Cartographies in the digital age: virtual travels, mapping and physical translation of data

In his virtual exploration Journey to the Center of Google Earth published in Altaïr Magazine, the chronicler Simon Sellars delights in the multiple digital textures in 360 degrees proposed by this new way of experiencing cartography and writes: “If the colonial point of view of Mercator’s maps is an uncomfortable way of settling on the planet (hoping that the others, the un-civilized, stay in their place and do not shake the established order), then Google Earth, with its derivations – Google Maps and Google Street View – is a parallel world that infiltrates it”.

In this “parallel infiltration” that digital cartography represents, the arbitrariness and vision of the dominant countries have not disappeared. But, by their very nature, the new digital maps allow us to navigate, read and inhabit them, making our own decisions, being more active, interacting, and producing as users new contributions to a type of cartography that is under permanent construction.
Virtual travel through Google Earth stimulates a series of new literary, visual, and interactive narratives. A good part of them is inspired by video games, a language that could be considered the pioneer in proposing narratives of the virtual movement. Many artists and creators think and execute their journeys in this way, without a concrete physical displacement, using digital cartography.

Madrid-based illustrator and graphic designer Miriam Persand takes virtual walks and turns them into drawings. Through virtual trips through Iceland, Ulan Bator, or the United States, she downloads photos uploaded with the hashtag #turismostreetview and transforms the people portrayed into crocodiles. He has even recreated the streets of the video game GTA San Andreas.

Canary visual artist Jonay PMatos went a little further with Google’s StreetView and conducted an experiment that consisted of creating 360-degree images from photographs that he rotated on the same axis. And he uploaded them to Google Maps like any other user who made his cartographic contributions for certain locations, only in this case they were distorted, exaggerated and erroneous images, spaces as incoherent as they were disconcerting. Even so, the algorithm remained unnoticed for a long time and the artist kept receiving e-mails from Google encouraging him to continue collaborating and uploading photos after the more than 12 million visits to his images that directly perverted the space of Google’s digital cartography.

Digital mapping against dispersion

In addition to allowing us infinite virtual displacements and creative games with geography, digital cartography brings with it the concept of digital mapping, that is, the application of different digital tools designed to generate visualizations of data and information that would otherwise be scattered, disordered, and often inaccessible. From a given classification or a specific list idea, new maps can be created by grouping loose and dispersed elements. And within the Digital Ideas ecosystem, there are many such projects.

Migración y Cultura, for example, is one that has been initiated in Madrid but aims to expand to other parts of Spain. It consists of mapping artistic-cultural projects carried out by migrant people, collectives, and agents. Another case is Civics, an online platform that maps citizen initiatives of various kinds (urban gardens, bike routes, neighborhood solidarity projects), with the particularity of having its code open for the automation of projects, i.e., so that anyone can join and add their work directly, as long as it meets the thematic requirements.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the online festival Frena la Curva emerged, designed to unify many citizen initiatives around the same digital space and with the idea of responding to a common challenge: to channel the social force and generate citizen support to different public and private organizations that were overwhelmed by the pandemic, promoting, for example, the creation of digital maps to facilitate the organization of solidarity networks with the most vulnerable people. This initiative, which emerged from Laboratorio Aragón Gobierno Abierto (LAAAB), was awarded the prize for the best project in the “Strategy against covid” category at the Innovation in Politics Awards.

The city of Barcelona is crisscrossed by an infinite number of maps and routes of all types and categories. One of them is the Xarxa de Radios Comunitarias de Barcelona, a digital map that brings together all the radios of the city that are located around a participatory, investigative, and community radio communication project.

Also from journalism but, in this case, around a specific topic, the digital mapping project on the Spanish urban landscape was created by a journalistic team from More than 12 million buildings constructed throughout the territory were mapped, in a study through which the evolution and vertical and horizontal development of all the cities of Spain can be explored in great detail. The data used were those published on the website of the General Directorate of Cadastre, through which they have automated the download of data on the heights of 7,610 municipalities, with the exception of Euskadi and Navarra, which have their own cadastral body.

The challenge of giving physical form to the pixel

Many of the digital mapping initiatives have to do with a specific way of working with Big Data, that is, with the dynamics of analysis, interpretation, processing, and communication of large volumes of data. And with the possibility that these have a physical form, that they can be translated into a certain materiality so that they can reach and be understood by everyone.

The Domestic Streamers team works with data visualization from this perspective, generating different artistic projects to help organizations and diverse groups in this transition. The director of its creative department, Marta Handenawer, explained it during the round table Emotionalizing in the digital world: “We saw that people were generating data for free and data dominated the world. But, at the same time, people felt that the data didn’t belong to them. So, in this tension between ‘we generate a lot of data but it doesn’t belong to us’, we thought it was interesting to use design and art to explain that data is ours, that we generate it, and that without people data doesn’t exist”.

In this sense, what Domestic Streamers tries to do is to “put the digital close to the body”, for example, visualizing the whole network of hate that exists on Twitter. For an exhibition, they studied a report of the most used words on the social network to inflict harm to other people and chose the first three: “nigger”, “faggot” and “whore”. Under each one, they placed a hammer connected to a motor and every time a hate tweet using that word was posted, the hammer was activated and broke the gallery wall. In this way, they managed to transfer the destructive digital action (also anonymous and invisible) of a hate network to the physical visibility of a museum.

Sergio Rodriguez was another participant at that table, as the founder of Nomad Garden, an urban digital mapping project linked to gardens. “We work with the urban environment, with vegetation. And, therefore, our desire has always been to approach the whole reality of urban vegetation, of the plants that are around us, to awaken a little of the memory they have, to problematize the gardens, the streets, and the orchards that people make in a popular way”, commented this architect specialized in urbanism and landscape. And he wondered: “Where does the information operate and where does it open up? Where does the interaction take place? Normally it seems that this interaction is always at home, with the cell phone. But how can you establish another kind of dialogue where information doesn’t just happen on the other side of the terminal in a dark room? Where information really opens up and unfolds in a synaesthetic way. For example, we are very interested in all that information that opens up, for example, under a jacaranda tree. And, in addition, at a given time, when it is in bloom. And that information is related to a specific color and smell. And maybe it’s occurring only in a place where you have to go. And the information is located again.

Nomad Garden‘s projects are not limited to a single format but try to capture the particularity of the gardens they map and their respective plants. In Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, for example, they generated a series of sounds and songs related to many stories linked to that vegetation. And in Seville, after the mapping work in a garden, they contacted a French perfumer for the creation of a perfume that gathers the essences of some of these plants and reflects all the power of their characteristic aromas.

There is something of this in the obsession of Pedro Montesinos and his soundscapes. This Canarian traveler travels through different geographical environments of the Canary Islands and carefully records the characteristic sounds of the stones, the wind, or the waves, generating a very personal geographical sound log and, simultaneously, cartography of sounds of very specific places.

The digital has reached the cartographic science to expand the idea of map, to promote virtual trips that question the classic notion of displacement and to generate associationism through mapping technology. And, on the other hand, it has brought with it a challenge that many continue to take up and navigate: how to translate the large volume of digital data into physical and, therefore, more palpable realities.

By: Laureano Debat