Philippe Rekacewicz

The human and emotional dimensions of maps

interview by Delphine Papin

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Born in 1960, Philippe Rekacewicz is a French geographer, cartographer and Information designer. He works on a number of projects which bring together cartography, art and politics, especially studying how communities, political or economical powers produce the cartographic vision of the territories on which they operate, and how they can manipulate and lies with maps for the sake of reinforcing their power.

Philippe Rekacewicz was a permanent collaborator of the international newspaper Le Monde diplomatique in Paris between 1988 and 2014. From 1996 to 2007, he was also heading the cartographic unit of a relocated office of UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) in Norway. Since 2014, he is co-coordinator, with Philippe Rivière, of, a research website dedicated to “radical and experimental cartography and geography”, In 2017, he joined as associate researcher the department of Anthropology in the University of Helsinki (Finland), participating to the project “Crosslocations”. 

He works on a number of other projects which bring together cartography, art and politics, especially studying how communities, political or economical powers produce the cartographic vision of the territories on which they operate, and how they can manipulate and lies with maps for the sake of reinforcing their power.  He develops with other groups research projects on radical and critical cartography in Europe. In saying that “there is no such thing as an innocent map”, he claims his strong believe in the fundamental subjectivity of maps; and in widely using sketches and hand drawing sketches, he wishes to rehabilitate the human and emotional dimensions of maps usually rather considered as a cold technical tool without feelings.

You are one of the first newspapers’ cartographers to publish pencil hand-drawn maps. What did lead you to come back to an “oldy” graphic style , a choice that appears almost in contradiction with the increasing utilisation and popularity of digital mapping and Geographic Information System (GIS)? 

Sketches have always been considered and used as a step that figure what the map is going to look like. It’s not really new and I am certainly not the first one “drawing ideas” before using any kind of digital tool to produce maps. Visiting the archives of Otto and Marie Neurath in Readings University few years ago, I was totally taken and moved by the enormous amount of sketches, sometimes very roughly put together, that they were drawing beforehand, in order to produce just one map or collection of map. Nine boxes out of ten contain just preparatory material… In this context Otto and Marie Neurath considered themselves being “information designers” more than cartographers as the goal was to translate the knowledge “graphically” in order to make it accessible to the largest audience possible. As a tribute to the Neurath couple, I have adopted it for me! I consider a map as an intellectual construction rather than a “faithful representation of the reality”. It is coming from an intention, an idea, sometime an intuition. At the very beginning, we are hooked on a subject we would like to develop and explain, a reality that we have observed and understood a certain way, a reality we want to “deconstruct” and depict. “Mapping ideas” means therefore to find the appropriate visual representation modes, in order to visualize it using an adapted graphical semiology, and eventually convey information and messages to the audience. While you’re clear with the “cartographic intention” and the set of data and information you’ll be using to format it, the first fundamental act is to take colour pens and sketch randomly in trying things, searching which graphical expression fits the best. This stage is certainly the most painful, just because we have to transform a mental map into a concrete map on a piece of paper. It is a process of transcription, or translation if you prefer, of “imagined forms” into “real forms”… In other words, an act of birth! This methodology, is actually pretty “conventional” and used since long in the creation process, from architects to painters, mappers to poets and psychoanalysts or philosophers, as you can see it in the fantastic book edited by Marie-Haude Caraës et Nicole Marchand Zanartu, “Images de pensée”, published by the Réunion des musées nationaux (RMN) in 2011. This first very image is far to be perfect and one can legitimately be disappointed by the result. I am used to call it the sketch 0 instead of sketch 1 to symbolize the idea of a necessary work to improve the sketch 0 in working on forms, colours, intensity, dynamism, contrasts, movements to produce a sketch 1, 2, 3, … X. At the end I have realized that sketches do not necessarily need to be digitalized as they tell the stories clearly enough, and especially with a stronger atmosphere and a more powerful impact. While opening an exhibit in Vienna in 2007, where was displayed a sketched map representing all migrants dying trying to enter European territory, a small group of asylum seeker from Nigeria were standing silently in front, observing the deadly red squares, saying nothing for few long minutes before one of then dared to break the silence: “We see on this map that the cartographer was really angry!”. And what about this desperate cartographer who confessed to me, some years ago, that he “had the strong impression to painfully harm people while sketching colonial borders on an African map”…  This is precisely what is so interesting and moving in the sketching process while mapping: we realize that it rehabilitates the emotions, the human dimension of it. In this kind of mapping, precision isn’t important anymore as we are not seeking to fly an aircraft or to plan an urban area, but we are looking for understanding systems, processes and movements, for which the precision doesn’t matter as long as we manage to make understandable the links in between all elements represented on the map: the migrants and its relationship to border, to territories. The spatial organisation and functioning of societies, and how they produce and manage their territories. I like the idea of rehabilitating the cartographic imprecision. A map is an act that lies somewhere between art and science, which is produced as a theatre play: it has actors and staging structures, it is based on real facts but romanticized to certain extent which The map (or the visual representation of the world) is to be considered as a theatre play, with staging and actors moving and managing their environment, playing with power and intrigues, it is based on real facts but romanticized, following a scenario that is mainly a dialogue between a certain form of reality and the imaginary. In this context, the maps may be helping us to show, to make visible the invisible part of the world, or in other word, “The way we can’t physically see” the world by artificially “spatializing” our look on things. The sketch, considered as a very free exercise, is well adapted to carry on this very new form of cartographic narrative.    

You have contributed to make known in France the “radical cartography” (known also as “counter-cartography” or “critical cartography”). What is your definition of this way of mapping and why can we consider it as “radical”?

What we call “traditional cartography” claims to be an exact science based on reliable data, and mapmakers pride themselves on creating a neutral and faithful image of reality. And this can’t be, as we have already stressed the highly subjective nature of maps, more depicting the world as we personally see and interpret it rather than showing a “truthful situation”. This approach ignores anyway the political and social uses of maps and their role in propaganda or protest.

The movement of “radical cartography” (or “alternative” or also “experimentale”) – that I could describe as a rich combination of sensitivity, art, sciences, geography, politics and social activism and militancy  —has emerged — or rather been revivified to be more precise – in the 1950s as a response to the conventional mapping considered as being too “wise”. This was not really a new move, as at the turn of the XXth century already, personalities such as Charles Perron, Élisée Reclus or Otto Neurath, could already claim to be “radical cartographers or geographers” although they didn’t use this terminology. 

It is a very committed and resolute mapping that serves the struggles for social and spatial justice, and to denounce questionable economic and political practices. 

“Orthodox” cartographers were wary of these experimental projects that stretched or broke the rules. “You can scribble simplistic diagrams that give the illusion of synthesis, and use them to make pretentious statements,” one wrote about an early exhibition. “The geographical map, that extraordinary tool of knowledge and understanding of space and the world, has been reduced to a conjuring trick.” At the “Art and Cartography — Cartography and Art” symposium in Vienna in 2008, the debate was fierce, the positions irreconcilable.

But committed cartography has found its vocation, demanding social justice and denouncing political and economic practices; it freely deconstructs space and social phenomena, casting aside convention, perverting rules and principles. 

Artists were quick to adopt it, quickly followed by architects, urban planners, militants, and later. Projects have proliferated (in Argentina, the US, Switzerland, Germany and France) on themes such as finance, surveillance and security, marketing, the environment and administrative divisions, harnessing powerful tools such as participatory cartography and social networks. The aim is to reveal the hidden processes that contribute to the appropriation of public spaces (or assets), the undermining of individual freedoms and the hijacking of legislation. Information is just the beginning: the next stage is action for change. The initiative has something in common with resistance movements such as the Indignados or Occupy.

Dead at the border.

As an example, The Argentine artists’ collective Grupo de Arte Callejero created maps that show where members of the former military dictatorship now live in peaceful retirement; it has also organised sightseeing tours of their homes and run a billboard advertising campaign publicizing their crimes. The project “Duty Free Shop” (DFS), because it deconstruct a space, make understandable hidden processes of bus terminal, railway stations, somme streets and squares, shopping malls, supermarkets, etc. is also deeply belonging to this movement. Ongoing processes in airport terminal  are interesting to dissect and analyse because they prefigure processes that will be implemented in other important public spaces. Individual or collective projects did bloom all over the world. In the years 2000s the movement became even more powerful by the use of the new technology and social network especially to collect primary data and statistics in a participative way (like Trevor Paglen who carried on the “CIA rendition flights projects”).

These maps were published and were showing a brand new landscape of the functioning world : making visible what is invisible to us, highlighting processus that policy makers and authorities would prefer to keep as “discreet” as possible.

‘Radical cartography’

In my understanding, ‘radical cartography’ is a two steps process:

1. Inform on a situation by research, collection of data/information and vizualisation of these data.

2. Spectacular action in the field, on the stage, with the hope to make a change in the way communities produce their territories and manage both the infrastructure and the way people use it.

This movement remain mainly informal and have some natural connexion with movements of resistance like the 99%, Occupy or in France “les indignés” and most probably the recent Yellow jacket mouvement. Eventually, in 2018, The german project « This is not an atlas » brilliantly led by the collective “Orangotango” gathered 40 projects of these counter-cartographers. This initiative is certainly the most creative, inspiring and refreshing initiative of these last years in this domain.

Radical or critical mapping only makes the argument of its scientificness or counter-truth for tactical reasons. It is one tool among others in a strategy to reverse the “balance of power”. It is never used alone: it is only the basis for a discussion, a debate and eventually an action.

Would there not be the risk that the engaged and militant commitment of the radical cartography contributes to increase the distrust in the qualitative cartography ? One could think that qualitative cartography could be more easy to manipulate than the quantitative, statistic and “objective” cartography… 

The idea of being wary of “radical mapping” because of it’s “activist flavour” is kind of fun! And it requires we make sure what we really mean by being militant/activist, scientist, intellectual, thinker or even journalist. The radical mapper, as a geographer or expert of any other discipline implements new alternatives methods and approach actually “in continuation” of what’s been going since long, and not at “in opposition” to traditional procedures that would be completely rejected and disqualified. The radicalism here, the critical behaviour is not to destroy what has been developed until now, but to build upon (and this is why I see this as a very positive and constructive movement). And one must be naive to think that statistical (quantitative) maps, based and produced upon “very” scientific treatment methodology would be more credible and reliable, just like we couldn’t cheat with the numbers and fix them the way we like!

Philippe Rekacewicz  discussing with professors after the lecture at the Finlande university cafeteria.
Philippe Rekacewicz discussing with professors after the lecture at the Finlande university cafeteria.

For decades traditional cartography had two assumptions: it claimed to be an exact science, based on reliable and scientific data, and also claimed to give a “neutral” and “faithful” image of the world, of the reality. We know, and we have shown in many occasions, that this was simply an illusion —even if it has nourished the believe for generations of geographers, cartographers and other map producers along the modern and contemporary historical periods. This lead to the production of tons of what I would call “descriptive” maps, and most of them are not saying much more than what we already see or know.

Either they help a powerful king to have under the eyes the full extension of his kingdom and colonies in order to keep control of it, or they simply help to locate people and elements of the geography. They were answering the question “where are we” but avoided to address the question “how the world really functions”. There is, of course, among the public, a preconceived idea about activists to be engaged and involved to supporting causes, and they will probably utilize cartography to better defending these causes. But at the end what prevails is the result: Radical activist using radical cartographic approach can as well, if not better, participate seriously to the production of an important and useful knowledge, dedicated to the citizen so that they could possibly be better prepared to face and defend themselves in an increasingly competitive and less supportive society.

How do you replace map-making in the artistic scene? What kind of links do you make between arts, cartography, power and emotions? The “Big African Wheel”, that you drew in 2007, is one of the maps that impressed me the most, can you tell us about that?
The “cartographic intention” means in fact that we are dealing with a “political intention”. The implementation of the principle with and by the actors on the field is somehow ambivalent. On the one hand, it assumes the subjectivity of the information by highlighting the filter of the very sensitivity of the actors (sensitive maps). It plays on the arguments of empiricism (fieldwork, witness) and emotion (purity, empathy) and thus transforms them into arguments to legitimize the purpose. On the other hand, it conceals a risk of considering these populations under guardianship (the outstretched hand, the empowerment of the weak), in whom political awareness and action will probably take place (this is the positive side), but who will have been objectified by a third person (this is the negative side). And it is appropriate to question the risk of implementation of “western minded” or “neo-colonial” map practices by not taking into account the own perception and conception of space of other cultures.

The aesthetic staging of the radical maps is effective because its sensitive realization (of a person, a group or a person appropriating the work of this group) is in the same register as the aesthetic experience of contemplation. There is a craft of radical cartography (even the Isotype system developed by Otto Neurath, which is based on the laborious development of a system of codes and the standardization of icons), but the multiplicity of objects and their variability will be treated equally well by artistic approaches that are always new and original. Digital image processing tools slow down graphic innovation but also open the mind to experimentation.

But we cannot oppose art and craft. Artists and craftswo·men both master their tools and have a production intention they hope to see appreciated by their peer colleagues. There is an art market that determines by market value the nature of the artifact as part of art and an art historiography that will attribute it according to its notoriety (having left traces, having been recognized, having innovated (it has contributed something to culture) having made this nature…). The notion of art is a category that responds to a value judgment in hindsight.

Cartography is using the means of art, standing in the middle of a multidisciplinary world: it takes from the domain of art, science, politics, ethic, technics… The discipline of cartography takes the form of a sophisticated mosaic, made up of all these elements, each of them getting on more or less importance in the final artwork.

In this context we can discuss the issue later on, but when a discipline uses colors, movements, contrasts, brilliances, symbolism, pictograms thick and thin lines, it has to be related to art and graphic design in addition to the fact that cartographers uses data scientifically produced with which they imagine and draw their world.

And one can be very surprise at this edge of the new century, so technologic, so digital, where everything or almost is replaced by screen, a new era with OSM, Google Maps, where you can animate any part of the world in 3D with very spectacular effects, that a bunch of cartographic designer, geographer, artists, illustrators, architects, decided to go reverse and rehabilitate the very traditional form of art to express their ideas, to convey their messages. And come back to the hand drafted maps, giving up the very detailed digitalized maps.

Reasons to drafted maps

There is at least four main reasons for this:

1. In the last decade, concerning cartographic production, there has been an impoverishment due to the very easy accessibility of base maps and symbols library. At the end, we did not produced original meaningful maps, most of the time, but assemble some maps with existing materials which was giving as a result a very standardized production.

2. We were missing more and more human elements in these maps and the sketch, the color pen, the oil pastel, the aquarelle, is one of the way to rehabilitate the emotion in the map, and reintroduce the human elements in the center of it, avoiding humans to disappear under facts, statistics and context.

3. More freedom to create, making more legitimate and possible to be intuitively imprecise, vagueness, inaccuracy so that it becomes part of the message (we know little on where things happens). Orthodox cartographers will certainly kill me if they hear this. It was kind of important to address the “imprecision” of the map in a world dominated by a paranoid will of precision, in a world in which we want everything to be sorted, organized, in place, etc. completely disregarding systems and processes of human socio-economic and political development.

4. And eventually, the hand-drafted maps symbolize a world in perpetual movement. We are catching only part of this movement, and we express the fact that it may be a different picture tomorrow, next month or next year. It is – in a way an act of modesty: we know little, we wouldn’t like to set in stone a situation for which we have a too little knowledge. We just give an idea, we give the terms to starting a debate, to address legitimate questions.

The map of the great wheel was precisely the expression of this vision. For us, the geographical aspect became much less important than the ongoing processes that were trapping Africa in the net of the globalized and financialized world. Symbolically, we have decoupled the geographical map from the system in which Africa is entangled and which keeps the continent in a state of persistent poverty and deprivation. I really wanted to think about the interactions, the systems, before I even represented the world. I bounced back on this idea: the map that could emancipate from the base map… This is the idea behind the “African Wheel” project. The “machinery”, or the “African gears” focus on the representation of the links that unite Africa and its main partners in a bilateral and complex exchange. The background of the map is here only an alibi, what is important is the narration, the circulation of the objects of geography between Africa and the other continents.

You worked for Le Monde diplomatique, a leftist monthly newspaper with a very strong leftist engagement. You created there a series of map about “The world as seen from…”, which was widely commented. Can you explain your purpose ? And the context that gave you the idea to show the world in that specific way.

The series “The world seen from…” was inspired by the idea that our visions were still far too Europeo-centered (despite the efforts we had been making for a long time to shift our viewpoint). We’ve been very curious to get an idea of the way people in certain countries where seeing themselves in various situation, and how they perceived threats, assets or weakness of their national environment relative to the national, regional and global contexts. For each map, we have conducted a series of consultations during which people could freely express their feelings and opinions. The maps represent the synthesis of theses interviews. What was interesting and surprising for us, was that the result showed a superimposition of facts and trends which were at the same time historical, psychological and geostrategic! The challenge was then to assemble all these sensitive elements on one and unique document in a way the messages could still be appropriately and understandably convey to the audience. This project has literally opened our eyes and enabled us to enter a new world, if I may say so, to take the measure of an extremely more complex interrelated world, showing how the collision of political and economic choices —uncoordinated between States— which respond above all to the need for “protection” at the national level, affects the continental and global levels, directly leading to a multitude of conflicts of varying degrees of seriousness.

Europe’s Tourist Neighbourhood: War, Refugees and Migrants.
The map of the great wheel.

What do you think?