Bethlehem to Baghdad

In 2008 the artist Till Roeskens – who describes himself as an ‘amateur of applied geography’ – produced a ‘videocartography’ or ‘videomapping’ based on interviews at the Aida refugee camp in occupied Palestine.  Roeskens explains: ‘I asked residents of the camp to draw with big ink pens so the marks would go through the paper. I filmed from the other side, as they drew, so I didn’t see the person while they were drawing and speaking; I saw only the white screen with the light coming from behind me.’  The mappings, together with the stories told by those who drew them, were recorded on video, and ‘as the film progresses, the viewer is increasingly hemmed in by a complex network of lines, until the reality of the occupation is fully realized on screen’.      There is a revealing interview with the artist at Words without borders here, and you can watch some extracts here (and there are others on YouTube and vimeo).

« On screen: nothing but another screen. At first untouched, a blank sheet of paper is slowly being filled with more or less straight lines. Then these lines grow, push and cross each other, to finally form a drawing, a layout; they unfold a topography, mark places, build houses, give directions, describe in great detail tangles of roads and obstacles. In fact, they are laying down flat biographies. Six sheets slowly come to life that way, one after another, following the rhythm of stories told by children, women or men voices, of people we never get to see. Where are these voices? Behind the sheets. Of course, but where else? Nowhere: that is precisely what the voices are trying to say. Or rather, because even nowhere persists on taking up some space, they say that they are in Palestine. (…) »

Inspired by Rosekens’ work, Antonio Ottomannelli transposed the technique to Baghdad.  The project was carried out between November 2011 and February 2012 with students at the Fine Arts Faculty of the University of Baghdad.  Ottomannelli:

‘Baghdad is a hidden city.  Everything is placed behind anti-explosion walls, from one checkpoint to the next. … The latest map of Baghdad was made by the US military in 2003 for military and strategic purposes…  There is no civilian map of the current configuration… Inspired by the work of Till Roeskens on Palestine, Mapping Identity tries to tell about the city – the whole of it – from the inside.  A snapshot of the ordinary, a minor “Giacometti portrait”, as Baghdad is concealed…’

More details here, and a videomap here (more on vimeo).

These projects are political-artistic versions of the ‘mental maps’ that captured the imagination of many human geographers in the 1960s and 70s – an interest which is usually traced back to Kevin Lynch’s experiments with The image of the city (1960) and that probably climaxed in Peter Gould and Rodney White’s classic little book, Mental maps, originally published in 1974 – but what makes these projects so compelling is their emphasis on the process of mapping (through their use of video) rather than a fixation on the map as finished object.  One of the criticisms of the original ‘mental mapping’ projects was that respondents drew maps only because they were asked to: that this was not how people found their way around their neighbourhoods, which usually turned out to be a much more pragmatic, improvisational practice responding to cues and following routines rather than relying on some imaginary point of overview.  But these two projects are ways of narrating a space – of telling what Michel de Certeau would call ‘spatial stories’ – that are also interventions in (and subversions of) larger narratives of military violence and military occupation.