Haptic map origins: making places whole from place-name pieces

The Untitled ṮEṮÁĆES map began as a concept intended to explore ways that interactive art can teach and challenge us to think differently about the relationships between Indigenous and English place names.

As I mention in the My Current Perspective post, the haptic map idea would not have emerged without my personal connections to the Salish Sea and my academic and social-justice influences. The haptic-map concept also draws inspiration from two people in particular who I think challenge, through art, understandings of place and perception: cartographer and artist Margaret Pearce and artist and presenter William Kentridge.

Margaret Pearce and the Coming Home to Indigenous Place Names in Canada map.

William Kentridge’s self-portrait, from the Kentridge Studio website.

Pearce’s Coming Home to Indigenous Place Names in Canada map is not like the typical Western-style maps. In a recent paper, “What Shall We Map Next? Expressing Indigenous Geographies with Cartographic Language,” Pearce, a member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, describes working against “how maps are obligated to look and what they are obligated to include and achieve.” The Coming Home map advances the presences of Indigenous place names and removes or changes cartographic elements typical of most Western-style maps, such as settler-colonial toponyms, scale information, and cardinal directions, like north and south.

Pearce and Stephen J. Hornsby talk about the making of the Coming Home map in “Making the Coming Home Map,” mentioning that they pushed against Western notions of “research” in “the tradition of anthropology and ethnogeography” when making the map and instead “sought to compile traditional names from language programs, language keepers, and cultural committees and liaisons” and determined “if the names could be shared with the outside, through a process of permissions and approvals.”

The Coming Home map, from the Canadian-American Center, where you can purchase this map.

The Coming Home map is not intended, as Pearce says, to be comprehensive or to represent every Indigenous community in Canada:

I endeavoured to make a map that would include only enough names to alter readers’ perceptions of Canada, that would represent those names clearly as cultural property, and that would raise awareness for protection of cultural property as inherent to the protection and respect for Indigenous rights to self-determination.
I picture Pearce as a painter who sees maps as a canvas; Pearce works within a cartographic frame or medium, but finds ways to express an observation, a moment, or a visual idea that is by intent and creation incomplete or complicated, but also engaging and defamiliarizing. I am inspired by the Coming Home map’s creative approach to finding ways to challenge Western cartographic expectations, a challenge that I hope the haptic-map concept and the Untitled ṮEṮÁĆES map bring to the cartographic table.

In the early days of thinking about the haptic map, I knew that I wanted to remove typical Western cartographic expectations, such as roads, bridges, borders, and other usual indicators of colonial presence on the land. I approached the haptic-map concept as an art installation and was primarily concerned with how a haptic map would feel as an aesthetic, relational experience, one in which we are engaged to explore more about something that appears simultaneously familiar and foreign.

The Untitled ṮEṮÁĆES map, like the Coming Home map, is not intended to be cartographically accurate. It attempts instead to encourage us to feel differently about how we each construct our personal perceptions of landscape as a familiar place.

The haptic-map concept is also in part an inquiry into how much “mapness” can be removed from a map before a representation of landscape turns purely abstract. I found echoes of this investigation in William Kentridge’s exercise called “Making a Horse,” which is in Kentridge’s Six Drawing Lessons—you can see the video versions of Six Drawing Lessons on the Mahindra Humanities Center’s YouTube channel.

William Kentridge’s “Making a Horse” exercise, from Six Drawing Lessons.

Kentridge works in several media, but in the “Making a Horse” exercise, in Six Drawing Lessons, we see torn pieces of paper rearranged into the shape of a “horse.” Kentridge asks an important question through this exercise: “are we unable to stop ourselves from seeing in them a shape, a form, a horse?” Even when the “horse” shape is reduced to a minimum of paper pieces, Kentridge remarks that “we cannot help ourselves from seeing the horse,” and that this tendency reveals in us “an unwilling suspension of disbelief.” I wonder, similarly, if it is possible to stop seeing what we think of places we know on already familiar landscapes.

One way of understanding place, and there are many, reminds me of the horse exercise. Imagine toponyms, such as park names, as pieces of paper in the horse exercise. When arranged on a map these names create a namescape that represents a familiar region. Like the sheet of paper upon which the horse appears, a sense of “placeness” imposes itself, through place names, upon the backdrop of a landscape. Through this associative process we compose a whole sense of placeness, a belonging, from place-name pieces—it is as if there is a sense of place, or placeness, waiting to be triggered in the landscape, just as Kentridge says “there is a sense of HORSE, or horse-ness, waiting to be triggered” in the pieces of paper.

Kentridge describes a “pressure for meaning, taking the fragments and completing an image,” and that this pressure “is present not only in looking at shadows but in all that we see.” I wonder if we carry this “pressure for meaning” into our placeness projections upon what we imagine “landscape” to be. The Untitled ṮEṮÁĆES map draws from Kentridge’s exercise in that it attempts to visually dismantle how we construct a sense of place through maps. The Untitled ṮEṮÁĆES map does not rely on representations of places on maps—it has no street names, borders, or cartographic marks. The Untitled ṮEṮÁĆES map’s design intends to reveal something about what Western culture has conditioned the public to expect to learn from a map about real-world landscapes by omitting the expected.

In a playful moment of unfamiliarity, when viewers might expect to be shown “where” they are, they might learn to see landscape as something more than, or different from, a collection of English-language place names, locations, municipalities, or private property. As Kentridge suggests in the horse exercise, we may learn something valuable about our “own self-deception” in the process of making the unfamiliar feel familiar.

Foremost, the haptic-map concept intends to address the absence of Indigenous place names in Western-style maps—Pearce and Hornsby, in “Making the Coming Home Map,” argue that this “cartographic silence can be a tool for cultural assimilation, colonization, and genocide.” People who engage with the Untitled ṮEṮÁĆES map will hear its artistic “landscape” speak back in SENĆOŦEN place names, the language of W̱SÁNEĆ lands that predates colonization by many thousands of years. For many settlers, hearing SENĆOŦEN place names might change the way in which we understand what we are missing by interpreting the namescapes around us through narrow understandings of place.


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