political communication tools.

Format: An analytical essay exploring historical, theoretical and critical approaches to counter-cartographies.

Key Topics: Counter-cartographies, visual language, diagrams, collaborative practices, Community mapping, online crowdsourcing, re-publishing cartographies, map collections, digital tools for mapping.

I. Introduction



Cartographies have broadly been understood as an instrument of power and domination. They define the territory, draw its borders and resources and consolidate the power of economic blocks. Societies have been oppressed by maps converting them in victims of a representation that define where and how they have to live. Maps have frequently been related to technical and reliable knowledge, realities represented in cartographies are considered true, but the scientific objectivity of the maps should be questioned, as well as their intentions. They appear to be supposedly neutral to hide their real interests (Mesquita, 2016).

Maps have had a crucial role in the history of colonialism. They have been used to order and dominate the colonizers over the colonized. Furthermore, they are considered an institutionalised practice that implied legitimisation of territories. Indigenous communities developed their own cartographies to put themselves in the maps and to defend their lands and rights. More indigenous territory has been claimed by maps than by guns. (Nietschmann, 1995). These communities started to reverse maps representation visualising their resistance and claims. Indigenous cartography was an important inspiration tool for non-hegemonic worldviews and emancipatory practices.

This critical approach to cartographies, deconstructing traditional maps and diagrams have been explored by artist, architects, designers and activist in the post-colonial era. In 1943, “America Invertida” from Joaquin Torres, revindicated under the slogan “The south is our north”, the intention of challenging the conventionalism in map-making. Since then, alternative cartographies have been a huge area of exploration as socio-political communication tools for artist like Öyvind Fahlström who represented geopolitical tensions of the Cold War and changes of capitalism or Mark Lombardi who visualised global political and economic networks. In the ’80s Nancy Peluso introduced a specific terminology for mapping resistance: “Counter-cartographies” to explore how maps could be used by communities to represent themselves and stake claims to resources.

When internet globalization exploded worldwide a new range of possibilities opened up with digital communication, which has played an essential role in the development of counter cartographies and the process of collaborative making, collection of data and representation. The Internet has also generated new formats of online claims like data activism (Dataviz activism - Market café magazine) or Hashtag protests (#Metoo). This digital era also brings abundant tools that allow map-making more accessible to people and give more possibilities for cartographic representation. Nevertheless, digital tools also imply restriction of representation when working with visual and graphic language like algorithm oppression (Ramón Amaro), western supremacy in digital representation and default hierarchical structures in visual diagramming. Therefore, we need to have a critical approach when creating a visual representation in the digital era.

Precisely because maps are powerful tools to communicate, It is necessary to keep questioning and reinterpreting them to make sure they are still useful, and always rethink which one is the best representation for societies. Radical cartographies are necessary tools to fill information gaps and to put vulnerable communities in maps and data sets. There is a need for developing “science with people” rather than for people, specially in those fields characterised by “ irreducible uncertainties and ethical complexities ( Funtowicz & Ravetz 1994).


Diagrams, cartographies and maps can be transformed into socio-political communication tools which empower communities and give visibility to their common interests, rendering invisible realities and making the reader raise awareness about social crisis. This mechanism challenge the traditional cartographic storytelling, representing inconvenient stories that question the status quo. Counter-cartographies became crowdsourced design instruments that spread knowledge through alternative map-making processes.

II. Body of thesis

CHAPTER 1: ANATOMY OF COUNTER CARTOGRAPHIES: Elements, protocols and communicative strategies behind them. [2000 words]

  • POINT A: The production of counter-maps break the standard rules in the process of map-making. It develops its own codes creating disobedient cartographies. The rule is there are no rules.
    • Deconstructing the world map. Mercator projection is not the default geographic reference. Lewis Carroll Anti-Mercator Poem and Empty Map, Surrealist World Map 1929.
    • Counter maps are inaccurate cartographies, not technical. Traditionally, maps have been recognized as reliable documents but the information transmitted there does not have to be real. Alfred Korzybsky: “The map is not the territory” the language create a map used by people to represent the reality that is perceived. Lying with maps - Miguel Mesa del Castillo.
    • Freedom of reading: Where is the starting point?. Challenge traditional storytelling and hierarchies in visual representation. Jan Tschichold: “As a rule, we no longer read quietly line by line but glance quickly over the whole, and only if our interests are awakened do the study in detail”.
  • POINT B: Counter-cartographies create an alternative grammar of visual representation, challenging conventionalism in graphic communication and decomposing complexities through an experimental global language that popularizes the information to be disseminated.
    • Isotypes: Otto Neurath & Gerd Arntz (German Museum of War Economy). 
    • Alternative graphic protocols are created in order to envision misrepresented phenomenon which doesn't have an obvious visual translation. Filling gaps in visual representation. Pictographic Grammar (Bureau d’Études- Non-visual conventions).
    • Pictograms for collective mapping - Iconoclasistas.
  • POINT C: Radical cartographies are maps converted into advertising elements in which attention calls and references to the reader are made straightaway. Counter-maps are not intended for a technical and specialized public but understood as a powerful element to be propagated among a wide range of communities.
    • Headlines/Slogans/ Call for action: Cartographies as advertising.
    • Diagrams and maps are aesthetic objects between art, architecture, activism and design, beauty is a strong persuasive strategy in counter cartographies (Map art/ Data art). Mark Lombardi, Öyvind Fahlström. Counter-maps ornaments.
    • Identity mirror. Communities feel identifies and represented with design elements. Maps embodying citizens. Iconoclasistas - Who owns the land?.

CHAPTER 2: THE POWER OF COLLABORATIVE MAPPING: Crowdsourcing practices as a mechanism to build democratic cartographies. [2000 words]

  • POINT A: Crowdsourced processes are the basis of the elaboration of democratic datasets based on people claims and realities and not in bureaucratic and political protocols.
    • Why to contribute: Idealism or local need?. James Surowiecki - Wisdom of crowds. The most reliable sources of local information are the communities (Communities VS Big data, Data and democracy GSAPP).
    • Unavailability of information, Filling data gaps (Misrepresentation of vulnerable societies). The supremacy of western data. Missing maps platform. Bourj Al Shamali's maps (an organisation that don’t share the maps with the citizens). Google maps blurry areas. Data borders.
    • Digital tools are key pieces in Collaborative processes. Availability of use of GIS - PPGIS ( Public Participation GIS). OSM (Open Street Map) - Toolbox for digital representation.
  • POINT B: The process of collaborative mapping is an instrument to create communities around a common interest having inclusion, transparency and empowerment values as ties among participants.
    • Create local communities through maps: Parish mapping (more 1000 communities in the UK linked to maps); The Green Map System (a global eco-cultural movement energised by local knowledge, action and responsibility).
    • Mapathon - session for collective mapping and community making online (Missing maps platform). Hoodmaps.
  • POINT C: The production of counter cartographies is not limited to experts but it expands to the rest of the people willing to contribute. You can become an occasional cartographer.
    • Workshop as a laboratory to promote collaborative map-making and co-production. Iconoclasistas, A new social cartography in the Amazon.
    • Open calls for collaboration. Mapping for Human rights: Amnesty international open letter about how to map to defend vulnerable communities.
    • Manuals for community mapping (DIY): Manual for collective mapping - Iconoclasistas; Making maps: A visual guide to Map Design for GIS - John Krygier and Denis Wood. Illustrated guide for Ballon mapping.

CHAPTER 3: SHARING RADICAL MAPS WITH PEOPLE, GIVING THEIR KNOWLEDGE BACK!: Post-digital strategies for publishing cartographies. [2000 words]

  • POINT A: The publication of counter-cartographies has socio-political ambitions and motivations. Their objective is to transform these design documents into tools to build better societies.
    • Calls for action / create a social movement. Community garden maps NYC.
    • Generate Political pressure. Mapping sexual harassment in Egypt.
    • Build didactic kits. Protest map, Cartoon and propaganda.
    • Spread a critique reflection. Uneven digital geographies project.
    • Create urban tools to improve cities. Squat map.
  • POINT B: The propagation of experimental cartographies must overcome the barriers of digital media and look for alternative mediums through which to connect with the audience. Is physical dimension a post-digital medium to spread cartographic knowledge?
    • Counter maps became part of the city, creating common identity and representation. Mural Anti eviction map in San Francisco, Knitted Flood Wall.
    • Experimental narratives performing maps with people: Lize Mogel - Performing infrastructure, Political poetic session - Anti eviction maps.
    • Self-printing diagrams: Political action maps in Germany. The user is also part of the production chain (call for manufacture collaboration).
  • POINT C: The diffusion of radical cartographies is understood as an open-access publication, the information that is represented pursue a common good so being faithful to its own objective must be accessible to as many people as possible.
    • The reader is encouraged to reappropriate, reproduce and redefine counter-maps. Creative Commons license.
    • Streaming cartographic publications. Always available, always updated. Mapping safe passages project. Twitter geographical feelings.
    • Anti-counter cartographies: the other side of open access. When companies appropriate collective mapping processes to have profit.

III. Conclusion

Summarize the main points.
Make a strong/ memorable final statement: For centuries cartographies had been defined by state and domination but this system can be reversed. Thanks to technology and collaborative tools this process is currently accessible to many more people and practised to fight for the defence of people's rights.