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Radical maps: Cartography as a Tool of Action

Radical maps: Cartography as a Tool of Action

The Zone, an interactive installation by Pablo DeSoto and Román Torre. Courtesy of Pablo DeSoto

Pablo DeSoto, a Brazil-based experimental architect, multidisciplinary artist, scholar, and activist, is a radical cartographer. Following Deleuze and Guattari’s premise of cartography as a tool of action rather than representation, DeSoto was part of the collective that founded, a platform engaged in critically visualizing geopolitical power relations. Recently, he conceived “The Zone” with Román Torre, which was on view last year in Spain and dealt with nuclear disasters. In this brief interview, we asked him about his cartographic practice as the field where his experience and background come together.

Your practice is defined by map making, how did you come to the conclusion that maps would be the appropriate tool to express your research?

I am interested in maps from a very early age. I guess It all began when my mom bought me a really cool atlas. I loved it so much. I spent dozens of hours enjoying its maps and becoming step by step an expert in geography. That episode turned me into both an explorer and a cartographer!

Then, once in College, at Seville School of Architecture, I met another mapmaker, Jose Pérez de Lama. Through his writing, I got to know the Deleuze-Guattarian concept of cartography. We did match and started working together. We created, together with Sergio Moreno Páez, the team. For almost a decade, experienced a continuous interest in cartography as a tool for both the acquisition of critical knowledge but also as a form of activism. Since the beginning, our practice has been based on Felix Guattari’s and Deleuze’s ideas on cartography as rhizome, cartography as performance. 

For those authors, mapmaking is an action rather than representation. Rather than representing a pre-existing world, cartography implies the identification of new relations, territories and machines, new ways of agencing and ‘subjectivity production.’ We produced several cartographic processes, especially the Critical Cartography of the Strait of Gibraltar (2004), developed in collaboration with several social and artistic collective works which operate in that geopolitical territory.

During the last years, I have been continuing that work myself. “The Zone” is a way to turn the research fieldwork I did in Japan (as an artist in residence in Tokyo Wonder Site) and my following PhD work into an interactive installation. The project explores the possibilities of art & cartographic displays in understanding contemporary environmental disasters.

What is the relevance of constructing a critical cartographic imagination today?

Entire relevance. We need critical cartographic imagination today more than ever, in midst of the so many crises and emergencies Earth and many Earthlings are currently facing. We need maps to keep on organizing the protection of the commons, natural and cultural ones (even though this difference doesn’t make sense anymore). Water, air, and culture are all under critical threat in our current time. We are at war, the Fourth World War as the Zapatistas coined it, against Neoliberalism and the ultra-right movements. Brazil, where I live, is now at the frontline with the new government’s shock doctrine. For example, Amazon rainforest deforestation and the assassinations of environmental activists have dramatically increased in the last months.

We need maps to protect what we still have, commons and lives, but also we need critical cartography to continue imagining other possible worlds. We have a huge task ahead in order to avoid the sequence of Mad Max Fury Road portraying a cave in a desolated landscape, which had on its walls written “Who killed earth?”

How would you imagine an appropriate method of representing our planet today? 

What a question! On the one side, we are seeing many mapping approaches representing our planet in the Anthropocene geological epoch. Those maps are visualizing Earth System data sets in relation to the so-called Great Acceleration and on the rate of impact of human activity upon the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. On the other side, in the field of radical cartography, we are seeing a complementary kind of critical maps. A relevant example is Anatomy of an AI System that visualizes all the planetary resources, human labor, and data behind our technological devices. Another one is the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, a visualization, data analysis, and storytelling collective documenting the dispossession and resistance upon gentrifying landscapes.

Radical cartography is the very field of my artistic, activist, and teaching practice. I am currently working, together with my students and grassroots activists, on two approaches: the first one dealt with the Mariana dam collapse that happened in 2015—the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history. Several towns were deleted from the map. I wanted my Architecture Design Studio students to understand such socio-environmental crime in the wider geographical and historical context of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene. Some of the results were three amazing maps. The first one, entitled “Anthropogenic Networks of Global Disasters,” by Alice Piva, Arthur Chacon, Isadora Queiroga, and Saulo Menezes, studied Mariana’s dam disaster on the macro-scale of extractive capitalism. The second one, by Talita Stael, approached the impact of the disaster under the scope of the Planetary Boundaries offered by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. The third one, entitled “The Machine of the World,” by Alice Piva, visualizes the difference of scale between mining infrastructures and human settlements in Bento Rodrigues, the ground zero of the disaster. This analysis is accompanied by a very famous poem by Drummond de Andrade, a Minas Gerais native who wrote about the impact of the mining industry on those same landscapes.

Another ongoing cartographic adventure is Mapping the Commons, a long term project that started in Athens in December 2010 and in Istanbul in November 2012, aiming to trace the contemporary role of the commons in the urban environment. Mapping the Commons takes the main form of a temporary laboratory where activists, artists, social scientists, and students from different disciplines join for more than a week. The project proposes a method where the urban commons are discussed, parameterized, and studied through images and maps. Right now, I am conducting the project in Joao Pessoa, a city in North-East Brazil where I currently teach. The city has incredible natural commons such as mangrove and coral reefs (and of course many rivers), all of them currently under threat by the tourist industry and urbanization.

An interactive installation by Pablo DeSoto and Román Torre.

The Zone is an installation about the Anthropocene/Capitalocene landscapes of our damaged planet. It takes its name from a real physical space, the exclusion zone established as a consequence of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Following the meltdowns of several nuclear reactors in March 2011, almost two hundred thousand people were forced to abandon their livelihoods in a matter of hours. Human settlements turned into ghost towns, now inhabited by the uncanny presence of ionizing radiation. Invisible gamma waves, alpha & beta particles occupied the physical space of the former inhabitant’s memoirs, a warning about dreams of technological progress turned into nightmares.

The Zone consists of three main parts: an interactive cartography, a workers’ area, and a documentation area. The main piece is an 80 square meters’ interactive map. The map is projected on the floor allowing the visitors to walk on top of it. Five digitally fabricated objects on its surface, activate a specific story when approached by the visitor. These stories include first the earthquake and tsunami, second the multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns, third the evacuation of the population, fourth the first journalists to get into the Exclusion Zone, and fifth the citizen science as a response to the invisible radiological disaster.

The workers’ area is a tribute to the thousands of workers, mostly subcontract ones, who enter Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant everyday or work in the decontamination brigades. It includes a Geiger Counter developed by Safecast, a citizen science community established in Japan as a response to the nuclear disaster.

The documentation area includes books, reports, photos, and academic papers on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. It additionally includes resources from primary sources collected in Japan between November 2011 and February 2012. Selected Academic Papers are organized into six main categories: Social Movements, Citizen Science, Philosophy, Ecosystems, Activism, Workers, and Public Health.

DATE: June 20 to October 21, 2018 / LOCATION: LABoral Art Center, Gijón, Spain / FUNDING: The Zone is the winning project in the 6th DKV – Álvarez Margaride Production Scholarship, organized by LABoral Centro de Arte in conjunction with the DKV insurance company. / TEAM: Pablo DeSoto, Román Torre / PHOTOS: Marcos Morilla / TEXT: Pablo DeSoto, Román Torre

Pablo DeSoto is a Brazil-based experimental architect, multidisciplinary artist, scholar, and radical cartographer with a singular and iconoclastic experience across geographic and disciplinary borders. He holds a Master Degree in Architecture from the Royal Institute of Technology of Stockholm and a PhD in Communication & Culture from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He is LAB_Joven Experimenta & LAB_Cyberspaces awards by LABoral. Pablo is the editor of three books and he has exhibited, taught and lectured worldwide.

Román Torre’s work is not anchored to any particular format. He is especially interested in visual and speculative narratives inspired by science and science fiction. He likes to recreate that kind of situations consciously or unconsciously through installations, devices and other series of artistic formats that allow him to combine technical and visual research, interest in contemporary issues surrounding the human being in its technological and social environment. 

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