Chris Perkins. The Wider Significance of Performative Mapping

October 3, 2017 by Z33

Mapping in a broader context has increasingly been rethought as much more than a scientific controlling of the world, or a fixative political device. It is increasingly also understood as performative, as the in case of Pokemon GO.

Text Chris Perkins.
Image Paintimpact /

Image Paintimpact /

In July 2016 Pokemon-GO-mania began to stalk the world. The game was downloaded more times in its first week than any other app in history. In the game people run through cities, smartphones in hand, eyes glued to the screen on which a mapped backdrop moves in parallel to their tracks through the city — a map against which fictional and virtual Pokemons appear and disappear. Indeed “the map is your main view while playing Pokémon GO, and it is based on the actual real-world map of the streets and pathways where you’re standing!…..” (Pokemon GO, 2016). The map is central to the other elements of the augmented reality app: a backdrop sourced from Google appears as the game board across which players navigate, other elements of the interface allow the game to be played, and the relation to the world beyond the device is crucial to the game. The fact that the map is central to the latest moneymaking craze in a ludified world tells us certain important things about mapping. Maps as a cultural form have the power to seem to be real. They appear to show the world ‘as it is’ — and deploy Cartesian logic to objectify, classify and place things. They have a scale. They are designed. They code the world (Pickles, 2004). And they are still frequently regarded as a form of technical and useful knowledge (Turnbull, 1996). The Pokemon maps work in this way as a practical tool, helping players to run and catch their targets.

Challenges to the scientific hegemony of mapping came in the last two decades of the twentieth century, and critical cartographic scholars such as Brian Harley (1989) and Denis Wood (1992) questioned its objective neutrality, arguing that maps also construct a world acting as powerful and fixative devices that represent, and in so doing make claims on the world which they depict. The map becomes a material semiotic thing facilitating translations from one world to another — an immutable mobile, which can be carried around to fix and control (Latour, 1986). After the digital revolution, maps actively envisage a user and also increasingly have the capacity to induce certain kinds of behaviour, through a quantified algorithmic logic (Gekker, 2016). The playful interface and rule structure, with which Pokemon GO influences behaviour, reflects the importance of a well-designed location-based game in our culture, but also reflects the neoliberal imperative driving a games industry, and the nostalgic desire of many players to re-enact their past and the formerly completely screen-based experience of The Pokemon franchise. The map becomes part of the player’s everyday life. Yes, maps do work as tools, but their framing also does political work.

However, the game and the map that facilitate gameplay are also performed. Affordances are enabled by the interface — seeking, catching, battling, healing, and reviving in the game-world, but also navigating in the real world across the map, to find Pokestops  or Gyms and in doing so competing with other players. Mapping in a broader context has increasingly been rethought as much more than a scientific controlling of the world, or a fixative political device (Dodge, Kitchin, & Perkins, 2009). It is increasingly also understood as performative 1 — mutable, constantly called into being by actions that are made possible through an assemblage of affordances, technologies, media, feelings, places, semiologies, and embodied experience. Designs induce, but they are enacted in practice. Technology has certainly encouraged this shift — the certainty of the map is rendered ever more doubtful. Crowd-sourced mapping competes with national surveys (Perkins, 2014). Mashups 2 are deployed to overlay personal information onto shared mapping, just as the Pokemon characters appear on the map. GPS receivers in devices precisely locate smartphone users, but also feed this data into software, where events or emotions (Nold, 2009) can be coded so that they too can appear overlain onto mapping. Everyone can change the map on their screen, and systems are designed to create a personalised geography that displays on smartphone screens reflecting past browsing histories. There is no longer one map but many fleeting, constantly updated mutable images. This means the personal history of playing Pokemon GO can be recalled. Performance can be compared against other players. Uncertainty, competition, and possibility replace fixity and inevitable outcomes.

The Pokemon GO website recognises that “you’ll always be in the center of the map” (Pokemon GO, 2016) and in most smartphone-based mapping apps this is the case — nowadays the map follows you, so that as you move through a terrain the map automatically moves with you, and shows your changed position. But that is not inevitable, it is a particular assemblage that only came together after the mass deployment of smartphones from 2007, and the widespread dissemination of the Google maps API from 2005. On the contrary, I would argue that performativity is always contingent — a mapping assemblage comes together in particular times and places — in some contexts a layered interface calls into play a navigational logic (Verhoeff, 2012), in others a more ludic potential for subversion exists (Lammes & Perkins, 2016). Military applications are likely to deliver different affordances to those facilitated in artistic interventions. Administrative mapping is likely to feel different to mapping where individual perceptions are foregrounded. There is no inevitability about the relations between interface design, placing of users in an interface, the ways mobility is scripted, or the public space being mapped. You were outside the map in the era of paper mapping. Why should the map not move away from you? Why should you not be hidden in the map? Why does the map even have to be visible? Why can you not make the map as you walk through it, or touch or smell the map?

The relations of an embodied and mobile experience to its remediation in mapped form is central to the Pokemon GO experience, but it is also central to Naomi Bueno de Mesquita’s research. Her case (Bueno de Mesquita, 2017) goes beyond the narrowly ludic rationale of Pokemon GO to explore this relationality, in which memories of mapped events are crucial. A practice in which mobile experience of urban space is enacted and remade through different mappings of the built fabric, highlighting the nature of invisibility, but also crucially a practice that embodies different experiences of that built fabric. A performative mapping is thus always situated and always historicised, a mode of mapping called into being in particular mapping moments (Dodge, Perkins & Kitchin, 2009). •

The article was originally published in a book ‘Trading Places – Practices of Public Participation in Art and Design Research’ (DPR Barcelona), published in September 2017. ‘Trading Places’ rethinks, develops and tests design-driven practices and methods to engage with participation in public space and public issues.
The book follows ‘TRADERS – Training Art and Design Researchers in Participation for Public Space,’ an EU-funded project (2013–17) that focuses on developing a methodological framework for participatory work in public space projects. Z33 House for Contemporary Art is one of the cultural and academic partners of the programme.
DPR Barcelona: Traders – Practices of Public Participation
TRADERS programme (2013–17)

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