Information designers and data visualization practitioners are often concerned with The Map — how it’s made, what it shows, its design. The literary project Territory is, as the name might suggest, concerned with The Territory — the people, stories, and intimate details contained within those very representations. Where data visualization is about boiling complex ideas and vast corpora of information into something digestible, the writings and illustrations in Territory are about the bits of place and humanity that end up concealed or squeezed out.
Territory points out that all representations are fictions to some degree, which could tilt some mapmakers toward existential despair. But grappling with the gap between representation and reality will make us better designers, mapmakers, readers, and consumers of data visualization. Territory pushes us to think harder about what to include and what to leave out of our work. It challenges us to consider the granular stories and personal histories that make up our data or our visualizations.
I was fortunate to catch up with Nick Greer, who is editor and co-founder of Territory. We discussed the origins of the journal, the allure of old maps, the impact of new mapping technologies, and much more.
Isaac Levy-Rubinett: Hello! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. We’re very into maps over at Nightingale and in the DVS, so we’re always interested in how they intersect with people’s lived experiences and art. To start off, could you give a bit of an introduction for yourself and for Territory? How did you get started and what do you hope to accomplish with the journal?
Nick Greer: I’m a writer and data scientist from Berkeley and I edit Territory with Thomas Mira y Lopez. The project began through conversations we were having in 2014 about the allure of old objects, especially those that have become outmoded, especially maps. There’s something fantastical about these objects, a contortion of the Arthur C. Clarke quote about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. The limitations and distortions of a mappa mundi can’t simply be explained by some absence of technology, but of a completely different reality.
The more we read and talked, the more we found that this appeal wasn’t unique to hind- or foresight. Tommy was writing about capriccio — a genre of painting popular in the Renaissance that presents realistic but fictionalized architectural landscapes — and I was writing about my experiences as a data analyst, how people treated data as a spiritual entity, technocracy’s access to the divine exteriors of objectivity and rationalism. All representations are fictional at some level — the map is not the territory — but some fictions are especially seductive. This felt like something worthy of a larger and more formal investigation.
ILR: Let’s talk about your URL: themapisnot. What is the significance of this phrase and how does it guide Territory’s work?
NG: “The map is not the territory” is a quotation attributed to Alfred Korzybski that encapsulates a paradox people were surely grappling with before his day. Maybe the most succinct and famous articulation is Borges’ absurdist parable “On Exactitude in Science,” in which an empire’s cartographers are so obsessed with accuracy, they construct a map as large as the empire itself so they can match it puntualmente (“point by point”). Trying to wrap your head around paradoxes like this, the mind toggles between competing true and false realities and the URL embodies some of that, asking the reader to juggle two phrases that both complete and contradict with one another. It’s heady but playful, which is hopefully a tone that permeates the project. We want to engage seriously with philosophical and social concerns, but also enjoy getting tangled in their complexities rather than reducing them.
ILR: I totally agree about the allure of old objects, and maps in particular. Obviously, mapping technology and GIS has become more and more sophisticated. Do you find a similar allure in these technologically advanced — Arthur C. Clarke might call them “magical” — objects? And how do you think these advancements in technology have impacted the gap that exists between reality and representation?
NG: Definitely. I was speaking with a friend recently about the splash made by the first Google Earth client download in maybe 2006? Now we think of the larger Google GIS toolkit as commonplace and utilitarian, but when Earth was first released, it was received more like a video game or an art installation than a map in that everyone’s first impulse (and the reason we told our friends they had to download it) was to play with it, test its boundaries, marvel at its detail. There was also something uncanny about seeing yourself — as represented through familiar locations, or, if you were lucky, a grainy, faceblurred paparazzi shot of your person — in this new medium. This activated a desire to go on the hunt for all sorts of Easter eggs, especially ones that created dissonance between the virtual and “real” world, whether technical glitches or concentrations of things that exist in sparsity or obfuscation in the real world, especially when attached to sex (nude sunbathers) or violence (car crashes, muggings). This desire catalyzed a new subgenre of curatorial / found art, as exemplified in Jon Rafman’s 9 Eyes gallery (which Jon rebooted just this last week after years of dormancy).
Interrelated with this is the uncanny of being able to “see” distant, foreign locations as if they are near, an effect that is especially potent with street view. Even if the distant scene is different in content from ones we know, the uniformity with which we access the near and the far creates a flattening effect, one that we has been difficult to inspect because the medium was (and is still) so new. The result is an illusion of experience (or at least visibility) that recalls a snobbishly triumphant Daniel Defoe quote from The Compleat English Gentleman about the transportative powers of fiction, that:
[T]he English gentleman may make a tour of the world in books, he may make himself master of the geography of the universe in the maps, atlasses and measurements of our mathematicians. He may travell by land with the historians, by sea with the navigators. He may go round the globe with Dampier and Rogers, and kno’ a thousand times more doing it than all those illiterate sailors.
I think powerful technologies like GIS and visualization contribute to the conviction that we can know a thing by its representation, but paradoxically there is more distrust of representations than ever before, and I don’t think this is a coincidence. Habituation to a non-native technology can be a source of heavy dissonance, whatever the opposite of a phantom limb is. The sublime horror of parasite and host assimilating into one another.
ILR: Nightingale is the journal of the Data Visualization Society, and many of our readers are probably nodding their heads in enthusiastic agreement at the idea that “All representations are fictional at some level.” As a data analyst, how do you engage with that dissonance, especially when so many people seem all too ready to turn to data for answers?
NG: As an analyst, it’s tough because no matter how much I enjoy my work, it’s still work. In the corporate world (which includes its colonies in the academe), it’s difficult to diverge from what bosses and clients want, which is often the easiest or simplest answer, even when the only thing data really tells us is how incredibly complicated things are, how there is always another level of meaning to uncover, another angle or lens or methodology to employ, a feeling that is only amplified by the speed with which new tools are emerging. My sense is that there is an ideological conflict between data production and data consumption despite the blurry boundaries between the two, with producers caring very deeply about getting things “right” and consumers treating data mostly as a sprinkle of logos to create a perception of objectivity in narratives and decisions that are fundamentally subjective and arbitrary, which, despite the crassness of this usage, is a lot closer to the way new objectivities come into being and crystallize than most data producers are willing to recognize.
Navigating this is incredibly complicated, even before you get into the interpersonal touchiness of it all, and so I end up capitulating to objectivity more often than I’d like, tiering my conclusions as business and science writing norms dictate — cleaner, more reductive observations up front with plenty of caveating and footnoting that invite the more questioning to join me in increasingly convoluted circles of data hell: body paragraphs, appendices, code, methodological assumptions, etc. — which gives data consumers and producers their respective feelings of concreteness.
When I’m feeling a little irreducible though, a little inefficient, I like to present data not as a representation of an inherent reality but as a means of producing an emergent reality. Instead of making conclusions, I offer consumers a decision matrix over n axes and make (still caveated) conclusions about the relations between the axes, showing how if you were to fix these variables at these values, here are effects of that decision elsewhere. This is where data visualization becomes especially useful, allowing consumers to interact with the data and its model, intuiting its topology and coming to their own conclusions rather than just accepting the prescription of an analysis. This is also valuable because it flips and blurs the relationship between producer and consumer, that cliché of another kind of analyst asking “well, how do you feel about that?”
ILR: You mentioned the two sides of the coin — production and consumption. The decision matrix and emergent reality is a great approach to minding the inherent gap in representation from the production side. Is that a shared responsibility between producer and consumer to recognize and reckon with whatever dissonance exists?
NG: I use the language of producer and consumer for the corporate context, but there are many ways to refer to these covalences and many variants of them, each of which bear their own biases, especially when approaching the question of responsibility. Though the language of maker and user is a little abstract and alienating, I like how the cartographic process presents representation less as a production pipeline and more as an ongoing cycle, showing how decisions consumers make have a direct impact on the environments a producer is attempting to represent. The framework of writer and reader is useful for getting at the fictive, imagined quality of representation as well as its co-authorship, where it’s not just expected but healthy for writer’s intention and the polyphony of reader interpretations to converge and diverge.
Bringing this back to Territory, I spend a lot of time thinking about how we might complicate the relationship between reader and writer, whether that’s inviting readers to explicitly coauthor a piece through interaction or to require more active types of reading. There’s a lazy mythology that writing on the internet should pander to a perceived shortening of attention spans, boiling a text down to its essentials and attempting to hook or delight within the first sentence. It’s inarguable that this is an effective way to capture a common denominator of attention, but there are many different modes of reading, and we’ve built Territory to cultivate more deliberate and sustained reading, ideally in a way that also adds to an individual issue or piece’s concerns. For our Treasure issue, we published a sonnet by Albert Goldbarth that can’t be read immediately or sequentially, requiring that readers hunt through the issue in search of “buried” lines of the poem. For our Extremes issue, the title page doesn’t appear immediately, requiring readers to endure a barrage of maps that accelerates into a chromatic white, upon which the table of contents appears, allowing readers to navigate to individual pieces. This kind of thing isn’t for everyone, but those who get it have the opportunity to really immerse. At the very least there are two Territory readers who get a lot out of this complexity, myself and Tommy.
ILR: How do you engage with that dissonance as a consumer?
NG: Good writing often embeds hints for how to read or makes room for a plurality of reading modes, but good readers can always supply their own. This is an ideal though, and we’re all lazier readers than we’d like to be though there’s no shame in this. I wince to think of all the infographics and think pieces I’ve hoovered up to confirm my bias that there is indeed hope for my preferred political candidate or sports team, but also have to laugh at what is a natural impulse. I don’t only want to be able to read around or through representations that set off obvious alarms like sponsored advertising or deepfakes, so I try to foster a more open-minded and dimensional approach to all texts whether or not they affirm with my worldview.
Yesterday I spent an indulgent amount of time on a website called Trapital, which is basically an industry rag for rap, equally disturbed and intrigued by how much people think about gaming Billboard charting rules by bundling album downloads with merch sales, instead of, like, the music itself (as if such a thing exists independent of its many support systems, financial, creative, or otherwise). The more I read and reread, the more I saw how this site isn’t structurally dissimilar from most literary magazines, especially when you consider Trapital’s articles double as ads for the consulting services of Trapital’s only writer. Everyone’s hustling to carve out a niche and this contributes to the skew.
No one theme is as good as how it constellates with other themes. Every additional theme should feel like a line of flight away from what’s already in the Atlas. This brings a sense of discovery and dimensionality to the growing collection while also commenting on what’s already been collected. Alternate Earths tapped into some of Underworlds’ mystical and occult vibrations, but instead of resonating in enclosed, subterranean, and cutaway spaces they were projected to a global scale. Journeys and Treasure both contain historical, epistolary narratives that teeter between boondoggle and eureka, but Treasure is more whimsical and bronzed with childhood recollection and while Journeys turned out a little more studied and documentarian, the personal comes through too, but in more oblique forms. Up next is Alaska, just our second bounded, political territory, the other being Arizona, and after that is un/lucky issue 13, Cursed, which rings both timely and timeless. It’d feel stale to laser in on one thing.
ILR: At Nightingale, we in some ways think of ourselves as bridging the gap between design and data science; appealing to data scientists doing visualization and designers working with data. Who is Territory for? How do you manage or reflect the interplay between the literary and the map?
I discussed this some in the answer to a previous question, that Territory wants to cultivate a certain type of reading, which in turn attracts a certain type of reader, often writers themselves. In the literary world, we skew academic, and between our ekphrastic process, attention to design, and conceptual engagement with a primarily visual text, we tend to attract those who work across or between genres and forms, especially when those forms make their way into writing as found materials (e.g. documentary poetics). This interest in hybridity extends to our audience beyond literary communities, which while also more academic, rarely flies a single flag. At a high-level, it’s a mix of geography, media studies, architecture, civic engineering, design, urban studies, data science, and more emergent fields. My mom also dutifully reads every issue, which is the source of equal parts appreciation and apprehension. The robots are reading too, in their own way.
So while our readers are mostly heads, there is enough heterogeneity within that type that it’s not so much that we manage to strike a balance between the literary and the map so much as it strikes its own and we do our best to accommodate. Every issue turns out different than how we envision it because our contributors always surprise us (and themselves), making our role as editors feel more about collaboration and inquiry rather than judgment and prescription. My favorite pieces we’ve published have come out of long, open-ended discussions about how to actualize what is often difficult to classify but is unquestionably Territory. And I’ll name names, at least from the two most recent issues:
- Ariel Chu & Rainie Oet’s “Transmissions from Another Body” (Issue X — Extremes) is a story of merging alien and human beings told through other merges: text and image, the images themselves collage; the reader authoring dynamic text and image; a convoluted maximalism graced with a childlike voice.
- Cori Winrock’s “+ Variants on the Moon +” (Issue 11 — Twins) is a lyric essay that stitches together a number of subjects — Emily Dickinson’s variants and Gertrude Stein’s Rose, the fabric of wedding gowns and spacesuits, grief and the neo-natal ICU — into a literal textile.
These pieces are layered in strange loops, in complex conversation with themselves that can’t be reduced to its parts. They’re not just about something, but are something, which feels like it gets at the paradoxical relationship between map and territory. Because the map is not the territory, maps are only ever representing other maps, which at first parses as an existential nightmare — the ever-escaping objective reality — but is really an opportunity to accept a messy and complementary truth: the territory is the map.
Thanks to Nick Greer and the folks at Territory for answering our questions. Check out their 11th and most recent issue, Twins, here.