Welcome to the first of MapHugger’s several map critique essays! They’re designed to shine a spotlight on a novel piece of map design, discussing the specifics of what makes it so special.
I promised that my first map critique essay would feature my personal favorite map of all time. Well, here it is.
First: the background. The authors did not give this map a clear title… or a clear name for their own organization. For the sake of proper attribution, though, I will credit this as ‘Occupied California’ – After The Fall (2010). The authors are a group of pseudo-anonymous activists located in the California Bay area; the map was published as one of the centerpieces of a 44-page booklet that reports (and editorializes) on a series of anti-capitalist protests that were staged at Californian universities circa 2009. The whole thing can be read here.
Although the protest movement is referred to as ‘occupy California’, the protests occurred before the famous Occupy protests of 2011, and the two movements are not necessarily related. The California protests, from what I can gather, were the response to a 32% tuition hike approved by the UC system. Protestors condemned the tuition hike as a symptom of the commercialization of higher education (and class politics in general), and in response staged sit-ins, marches, and ‘Electro Communist dance parties’ (their words) at academic buildings across the state. In many cases the protestors barricaded themselves in the buildings using dumpsters or padlocks, prompting police action.
I should make clear, I suppose, that I maintain an academic viewpoint on the protests: I have no strong personal stance on the protestors’ politics or actions, one way or the other. I’m just really really infatuated by their map. And I would have a hard time giving a good reason why, even though that’s exactly what I’m forced to do in this map critique, isn’t it. One way to put it might be that what’s so great about this map ‘all the little things’. What’s happening, though, is that all of those little things come together to make one heck of a case study in the use of maps within visual language. Humans employ many ways to communicate, several forms of language as it were; spoken language, written language, non-verbal communication… and of course we also use visuals to communicate, which is the realm of language where maps fall. Written and spoken language has the power to move us; it can be eloquent, inspiring, and even polemic. The same power exists in visual language… and ‘eloquent, inspiring, and polemic’ are exactly the qualities embodied by this map. There’s very strong statements hidden in this map, but the symbolism used to convey them is subtle and clever.
“The use of this publication to incite hooliganism, social conflict, and a general lack of distrust of all institutions connected to the University, or otherwise, is expressly encouraged.“ - After The Fall
Let’s start with some of the less important elements. The map strolls in with a very striking monochrome and yellow color scheme. Not only does it represent a very universal warning coloration (yellow and black, colors employed by venomous insects and caution signs around the globe), but it also lets the map conform to a printing method not normally seen in map publishing: spot color. I’m not 100% sure, and I’m also not a printing expert, but it appears that the whole communique was printed using two presses- one for yellow ink and one for black (not to be confused with using ‘just half’ of CMYK). It’s the sort of treatment normally reserved for things like art zines, so it’s cool to see it used for a map. More cool things to note: how awesome is that retro scripted text that ‘california’ is set in? I still can’t track down what font it is. Ah well. I also supremely enjoy the very neat, though ultimately sorta meaningless, illustrations off the west coast. The sea serpent is a particularly great nod to the infamous ‘hic sunt dracones’ of ancient European maps, although I can’t imagine that ‘othering’ the ocean is part of the authors’ message. It’s more of an easter egg.
Okay, so, let’s move on to the substantive stuff. There’s a few symbology choices here that are easy to overlook, but reflect very, very powerful statements on behalf of the designer(s).
- Prisons are featured on this map. In fact, they’re the only non-protest related feature to be placed on this map (other than the state capital, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Prisons, however, are represented here with a dollar sign, of all things. It’s definitely the most unusual symbology choice on the map, and with it, the author(s) have launched a very overt statement on the privatization of America’s prison system. It also hints at the protestors’ perspective of police as lackeys in the upper class’s power system.
- The state’s capital city is added, and it uses the standard cartographic symbol for capital cities (a star). However, the label for the city is put in scare quotes: “Sacramento”. It’s puzzling at first glance, but essentially it’s just another little way for the authors to challenge the legitimacy of the state.
- The protest sites deserve special attention. Their map symbol is a series of concentric rings. This design decision is probably the biggest display of chutzpah I have ever seen on a map. Can you figure out why? Consider the context, here: this is a map of California, the country’s most famous state in terms of tectonic hazards. The most common way to pictorally represent an earthquake epicenter is a series of concentric rings (somewhat tangentially, this inspired what is easily my favorite video skit from The Onion). The map authors are pulling off a visual simile, suggesting that their own protest movement has all the suddenness, intensity, resonance, and transformativeness of a flurry of natural disasters. That sort of comparison takes guts, considering how easy it is to argue that such a comparison trivializes the thousands of fatalities and untold amounts of property damage that have been caused by earthquakes in the state.
- Finally, the latitude & longitude (lat/long) gridlines. It’s curious because they’re not labeled: are these placed every 1 degree lat/long? 5? 10? With no labels, the major point of having gridlines (referencing the lat/long of map features) is impossible. They vaguely show off the type of distortion caused by the map projection, but that distortion is hardly extreme. Why then do we have these rather thick, opaque gridlines covering the map? I might be overthinking this one, but I see those gridlines as yet another visual element used for rhetorical purposes. Those chunky gridded lines evoke the bars of a prison, or the strings of a net, or the links of a chain fence. The state of California appears strapped down, restrained, barricaded. California is behind bars: whether locked away by the prison bars of the government, or locked in by the makeshift barricades erected by the protestors. It’s a rather evocative image, and one that they achieve by misappropriating the graphic features native to cartography. Gridlines are a reference feature, they’re not meant to in any way communicate messages like that. But that’s exactly what the mapmakers got away with. It’s a sneaky tactic for sure, but one that’s fantastically clever.
So, to sum things up, let’s return to that idea of visual language. If visuals are a language, this map is a fantastic orator. It’s certainly invective, a quality it is wholly unashamed of. But the polemic is also delivered in more subtle ways, visual metaphors that are only apparent upon closer inspection. All maps speak a little to the presumptions and opinions of their author, no matter how objective they pretend to be. What’s happened here is that the authors abandoned that entire pretense, and created a piece of cartography that revels in the connotative power of visuals.