Architect Laura Kurgan writes about maps and how they “show us where we are and how to get somewhere else.” In doing so, they also have an “identity-reinforcing and maybe even identity-constitutive function”, as they help not only to navigate but also to locate oneself. 1 The making of maps connotes authoritarian regimes and colonial Eurocentric approaches to the world. To borrow the words of philosopher Michel de Certeau, the bird’s-eye view creates a “fiction of knowledge”. 2 However, it can also be claimed that maps and mappings have emancipatory potential. A map can make things visible and propose alternative spatial approaches. Maps are not only tools for designing physical space, but they also create discursive, mental, virtual and political spaces.
Counter-mapping can be a strategy to visualise narratives and relationships which are not obvious at first sight. 3 We believe that mapping practices can be used to highlight injustices within our built environment. It is a problem that knowledge about ownership is reserved for only a very narrow layer of society; it is difficult to access and difficult to claim this knowledge. As Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle point out in the book Cartographies of the Absolute(2015), a widespread enthusiasm with political aesthetics and art politics does not necessarily mean that “attention has been given to the area of practical and theoretical action that we can temporarily call aesthetics in the economy.” 4 Here we see aesthetic and visual practices as an opportunity to communicate, not just as “political art”, but rather, or hopefully, as a collective practice in claiming our right to the city.
The project Mapping the Unjust City aims to explore how mapping and infographics can visualise ownership and financial relations, more specifically in city centres and in a Swedish context. What aesthetic strategies can provide citizens with more knowledge about the area they reside and move in, and thus possibly provide more space for action?
The Swedish built environment is undergoing major changes when it comes to urban ownership. The rise of a global property market, aided by privatisation and deregulations has led to a financialisation of the city. Recently there has been a growing interest in investment―or speculation―in the residential suburbs (which were constructed in the 1950s-1970s), including their key local properties. Municipalities have aided this process by readily giving up public housing for a short-lived profit. Swedish municipal decision-making policy is designed in such a way that changes of ownership are not considered as important for the public as changes in the built environment. To pass changes in a zoning plan, which regulates the built environment, the law stipulates a public consultation. However, changes in ownership can be just as, or even more, transformative than changes in the physical make-up of space―resulting in a weakening of public housing and recurrent renoviction processes, literally putting people on the streets.
Despite this, the popular debate, as well as the debate among social activists and artists working in the urban field, tends to focus on either the stigmatised suburbs or the middle-class “hipster”. As Alexander Berthelsen points out in his essay “Gentrification beyond cappuccino”, it is naturally easier to focus on these easily defined tokens than addressing gentrification as a global process. 5 Here we also find an urgent need for new visual strategies that can explore these abstract processes.
This essay is an attempt to share reflections on the experience of a mapping process that has resulted in a series of outcomes. These can be divided in two categories: the first being a subway map with additional info, and the second being a series of less diagrammatic activities and narratives displayed together with the map, investigating more nuanced topics. These two parts can possibly be described respectively as quantitative and qualitative visual elements and methods. By combining these, the flat map grows into a more comprehensive information capturing.
Central questions in our work are: How do we visualise changes where the key urban centres are reduced to investments and the fungibility of space is taken for granted? How do we create a mapping that functions as a tool for analysis, which offers an understanding of the consequences of corporatisation and property ownership? What aesthetic methods are there to avoid reproducing and normalising the violence that is already there? How can an image instead become a mobilising tool and inspire people into action?
In 2015 we made the first version of a map, showing ownership of key areas in the city of Stockholm and the degree of public accessibility of the city centre in terms of private property versus public land. This abstracted map used the design of the Stockholm subway lines as a grid, in order to provide means for geographical navigation. The subway map, which is more of a pragmatic schematic diagram than a realistic map, 6 provides familiarity, which makes it easier to introduce new information. It proved to communicate successfully, especially when printed in large formats that allow a group of people to gather around and look at it together. The map has since taken different shapes as it has been presented in different formats and contexts, such as exhibitions, publications, squats, protests and conferences.
In an early version we showed the logos of the companies, a picture of the owner, and an information box about the struggles that followed the change in ownership. Rather than (once again) gathering and highlighting histories of the victims of privatisation, sanitisation and securitisation processes, we wanted to highlight a segment that is often hidden in discourses about the segregated city: to actually identify and show an image of the property owners was a strategy of making them more visible and thus accountable. The portrait of several old white men on a map has a strong visual effect and allows for a clear narrative to be formed and understood. Simultaneously, we acknowledge that by highlighting these individuals there is a risk of attributing the problem on an individual, personal level rather than pointing at the bigger structural phenomenon of the capitalist system. For this reason, we have in most cases presented maps where ownership is represented only by company logotypes. On the other hand, there is a risk that we contribute to a normalisation of their omnipresence in the city.
Whether we study the particular zoning laws or the financial fluctuations of these city centres, we have found that the ownership aspect becomes, contrary to what the map suggests, less of a dichotomy between public and private. The recent history of these city centre properties reflects the wider workings of how contemporary capitalism is reliant on a global system of land and property ownership. The lawyer and professor Ugo Mattei has used the image of a servant selling off a family’s best silver to satisfy their need of going on a holiday, as a metaphor for the scandalous fact that public goods are not protected by the constitution, and how irreversible sales affect coming generations, who did not choose the servant. 7 Mattei’s metaphor also shows the need of finding new images to describe these corporatist processes.
One problem with infographics and diagrams is that the tools and visual traditions they build on come from the natural sciences and thus are lacking visual conventions for communicating ambivalence or in-betweenness. 8 The clear language of diagrammatic visualisations, such as this one based on a subway map accompanied with a legend, is thus insufficient in providing what Mattei is asking for. Our map risks reproducing distinct lines between public and private. 9 In doing so it excludes the notion of the commons, and the fact that there are other collective imaginations (and knowledges) on how to govern these local city centres beyond public and private companies. It also does not make visible or provide tools to understand the public-private management that is becoming increasingly common, in line with the principles of entrepreneurial urbanism. 10
In exhibitions we have sometimes included the zoning maps of specific urban centres to highlight some of the invisible layers of the city. The zoning maps are interesting as a document and image in itself, as a suggestive map that forms our physical environment through allowances and restrictions with sometimes unexpected and unwanted outcomes. An important aspect for us has been to highlight the fact that many of the zoning maps were made at a time when privatisation of the city centres was not on the cards, which meant that both central squares and physical buildings were often part of the same property. This has strong implications for what is actually bought when venture capitalists buy city centre properties. In the Stockholm suburb Hagsätra, for example, IKEA’s housing company Ikano now owns not only the building but also the land on which it stands, and has used this fact evicting protestors from it.
One narrative aspect of our mapping process is the direct email conversations we had with local city centre managers. In order to see how they deal with civil rights, we decided to do a litmus test in relation to the right to demonstrate. We contacted a number of property owners asking for permission to stage a demonstration (against global homelessness) in a shopping centre. Out of all the emails we sent, only two replied with the correct guidelines on how to manage such a request. For the most part the answer given was that we were not allowed to demonstrate, or they recommended another place―albeit always pointing out how they sympathised with the important cause. 11 This response shows a lack of competence in upholding our civil rights and while being congenial with the spatial strategies within the shopping centre. Signage systems, private guards and lack of gathering spaces are ways to signal that they are not public, even though they are supposed to conform to the same laws that apply to public land. We see a kind of governing that is focused on efficiency rather than rights. 12 Displaying the emails is a means of showing how democracy is under attack and also a strategy to denaturalise the exceptions that generate and reproduce a space of post-politics.
“The function of the map is less about reflecting a reality than engaging in the transformation of the world in which people live”, landscape architect James Corner essentially states, but the question then becomes how and whom it transforms. 13 The qualitative parts of our mapping exercise add a dimension to the actual map and display material to support and affirm the rights people still have in our local city centres.
Ownership, and its consequences, have changed over time. Some city-centre properties have changed owners several times in just a few years. In order to open up a temporal dimension of the map we are now developing a digital version. A potential of the digital map is also to visualise the flow of money, by tracing the companies involved and their expanded global network.
The counter-mapping process here thus becomes a practice that reinforces an understanding of the connections that drive the flows of capital. In a time when logistic algorithms control and move production, reliant on our labour, and in which GPS tracking and clocking are used to discipline and maintain subordination, new navigation tools are needed. Maps, with their inherent mobilising potential, can provide both new perspectives and strategic positioning, suggesting other geographies and alliances. Rather than reading the city through its south-north axis, it is possible to analyse it through ownership clusters instead.
One constant challenge in the attempt to visualise an “overview” of ownership in the city is that “[T]he map will hinder the mapping, as we come to be captivated by fetishes of scale and precision that smooth over the world’s contradictions”, to borrow from Toscano and Kinkle. 14 The presentation of quantitative data can on the one hand function as a reminder of a shocking reality that can provoke the taking of a critical position and generate action. On the other hand it is constantly at risk of overshadowing a more in-depth analysis, which calls for the importance of supplementary narratives.
It is our hope that our mapping exercise also conveys the obvious fact that the segregated city is relational; that unevenness is not an innate characteristic of a particular place. The utilitarian purpose of the map could be that people suffering from processes of city-centre privatisation and transformation can see that other people have struggled with the same owners in other places, and rather than inventing the methods of resistance from scratch give them the impetus to unite.
- Kurgan, Laura. Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology & Politics. New York, NY: Zone Books. 2013. ↑
- de Certeau, Michel. A Practice of Everyday Life. Berkleye, CA: University of California Press. 1988. ↑
- See, for instance, http://crisis-scape.net, https://nycommons.org, https://maps.squat.net; and http://www.urbandisplacement.org (both accessed 2018-0926.) ↑
- Toscano, Alberto and Kinkle, Jeff. Cartographies of the Absolute. London: Zero Books. 2015. ↑
- Berthelsen, Alexander. “Gentrifiering bortom cappucinon”. Tidningen Brand. No. 2. 2012. ↑
- A compilation of GIFS showing the relation between subway maps and the geography made by the subreddit group Data is Beautiful can illustrate this: http://www.openculture.com/2017/06/animated-gifs-show-how-subway-maps-of-berlin-new-york-tokyo-london-compare-to-the-actual-geography-of-those-great-cities.html (accessed 2018-09-25.) ↑
- Mattei, Ugo. “Gemensam Nytta”. Balder Essä 2016. ↑
- Drucker, Johanna. Graphesis. Harvard University Press. 201.5 ↑
- A lecture by Ugo Mattei on this and the commons can be found online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-lZA6gHWg8&t=365s (accessed 2018-09-26.) ↑
- Franzén, Mats, Hertting, Nils, Thörn, Catharina. Stad till salu: entreprenörsurbanismen och det offentliga rummets värde. Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos. 2016. ↑
- This kind of testing of publicness has been done periodically in Stockholm over the past decades, by, among other groups, Alternativ stad and Alarm Stockholm, which both gave away leaflets and played music in the shopping centres. ↑
- As Stavros Stavrides writes: ”Exception as a form of suspension of rights is acceptable to the enclave inhabitants, or even desirable, because it is presented as a ‘naturalized’ obviously effective, administrative procedure”. Stavrides, Stavros. Common Space: The City as Commons. London: Zed Books.2016. ↑
- Corner J., “The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention.” In Mappings. ed. Denis Cosgrove. London: Reaktion. 1999. ↑
- Toscano, Alberto and Kinkle, Jeff. Cartographies of the Absolute. London: Zero Books. 2015 p.4. ↑