Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Crooked Border

Joe Burgess/The New York Times
The New York Times' Frank Jacobs has a great post on the Borderlines blog about the fallacy of the straight border between Canada and the US, noting that the clear-cut demarcation "deviates from the 49th parallel by up to several hundred feet." It proceeds to deliver an abbreviated history of how the border became what it is today, and that rather than one giant straight line, it's a series of smaller straight lines between a series of border monuments. It concludes with a remark on how colonial forces along the 49th parallel (in Russia's Far East and North America) have created these imaginary lines, with very real consequences, at the detriment of indigenous peoples:
Another (ahem) parallel: Both sets of powers divided the territories between each other irrespective of the native peoples present in those areas. In the case of Sakhalin, Japanese/Russian occupation was disastrous for the Ainu, Gilyak and other local tribes.
In the 1870s, Sioux fleeing the might of the United States Army provided the straight part of what is now sometimes known as “the longest undefended border in the world” with its most poetic epithet. Seeing how an invisible force seemed to stop the American cavalry dead in their tracks, they called that imperfectly demarcated boundary the Medicine Line.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Occupy Maps

We just picked up the new book by our friends' at AREA Chicago, Notes for a People's Atlas: People Making Maps of Their Cities, which we strongly encourage anyone reading this to check out. The book contains a collection of maps of Chicago (as well as a handful of other cities and neighborhoods from around the world) made by residents, visitors, activists, artists and others, along with short essays that provide some historical context for informal and artistic map making.  The Notes for a People's Atlas project began 7 years ago, facilitating the mapping from below of the city of Chicago. One thing that emerges from the collection of rather random mappings of the city (from the politically motivated to the idiosyncratic and comedic) is an understanding of how much our spatial understanding of where we live has to do with how we live in it and what we imagine is possible.

The People's Atlas starts by asking people to mark up blank maps, and it becomes extremely clear that what remains blank in the maps produced is as important as what gets filled in. Through the process of mapping what is known, we also map what isn't known. How can we deal with gaps in individual and collective experience if we don't know those gaps even exist? The immediate, micro moments that define our everyday lives (where we eat, go to school, or get unnecessarily harassed by the police as one map narrates), put into the space of a map, can be projected onto the social fabric that is woven from the experiences of those surrounding us, whether we know them or not. The individual maps in People's Atlas give us an incomplete visual index of a city that isn't some kind of static, naturally defined terrain, but rather is a living entity with permeable boundaries. Various entities flow in and out of its walls, not unlike genetic material breaching cellular walls, struggling to make it a habitable place. Notes for a People's Atlas, encourages us to make this a more just process, realizing in maps our connections to others who are also fighting to make the city inhabitable.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Disaster Tourism is for the Birds

Thanks to the Atlas Obscura blog, we came across this story about several species of birds (Tiger Bittern, Black Bittern, Little Egret, Pond Heron, Indian Pitta and Kingfishers) that plunge to their deaths in Jatinga, India. Apparently, it's not the descent that kills the birds, but the people on the ground. Conservationists and wildlife advocates have been working on figuring out what the cause of the birds' behavior is, and stopping the killings (deaths have supposedly dropped by 40%) At any rate, a tourism agency for the state of Assam is attempting to turn the phenomenon into a tourist attraction.
We should probably apologize for the horrible pun in this post's title.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

RIP Parking Meters

The NY Times just ran a story on the removal of NYC's remaining coin-based meters. We've written about this change that has been happening to the administration of car parking in cities across the country, a shift from municipal to corporate operations. Often this is done as a form of short term revenue generation (ala Chicago) that ends of being a pretty bad deal for both the city and those trying to park in it. We see the shift to privately managed public services like this as simply one (extremely) mundane element (along with things like E-Z Passes and biometric travel security) of what some call the "control society," where behavior is regulated by pay-to-play mechanisms rather than (or along with) traditional disciplinary measures. A "kinder, gentler" form of enforcement, if you will.
The NYT story ran just a couple of days after the International Park(ing) Day, a day where people transform parking spaces into open spaces of gathering, like a pocket park. We wonder what the shift in parking administration might mean for this kind of temporary reclaiming of space, that pretty much depends on a shared practice of public space and understanding of a public good. As long as metered parking spaces operate as a municipal function, one can at least expect a certain amount of latitude in behavior. Many city planners and bureaucrats are actually advocates for non-automobile uses of space after all. But what happens when that space is managed by interests that actually have no stake in maintaining a public beyond one that is a paying customer, and property lines (and the power they engender) extend further beyond the confines of corporate walls?
If you're really interested in the history of parking meters and their rise in cities, check out this report from a 1958 volume of The Patent, Trademark and Copyright Journal of Research and Education on the Parking Meter Industry (pdf).

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Journey West (via a journey East)

Travel Office friends Stephanie Rothenberg and Dan Wang recently opened a travel agency in Beijing called "The Journey West." Along with fellow guides Steve Brill, Sarah Kanouse, Trevor Paglen, we offered our tour of parking in Hollywood, CA. Of course, we really love this, as it's a kind-of store front parallel to our Stories in Reserve guide book series. We also love the tension between the believability of the tours as purchasable, the experiences the tours offer, and the unbelievability of them being offered in the first place.
This reminds us of a 1995 film by Marlon Fuentes titled Bontoc Eulogy (mostly because we recently re-watched it). The film is a meditation on identity and post-colonial violence, by way of the display of Filipino peoples at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and the story of the film maker's grandfather's experience as an object of that display. It presents itself as a personal investigation into family history, a tour through history in the form of a documentary. And the film is a tour of sorts, but is anything but a straightforward document of history. What is gained by the slippage in belief, truth, evidence and experience offered by the film? We might offer that the experience of the film as documentary could be considered equivalent to the experience of place one expects from a guided tour. As John Berger once said of the difference between seeing a painting in reproduction and seeing the painting in real life, I am in front of it. I can see it.
The film, as documentary, functions as evidence of a story that happened, just as the tour functions as evidence of a place that exists.
Guided tours are being used in many ways that start to unravel the conventions of their mediation, as films like Bontoc Eulogy do. The physical experience of place offered by tours, however, offers some interesting, and we think productive, tensions not found in film. The Journey West is one great example, and one that shows the power of simply offering the experience as possible.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Wishful Thinking In Government

Some of our colleagues in the business of providing unsolicited consulting services to government agencies, the Institute for Wishful Thinking, have been seeking proposals from artists, designers, architects, educators and community leaders.
We have offered our ongoing work in Northeast Florida's Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, and there are some other great proposals to browse, including the National TLC Service (Toxic Land/Labor Conservation)!
Their call for proposals is open for another 6 days, until May 8, so get your wishful thinking on.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Architectural Hot Zones

A recent Citiwire editorial by Roberta Brandes Gratz takes up a critique of the bio-science industry that we dealt with in our tour of the Chicago Technology Park. Brandes Gratz's piece takes on initiatives to construct a BioDistrict in New Orleans's Mid-City Neighborhood. We tried to understand the spatial impacts of the biotech industry through the metaphor of "spatial eugenics," a metaphor that looks like it might be equally, if not more so, applicable in NOLA.
The NOLA Defender has a short piece on the clearing of the land that has occurred there, along with a photo essay. The Christian Science Monitor has a more detailed story from December.
Image above from the NOLA Defender's Kat Arnold.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Underground Migration

So, when we proposed an underground walkway for visitors to be taken from a contaminated lot at Fifth and Hill in Champaign, IL to our proposed mMigration Research and Recreation Center, we couldn't have imagined that an underground pipe leaving the site was already present. Thanks to investigations by the Champaign County Health Care Consumers, a pipe once used to transport toxic coal tar from a coal-to-gas manufacturing plant into a local creek was found. From the CCHCC press release:

Yesterday, we released the environmental test results from samples of a pipe (and the soil around it) at Boneyard Creek. The pipe is one that belonged to the former manufactured gas plant at Fifth and Hill Streets in Champaign, which is now the Ameren toxic site. Our concern has been that this pipe could be an ongoing source of toxic contamination into the Boneyard Creek, and along the 5-block stretch of the neighborhood where the pipe runs, til it ends at Boneyard Creek.
When the plant was in operation, from the late 1880s until the late 1950s, the pipe was used to dump tons of coal tar and other petroleum-based wastes into the Boneyard Creek. The environmental experts working with the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign learned about the existence of this pipe after only one day of conducting background research. The pipe and the gas plant's use of the pipe to dump coal tar was detailed in a 1915 report by Ralph Hilscher. The environmental experts working with us asked the IL EPA and Ameren to investigate the existence of this pipe, because of its potential threat to human health, the environment, and Boneyard Creek.
The IL EPA refused to investigate, saying there was no evidence for the existence of the pipe. It should be noted that in the 15 years that IL Power/Ameren have "investigated" the toxic site, they apparently never found evidence of this pipe.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Stories in Reserve Events in New York, February 9

If you're in New York on February 9, we are presenting the first volume of Stories in Reserve at two venues and we welcome you to come and meet the contributors and check out the book if you haven't already.
The first event will be at The Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center, CUNY from 2-4 pm. It will feature  presentations by the Temporary Travel Office and all 5 contributors to the book: Sarah Kanouse, Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga, Ryan Griffis, Lize Mogel, and Sarah Ross. Attendees will be treated to behind-the-scenes virtual tours of three distinct social ecosystems.
Following that, at 7pm, will be a book launch at the great Bluestockings bookstore, where a more informal and intimate discussion of critical tourism and the specific tours in the book will take place.
We hope to see you there!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Touring Protest, Or Maps of Protest

Following some of the reporting on the protests in Egypt by Aljazeera, we came acrossthis story that portrays the protests through maps.
Without getting into the problematics of this form of mapping and its rendering of space-time relationships as flat and simultaneous, we'd like to just think about the image of the map we are presented with. While maps have probably always included iconography as part of their pictorial funtion, the ability for the map's readers to change the scale of the map makes the role of virtual map pins (like those in Google Earth) more visible... maybe. At what scale is the location in question identified by the map pin? The image below suggests that an event took place in the middle of a street, perhaps at the scale of a building. If you zoom back enough, however, the whole city is on fire.

Can one understand the spatial distribution of protest by locating where its most visible events erupt? Is protest simply the events where direct confrontation occurs? And how does this kind of mapping portray the role of the state in such confrontations?
So, we've set this up as if we have answers, but we don't. Instead, we'll continue playing the tour guide and point to a few other places to look.
The image of a city on fire, depicted from space, immediately recalled Mike Davis's description of the 1992 LA uprisings as "seen" by satellite. Davis made the observation that, from space, the difference between a "natural disaster" like a forest fire and a political one, like the LA uprisings, is difficult to discern. The point being, not that the events of April 1992 should be considered "natural", but that so-called "natural disasters" facing Southern California should be considered political.
In the book Mapping Tourism, cultural geographer Rob Shields, discusses the role of mapping in creating an imaginary of protest and dissent, using the 2001 protests during the Summit of the Americas in Quebec.
And finally, media scholar Lisa Parks dissects the role of tools like Google Earth in portraying geopolitical events like the "Crisis in Darfur".

Monday, January 10, 2011

Taking in the Sights

Dean MacCannell's "The Ethics of Sightseeing" will be out later this year, and the University of California Press website has the first chapter available for preview.
It seems MacCannell will take on the relative shallowness of most "tourism studies":
Few assessments have been made more often or contested less than "tourism is the world's largest industry." Several recent empirical studies qualify this statement, finding most trips classed as tourism began as family visits. If that is true, it would be no less accurate or more absurd to say "family is the world's largest industry."
We know little more today about tourist experience and tourist subjectivity than we did thirty years ago. Tourism researchers conduct surveys, form and test hypotheses, undertake ethnographic field studies, and make mathematical models. They seem to assume, in Goffman's words, "If you go through the motions attributable to science, then science will result."
MacCannell also seems to be offering a challenge for the practice of tourism, along with furthering his analysis:
Sightseeing can shift the foundations of existence and, as Stendhal never fails to remind us, establish new possibilities for shared subjectivity. This sharing is not limited to exchanges between tourists and their hosts. It extends to every relationship an ethical tourist will ever have.
This, of course, reminds us of one of our early influences, Gregory Ulmer and the Florida Research Ensemble. Here's a video of Ulmer discussing some of those initial concepts.