Counter Cartographies with Lize Mogel

VizThink by Willow Brugh

Artist and designer Lize Mogel came to the Center for Civic Media to discuss “Counter-cartography” a practice that uses maps and mapping to challenge the mainstream narrative of a site or history, from a political or activist perspective.

Artist Lize Mogel creates and disseminates counter cartography, or mappings that produce new understandings of social and political issues. Working with the interstices between art and cultural geography, she connects the real history and collective imaginary about specific places to larger narratives about globalization. She has mapped public parks in Los Angeles, territorial disputes in the arctic and wastewater economies a.k.a. sludge in New York City. She is co-editor of the book/map collection An Atlas of Radical Cartography and co-curator of the traveling exhibition An Atlas. She has received grants from the Jerome Foundation, the Graham Foundation, the LEF Foundation, the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and the Danish Arts Council for her work.

Lize discusses her practice and notes how she uses physical, non-technological strategies for thinking about projects in public space. Her theme for the talk is how mapping and maps make things visible. Where is technology useful/not useful? Perhaps this is a discussion for later.

Mapping Food Insecurity in Poughkeepsie

She starts with a map of the city of Poughkeepsie where she’s collaborating with Matthew Slaats and a community group on issues of food insecurity. She demonstrates an example of the NYT census tool applied to the city of Poughkeepsie in relation to race – areas of high/low white population, black population, hispanic population, foreign-born population (which corresponds to black & hispanic populations), and households earning under $30,000.

The city of Poughkeepsie is low-income whereas the town of Poughkeepsie is not. Lize shows a map she’s working on mapping all of the soup kitchens in the city. She talks about how she and Matthew are trying to “humanize the data” – to understand people’s stories on the ground. For this they are making a comic strip to illustrate the stories of food insecurity in the city. This will be a printed piece to be disseminated to people to understand what it means to not have food on a daily basis in the city.

Lize has been working on issues or people who are hard to map, the breadth of food insecurity in a small town, the unaffordability of rent in NYC, or the experiences of day laborers. She has been thinking about the political capital of being mapped.

For example, the US census is very influential for directing federal funding – it’s very important to be counted. But there are a number of people who are not counted, for example because of distrusting government mechanisms or existing outside of the collection structures.

Sharjah InfoCart/CityMap

Lize shares copies of Sharjah City Map produced with Lex Bhagat as part of the Sharjah Biennial. This was a community collaboration — Lize and Lex hired and collaborated with residents of Sharjah to get a sense of how people think about this place. There are complicated labor practices in Sharjah. Most of the people who live there are on work visas. The majority of people are not from there but we don’t know what the percentage of nationals is because the government doesn’t release that data (likely because it would be used in various political ways to argue for more representation of non-nationals).

They worked with local design and architecture students to design the InfoCart. They took the cart to outside public spaces and indoor malls because malls are a huge part of public culture due to the heat. The Emirates is a very multicultural place but there are often language differences that hinder cross-cultural communication. They hired people from different national groups to use the cart and target their group of the population. They passed out a survey.

For projects like these, when you are going into a community that is not your own, there are trust issues. In this case, we were asking questions that people don’t commonly ask and where there is not common practice of speaking critically. But because the cart was so weird-looking, it was very popular. They brought it to schools, out on the streets at night.

Ethan asks how they were able to cover the diversity of different immigrant populations since the UAE has workers from Morocco to Jordan to Bangladesh.

They had about 8 InfoCart operators and mostly we selected locations where we expected we would encounter different groups of the population. The surveys and entire project were translated into 6 languages, hoping to reach as broad an audience as possible. There are several language pairings. In the UAE the official languages are Arabic and English. For most of the population neither is their native tongue. There is almost no public signage printed in any other language, which makes for interesting navigation.

Lize walks us through the map — it has two sides. They realized that people don’t really use maps to navigate in Sharjah. Mostly people navigate by landmarks and visual cues. If your taxi driver doesn’t know where he’s going, he calls a friend and his friend talks him through it, a sort of oral navigation culture. For this reason, they put very little actual geographic information on the map and instead put the big landmarks that people use commonly.

Instead of a cardinal compass rose, they put directions of places where people are from because this project was for people who are not from Sharjah. Their compass rose points like Tehran, Baghdad and Khartoum.

There are subtle things for visibility. We wanted to do a critical project that would not be censored. We have below-the-radar clues in the map that are clues to this counter narrative. Sharjah is a dry town. People often leave on the weekend to other emirates for nightlife and also for religious activity. There are mosques and a small area for other religious worship in Sharjah. Though there is no Hindu worship in Sharjah so people have to go to Dubai for that. By talking with people, we found there are unofficial churches in people’s homes. We have a symbol in the legend, but not on the maps themselves — in part because people wouldn’t share the locations and in part because we wouldn’t want to make that information so visible.

One aspect that they mapped is the abuse that some Filipina domestic workers undergo as household employees. The employer will often hold their passport which makes it very hard to leave an abusive situation. On the map they have an icon for dormitories at the Filipino Embassy where these women can go for shelter while they wait for their passport to be relinquished. However the only language that describes what the symbol is for is Tagalog, so that if you want to know what the symbol means you have to ask someone who speaks Tagalog. 

On the other side, we have another map with different kinds of things mapped like labor camps, waste water treatment, the free trade zones and visualizations based directly on data from the survey.

She demonstrates several word clouds that they call “happy-sad” matrices. In the survey they had asked people, “what place makes you happy?” and “what place makes you unhappy?”. They cataloged the results of these questions in different languages as word clouds. Places like “Al Rolla” show up in both the happy and sad categories depending on who you are.

Another visualization they did is of where people were from since there is no official data on the subject. Although the data is skewed by who the cart operators were it demonstrates the range of different nationalities present.

During the Biennial, the InfoCart turned into a cart that distrubuted these maps for free for the run of the Biennial. People took them in all of the languages.

Becky asks if they got to show the map to people who participated in the survey.

Lize describes that yes, to some extent, but resources were limited to fund their presence and work after the cart was up and distributing maps.

Brandon asks about the relationship between Sharjah and Dubai.

Lize responds they are different kingdoms run by different families. It’s like the states except there are 7 and it’s a monarchy, not a democracy. Every state in the UAE has a different personality and different set of goals.

Rebecca asks about censorship and autonomy within the structure of the Sharjah Biennial.

Lize responds that although there have been cases of censorship, they did not have a huge problem. They wanted to respect the culture of the place in how they designed the project. It was a challenge to make a project that was critical. But it was similar to the SightLines project in Washington DC where you are working with institutions.

SightLines: An alternative tour of Washington DC

Lize shares Sight Lines, a project she did for the City of DC public art festival, 5×5, produced by the DC Council on the Arts and Humanities, with 5 artists developing pieces to display around the city. This is an alternative tour guide, distributed through the public library system for free. It features 6 different routes that you can follow with different methods of transportation that bring to light places that are invisible or less visible in the city. For example by “Driving the Diamond”, a driving tour which takes you around the historical periphery of hte city you get a sense of the history of the place in a powerful way.

She also describes spaces of war in DC. There are of course war memorials but there are also many spaces that relate to war underground. She talks about Crystal City, aa mall where everything happens underground in a mile or so of underground space. This structure, which you enter from underground is a locus of war making. For a long time it was a focal point for defense contractors but then there was a security shift and they started moving away from it.

Another DC space related to war that is mostly underground is the Arlington Cemetery which has war dead from the Civil War into the wars in Afghanistan & Iraq. She says that there are almost more people buried in the cemetery than living in DC proper.

Another site relates to the Cold War and has a silo along with bunkers underground.

The final place is Spring Valley, a wealthy and toxic suburb. During WWI, American University did weapons testing into Spring Valley and left numerous toxic things in the ground. A contractor in the late 80s found an unexploded device which led to the whole area being investigated for contamination. It was found to be highly contaminated, so again an example of remnants of war in the ground.


Lize shows the Sludge Economy project. This project started when she was visiting with her father in the hospital, and observed a ship passing in the East River periodically throughout the day. She found out that this was the NYC Sludge Barge, a hidden in plain sight marker of how many people there are in the city of NYC and how much waste they produce. If you think of the city as a body, then the sludge is part of the natural cycle of input and output however the city’s output is very removed from its body. It is mostly invisible.

Waste water treatment is vital to any city’s working, but you have to put the waste water treatment facilities somewhere and often, the locations raise issues of spatial justice.

This map tells 2 case studies of community organizing around waste management practices in NYC. One is the North River Waste Management site in Harlem. Because of community organizing against this plant, it became a kinder neighbor and a state park was placed on top of the plant. A lot of people don’t realize there’s a sewage treatment plant below. This is nearly invisible, even on the park map and people don’t seem to recognize the visible components.

One of the things Lize did to draw attention to the invisible infrastructure is hold an event called “This Picnic Stinks”. At the picnic she gave a lecture about the sludge economy together with Jaime Stein formerly of Sustainable South Bronx.

But because there was no powerpoint her visual aid was a chocolate cake map with wastewater plants marked in M&Ms. She used the cake to demonstrate why the barging of sludge was necessary. Then people ate their cake and it was delicious.

I also made nametags for people with their names and the names of their treatment center. These served as icebreakers for people to connect with each other and made them think about the communities that their use of waste infrastructure affects

The Atlas of Radical Cartography

Lize talks about the Atlas of Radical Cartography, a project she collaborated on with Lex Bhagat looking at maps as a site of power and as a tool that anyone can use. She explains some terms around cartography:

  • Critical cartography is generally an academic term, looking at sites of power and political deconstruction of maps.
  • Counter cartography is producing maps that challenge the dominant narrative of a place or history from an explicitly political point of view
  • Radical cartography is the practice of mapmaking that subverts conventional notions in order to actively promote social change

It’s been about 10-15 years where the interest in maps has grown and become ubiquitous. The Atlas seeks to position maps as an explicitly activist form.

The project is 10 essays and 10 maps that are paired. Each map is about a single issue. Issues include water, immigration, globalization, water, garbage, and energy.

We had a traveling exhibition that moved with the book and initially we thought of this as a a way to distribute books. It was published by the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest and basically independently produced. We are very proud of it because it became a kind of “hit” and has been reprinted several times. The exhibition uses a kind of school/advertising vernacular to show the maps in various ways.

She shows a couple of maps: The Routes of Least Surveillance by the Institute of Applied Autonomy (IAA). This started as an online application called iSee that sought to map all of the security cameras in NYC and help users find a path through the city where they would be least surveilled. The map shows use cases of people who don’t want to be surveilled – Muslims who are being racially profiled; anti globalization protestors on government watch lists; women who are uncomfortable with male camera
operators eyes on them; and so on.

Selected CIA Aircraft Routes, 2001-2006, the work by Trevor Paglen mapping the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. This is a map of the flight routes of planes being used for the extraordinary rendition program. Given that maps are often perceived as being “neutral” she discusses how some people read the map as critical of the CIA and others read it as supportive of the rendition program.

An Architektur mapping physical architecture of spaces of the detention and deportation system in Europe. These are spaces where people are held.

Most of these maps were made by artists and designers and circulate culturally. The last map she discusses is by a group of planners in Kolkata named Unnayan. This one maps refugees settling in informal settlements around the margins of the city. Unain? In this case, it was very important to have an official identity like an address for people to get an ID and then be eligible for city services.

She closes with a passage from the creator of this map, posting questions about the tools of mapmaking. Are there mapmaking languages and logic that would better represent the people live in the spaces that are mapped.


Catherine asks:
How do you imagine how your maps will operate on the world after it is created? How much do you design the distribution parts?

For these, produced in the context of an installation, they were meant for distribution at the events. This is one of the drawbacks of the art context is that the funding often stops at this point. The maps are produced as new information and you hope that it might circulate and continue to operate in the world. In the case of the Atlas, this project got a wide circulation and distribution. For me what I like about paper is that the stuff stays in circulation longer than something online would. The life of a website is short unless there’s a reason to come back to it. For SightLines, we tried to do an online version that failed. There wasn’t the time or resources to do it right. We are now trying to get it into schools to be used as a teaching tool. For some of the projects, I would have pushed the distribution more. Maybe the most successful one I did was a map distributed in transit shelters. It was up for a year and a half and showed public spaces around LA so it got a huge distribution. They kept posting it and it went all over the city.

Becky: What happens when you partner with community groups? Did you do that for the sludge economy?

Lize: Not with sludge economy. But for the Poughkeepsie project, we are collaborating with a community there. Community and informal groups have very little resources and time – this is a challenge – participation has to be very streamlined.

Ian: One of the conversations we’ve been having here is around the logic and mechanisms of change. It’s not surprising to me that maps are getting more attention. I always wonder if we can be more specific about the issues. What specifically will this map change in people’s minds? Is it the participatory aspect of making the map? How do you envision those ideas around social justice?

Lize: There are a lot of different ways to approach it and all need to happen at once. I do a small part of this, something very specific. I’m not a body on the street with a sign, doing policy advocacy. In the past year, I’ve been taking a step back from the art world to assess how I can make as big an impact as possible. In my day job, I’m a fundraiser for social justice groups.

Luisa: You talked about making comic strips for the Poughkeepsie projects. Are you tying those to maps in some way? How does that work in terms of bringing out the stories?

Lize: There are 4-5 pages and they all do something different. One is infographics, one is a foodsystems map, one is a glossary, one is the comic strip. In the end it’s whatever visual serves your purpose. In this country maps are familiar, there’s a lot of map literacy and maps carry a lot of authority and power.

Liveblogging by Willow Brugh, Catherine D’Ignazio and Becky Hurwitz