Data versus the ‘Discardscape’

With the ever-pervasive visualisation of data and real-time tracking potential of urban informatics, the ability to be completely immersed in the screen becomes increasingly distracting if not necessarily helpful with regard our concerns about the contemporary built environment. Obviously in silico is not the same as in concreto. So let us look toward something very real – Detroit. What emerges as particularly important about Detroit as we move through the clutter of ruin porn imagery and much-publicised crime and deprivation statistics is that it is at once both specific (happening right now, as one of the leading-edges in advanced capitalist conditions) but also increasingly everywhere (representative of many other places in the US and Europe). As Jerry Herron accurately defined the situation, “Detroit may be emptied out, then, but it is hardly over, nor will it be anytime soon, precisely because of the questions that this city/not raises.”[1] As tempting as it may be to consider such a place to be relegated to the past if not entirely redundant, many of us still live in these situations so we need to address this. Indeed, it is worth reiterating Rebecca Solnit’s point here regarding the very practical reason Detroit will evolve through sheer necessity since it is “where change is most urgent and therefore most viable.”[2] If we start to pursue this idea further then perhaps the most helpful way of considering Detroit is as a series of situations borne of relationships rather than permanent fixtures. This of course holds for other urban contexts but seems especially pertinent to this one. As such, Rice’s recent description may be brought to bear, “To call Detroit a network is to call it an account, not a fixed representation of space. It is to simultaneously call it the physical locale we have always known to be Detroit, but it is also to call this space something else.”[3] This points toward the durative nature of meaning making, which affords our perception of places to evolve through further encounters, experiences and events. The networked or, perhaps more usefully termed, relational aspect of a physical context is crucial to our understanding and interpretation of such situations. Whether evident as a coherent city form or fragmented ‘discardscape’ such as Detroit, the web of explicit and latent connections that constitutes the urban environment, supports Amin & Thrift’s notion of an expanded politics of representation.[4]

Carol Anne, Poltergeist, 1982

Carol Anne, Poltergeist, 1982

The failings of capitalism, and, in particular, its withdrawal, are omnipresent across Detroit. Despite this, the hope, perseverance and creative commitment of groups of its citizens remain defiant in developing counter strategies to affect positive change. Data Driven Detroit is one such initiative that provides a nonprofit, independent data centre to promote positive community change. As part of their remit the organization has produced the D3 Toolbox, envisioned to support communities with the data necessary for them to take action in their neighbourhoods.[5] The relatively nascent character of such enabling instruments means it is perhaps too early to ascertain the full uptake and impact of them, but their availability is undoubtedly a move in the right direction. Another salient example is the Ponyride project, which explores how the foreclosure crisis may be used to “provide cheap space for socially-conscious artists and entrepreneurs to work and share knowledge, resources and networks.”[6] In a similar vein, other organizations such as Detroit SOUP and Kiva Detroit are enabling citizens to actively contribute toward the distribution of grant funding and microloans respectively to facilitate communities to improve their neighbourhoods and district.[7] However, whilst all of these valuable incentives are using online presence to evolve and disseminate their structure and content, it may also be possible to develop a more explicit, adaptive and integrated way of coupling user-gathered data with urban transformation.

Neighbourhood Parcel Tool, Data Driven Detroit, 2012

Neighbourhood Parcel Tool, Data Driven Detroit, 2012

This aim may be the next logical step for community platforms such as, which uses HTML and database software to compose structured city spaces where citizens define places, stories, and events that shape a community.[8] This type of ‘hyperlocal’ content is considerably more situated in its character, offering appropriate filtering and collation of data to key issues and concerns that affect a neighbourhood. Indeed, the elements identified above, i.e. resources, data, networks and intelligence, are integral to the manner in which interfaces such as this produce data-driven mediations of personal interactions with places. It is these personal engagements with physical space that reflect the contingent, itinerant and embedded qualities of our relationship with the immediate context. Of course, this is not the only platform to provide highly localized content with other aggregated blogs and mapping websites available with which the experiences and concerns of citizens and their interactions are cumulative and integrative in nature.[9] It is therefore proposed that it may be across platforms such as these that the elusive preparatory framework of an “alternative to neo-traditional models of planning and urban design and their naïve revisionist strategies for the recuperation of the pre-industrial city,” may be found.[10] Through the accretion and evolution of projects and initiatives such as these it may be possible for Detroit to become the ‘syncopated urban landscape’ it is capable of becoming.[11]

Toxic Tour of Detroit, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, 2011

Toxic Tour of Detroit, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, 2011

[1] Herron, J. (2010) ‘Borderland/Borderama/Detroit,’ in: Wilkins, G. [ed.] Distributed Urbanism: Cities after Google Earth. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 63-86.

[2] Solnit, R. (2007) ‘Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape,’ Harper’s Magazine, July, pp. 65-73.

[3] Rice, J. (2012) Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, p. 6.

[4] Amin, A. & Thrift, N. (2002) Cities: Reimagining the Urban. Cambridge: Polity.

[5] To explore the current tools provided see: <; [Accessed 1 October 2012]

[6] More information available at: <; [Accessed 4 October 2012]

[7] For further details on both of these worthwhile projects see: <; and <; [Accessed 4 October 2012]

[8] The ability to connect citizens with one another and interlink news, events and places is enabled through the streaming of hyperlocal content, providing a digital counterpart to the physical neighbourhood: <; [Accessed 1 October 2012]

[9] Platforms such as Google Maps and Wayfaring are empowering citizens and groups to develop specific content around political and environmental concerns, for example the Toxic Tour of Detroit map produced by Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice in 2011. Available: <; [Accessed 1 October 2012]

[10] Daskalakis, G., Waldheim, C. & Young, J. [eds] (2001) Stalking Detroit. Barcelona: Actar, p. 12.

[11] Pitera, D. (2010) Detroit: Syncopating an Urban Landscape. Available: < feature/detroit-syncopating-an-urban-landscape/14288/> [Accessed 4 October 2012]

eltono – navigator|commentator

[Re_Map] for those not in the know (it’s something we are occasionally specific about) stems from our combined interest in representation and mapping in architecture and the allied arts. In Urban Maps we write about Objects and Marks in the urban landscape; referring to art, both sanctioned and illegal. We are of the opinion that certain acts and events made by artists and/or graffiti writers, because of their temporal nature and the sites in which they occur, can provide a commentary on the city in ways in which the built edifices of architecture cannot. For example – the revelation and exposition of interstitial and residual spaces, the discourse between infrastructures and the city and ideas concerning entropy, space, motif, navigation and other experiential narratives. There are some artists that tread the ground beyond graffiti, but are influenced by its traditions and practice as well as being informed by other art that has inhabited the urban environment. Perhaps the most celebrated of these is Invader, not least of all due to his recent exposure in Banksy’s film. Invader’s work with maps is well known and he publishes these artefacts for collectors and fans to buy. Less discussed in terms of his works using mapping as part of his process is Eltono. Eltono has slowly and naturally migrated away from conventional graffiti to develop his own form of negotiation with the city over the last fifteen years, beginning with the mutation of his name into a motif and subsequently shifting from the use of aerosols to brushes and masking tape. Eltono’s ‘tuning fork’ device is intriguing in its negotiation with space and material as each time he applies it to a surface it is slightly mutated in colour and form in an intuitive dialogue with site. This act in itself is architectural, insofar as it carries contextual, spatial, formal and material meaning and can be interpreted using the same. It is in mapping though that Eltono has begun to develop new dialogues with the city, most markedly during a short residency in Vitoria at the Artium Museum.

Eltono’s early mapping exercises were most simply about making a record of his works in sanctioned environments and to accompany exhibitions or residencies. The first two published maps were from projects in Spain and Mexico, at Puerta Lumbreras and Tampiquito respectively. These maps were produced as a record of his interventions and in some senses challenge the graffiti norm which is to photograph, but not necessarily to geo-locate, works.

Map of Eltono's intervention paintings in Puerto Lumbreras

Map of Eltono’s intervention paintings in Puerto Lumbreras. Copyright Eltono.

Map of Eltono's intervention paintings in Tampiquito

Map of Eltono’s intervention paintings in Tampiquito. Copyright Eltono.

At Caochangdi in China, the act of mapping was inherent in the process of the project from its inception, in Eltono’s words:

At the entrance of Caochangdi there is a sign that reads “Caochangdi Art Village”. However, when Eltono came for the first time, he was surprised to find an almost tangible frontier dividing the village and the galleries. After spending a few days in Caochangdi it became clear to him that the people who come to visit the galleries often miss the village, and very few villagers go and visit the art galleries. During his one month residency in Caochangdi, Eltono decided to use his paintings to create a link between these two worlds. To begin, he mapped out the village including all of the tiny streets and alleyways, noting down all the doors he found interesting or inspiring. Entering into conversation with the villagers he explained the goal of his project and asked permission to paint their doors – this served as the first link between the artist and the village. Over the next several weeks, he spent time connecting with residents and painting, creating a path throughout the neighborhood filled with mysterious abstract images.

The subsequent exhibition entitled 1:1 addressed ideas of translation and scale; also present in Land Art and also discussed in terms of its relationships with architectural discourse – we recall Robert Smithson’s Non-Sites in this regard. The map that was produced was not simply a product of the act of mapping, but also an invitation to participation, another recurrent theme in Eltono’s work. In this way the map began to become a part of the work rather than simply a record of it. Invader’s maps have similar operative and performative qualities embedded in their production too.

Map of Eltono's intervention paintings in Caochangdi

Map of Eltono’s intervention paintings in Caochangdi. Copyright Eltono.

The residency and installation in Vitoria was called Deambular, from the Latin deambulāre; to wander. The entire project has been well recorded and written about by both Eltono and Javier Abarca. Here Eltono has taken his mapping activities into new territory and produced a static record of temporal events. During the eleven days of the residency Eltono placed paper versions of his abstract motif in locations typical of his usual sites, doorways, boarded up windows and gaps. These were installed using drawing pins and each day he would visit the site of the installation and record the changes to the motif where pieces or pins had been removed. As well as making this record he also used small, coloured stickers to record his own movements through the city streets. These daily traverses were colour coded and ultimately transposed to a map and scaled to the wall of the gallery to produce a series of abstract forms. The method for translation was much like that of a geographer or transport analyst in that the more frequently used paths were represented using a wider line. This classic mode of translation calls to mind the now seminal map produced by Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe showing all the movements made in the space of one year by a student living in the 16th Arrondissement of Paris and referenced by Guy Debord. Here though, Eltono moves past the Situationist’s production and into realms of mapping that are hard to locate, in terms of their genesis, other than having slowly emerged from ‘post-graffiti’ [1] practice. Debord would probably have ejected a collaborator from the Situationists for being too definitive or productive had they made work of this type, but it is precisely this act of mapping and representation that is of relevance to urbanism.

Eltono's workspace left as part of the installation. Copyright Eltono.

Eltono’s workspace left as part of the installation. Copyright Eltono.

The daily maps as recorded on photocopies. Copyright Eltono.

The daily maps as recorded on photocopies. Copyright Eltono.

The daily maps transposed onto the gallery walls. Copyright Eltono.

The daily maps transposed onto the gallery walls. Copyright Eltono.

The complexities of the contemporary city witness all sorts of attempts by individuals and organisations to try and make sense, rationalise or navigate and in some way Deambular provides a commentary on these forces, events and conditions. It is an attempt to order an experience of place as well as an ambient translation of motion. The routes are informed by pivotal locations of preselected sites for intervention, but also influenced by need – for food, for drink and for materials. In this way they are a negotiation between intent and necessity, possibly reflective of each of our engagements with the urban environment on a daily basis; one which is rarely made visible or manifest. Eltono, quite literally, frames the everyday and follows the Parisian tradition of Debord, de Certeau, Lefebvre – by design or by accident? There are other art forms that involve mapping, but the contemporary movement of mapping in art is quite different in its forms and discourses from those presented to us by Eltono and Invader. There is also a recent history of motion and the city – the work of Francis Alÿs with ice and with guns sping to mind – but this too is different from the evolution of methods attributable to certain street artists. The temporality of the marks made in the process and the personal maps made of the motion provide a loose and momentary ‘fix’ of one experience of place but can be seen to characterise the type of experience encountered by everyone. This ordering of the city is similar to the unpublished cognitive maps that we each construct in going about our business and the slight, and accepted, imprecisions in the placing of dots and in the translation of the maps are emblematic of the minor deviations from our own standardised norms. To understand this particular work as a commentary on the production of space is also to understand our own experience.

[1] The term post-graffiti is used here to mean very specifically art that draws on the graffiti tradition and methods but has moved beyond the simple act of applying a repeat moniker and has entered into a more sophisticated engagement with place. It was first coined by Paul Tschinkel when ART/new york issued the documentary video Graffiti/Post Graffiti (1984). It has subsequently been used elsewhere but can be viewed as a slightly pretentious phrase for ‘street art’. In this instance it is intended to form a distinction between art that adopts graffiti traditions and art that moves beyond them.


As visitors here will be aware, here at [Re_Map] we research and explore instruments of spatial control. We are interested in the discrepancy between the apparently infinite, seamless topology of digital space and networks, and their contrast with the typically fragmented, incoherent topography of contemporary urban landscapes. The question of what constitutes territorial, community, networked and residual space is paramount to our research. Indeed, our daily interactions with one another quickly make us aware that network structures have rapidly evolved to form the organisational model of socio-cultural exchange and technological development in the digital age.[i] Therefore we were pleased to recognise that even the smooth space of the Internet needs a little help sometimes. The photograph below is by Alissa Walker, and illustrates a telephone pole farm in Los Angeles, used for repair personnel to practise their skills in a hyper-regulated copse before entering the unregulated urban jungle.

[i] For an overview see: Guido Caldarelli, G. (2007) Scale-Free Networks: Complex Webs in Nature and Technology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cellular Urbanism – Data Mapping # 1

The use of maps in relation to cities and our experience of them is both a familiar one and historically extensive. Our engagement with an unknown city is nearly always translated through the map whether illustrating streets, tourist destinations or transportation systems. Indeed, urban experience in an unfamiliar context is typically an exchange between cartographic spaces and the materials of the built environment. Considered in this manner it is evident that urban and cartographic spaces are entwined and continue to exist in a mutual relationship with each other, surviving temporal shifts and developments. With the increasing growth of potential opportunities and creative practice for urban mapping it is important to remember that the critical discourse surrounding public space and notions of privacy and place must continue in order to parallel such developments and frame them in an intelligible manner. One of the most prevalent capacities of the information age is the accessibility and exchange of data, rendering the previously latent visible. This project, developed by Joe Haire, Felicity Hurling, Dicky Lewis and Dan Stock, created an interface for data collation, cellular automation and site designation.

  • By utilising the interface of postcode data and Ordnance Survey grid based sub-divisions it is possible to design live applications that offer a multitude of possibilities not simply confined to architecture or urban design.Image
  • In this particular manifestation live data from a number of sources pertaining to lifestyle choices was streamed to a cellular automata model. Image
  • This included crime rates, house prices, leisure facilities and such and their respective incidence in each cell. By using a sliding scale against the assigned 15 parameters prospective householders or developers were offered possibilities as to the best area to live or to start their business.Image
  • The possible application of this software is effectively limitless in terms of the scale at which it is applied, the number of parametric inputs and the needs of any particular user as yet undetermined.Image

life in the margins

The social peripheries of urban life and the resultant connections and networks of individuals and groups through various cultural proximities suggests a complexity of spatio-temporal relationships woven through the urban fabric of cities. This notion formed the basis for the research paper ‘Living on the edge: cultural proximities, social peripheries and spatial margins’ presented by the authors at the recent Architectural Humanities Research Association Annual Conference 2011: Peripheries, held at Queen’s University, Belfast, 27-29 October.  The paper expanded on the use of films as mapping devices to provide legibility or disclosure of the contemporary urban landscape, complementary to the ‘imageability’ that Kevin Lynch sought to identify in his early research on understanding cities, by contributing to our knowledge of cultural proximities interwoven with the appropriation of residual urban space. Furthermore, films were positioned to have the capacity to render the city as a narrative in a reflexive relationship concerned with spatial sequence, editing, revelation and event. Of particular significance here was the value of films as diagnostic instruments that afford us the opportunity to describe and understand urban conditions and spatio-temporal relations through the experience of them. Indeed, the ability of the camera to move through space and place facilitates the articulation of these architectures, allowing us to perceive the lived experience of the films in a visually rich manner, compressing the complexity and density of information into an understandable sequence.

Gated communities, surveillance culture and spatial tensions, La Zona, Rodrigo Plá, 2007

the image of the urban landscape

The imaging and imagined urban landscape, its processing and representation is fundamental to geographies of the city. From Bill Bundy to Kevin Lynch, from Otto Neurath to James Corner, reimagined and processed versions of urbanity are used by geographers, architects, urbanists, statisticians and artists to interpret and afford legibility to the complex edifice that is ‘the city’. It was with notions such as these in mind that the authors recently chaired a session ‘[Re_Map]: the image of the urban landscape’ at the Royal Geographical Society Annual International Conference 2011: The Geographical Imagination, held at the Royal Geographical Society, London, 31 August – 2 September.  The session sought to expose the theory, the practice and the methodologies of mapping and representation techniques across a range of disciplines to explore the inherent proximities and tensions in relation to vocabulary, terminology and realisation. The cross-disciplinary session covered a considerable breadth of topics and depth of issues and commonalities in relation to: urbanism, mapping, representation, narrative and notation. Crucially, the session enabled the perceptible gap in the research and practice of geography, architecture, art and computational design to be discussed and further explored in relation to urban space. Commencing the session with their paper, ‘Data Mining: Abstract Urban Topographies’, the authors opened up the territory and debate by questioning the role of data mapping as part of architectural and urban design strategies and offering insights into its application as a means to develop instrumentality within the increasingly complex scenarios of contemporary urbanism.

















Space Intelligence Agency – Automatic Urbanism, 2009.

urban maps

Ashgate have just published ‘Urban Maps: Instruments of Narrative and Interpretation in the City’ by Richard Brook and Nick Dunn. Their book concerns the city and the ‘devices’ that define the urban environment by their presence, representation or interpretation. The texts offer an interdisciplinary discourse and critique of the complex systems, artifacts, interventions and evidences that can inform our understanding of urban territories; on surfaces, in the margins or within voids. The diverse media of arts practices as well as commercial branding are used to explore narratives that reveal latent characteristics of urban situations that conventional architectural inquiry is unable to do.

The subjects covered are presented within a wider framework of urban theory into which are embedded case study examples that outline the practices, processes and interpretations of each theme. The chapters provide a contemporary reading of urban socio-cultural conditions using ‘mapping’ as a lens to explore and communicate the social phenomena and lived experiences of the dynamic and temporal city. Mapping is developed as a form of critical instrumentality to expose, record and contribute to the understanding of the singular essences of space, place and networks by thematic, cognitive and experiential modes of investigation.

Urban Maps provides an interesting new way of “minding the gap” between the contemporary urban condition and architectural design. Calling on familiar and well-loved theoretical friends like Walter Benjamin, but also bringing in exciting new contenders such Thomas de Quincey, the narrators interrogate an interdisciplinary array of projects from graffiti to branded environments. The map is posited as a central element of design behaviour, and Brook and Dunn argue convincingly that to address today’s pressing urban issues architecture must move outside its normal frames of reference, and engage with a new vocabulary and conceptual framework comprising images, networks, films, marks and objects.’

– Jane Rendell, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, UK, author of The Pursuit of Pleasure (2001), Art and Architecture (2006), Site-Writing (2010)


‘Fifty years ago, Kevin Lynch offered us a classical reading of “the image of the city” based on a waning ideal of clear built landmarks and distinct urban signs. Now, through inspired insights and an in-depth inquiry into a vast array of contemporary urban practices, the authors of Urban Maps reveal us how the complex narratives currently converging in the appropriation and redefinition of an eroded urban space require a totally revamped cognitive mapping… From the readings of cinema to the interventions of street art, from the markings of graffiti to the identities of brandscapes, and from the wanderings of contemporary art to the fictional drives of theory, architecture is confronted with the need to review the cartography of its references when facing the ascendancy of the urban condition – and the prominence of new networked, information augmented realities – as substituting for previous conceptions of the city.’

– Pedro Gadanho, architect, curator and writer, Lisbon, Portugal

Infrastructural Urbanism

The question of the future of urban landscapes with regard to their transformation as the physical basis of sociability is currently frequently illustrated as declining in favour of dematerialized, delocalised, ever-present digital systems and networks is timely. However, this may not actually be as recent a phenomenon as it may first seem, as Melvin Webber described in his highly influential article. ‘The Urban Place and the Nonplace Urban Realm’ of 1964, urban life and urban experience were always synonymous with a partial dissociation from the constraints of reality. This forms the basis for the recent research paper the authors presented at Spaces and Flows: An International Conference on Urban and ExtraUrban Studies, held  at the University of California, Los Angeles, 4-5 December. The paper, ‘Infrastructural Urbanism: Ecologies and Technologies of Multi-layered Landscapes’ proposed the development of ‘digital ecologies’ through their use of digital infrastructures to afford meaningful relationships with respect to urban transformation. A key aspect of the position presented was in the use of such technology to develop instrumentality with which to facilitate ‘thick’ descriptions of digital networks and communities and contribute to our understanding of their spatiality. This research therefore sought to describe and explain this transformation and propose theoretical material to address some of the attendant issues.

Mapping Interstices

The authors were recently invited to present a special preview of material from their forthcoming book, ‘Urban Maps: instruments of narrative and interpretation in the city’ (Ashgate, 2011) at the inaugural Once Upon A Place: Haunted Houses & Imaginary Cities, 1st International Conference on Architecture and Fiction, in Lisbon, 12-14 October. The paper, ‘Mapping Interstices: understanding urban conditions through the lived experience of societal margins in contemporary film’, explores the friction between the city planned and the city as a living superorganism. Whilst contemporary cityscapes may often be presented from above, the spatial organization and fragments are actually consumed from below i.e. the lived experience of urban conditions. This contrast between the relatively static order of the system and the high degree of mobility and temporality of life on the streets reminds us of the duality of cities and their ability to shift between the objective and the subjective. It is here that we may identify the narrative nature of these conditions with particular reference to moving images that afford exploration and understanding of urban space and event as filmic mappings. In this context films are interpretative tools that are typically concerned with spatial sequence, editing and revelation within the city. They use allegory, narrative and structural patterns to unfold ideas and tell a story. Space can even be used as a character, acting independently within the narrative itself and as such films may map a version of the city that is manifest of networks, urban subtexts and occasional nodal collision. The contribution to our understanding of the physical and time-based characteristics of the urban landscape that films offer was discussed to further equip and enhance our strategies for responding to it.

navigating data/cityscapes

The authors were invited to present at the international conference, Royal Geographical Society Annual International Conference 2010: Confronting the Challenges of the Post-Crisis Global Economy and Environment, in London, UK on 3rd September. The paper, ‘Digital Networks: between open source mobility and closed loop assemblages’, responds to what a number authors have referred to as the ‘network city’ via an increasing abstraction of space coupled with the continual erosion of place. This has precipitated a number of effects on social and cultural activity and respective communities, most significantly, the original nature of the public realm within the built environment as both a receptive and reflexive domain appears to now be located in digital networks that permeate contemporary life rather than physical conditions. The ubiquity of technology across our daily communication and other exchanges as a correlation of increased growth of broadband in the developed world and the global continuum facilitated by mobile phones, has become manifest in readily accessible, ever-present networks that not only challenge our ideas and experience of place but have precipitated an evolution in relationships of time and distance. In addition, these digital infrastructures afford the connectivity and mobility of communities with niche interests to be networked in an unprecedented manner. Who operates across this territory, how and why? The schism between the high degree of connectivity that permeates the digital networks versus the increasingly fragmentary nature of the physical urban condition has provided a rich geography for exploitation for artists, communities and sub-cultures who are involved in navigating this ‘inbetween landscape.’ A range of case studies were used to illustrate such negotiations and subversions of urban space and their implications for an increasingly hybridised public domain that seeks to explore digital and physical boundaries.