Sentient Cartography – A Method for Research by Design – Part I

[ DRAFT ] [ FIRST PART ]

This essay follows a series of events that has taken place in an effort to investigate sentient cartography – we use the broad sense of the term cartography, which is the practice of compiling data and visualizing it in some legible form. A contribution by Élise Olmédo to Visions Cartographiques, a blog of the monthly magazine Le Monde Diplomatique, entitled “Cartographie sensible: émotions et imaginaire” (Olmédo, 2011) inspired further reflection on mapping insightfully the intangible and the subjective. It prompted a design workshop organized for the LIFT12 conference held in Geneva, Switzerland, which led to an interview for Les temps modernes, a RTS, the Radio Télévision Suisse, radio program. Later again, second year students at l’ESA, the École Spéciale d’Architecture, explored sensitively the city of Paris in order to understand the impact of digital technologies on architecture and urbanism. This essay is an attempt at understanding what is sentient cartography and what is the aim of it.

The French word “Sensible” is rich with meanings. It is said of instruments that can “measure, record or capture minute phenomena”. The word also designates what can be “perceived by the senses”. A living organism that is “sensible” can “feel, perceive impressions”. Translating the word “sensible” into English was not an easy task, as it could be used, (1), to describe a tool for sensing emotions, (2), to identify a perceivable space or element – a world, an object that is “sensible”, or (3), signal the character of a living organism – that of being able to respond to stimuli. If cartography provides some individuals with the power to represent their world as they envision it, why would we need an adjective to highlight its subjectivity? And which should we consider anyway – emotional, sensory or sentient?

Emotional cartography, as explored by artist, designer and educator Christian Nold, relates to the act of mapping people’s feelings and perceptions “to explore the political, social and cultural implications of visualizing intimate biometric data and emotional experiences using technology” (Nold, 2009). Another project of his, The Sensory Deprivation Map, explores the sensory world of the blindfolded and the deafened. That map was realized by augmenting geo-localized positions with individual observations. In linking motion to emotion, Giuliana Bruno, the film and architecture theorist, gives another take on emotional cartography. Although always a representation, emotional cartography is linked to a process, a displacement, mental and physical, a bodily and imaginary experience. Hence she finds the Carte du Tendre to closely relate to the psychogeographic maps of the Situationists (Bruno, 2002) (Sadler, 1999). Emotional cartography enables us to mentally travel from minute and intimate phenomena to other minute and intimate phenomena.

Beyond representation however, the materiality of the maps can itself trigger various senses, and by that yield to some other understanding or experience of the data explored. A paper map can be held in hands, folded, unfolded, touched, caressed, etc. Historically, embossing contours and Braille text onto the material of a map is a mean by which few of us can read – and imagine – a space. Designers have later experimented with the tangible quality of maps in creating edible or haptic maps, mapping audible landscapes that one can replay or representing smells that one can experience. There are plenty of examples: The artist Kate McLean who created Sensory Maps produced tactile maps of Edinburgh rendering the particularities of a variety of spaces in the city: “Neighborhoods [she writes] have distinct identities, boundaries, often built at different times, for different city expansion projects they have their own textures and ‘feel’”. Élise Olmédo, the author of the article mentioned at the beginning of this essay, used colored pieces of fabric and threads to convey the social and spatial relationship she wanted to highlight. While sound could be incorporated to maps as a means to read them more effectively (Krygier, 1994), it is undeniable that the sense of hearing is also necessary for recalling and locating spaces. This is also the case with the sense of smell. Yet it is probably the most difficult one to represent tangibly. In mapping smells of New York City, illustrator Jason Logan captured familiar odors – especially well known to whom practices the city. One can revisit the scents only virtually, without soliciting olfactory organs. Other designers have gone farther. In an article for The Atlantic, Nicola Twilley, author of the blog Edible Geographies, describes how to make a scratch-and-sniff map – “Scratch ‘N Sniff™ [being] the trade name for a special kind of perfume or scent saturated printing in which the scent is enclosed in minute capsules, which can be broken open by friction.” In an interview conducted by Twilley, urban designer Victoria Henshaw tells us about “the idea of a smellmark [that] obviously comes from the idea of a landmark, and the idea that a distinctive, recurring or constant smell can act as a geographic reference point.” So hearing, touch, smell and taste are just about all the other senses that are missing in the imeageability of a city (Lynch, 1960). Effective sensory maps have qualities that further enhance the total perception of a space. While sensory maps have tangible qualities that digital maps may not have, they nonetheless rely on users’ interactions to activate their narratives. Yet emotional and sensory cartography only render urban experiences. In which way can cartography, in return, influence our experience of the city and the way we shape it?

About these ads