New Media Maps as ‘Contact Zones’: Subjective Cartography and the Latent Aesthetics of the City-Text

Suneel Jethani


Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments. —Marshall McLuhan.

What is visible and tangible in things represents our possible action upon them. —Henri Bergson.

Introduction: Subjective Maps as ‘Contact Zones’

Maps feature heavily in a variety of media; they appear in textbooks, on television, in print, and on the screens of our handheld devices. The production of cartographic texts is a process that is imbued with power relations and bound up with the production and reproduction of social life (Pinder 405). Mapping involves choices as to what information is and is not included. In their organisation, categorisation, modeling, and representation maps show and they hide. Thus “the idea that a small number of maps or even a single (and singular) map might be sufficient can only apply in a spatialised area of study whose own self-affirmation depends on isolation from its context” (Lefebvre 85–86). These isolations determine the way we interpret the physical, biological, and social worlds.

The map can be thought of as a schematic for political systems within a confined set of spatial relations, or as a container for political discourse. Mapping contributes equally to the construction of experiential realities as to the representation of physical space, which also contains the potential to incorporate representations of temporality and rhythm to spatial schemata. Thus maps construct realities as much as they represent them and coproduce space as much as the political identities of people who inhabit them. Maps are active texts and have the ability to promote social change (Pickles 146).

It is no wonder, then, that artists, theorists and activists alike readily engage in the conflicted praxis of mapping. This critical engagement “becomes a method to track the past, embody memories, explain the unexplainable” and manifest the latent (Ibarra 66).

In this paper I present a short case study of Bangalore: Subjective Cartographies a new media art project that aims to model a citizen driven effort to participate in a critical form of cartography, which challenges dominant representations of the city-space. I present a critical textual analysis of the maps produced in the workshops, the artist statements relating to these works used in the exhibition setting, and statements made by the participants on the project’s blog. This “praxis-logical” approach allows for a focus on the project as a space of aggregation and the communicative processes set in motion within them. In analysing such projects we could (and should) be asking questions about the functions served by the experimental concepts under study—who has put it forward? Who is utilising it and under what circumstances? Where and how has it come into being? How does discourse circulate within it? How do these spaces as sites of emergent forms of resistance within global capitalism challenge traditional social movements? How do they create self-reflexive systems?—as opposed to focusing on ontological and technical aspects of digital mapping (Renzi 73).

In de-emphasising the technology of digital cartography and honing in on social relations embedded within the text(s), this study attempts to complement other studies on digital mapping (see Strom) by presenting a case from the field of politically oriented tactical media. Bangalore: Subjective Cartographies has been selected for analysis, in this exploration of media as “zone.” It goes some way to incorporating subjective narratives into spatial texts. This is a three-step process where participants tapped into spatial subjectivities by data collection or environmental sensing led by personal reflection or ethnographic enquiry, documenting and geo-tagging their findings in the map. Finally they engaged an imaginative or ludic process of synthesising their data in ways not inherent within the traditional conventions of cartography, such as the use of sound and distortion to explicate the intensity of invisible phenomena at various coordinates in the city-space.  

In what follows I address the “zone” theme by suggesting that if we apply McLuhan’s notion of media as environment together with Henri Bergson’s assertion that visibility and tangibility constitutes the potential for action to digital maps, projects such as Bangalore: Subjective Cartographies constitute a “contact zone.” A type of zone where groups come together at the local level and flows of discourse about art, information communication, media, technology, and environment intersect with local histories and cultures within the cartographic text. A “contact zone,” then, is a site where latent subjectivities are manifested and made potentially politically potent. “Contact zones,” however, need not be spaces for the aggrieved or excluded (Renzi 82), as they may well foster the ongoing cumulative politics of the mundane capable of developing into liminal spaces where dominant orders may be perforated. A “contact zone” is also not limitless and it must be made clear that the breaking of cartographic convention, as is the case with the project under study here, need not be viewed as resistances per se. It could equally represent thresholds for public versus private life, the city-as-text and the city-as-social space, or the zone where representations of space and representational spaces interface (Lefebvre 233), and culture flows between the mediated and ideated (Appadurai 33–36).

I argue that a project like Bangalore: Subjective Cartographies demonstrates that maps as urban text form said “contact zones,” where not only are media forms such as image, text, sound, and video are juxtaposed in a singular spatial schematic, but narratives of individual and collective subjectivities (which challenge dominant orders of space and time, and city-rhythm) are contested. Such a “contact zone” in turn may not only act as a resource for citizens in the struggle of urban design reform and a democratisation of the facilities it produces, but may also serve as a heuristic device for researchers of new media spatiotemporalities and their social implications.

Critical Cartography and Media Tactility

Before presenting this brief illustrative study something needs to be said of the context from which Bangalore: Subjective Cartographies has arisen. Although a number of Web 2.0 applications have come into existence since the introduction of Google Maps and map application program interfaces, which generate a great deal of geo-tagged user generated content aimed at reconceptualising the mapped city-space (see historypin for example), few have exhibited great significance for researchers of media and communications from the perspective of building critical theories relating to political potential in mediated spaces.

The expression of power through mapping can be understood from two perspectives. The first—attributed largely to the Frankfurt School—seeks to uncover the potential of a society that is repressed by capitalist co-opting of the cultural realm. This perspective sees maps as a potential challenge to, and means of providing emancipation from, existing power structures. The second, less concerned with dispelling false ideologies, deals with the politics of epistemology (Crampton and Krygier 14). According to Foucault, power was not applied from the top down but manifested laterally in a highly diffused manner (Foucault 117; Crampton and Krygier 14). Foucault’s privileging of the spatial and epistemological aspects of power and resistance complements the Frankfurt School’s resistance to oppression in the local. Together the two perspectives orient power relative to spatial and temporal subjectivities, and thus fit congruently into cartographic conventions. In order to make sense of these practices the post-oppositional character of tactical media maps should be located within an economy of power relations where resistance is never outside of the field of forces but rather is its indispensable element (Renzi 72).

Such exercises in critical cartography are strongly informed by the critical politico-aesthetic praxis of political/art collective The Situationist International, whose maps of Paris were inherently political. The Situationist International incorporated appropriated texts into, and manipulated, existing maps to explicate city-rhythms and intensities to construct imaginative and alternate representations of the city. Bangalore: Subjective Cartographies adopts a similar approach. The artists’ statement reads:

We build our subjective maps by combining different methods: photography, film, and sound recording; […] to explore the visible and invisible […] city; […] we adopt psycho-geographical approaches in exploring territory, defined as the study of the precise effects of the geographical environment, consciously developed or not, acting directly on the emotional behaviour of individuals.

The project proposals put forth by workshop participants also draw heavily from the Situationists’s A New Theatre of Operations for Culture. A number of Situationist theories and practices feature in the rationale for the maps created in the Bangalore Subjective Cartographies workshop. For example, the Situationists took as their base a general notion of experimental behaviour and permanent play where rationality was approached on the basis of whether or not something interesting could be created out of it (Wark 12). The dérive is the rapid passage through various ambiences with a playful-constructive awareness of the psychographic contours of a specific section of space-time (Debord). The dérive can be thought of as an exploration of an environment without preconceptions about the contours of its geography, but rather a focus on the reality of inhabiting a place. Détournement involves the re-use of elements from recognised media to create a new work with meaning often opposed to the original. Psycho-geography is taken to be the subjective ambiences of particular spaces and times. The principles of détournement and psycho-geography imply a unitary urbanism, which hints at the potential of achieving in environments what may be achieved in media with détournement. Bangalore: Subjective Cartographies carries Situationist praxis forward by attempting to exploit certain properties of information digitalisation to formulate textual representations of unitary urbanism. 

Bangalore: Subjective Cartographies is demonstrative of a certain media tactility that exists more generally across digital-networked media ecologies and channels this to political ends. This tactility of media is best understood through textual properties awarded by the process and logic of digitalisation described in Lev Manovich’s Language of New Media. These properties are: numerical representation in the form of binary code, which allows for the reification of spatial data in a uniform format that can be stored and retrieved in-silico as opposed to in-situ; manipulation of this code by the use of algorithms, which renders the scales and lines of maps open to alteration; modularity that enables incorporation of other textual objects into the map whilst maintaining each incorporated item’s individual identity; the removal to some degree of human interaction in terms of the translation of environmental data into cartographic form (whilst other properties listed here enable human interaction with the cartographic text), and the nature of digital code allows for changes to accumulate incrementally creating infinite potential for refinements (Manovich 49–63).

The Subjective Mapping of Bangalore

Bangalore is an interesting site for such a project given the recent and rapid evolution of its media infrastructure. As a “media city,” the first television sets appeared in Bangalore at some point in the early 1980s. The first Internet Service Provider (ISP), which served corporate clients only, commenced operating a decade later and then offered dial-up services to domestic clients in the mid-1990s. At present, however, Bangalore has the largest number of broadband Internet connections in India. With the increasing convergence of computing and telecommunications with traditional forms of media such as film and photography, Bangalore demonstrates well what Scott McQuire terms a media-architecture complex, the core infrastructure for “contact zones” (vii).

Bangalore: Subjective Cartographies was a workshop initiated by French artists Benjamin Cadon and Ewen Cardonnet. It was conducted with a number of students at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in November and December 2009. Using (an online cartographic tool that makes it possible to add multimedia content such as texts, video, photos, sounds, links, location points, and paths to digital maps) students were asked to, in groups of two or three, collect and consult data on ‘felt’ life in Bangalore using an ethnographic, transverse geographic, thematic, or temporal approach. The objective of the project was to model a citizen driven effort to subvert dominant cartographic representations of the city. In doing so, the project and this paper posits that there is potential for such methods to be adopted to form new literacies of cartographic media and to render the cartographic imaginary politically potent.  

The participants’ brief outlined two themes. The first was the visible and symbolic city where participants were asked to investigate the influence of the urban environment on the behaviours and sensations of its inhabitants, and to research and collect signifiers of traditional and modern worlds. The invisible city brief asked participants to consider the latent environment and link it to human behaviour—in this case electromagnetic radiation linked to the cities telecommunications and media infrastructure was to be specifically investigated.

The Visible and Symbolic City

During British rule many Indian cities functioned as dual entities where flow of people and commodities circulated between localised enclaves and the centralised British-built areas. Mirroring this was the dual mode of administration where power was shared between elected Indian legislators and appointed British officials (Hoselitz 432–33). Reflecting on this diarchy leads naturally to questions about the politics of civic services such as the water supply, modes of public communication and instruction, and the nature of the city’s administration, distribution, and manufacturing functions.

Workshop participants approached these issues in a variety of ways. In the subjective maps entitled Microbial Streets and Water Use and Reuse, food and water sources of street vendors are traced with the aim to map water supply sources relative to the movements of street vendors operating in the city. Images of the microorganisms are captured using hacked webcams as makeshift microscopes. The data was then converted to audio using Pure Data—a real-time graphical programming environment for the processing audio, video and graphical data. The intention of Microbial Streets is to demonstrate how mapping technologies could be used to investigate the flows of food and water from source to consumer, and uncover some of the latencies involved in things consumed unhesitatingly everyday. 

Typographical Lens surveys Russell Market, an older part of the city through an exploration of the aesthetic and informational transformation of the city’s shop and street signage. In Ethni City, Avenue Road is mapped from the perspective of local goldsmiths who inhabit the area. Both these maps attempt to study the convergence of the city’s dual function and how the relationship between merchants and their customers has changed during the transition from localised enclaves, catering to the sale of particular types of goods, to the development of shopping precincts, where a variety of goods and services can be sought.

Two of the project’s maps take a spatiotemporal-archivist approach to the city. Bangalore 8mm 1940s uses archival Super 8 footage and places digitised copies on the map at the corresponding locations of where they were originally filmed. The film sequences, when combined with satellite or street-view images, allow for the juxtaposition of present day visions of the city with those of the 1940s pre-partition era. Chronicles of Collection focuses on the relationship between people and their possessions from the point of view of the object and its pathways through the city in space and time. Collectors were chosen for this map as the value they placed on the object goes beyond the functional and the monetary, which allowed the resultant maps to access and express spatially the layers of meaning a particular object may take on in differing contexts of place and time in the city-space. 

The Invisible City

In the expression of power through city-spaces, and by extension city-texts, certain circuits and flows are ossified and others rendered latent. Raymond Williams in Politics and Letters writes:

however dominant a social system may be, the very meaning of its domination involves a limitation or selection of the activities it covers, so that by definition it cannot exhaust all social experience, which therefore always potentially contains space for alternative acts and alternative intentions which are not yet articulated as a social institution or even project. (252)

The artists’ statement puts forward this possible response, an exploration of the latent aesthetics of the city-space:

In this sense then, each device that enriches our perception for possible action on the real is worthy of attention. Even if it means the use of subjective methods, that may not be considered ‘evidence’. However, we must admit that any subjective investigation, when used systematically and in parallel with the results of technical measures, could lead to new possibilities of knowledge.

Electromagnetic City maps the city’s sources of electromagnetic radiation, primarily from mobile phone towers, but also as a by-product of our everyday use of technologies, televisions, mobile phones, Internet Wi-Fi computer screens, and handheld devices. This map explores issues around how the city’s inhabitants hear, see, feel, and represent things that are a part of our environment but invisible, and asks: are there ways that the intangible can be oriented spatially? The intensity of electromagnetic radiation being emitted from these sources, which are thought to negatively influence the meditation of ancient sadhus (sages) also features in this map. This data was collected by taking electromagnetic flow meters into the suburb of Yelhanka (which is also of interest because it houses the largest milk dairy in the state of Karnataka) in a Situationist-like derive and then incorporated back into Metamap.

Signal to Noise looks at the struggle between residents concerned with the placement of mobile phone towers around the city. It does so from the perspectives of people who seek information about their placement concerned about mobile phone signal quality, and others concerned about the proximity of this infrastructure to their homes due to to potential negative health effects. Interview footage was taken (using a mobile phone) and manipulated using Pure Data to distort the visual and audio quality of the footage in proportion to the fidelity of the mobile phone signal in the geographic area where the footage was taken.


The “contact zone” operating in Bangalore: Subjective Cartographies, and the underlying modes of social enquiry that make it valuable, creates potential for the contestation of new forms of polity that may in turn influence urban administration and result in more representative facilities of, and for, city-spaces and their citizenry.

Robert Hassan argues that:

This project would mean using tactical media to produce new spaces and temporalities that are explicitly concerned with working against the unsustainable “acceleration of just about everything” that our present neoliberal configuration of the network society has generated, showing that alternatives are possible and workable—in ones job, home life, family life, showing that digital [spaces and] temporality need not mean the unerring or unbending meter of real-time [and real city-space] but that an infinite number of temporalities [and subjectivities of space-time] can exist within the network society to correspond with a diversity of local and contextual cultures, societies and polities. (174)

As maps and locative motifs begin to feature more prominently in media, analyses such as the one discussed in this paper may allow for researchers to develop theoretical approaches to studying newer forms of media.


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Tactical Media; Critical Cartography; New Media Arts; Space; Time

Copyright (c) 2011 Suneel Jethani

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