Mapping urban media infrastructures

Workshop 4 – 30 May 2019

Shannon Mattern from The New School and Rebecca Ross from Central Saint Martins led Workshop 4, in collaboration with Scott Rodgers (Birkbeck). The workshop examined methods for exploring, excavating, observing, testing, and notating urban media infrastructures.

Shannon began the workshop with a rich and wide-ranging discussion of what might count as urban media infrastructures. Participants were asked to conceive of ‘infrastructure’ broadly: from historical traces of urban epigraphy to contemporary sensing technology; and from traditional neighbourhood patois to pervasive personalised screens. In no small part, this broad conception aimed to encompass the breadth of topics that the participants were exploring in their doctoral research, and Shannon pointed to several examples drawn from student’s research abstracts, which were submitted in advance.

This then led to a corollary: how might such various infrastructures be ‘mapped’? Shannon turned here to a series of non-Western, anti-colonialist and indigenous mapping traditions, as well as various techniques for incorporating sensation, affect and the nonhuman into cartographic methods. These groundings and orientations formed the basis for a discussion – led by Shannon and Rebecca together – on different notional systems, and how some of these could be mobilised towards examining and imagining infrastructures differently.

Just before lunch, the participants were organised into groups. As they munched on sandwiches, the groups developed a shared infrastructural question and cartographic strategy, before sharing their preliminary mapping plans and notional strategies with the other groups. Each group then headed out into Bloomsbury, and specifically to Russell Square and its surrounding streets, to make various observations, collect data (e.g. images, artefacts, notes, sketches), and draft some notations on small scale local maps.

On their return, the groups arrived to find large scale maps of Russell Square and its environs, large transparency sheets, multi-coloured markers, and the means to print some of the images they might have taken. Each group was then tasked with creating two different layers of notations on the transparencies. They went on to present their findings, layering each transparency on its own, and then combining them, onto the map.

As a final, more speculative move, the groups collectively decided to bring together their various transparencies, layering them onto a single map. It made for a dense, rather beautiful, perhaps indecipherable, overlay of infrastructural notations. But as Rebecca pointed out, it’s also “appropriate to feel anxiety about trying to make a really clear map. Because when you are making a really clear map it means that you are bulldozing over something.”

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