Cultural mapping and the imagination

by Professor Ross Gibson, Sydney College of the Arts.

For me, cultural mapping should have some 'poetry' and wonder in it. The processes of gathering and representing information about cultural activities should take account of the yearning and imagination that often drive cultural activity.  To map these forces, one needs to access qualities and impulses that are often invisible or not readily quantifiable; one needs to make startling connections and show the validity of these connections, particularly if the connections have started out as little more than hunches and speculations.

In their different ways, the following examples show imaginative but plausible and defensible maps of patterned behaviour and actions. Startling, imaginative but methodologically rigorous, these 'poetic' mapping activities give insights into qualities as well as quantities in human space and time.

PhotosynthLife After Wartime
 Left: An image of Microsoft's Photosynth mapping St. Marks plaza in Venice. Right: A promo shot from Life After Wartime

1. Photosynth

This famous, 2005 demo film is an experimental image-agglomerator that, in the near future, will allow people interested in inhabited or visited spaces to compile a rich pictorial understanding of these spaces, simply by gathering and combining all relevant photographs lodged on flickr and other public pictorial depositories.

 2. Life After Wartime

In 1998 I collaborated with Kate Richards on a suite of works, known collectively as Life After Wartime. In a range of different media, the suite of works responds to an archive of crime scene photographs from Sydney, 1945-60. Life After Wartime maps the emotions and narratives that are soaked into the city. In these emotions and stories, we find the patterns of care or callousness that organise daily life in the town. The latest project in this suite is BYSTANDER. It has recently been exhibited at Performance Space and at the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney.

 3. Mass Observation Project

This website is the repository of the great 'Mass Observation' project that was sporadically maintained in Britain between 1937 and the 1950s. A visionary 'social geography' project, it sought to capture data about regional life all over Britain.  Rather than using standard quantitative and statistical methods for gathering data, the project encouraged participants to take photographs, record sounds and music, write narratives and create small museological collections of local material culture.