Embracing Those Gaps on the Map: Urban Media Archaeology, Take 3

Ilgın Seymen, Terra Incognita 1728, 2011
Ilgın Seymen, Terra Incognita 1728, 2011

Algorithmic Architecture from Charlie Behrens on Vimeo.

Rory, my long-term TA, and I wrapped up the third semester of our Urban Media Archaeology graduate studio this past Wednesday evening. The last week of every semester is always a nail-biter — and I’m always amazed to see how well everyone pulls it together by the deadline. Once again, we had media maps  addressing a wide range of topics — some really stretching the definition of “media” — and quite a few that productively and creatively pushed the limits of mapping as a method, and challenged the conventions of the database behind our map.

Last fall I gave an overview of the semester’s projects and some of the more meta-level insights that came into relief for us, collectively. I’ll offer a similar wrap-up for this semester’s class — but I’ll allow the students to reflect on their research-and-production processes in their own words by drawing from their final “process blog” posts. Their final reflections are always extraordinarily poignant and demonstrate a great deal of critical self-awareness; the bits I’ll extract here are likely to have the most resonance for new students starting their own mapping projects in the future.


*Andrea began the semester with an interest in the Lower Manhattan waterfront and points of mediation between land and sea. By semester’s end, she had narrowed her focus to one symbolically-charged object, a conceptual (and literal) hinge: the oyster. In her map, “Like Oysters Observing the Sun Through the Water,”

[w]aterfront metaphors emerge in the various points of data: the slips where water slips purposefully into Manhattan’s rigid grid; the oyster houses that embody the griminess of the oyster’s marine habitat; the expansions of the coastline that extend the land outwards into the sea; the floating oyster barges that symbolically marry, through architecture, land and water; and the middens underneath the soil that illicit a sense of discardedness wherein water is submerged under land.

Andrea has this to say about her process:

After selecting a topic, most of the semester was spent narrowing the topic down, researching this topic (still many topics), and further narrowing it down. The research process is integral to the map itself, despite most of the process remaining invisible in the end product. After researching, it was time to assemble/disassemble the research and turn it into mappable data. I’d say this, next to the actual research, was the most time consuming.


*Brian has worked in Times Square for years, and has long been curious about the “Old Times Square.” His “Mapping the Deuce: The Transformation of 42nd Street” focuses on the establishment of 42nd Street (particularly between 7th and 8th avenues) as a theater hotspot; the area’s transition, after the Depression and WWII, from “legitimate theater” to “questionable genres of film”; and the redevelopment of 42nd Street as part of a “massive public/private clean-up project.”

Brian, reflecting on his process, lamented that he

spent too much time at the beginning hunting down media to enrich my map with, rather than organically seeking it out as I crafted my arguments. As a result, I had to tone down my final product with far less photos than I originally intended as they would have distracted the reader rather than enhance the narrative.

In the end, though, his map changed his mind about 42nd Street; it contradicted his original hypothesis about the area: “42nd Street wasn’t turned into something NEW, it was simply given back to the people of the area and it’s once again a place where all walks of life can find entertainment.” The project, he said,

really made me scratch my head and figure out how to make a map of static objects entertaining and interesting. I’ve learned that the points on a map don’t need to move to tell a compelling story; instead, the blanks just need to be filled-in.


*Christine began with a focus on urban farming — and, through her research, eventually saw the agricultural potential for repurposed “gutterspaces” and other unclaimed slivers of land. Her research on rooftop farms also revealed an additional challenge in mapping these sites, which helped her to identify her major cartographic challenge:

When I first began mapping rooftop farms, one of my first questions was whether they would be visible from a satellite image. Lo and behold, right there on the trapezoid roof below are the neatly planted rows of the Brooklyn Grange located at 37-18 Northern Blvd in LIC, Queens. From this height, the produce looks more like mold than kale, but I still gasped when it came into view. My attempt to zoom in as much as possible to see a recognizable vegetable warped me into Google Street View and I was left with the drab facade of the Standard Motor Products building. Headlines and conversation around rooftop farming often asks one to “look up”. However, a walking tour of rooftop farms would be quite boring without scaling the wall or an elevator ride. As my project progresses, the tension between these two views has been just asking for a cartographic argument. Somehow the project has found it’s way into the gutter (with the mapping of gutterspaces) and then high up above where it is more accurate to “look down”. At both extremes, the scale of real estate and the contours of space take on mere shapes. Then, there is navigating everything in between.

And by attempting to navigate these in-between spaces through her map, “Urban Agriculture: From the Ground Up,” she realized just how infinitely expandable a map could be. She quotes Denis Cosgrove (whom we read for class):

Here, Winnicott’s question, ‘Did you find that in the world or did you make it up?’ denotes an irrelevant distinction. More important is how the map permits a kind of excavation (downward) and extension (outward) to expose, reveal and construct latent possibilities within a greater milieu.

She responds:

After plotting points on URT, I was waiting for that invisible layer to reveal itself. Adding Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates and gutterspaces to my map was nudging me closer to latent possibilites that had yet to be excavated, but I did not know what I was looking for and I wanted to find it. That is not to say I lacked things to map that were visible. The process of mapping felt as if there was no beginning or end, ‘but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and overspills.’ Multiple entryways and exits gave the process dimension. The project had a life of its own.

She finds resonance in Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome:

[U]nlike the graphic arts, drawing or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detatchable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entranceways and exits and its own lines of flight.

To which she responds:

This is my last semester in the Media Studies program and I didn’t realize it completely, but all semester, I was trying to create a map that I could take with me. Each point created a line with its own “line of flight.” In some ways, I wanted [Lewis] Carroll’s map that was impossible to unfold, instead of understanding that “…mapping unfolds potential; it remakes territory over and over again.”


*Danielle continued the “History of Artists and Art Production of Lower Manhattan” map she began last year. As she explains it,

The first phase of my project reveals the close network of mostly Fluxus artists (1960-) that helped to gentrify SoHo. And the second and final phase of my project examines the New York School (1940-1960) of artists. After completing the first phase of my project, I realized that it in order to fully understand the gentrification of lower Manhattan, I had to explore the cultural and political climate of the 1940s and 1950s in New York. My project is an examination of how New York’s art world of the 40’s, 50s, 60s and 70s transformed downtown Manhattan from wastelands to a culturally rich neighborhood full of high-end lofts, fashionable boutiques, trendy restaurants and galleries. My project also examines how the art that was created during the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s was a direct reflection of the social and environmental factors of New York’s deteriorating urban landscape, full of abandoned buildings, and the culture of poverty and neglect in lower Manhattan.

Danielle revisited the mapping strategies she used in the first phase of her project:

I realized my strength from last [year] was my ability to reveal a very tight-knit community; my weakness was relying too much on images and videos for my data. This semester, I have tried very hard to create concise and informative descriptions, biographies and histories.


*Julian‘s “ACT UP New York: Unleashing Latino Power” seeks to

expand popular representations and perceptions of ACT UP NY. More specifically, [his] map aims to diversify ACT UP’s recorded historical narrative by telling the story of the Latino Caucus…. In part due to the relative absence of the Latino Caucus story in textbooks and film, [his] sources are archival documents found at the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division, as well as recorded conversations with Jimmy Lopez, self-defined ally of the Latino Caucus and ex-employee of the Hispanic AIDS Forum, Ricky Rivera, ex-Latino Caucus member, and through a non-recorded conversations with Jesus Aguais, ex-member and present Executive Director of AID for AIDS.

And here’s Julian, a first-semester Masters student, reflecting on his work over the course of the semester:

It’s hard for me to let go of this project. I expose it now with a little apprehension but also with a lot affect.” After critiquing the few mistakes and gaps he sees in his final project, he writes: “[W]hat I’m choosing to see now, and seeing much more in detail than any other details, is all the humanity and spirituality that the project captures. I think that it manages to accomplish what I had intended from  the onset, using digital media to tell a compelling story. That of my subject and that of my own. There is a vulnerability that I have learned in this urban media archaeology methodology(?), and it is something that I will reflect upon throughout the course of my graduate studies.


Louis, inspired by object-oriented philosophy, wanted to examine the life of various animate and inanimate objects in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. His map, “Sights and Sounds of Space-Time” ended up focusing more on the technical and conceptual challenges of mapping the haziness and dynamism of both space and time. He used a variety of creative methods — e.g., “ontographs” and field recordings — to capture the presence of “invisible” forces in the urban landscape.

He offered an eloquent reflection on how the process of mapping these complex ideas not only enhanced his understanding of philosophy, but also encouraged him to reflect on his own own methodology and modes of working:

This is the sort of class I wish I’d taken my first semester at the New School as it forced me, more than any other class, to reflect on methodology itself. I’m sure that if I had taken this class a year and a half ago I would’ve spent a lot of my time in this program making maps. Mapping my research aided me in understanding some of the dense theoretical concepts I’ve been exploring in my “free” time, so in a reflective sense, I am indebted to the project if only because it helped me understand some things…. Through trial-and-error (and error and error and error…), the entire mapping process has indeed been a challenge, but in the most productive sense of the term. In making visible our research (and the research process itself), the “holes” in particular theories become visually evident.  Inasmuch as mapping has allowed me to further “understand” some things, it’s also shown me what’s missing… Overall: a most productive experience, and one that will inform future work.

Mert, an international student, wanted to explore how other international students navigate and make sense of the city. Through “my new york,” he followed six students as they led him on a tour of sites that were personally meaningful to them, and asked them to narrate their experience of those sites. One of Mert’s great challenges was sorting through the tremendous amount of audio and video he collected through his research, then formatting this material so it lent itself to presentation on a map. His strategy: using Final Cut Pro as a classification and storage tool.

I created a Final Cut Project for each participant and added the necessary files. I have to create shorter parts from these long files to make them ready to use in my final project. The approach I used is the one I developed through oral history projects and film projects over time.

He then labels each file with terms that identify the primary topics or themes addressed in each interview. “The basic premise of this method was to create a memory-recalling method.”


Miranda’s “Endangered Languages in New York City” mapped speakers and enclaves of endangered languages in New York.  While there are about 800 languages spoken with in a 20-mile radius of the five boroughs, her map focuses on the Garifuna, Highland Totonac and Nahuatl languages. Miranda’s project evolved quite dramatically over the course of semester. Her original plan was to map the migration of the languages themselves from their global places of origin to the communities in which they’re currently spoken in NY. But then she realized that “focusing on that topic erases any sense of agency from the speakers of those endangered languages.” So she turned her attention to the individual stories of endangered-languages speakers in the NY metro area, and the social and media networks (particularly radio) that enables them to form language communities.

Robin, in her “New York on the Broadway Stage,” mapped Broadway musicals set in New York City, and how they both reflected the character of particular neighborhoods and deal with issues of social mobility. It was through the process of plotting her records on the map that Robin hit upon the social mobility theme:

It was really only in the last hours of putting this all together that I finally let the map speak for itself…. Once I actually started mapping points, I found the clustering interesting…. I realized that the arguments I had been thinking about existed in these clusterings… They represented a way to talk about how people move upward socially, and what that translates to in terms of actual geography.

Through mapping, she also became aware of ingrained habits in her own work process:

This project really made me hyper-aware of how linearly I work. I like to be able to move up and down on a paper and draw straight lines through my arguments. This map really challenged that habit of mine and forced me to look a harder into what I was doing and how I was doing it.

She had a break-through earlier in the semester that set her on this path of self-reflection:

I stayed a bit late after class today helping a classmate navigate URT, and I realized that I LOVE DATABASES…. I was incredibly nervous about this project before I really got my hands on URT. I was ready to change my topic, abandon all hope, ect., but once I started plugging away on URT everything fell into place. During the paper-prototyping class, I was working with all my data as one layer, but after speaking with Rory he pointed out that I could very easily pull-apart that data and create a second layer; that second layer made all the difference. I could see the form of my map, how the data would fall into place, and where the holes in my data were. Now the task is getting the information to fill those holes, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable letting the map inform me rather than trying to force things into the map.


Shiran lives near the Meatpacking District and wanted to better understand its rapid and dramatic transformation. In order to do so, she needed to explore the recent history of the neighborhood. Her “The Meatpacking District: From Raw to Well Done” required that she do some archival research and conduct some fieldwork, which involved interviewing a few locals and documenting changes in the area. She comments on the research experience:

Walking around the Meatpacking District, looking for materials, people and testimonials was a really unique experience. I really enjoyed looking for ideas and arguments on the street, not in articles. Taking photos and expressing ideas while using visual aids was one of the greatest aspects of this research. I love how instead of just saying something, I can express it using a picture. But what I loved the most, without a doubt, was walking around the NYPL archives and bookshelves, looking for pictures, books, articles or whatever else I can find. It was great going through the heavy, old folders (including entire folders full of photos of meat!), looking for photos I can use.

She also echoed a sentiment expressed by many of her classmates, about the fact that her map never felt “done,” that there’s potential for infinite expansion:

I think that since URT is such a great, unique platform, all of us could probably add more layers, records and arguments. I was planning to create different layers than the ones I ended up creating, before I realized that my main source of information will be archival articles and not traditional academic books. But the flexibility and rhythm of this great project took me to different place, which was great! …[T]his time it was much more about the process….

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