The Decolonial Mapping Toolkit

This landing page is brand new as of Fall 2019. Much more is to come. Till then, see below some background to an associated effort, the Decolonial Mapping Toolkit.


The Decolonial Mapping Toolkit is a digital mapping initiative that will model the decolonization of the cartographic process. It begins this process of decolonization by establishing a participatory spatial platform through which various community stakeholders—from teachers, students and artists, to architects and urban planners—can move beyond mere confrontation of the past, towards reconceiving the present and effecting emergent visions of a decolonized future.

Pairing interactive digital maps with collaborative research, participatory public programming and artistic response, the Decolonial Mapping Toolkit will be a design initiative, a learning site, and a call to action.

As a design initiative, it seeks to assist users in fundamentally shifting their historical, cultural and political perspective. As a historical research and learning site, it encourages a collective process of critical inquiry from a bottom-up perspective, or what is known as “People's History”. As a call to action, it models a generative approach to digital mapmaking, de-centering the perspective of the traditional cartographer, stretching far beyond the idea of mapping as an archival process, and welcoming planners, architects, artists, teachers, and youth to share their responses to these histories and their contemporary legacies.

PERSPECTIVE

Since at least the 15th century, cartographers have served colonialist and neo-colonial enterprises, whether we look at the so-called “discovery” and mapping of the “New World”, or redlining in New York City. From early New York to today's Palestine, cartographers’ top-down view of the world has influenced development and displacement strategies and shaped the creation and expansion of settlements.

If maps have often shaped the physical and social topography of the landscape as much as they have reflected it, what happens when we shift the vantage-point downwards, and stand in solidarity with those on the ground, looking up? What would a map excavated from below, from the layers of history beneath our feet, grounding its viewers across time and space, look like? What could a decolonized map look like?

Shifting Vantage: Treating cardinal signs as relative 

“What is West? What is North?” are questions that must be answered various ways when looking at a map aimed at decolonization. If we take a look at maps drawn from a Middle Eastern, African or East Asian perspective, our understanding of time and space dramatically shifts. In the case of Middle Easterners and Africans, perhaps Africa is at top. From Asian perspectives, Asia is at center and the "West" shrinks, and onward. While our Unsettling Wall Street maps may begin with Lower Manhattan, every point can be linked to processes of extraction which begin overseas in Europe, or with non-native inhabitants' transoceanic points of origin in Africa, the Mediterranean, Europe and Asia. Notice that by the time you jump to the other side of the planet, the map rotates so that we're looking at the world from that people's perspective.

Treating the Past as Present: Questioning linear timelines 

We must utterly question the starting and ending points of any given narrative. Consider: Many creation myths relate the story of the “Beginning,” by starting with “The End,” telling the story of the emergence of a People out of an obliterating flood, for instance. Whose calendar does the entire planet adhere to? Where does human history begin? When does “civilization” begin? Particularly for the descendants of colonized peoples, the past is present, pervaded by a non-linear sense of place and time. Colonized peoples have been continuously relegated to “pre-history” or entirely omitted from “history” as a strategy of erasing their current-day presence and denying their future claims. These harrowing efforts to “disappear” them have never ceased to assault their collective well being, their families’ chances, and their singular sense of themselves. Just as people worldwide increasingly move between the visceral and the virtual, the lived and the vicarious, they also move seamlessly between layers of the present to the historical. The online realm better equips us to time-leap than ever before. No longer must we put our trust solely in an array of “experts” which leave us with a sense of historical remove. Many more of us are in a position to independently fact-check, access primary sources, and physically visit locations of interest, all at incredible speed. This presents unusual opportunities to move beyond the dominant narratives that bind us to a fixed sense of time.

Shifting Axis: Mapping from the ground, up 

The Decolonial Mapping Project is in the process of developing a dynamic online space that brings those whose lives are and have been determined by the impacts of colonialism into the mapping process, incorporating their lived experiences into the maps themselves. As a starting point we invite you to draw your own “map of origin” and consider how it emerges from, or in relationship to the legacies of colonialism. We ask you to question our map layers, to fact-check them, and to send us your suggested edits and additions. We seek to draw you off the internet and into the streets to lead your own walks and develop your own walk routes.

Project Background

Research into the People's History of Wall Street: Rebecca Manski

In the year following Occupy Wall Street, Rebecca Manski began excavating histories of resistance in the Wall Street area, with the intention of creating a digital platform with virtual tours and curricula to which students and teachers could actively contribute in an ongoing basis. She housed her research in Google maps in order to make better sense of the relationships between these resistance movements, their impetus and their impact. Then she began to pilot a series of Peoples' History of Wall Street walks for young people. Her aim is ultimately to encourage students of all ages to actively and physically engage with the roots and consequences of inequity, to learn from the ways that others before them have reacted to these inequities, and to take action now to shift these inequitable dynamics.

Rebecca met Patrick Jaojoco when a collective he was a part of put out a call for decolonial walks in honor of the Palestinian Nakbah. Before moving to New York, Rebecca had lived in Palestine, doing media and advocacy work for five years. In the two years prior, Rebecca had spent several months doing refugee relief work with Syrians, Afghans and Iranians in the squats of Athens. Furthermore, having lived her first five years in Jerusalem as well, Rebecca never didn't think in terms of walls, borders, liminal spaces, zones of indistinction, and the Commons. So, along with a Lenape walk leader conducting a separate walk, she answered the call, offering her usual “Unsettling Wall Street” walk in a new form.

Decolonizing cultural production: Patrick Jaojoco

Coming out of a curatorial program and increasingly frustrated with the limits of interaction that exhibitions—even exhibitions about people, colonial histories, and movements—had in terms of political potential, Patrick Jaojoco gathered a group of like-minded artists, architects, urbanists, scholars, and members of the general public together to consider histories of place not only as a curatorial methodology but also as a mode of decolonizing our spatial relationships with the built environment. This loose collective came to recognize the need for a two-pronged approach to not only decolonizing our spatial relationships, but also decolonizing the mapping process itself. They proposed the creation of a dynamic, online map that would be constantly edited, added to, and changed to decenter the professional cartographer and instead focus on the spatial experiences and histories of groups affected by colonialism and its legacy. This map would then both spur and feed off of public programs ranging from participant-led walks to artist interventions to collective action. In programming our first walk, which happened in May 2018, Patrick met Rebecca, whose research and existing map layers grounded the walks and shaped an extensive collective confrontation of the history and legacy of capitalism and colonialism in Lower Manhattan.

This time, rather than focusing on histories of resistance from the days of Manahatta, Rebecca would dig in to the history of Little Syria, the Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian neighborhood that has been displaced to make way for the Battery Tunnel, and demolished once and for all to make way for the World Trade Center. She would also reshape the walk to make it as participatory as possible. This was something she had experimented with in a range of ways in the past and this provided an exciting opportunity to create a template for future participatory walks. She generated the content, questions, images and activities for four facilitators to split during the upcoming Unsettling Wall Street walk and met with Patrick regularly to discuss the participatory framework

Soon after the walk, Patrick and Rebecca developed the core design framework for this series of map layers, which initially focuses on deeply excavating perspectives on Lower Manhattan. In the early stages, the project is treating Lower Manhattan as a microcosm, but we see our original digital map layers as providing a replicable model that can act as a guide for people interested in this type of “decolonial mapping” in locales globally. The goal is to begin with a richly layered map which is constructed with such integrity and strength that it can ultimately function not only to inspire aligned projects, but to incorporate them as desired by both parties.

The Decolonial Mapping Toolkit started with the questions: What would a map excavated from below, grounding its viewers across time and space, look like? Can we build such a map in a way that has a tangible impact? To this end, the Decolonial Mapping Toolkit (DMT) aims to:
  • Generate an informed digital community activated through participatory walks, public conversations, and collective action in public space.
  • Encourage lines of independent inquiry that can contribute research groundwork to the growing movement to decolonize public space.
  • Develop a digital counter-mapping model that orients website visitors towards action in public space, challenging models that present static information to inactive viewers.
  • Create a collaborative node of convergence for artistic practice, activist research, and autonomous cartographic projects.
We are in the early stages of building a user-friendly and collaborative digital learning site that enables site visitors to connect the dots between overlapping layers of history and more deeply understand their interplay across time and space. Drawing upon our audiences’ various talents and skills, we will work together to construct the historical scaffolding required to push for decolonization of public space and the built environment. We will accomplish this through a range of actions and gatherings, from convening spaces that center the perspectives of those most impacted by colonialism, to striving for physical changes to sites of memory.

Reach out to DMT at decolonialmapping@gmail.com

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