- Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology and Politics by Laura Kurgan
Laura Kurgan is an architect and an articulate maker of maps, deploying advanced GI technology in many creative ways. Close Up at a Distance documents a wide array of [End Page 335] her cartographic work, primarily around the cultural reading of high-resolution satellite imagery and questioning the impact of the overhead perspective on geopolitical controversies and civil conflicts. Kurgan’s mapping work is very much of the moment: it could only have been created in the recent techno-social milieu, in which access to digital geospatial data has dramatically changed in terms of basic availability, costs, storage, software tools, expertise, and so on. These changes have opened up many new ways to see the world, to challenge the predominance of the state in representing space, and – crucially – has granted academics, political activists, and grassroots actors new capacities to try to change what is happening on the ground. As Kurgan writes, the “projects included here don’t only talk about maps, images, data. They seek to talk with them – to put them to use in ways that are critical of or that enlarge our conception of where we are and might be in the world” (p. 36; original emphasis).
I have long been an admirer of Kurgan’s work – it has always made me think and question the nature of mapping. I first stumbled across an article she wrote on her Information Drift project more than a decade ago that dealt with how GPS asserts its knowledge of the world (Kurgan 1994). It remains an intriguing piece of artistic interrogation, revealing the spatial and political uncertainty at the heart of the claim to power of this piece of information technology – pinpoint-precise location. I have cited Information Drift several times in my own research and have shared it with students as a way to look critically at geographical technologies by creatively deploying them, and thereby countering the all-too-easy acceptance of infrastructures like GPS as apolitical and beyond questioning from social scientists.
Much of the work Kurgan has chosen to present in Close Up at a Distance is about how specific technologies try to orient bodies in space and focus the gaze only on a select few places. Her projects often speak to the power of scale in shaping perceptions of reality. The socially constructed way in which grids of orientation and scale ratios come into being while pretending to be natural, enduring, or simply received wisdom will be familiar to many human geographers and critical cartographers but is well worth spelling out to a broader “art” audience likely to pick up this book. Kurgan’s mapping is creative, often quite conjectural, in how it questions the meanings that people see as inherent in space but actually depend almost entirely on the scale of territorial representation; so Kurgan likes to juxtapose images of the same place at multiple scale levels along the gallery wall or use zooming displays to undermine the apparent legibility of patterns by moving up or down a social-technical hierarchy of viewpoints – showing the map reader that reality is all artificial abstraction, whether these are very big or really small pixels. “The resulting image is no longer hard data. It is a soft map that is infinitely scalable, absolutely contingent, open to vision and hence revision” (p. 204).
It is evident that Kurgan has a certain kind of cynicism, a downcast view of the world. Her mapping projects all seem to dwell on the gloomy side of politics and social activism: mapping death, destruction, and the depressing aspects of human relations. She acknowledges this at one point: “In a sense, I went from one mass grave to another, but not intentionally” (p. 130). Not a happy read! But, importantly, the work also fails to encompass the wider scope of digital mapping for...