Mapping the cultural city

With little fanfare, art changes urban history. It creates new ways of seeing, literally. When the first colonists alighted at the Cape under the pretence of discovery, laying the foundations for the turbulent history and crises of identity that we live today, they did so with the help of a technology we now take for granted: the Mercator map.

The Mercator map, which allowed for the long-distance navigation necessary to circumvent the spice route, became the technology of power in a world in which power could be traced along sea currents and passages. In today’s city, power is traced along passages made of concrete, asphalt and representation. In an attempt to overcome these invisible lines of separation, Capetonians are making maps guided less by the needle that points to magnetic South than by the compass of the heart.

The 33˚ 55’S 18˚22’E Cape Cultural Mapping project arose out of the quiet plans for Cape, a biennial event, in 2005/6. There was, specifically, a need to assess how the City of Cape Town worked, especially in the light of the failures of biennials in other cities, and the deficiencies of other festivals in Cape Town. The project organisers realised that Geographical Information System (GIS) software might be able to map “the cultural city”, and so they began compiling stats and venue information, in order to put together a publicly accessible cultural map of the city.

The resulting map catalogues cultural resources in communities across the city, plotting against these helpful population statistics. Using over 300 layers of information loaded onto a professional GIS, the map has great potential for both simplicity and depth. It is easy to call up and compare statistics for any suburb in the prototype software. One can also browse the details of a variety of potential venues and cultural sites. Cape plans to put the mapping system online by September, making it accessible to all and even crossing the digital divide by being available on the Smart Cape computers at municipal libraries.

The cultural map has obvious applications, whether for a foreign promoter planning a project here, a local community organisation looking for partners with whom to collaborate, or the planners of a complex event like a biennial.

However, the very idea of a cultural mapping exercise suggests other more creative applications. Several students have been given disposable cameras and notepads, and asked by the mapping project to go out and document their local areas. One travelled the railway lines, capturing shots of the changing environment along the way. Others captured streets, an intersection, somebody’s home, a bodybuilding gym in a township container.

This aspect of the project suggests that the mapping exercise could become more than the sum of its layers. In the documentation accompanying the pilot release, cultural mapping is defined as mapping both the cultural resources that exist physically and those which are less tangible: “memories, personal histories, values and attitudes”. The project should thus not only support the logistical effort of arts administration, but begin to “[assist] people to identify the meanings and values that underpin their community”.

The flexibility of the GIS software promises even more possibilities. The map could easily include sound and video files instead of the text and still photos currently included as personal experience material. At some point it may be possible for users to upload their own information, offering the possibility of a constantly evolving map.

These possibilities are already visible in the more low-key mapping initiative embodied by the su8 website (www.su8.co.za), hosted by media collective Suburban. A more creative take on mapping the city, the project concentrates on the neighbourhood inhabited by its creators: Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs. “Map yourself, you exist”, the website tells the user. While aimed at users living in the affluent southern suburbs, it remains an appeal to map the city from below. It invokes the secret histories of the suburbs accessible only to the pedestrian youth, those who venture beyond suburban perimeter fences and create artwork in subways and other liminal spaces.

The suburbs are not only a geographical place but a mindset, and the site collects a strange assortment of information about both, encompassing how to get the best out of a suburban mall, where to find graffiti walks, and the details of art projects strung along suburban walks.This all takes a bit of digging, or rather a lot of double-clicking. Yet unlike conventional maps, whose objective is easy reference, su8.co.za asks the user to engage more thoroughly. The ability to download other people’s stories and images of their areas, comment on them and upload your own, makes for interactive mapping. Removed from the brute functionality of representation, the effect is to create a three-dimensional community, envisioning the map as a social database with which one communicates rather than a diagram to which one refers.

The site still suffers from low traffic, but the possibilities are alive, waiting for the community to grow. This year su8.co.za is preparing to upgrade the site, extending the map beyond the suburbs, while also making available to others the tools to create their own maps.

There are similar initiatives, here and elsewhere. Stacy Hardy’s digital artwork I Am Here, is a map of individuals’ sonic associations with the city, and plotted out an aural map of personal narratives of the city. That project had associations with psychogeography, an arcane practice rooted in Dadaism. Psychogeog-raphers, a growing community of pedestrians across the world, take automatic or programmed walks through urban areas, trying to create new paths or map psychological ambiences of their environments.

There are stranger, even more evocative systems of mapping evolving in other cities. Warchalking is a practice of dubious legality which evolved with the first wireless geeks tapping into WiFi hotspots. Warchalkers use a set of symbols to identify both open and closed wireless “hotspots”, wireless networks which they can plug their machines into. The symbols derive much from a similar practice of the American hobos of the Depression years, who used an elaborate system of symbols to mark houses according to the wealth and kindness of the owners.

In Tokyo psychogeographical mapping and wireless technology come together when mobile warriors equipped with WiFi phones and PDAs play Mogi, a game in which players collect virtual objects distributed throughout the physical city, their mobile gadgets the interface between the real and the virtual.

All of these systems predict new ways of mapping, new ways of creating symbolic representations of our urban spaces. Similar practices imprint themselves on the streets of Cape Town. Look closely for markings on pavement corners in Long Street and Loop, warning of the ever-present CCTV eye. Older and more ominous are the gang tags, 28 markings mapping out an alternative territory of fear. Perhaps the sticker art and stencil crazes so popular here will begin to tell stories too, communicating spatial and cultural information straight from the street.

These new mapping technologies and applications are conspiring to imagine a system of representing urban space that is more interactive, more democratic and more fun than simple mapmaking. These possibilities are of significance in a city like Cape Town, where many people often don’t know that the other side of town even exists. It is after all the oldest colonial city in the country, the first place where settlers created boundary walls to divide citizen and native. Now we live with walls that are made of both asphalt and ignorance, concrete and market demographic.

There is no true map — this is the only simple truth that cartography knows. Any representation of the earth has its absences and embellishments. Jorge Luis Borges’ famous story tells of a time and place in which cartography had reached such perfection that in time its cartographers “struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it”.

In the digital world there is the real possibility of collecting an infinity of data, of making spaces and maps that are bigger on the inside than they look from outside. These maps will be deep maps, accruing layer after layer, collecting stories about roads and parks as if they are the infrastructure of intimacy. Perhaps Cape Town’s new map-making initiatives will show the way.Julian Jonker is a Cape Town-based DJ, producer and writer