Thursday, May 24, 2012

GoogleEarth and the Museum Experience

My colleague Bob Hickey recently pointed me to the very helpful Trails Co-op website which embeds multiple views of trails around the county.  Through the viewer window, at  a user can click on any icon and then easily pull up information on specific trails.  I've also been fascinated by the Center for Geospatial Poetry, directed by colleague the poet Katharine Whitcomb, which leads users to poetry about specific geographic locales in Washington state, by clicking on specific icons tied to the work of specific poets.   (For this to work,  or to see the above frame view of GoogleEarth at the top of this page, you will need to click here to download and install the free GoogleEarth software.)
I have been pondering how our Museum of Culture and Environment might best make use of this kind of GoogleEarth interface to enrich our visitor experiences at the Museum.  For our upcoming exhibition, "Voices of the River: Storytelling, Nature and Culture along the Yakima," for instance, our blog commentaries about the river could include embedded, framed views of GoogleEarth, allowing users to focus in on specific regions or landscape features along or near the river.  For each story we have gathered about the river, we could have an icon that users could click on, associated with a specific geographical site.  Thus, a fly fisherman's commentary (written or audio) about a beloved spot on the river could be accessed by clicking on that specific location.

Roza Dam, Yakima River (Washington state)
Or a recorded debate (audio or video) on the pros and cons of removing the Roza Dam could be accessible via an icon located at the Roza dam site.  A blog commentary on beaver relocation from the valley floor to the river's headwaters areas (an important strategy for flood mitigation) could presumably show geographically where new beaver dams and colonies are located. 

A designated workstation within the exhibition could present that kind of material on the screen, and people could of course access this kind of data before or after their visits to the museum.  But how might we best use GoogleEarth interfaces to enhance our visitors' actual experiences within the museum?  Presumably, this data could be accessed on ipads (signed out from the front desk) as the visitor walks through the gallery, or on the visitor's own iphone or smart phone device through a mobile browser window.  We could have QR codes throughout the gallery so that those with smart phones could scan the codes and be taken to a relevant website that had an embedded GoogleEarth map frame within it, showing the geographic location associated with the story or display in question. Since we will be collaborating with the campus Spurgeon Art Gallery,which will be holding a January 2013 exhibition on art inspired by the river, I imagine that QR code labels near given works of art could let viewers call up geospatial data on the geographic locale that inspired a given painting or sculpture.

As with all uses of mobile devices within a museum space, we'd need to think carefully about how to get visitors to take their eyes off of the screen to engage with exhibited artifacts, works of art or related displays, so that the museum visit doesn't turn into an entirely privatized experience of isolated "life on the screen."  Perhaps there is a way to pose thought-provoking questions about a given artifact, relating the geographical information conveyed through the GoogleEarth map to the physical object on display.   For example, a visitor might be asked:  how have these two painters chosen to interpret this particular locale in the river canyon in two very different ways?  Or, why might this style of indigenous canoe have been favored for navigating this section of the river?  Or, where do you think salmon swimming back up the river system encounter major obstacles to their migration?

In turn, when readers are actually walking along the river, using iphones or other mobile devices, they can be directed to information and stories about that particular segment of the river? (This would be challenging at many points in the Yakima River Canyon, where it is difficult to get any sort of signal; unless there is a way first to download the data before entering into a 'dead' zone.) It would also be great if people out in the field, with ipads or smart phones, could enter their reflections about specific landscape sites along the river, into a comment section of our Museum blog, so that their voices could, in effect be added to the other "Voices of the River," documented by our exhibition project.

The challenge in other words, is using these exciting geospatial technologies to encourage our museum community partners to be active producers of knowledge, and not only passive consumers of  pre-digested imagery and information. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mapping the Family Romance

I continue to think more about the mapping of imaginary worlds, the topic of our new student- curated exhibition at the MCE, “Through the Rabbit Hole: A Journey into Imaginary Worlds.”   Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Family Romance seems helpful in making sense of many such maps, which are, by and large,  the staging grounds of journeys of self discovery in which the young hero or heroine usually detaches him or herself from known parents and encounters a series of alternate parental figures, who are variously valued in positive or negative fashion. For Freud, the Family Romance is a fantasy, initially conscious, in which the child, dismayed that his  actual parents cannot measure up to early childhood visions of them as omniscient and omnipotent, become convinced that his really parents are somewhere else, often of noble lineage. This fantasy, later repressed, informs the great attachment later in life that readers develop with figures in literature, who function as refracted images of other, more powerful or true or beautiful parents.
Max's Room. Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are

These basic dynamics are nicely illustrated in “Where the Wild Things Are,”  by Maurice Sendak, who passed away yesterday.  The book doesn’t contain any overt maps per se, although its famous illustrations clearly map out a psychic topography.  Max, after a confrontation with his mother, is sent to his room without any supper.  “That very night in Max's room a forest grew and grew--and grew until his ceiling hung vines and the walls became the world all around/ and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off night and day /and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.” 

 Max’s room, infused with all his frustrations with his actual parent, transforms  into an imaginary world, in which he is “King” and has complete power over the Wild Things, dangerous adult-like beasts. (In a radio interview with Terri Grosz, Sendak notes that the images of the monstrous Wild Things were inspired by his adult relatives, whom he found scary and repellant and who would in fact say things such as “I love you so much, I could eat you up,” just as the Wild Things do.) Playing out and working through this fantasy of aggressive detachment from parental figures allows in time the developing child to reattach himself to actual parents: thus Max at the end of the story journeys back to his room, and discovers that his supper, a signifier of maternal love, is still warm and still waiting for him.

It occurs to me that one of the most beloved book series of my own childhood, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, is also organized around a family romance quest.  The series’ hero, Taran, is a foundling, obsessed with determining his birth, which he at times desperately hopes will be noble.  The psychic topography of this quest is beautifully illustrated through artist Evaline Wells’ maps for the series.
Evaline Walls. Map for Lloyd Alexnder's Prydain series

Each of Taran’s journey begins and ends from his adoptive home, Caer Dalben, which, significantly, is set apart from the rest of the land of Prydain, across the Great Avren river in the lower right corner of the map.  In each book he ventures across the great river, into the dreamworld of Prydain, where he encounters a series of alternate parental figures.

Consistent with Melanie Klein’s concept of “splitting,” in which loved and feared aspects of the parent are distributed amidst various fantasy figures, these substitute parents include positively-valued father figures--such as Prince Gwydion, King Smoit, High King Math,  the harpist/minor king Fflewddur Fflam (a stand-in for the author himself), the farmer-inventor Llonio, the smith Hevyyd, the prophetic Medwyn, the bard Taliesin, and the sacrificed potter Annlaw clay shaper; several negatively-valued father figures, including the Horned King, King Pryderi, the homicidal bandit Dorath,  Arawn Death Lord, and the shepherd Craddoc (whom Taran mistakenly believes for a time to be his actual father); at least one positive maternal figure, the weaver-woman Dwyvach; and several negatively-coded maternal figures, among them Queen Achren, and the ambiguous, feared phallic mother figures, the three shape-shifting witches of Morva.  Each of these characters is encoded in a specific topographical location on the map; in the course of his quests, Taran must gradually detach himself from each of these positive and negative figures in order to attain adult psychosocial integration.  The final scene of the series, back in Caer Dalben, is cast as a kind of awakening out of a dream state, as all magic fades out of Prydain and Taran weds his beloved, the now-disenchanted Princess Eilonwy,

Freud’s own famous ‘imaginary map’, his map of the Mind, might be read as a kind of guide to many maps of imaginary worlds, including Prydain’s cartography. The Ego is formed for Freud through continuous traversals of the shadowy border lands between the unconscious and the pre-conscious.
Sigmund Freud. Map of the Mind.

And this indeed is what Taran continuously does, crossing back and forth between Caer Dalben, where he is watched over by the omnipotent enchanter Dallben, embodiment of the Super-Ego, and the fantasy universe of the rest of Prydain, across the Great Avren river. At critical moments in the series, he ventures deep into the far southwestern marshes of Morva, in effect deep into his own unconscious, and there makes critical, disturbing discoveries which catalyze his development.  At the entire other end of the map, at the far northeastern “Mirror of Llunet,” he attains a critical epiphany of self recognition, in which he is liberated from his family romance obsession, and abandons the fantasy of noble parentage. (Appropriately, an instant after this epiphany the mirror is shattered by the most terrifying of substitute fathers, the bandit Dorath.)

In contrast to the existentialist Lloyd Alexander, who emphatically rejects the fantasy of noble blood in favor of self-fashioned “noble worth,”  C.S. Lewis in the five volume Chronicles of Narnia embraces the aristocratic obsession with blood lineage. This is perhaps most striking in The Horse and His Boy, another narrative organized according to the classic principles of the Family Romance.  In the book, the Family Romance fantasy turns out to be literally true: the boy Shasta suspects his supposed father, an impoverished dark-skinned man, is not his real father, and after escaping north he learns that he really is prince and heir to the kingdom of Archenland.  In keeping with British imperial and racialist ideology, the hero’s quest is figured as a transition from the land of Calorman, a parody of an Islamic kingdom inhabited by treacherous dark-skinned warriors and merchants, to a “free” northern land, inhabited by white-skinned honest folk and talking beasts.
Map of Calorman. From C.S. Lewis' The Horse and His Boy.

At the same time, the story is also one of decolonization, in a sense: each of the central characters has to learn to free him or herself from mental enslavement in order to become a respected citizen of the free northern world.  This transformation centers on the replacement of external coercion with an internalized sense of duty and honor. All of these transitions are occasioned of course throughthe  interventions of the Christian Father figure of Aslan, who moves the four heroes (two human, two horses) northwards across the map over the course of the tale. In keeping with Arnold Van Gennep’s classic tripartite scheme of coming of age, this journey towards maturity is mapped out in three spatialized segments: they must detach from Calorman in the south, then are subject to a series of transformations and trials within the liminal space of the desert, and finally undergo reintegration into a higher state of being in the northern “free” kingdom of Archenland.

I am less certain if and how the Family Romance fantasy informs my very favorite set of imaginary maps, those created by Ursula LeGuin for her Earthsea universe. The hero Ged quickly detaches himself from his peasant father and then alternately detaches and reattaches himself to his master Ogion. The three books of the initial Earthsea trilogy  traverse the intricate map of the archipelago in the interest of charting the developing male psyche and the non-erotic love between men:  Ged and Ogion, Ged and Vetch, and finally Ged and Arren (the future King Lebannen), with an enigmatic interlude of platonic love between Ged and the girl priestess Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan.  There may be a way to read the entire map of the Earthsea archipelago as a kind of distributed consciousness; Ged must visit every corner of these island universe,  from the violent “white” Kargish islands to the distant maritime reaches of the raft people, partaking of each spaces’ varied qualities so that he and his adept Arren may attain final psychological maturity and mastery.
Ursula LeGuin, Map of Earthsea.

In her later, very fascinating works  (Tehanu; The Other Wind)  LeGuin revisits the map and “archives” of Earthsea to uncover an alternate feminist topography to this universe, in which women’s mystical powers underlie the surface appearances of male-dominated magic. Even the “Dry Land" of Death (a space that, significantly remains unmapped by visual cartography in the books) is revealed as a kind of violent male imposition motivated by a quest for unnatural immortality, violating feminine (or perhaps transgendered) protean cycles of loss and regeneration. The Dry Land must itself be undone to liberate dead souls and allow them to move towards transmigratory cycles of release and rebirth, finally uniting the scattered islands of Earthsea, including the seemingly anamolous Kargish “white” lands.  In this rendering, the vast map of Earthsea becomes consistent perhaps with the classic Buddhistic cartography of the universe, the Mandala, which classically functions as an elaborate map of the evolving psyche, in its dynamic struggle through a series of attachments towards ultimate release.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Imaginary Maps

We had a marvelous symposium last night at the Museum of Culture and Environment (here at Central Washington University) on the theme of "Mapping Power: The Power and Politics of Cartography", marking the opening of our first student co-curated exhibition, "Through the Rabbit Hole: A Journey through Imaginary Worlds."  Marna Carroll (Anthropology) explored Native American indigenous and early contact cartographic or wayfinding forms, which tended to function as what might be termed phenomenological icons of experience, emphasizing the dynamic subject position of the map creator, the shifting human experience of mobility, and protean inter-personal and inter-community relations: thus, in an early Chickasaw map, fully drawn pathways between locales indicate positive political and economic relationships, while broken path lines evoked the rupture of productive relations of alliance and reciprocity. An indigenous Rhode Island area map inscribed on stone, in turn, foregrounds human maritime pathways through Narragansett Bay, not directly marking terrestrial features or human settlements, which were much less relevant to the mobile indigenous subject. (Marna noted that other indigenous maps render the birthplace of their creator larger than other sites.)  In contrast, emerging European maps from the Age of Exploration, while highly political in terms of their underlying ideological agendas, increasingly presented themselves as objective, rationalist and universal, divorced from the active subject positionality of their creator. These Western maps, it occurs to me, were thus consistent with what Martin Heidegger terms "the age of the world picture", exemplifying the ideological practice of positing the world as (square or rectangular) picture, subject to (ostensibly) rationalist and objectivist modes of knowing.

Steve Hussman, the university archivist, then presented on the turn-of-the-century corporate coal mine maps of nearby Roslyn, Washington, in its time one of the most significant coal-mining sites in the Pacific Northwest.  Steve contrasted the objectivist logic of these maps, emphasizing coal seams and major underground tunnel systems, with photographic documentation of the mines and the mining communities. The maps function, in effect, to exclude all traces of human subjectivity, including the physical agonies and hardships of underground labor.  Steve opened his talk with an evocative passage from Upton Sinclair's novel King Coal (1917): "They were old mines—veritable      cities tunneled out beneath the mountains, the main passages running for miles…and (Hal) got     through his physical senses a realisation of the vastness and  strangeness and loneliness of this     labyrinth of night.”  This is precisely the texture of lived, laboring experience that is excluded by the highly abstracted maps produced by the company, which were active technologies of control and regulation.

In this sense, it occurred to us in conversation afterwards, the coal maps were consistent with the logic, in Marx's terms, of commodity fetishism, which tends to mystify or render invisible underlying conditions of labor, namely the systematic extraction of labor power under capitalist modes of production.  Indeed, these maps appear to have been closely guarded secrets, held by the management of the Northern Pacific Railway company and not accessible to miners themselves. As was the case for early maps produced by David Thompson of the Northwest--produced for the Hudson's Bay Company in the interest of their fur trading operations-- the primary logic of these maps was commoditized resource extraction, in which the sensual and subjective experiences of work and movement were emphatically excluded from representation. (And yet, as my colleague  artist Gregg Schlanger noted, the company's coal mine maps are still strangely beautiful; it is sometimes hard, even in the context of rationalized corporate capitalism, to evacuate the aesthetic impulse entirely!)

We then moved on to a public conversation with our students Heather Hansen ('13)  and James Grandon ('13), the co-curators of the museum's delightful new exhibition on imaginary maps, "Through the Rabbit Hole: A Journey through Imaginary Worlds." The show emerged out of a joint project they undertook this past Winter quarter in my Exhibition Design course. They've brilliantly realized and transformed their initial exhibition script to engage visitors in a projective experience of fantasy travel: on the gallery walls we follow their mythic hero, the white rabbit Ethel, through an imaginary(and quite intertextual) quest, encountering silhouetted figures from beloved fantasy books as well as commentaries on the nature of imaginary maps. The exhibition's "journey" concludes in a reading nook filled with works of fantasy fiction (themselves containing imaginary maps) encouraging visitors to travel internally, within the realm of imagination.  Appropriately, the students placed over their reading nook a quotation from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings about travel, which could equally be read as an epigram about the nature of reading itself: "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."

Rather unexpectedly, the exhibition, once physically completed, came to function as an intriguing riff on Plato's famous cave in The Republic, in which shadows cast from an external light source come to take on life of their own: our Collections Manager Lynn Bethke arranged a spotlight so that the rabbit hero appears to be walking across a shadow of a rope bridge (itself inspired by Indiana Jones' bridge.) On the wall of the reading nook,  museum visitors are invited to hang their own fantastical maps of imaginary worlds, so that the shadows of our minds, in effect, are continuously projected onto this dynamic exteriorized space of imagination.

In our public give and take with the student curators, it occurred to us that the genre of the imaginary map, which itself emerges early in the Age of Exploration (most notably in the maps created to illustrate Thomas More's Utopia from 1516 onwards) could be read as partially contrastive with the dominant sensibility of emerging western cartography, which increasingly emphasized the disenchanted objectivity of the mapping project. In Michel Foucault's terms, mainstream maps exemplified the emerging rationalist 'order of things', compartmentalizing various orders of experience in the interest of a supposedly transcendent universal subject. In that sense, modern western maps are consistent with the Foucauldian project of "governmentality", reducing human communities to "populations," subject to modern systems of classification, power/knowledge and control.

In contrast, most imaginary maps, it would appear, push against the dominant western (or global) tendency towards disenchanted modernity.  In a manner somewhat analogous to the indigenous map forms discussed by Marna, imaginary maps usually set the stage for a heroic journey by the hero or heroine, and actively invite the viewer to project her or his subjective experience of the world into them. Many fantasy maps emphatically signal that they are not purely rationalist modern representations, by including fanciful images of dragons or other mythic beasts, as well as other archaic images, and by striving for a hand-drawn look and feel that nostalgically summons up the pre-modern. 

This tendency towards emphasizing the human hand in fantasy maps, we noted,  is exemplified by the magnificent opening credit sequence of HBO's series Games of Thrones, an enormously complex imaginary map which, while created through Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) provides the illusion of being comprised of hand-made machinery, modeled on Leonardo da Vinci's hand drawings of intricate cogs and wheels) [See for instance, ]

Having said that, there may well be features of the Foucauldian "gaze" which are partly preserved in most fantasy maps, from Tolkien's maps of Middle Earth to the enormously complex ramifying map spaces of the on-line game Skyrim. Objectivist conventions, positing a rationalist mathematical mapping between the map and external territory, are usually preserved. (A fantasy gamer explained to us that a fellow gamer recently 'walked' on line across the entire universe of Skyrim, which took him nine hours.)  It would be worth pondering carefully the ways in which Heidegger's "Age of the World Picture" is both exemplified and subverted through the genre of fantasy maps!