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Issue 150

Hydrocartography: Mapping with Waters
by paul schweizer / kollektiv orangotango and cristina t. ribas

“Nothing in the world is as soft, as weak, as water; nothing else can wear away the hard, the strong, and remain unaltered. Soft overcomes hard, weak overcomes strong. Everybody knows it,
nobody uses the knowledge.”
—Lao Tzu [1]

“I am not interested in an unknowability that shadows knowledge of a colonized other, or a dangerous feminine one either, but rather an unknowability that we can learn from thinking with difference.”
—Astrida Neimanis [2]



Traditional, arid cartography—say, a typical school world map—could be belittingly described as the science of imposing continents and demarcated grounds onto the irrelevant in-betweenness of the world’s oceans. Waters are depicted as adverse obstacles when moving between relevant solid territories, or as mere voids, and are thus often invisibilized in traditional cartography which seems to be obsessed with the dry and static, rocks and metals. Arid cartography tends to depict water as a knowable separate element, enclosed in its rightful domains—rivers, lakes, oceans—visualized with graphic elements such as static points, lines, and demarcated surfaces. And then there’s the material fact that water, for centuries, constituted a major threat for paper maps, its mere presence posing the menace of maceration and dissolution of cartography’s sacrosanct product.

With Lao Tzu’s words in mind—“as soft, as weak, as water; / nothing else can wear away / the hard, the strong”—why not engage this watery threat, the threat of transformation and becoming other, by integrating the very materiality of water as an aesthetic force. This is what we are rehearsing to call “hydrocartography.” As Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod, and Astrida Neimanis [3] suppose: “By drawing upon the reservoir of unknowability carried within all waters, we may situate ourselves in ways that challenge land-based preconceptions of fixity.” Taking any map to a walk alongside, with, and through watery bodies allows us to experiment with the liberating potential of hydrocartography—our sweating bodies, sudden rain showers, and our water-loving daughters potential accomplices in this endeavour. Understanding ethics as an enabling alternative to morality, as “becoming attuned to the complexity of the world and our immersion in it,” and thus as “actively working on and reshaping relationships,” we feel engaging an ethics of water can help us think through how we relate to each other, and the generative unpredictability of any cartographic encounter. [4]

Since 2019, the two of us have been collaborating, divided-connected between Latin America and Europe, different yet related in the way we position our cartographic-artistic-militant practices, sharing experiences, places, comrades, and the intention to share more. Yet, we feel this kinship is not (just) some- thing between autonomous individuals—demarcated points in space. Rather, it is a condition that we share with countless others—lines between points. In fact, more than just connecting “human points,” this very condition, we feel, also connects us to more-than-human entities—multifold and aggregated points.

Since 2020, in public conversations and mapping workshops that we have held at art schools, we’ve contextualized our respective and shared mapping practices by seeing ourselves as “becoming bodies of water” [5]—implying the overwhelming yet beautiful acceptance that our bodies’ water is the very water that forms and circulates through other human and more- than-human bodies; the Atlantic Ocean at the coast of Santa Catarina, the frosty clouds of the German winter, the snow on Mount Vesuvio’s peak… all of these waters, notwithstanding their varying physical states and qualities—other yet same—circulate literally within and between bodies, in a planetary flow, across space and time. In Neimanis’s words, we are “engaged, embedded, embodied […] situated, implicated—in time, in space, in other bodies of other beings.” [6] Taking this seriously necessarily comes with a radical realignment of modern cartographers’ self-conception. The cartographer’s gaze can no longer adhere to an external, top-down, bird’s-eye perspective—the abstract, totalizing gaze at the world as an object to be ruled. On the contrary, the hydrocartographic project acknowledges both the world’s fluid condition and the cartographer’s becoming (in) these flows. If the waters of the world flow through us, wouldn’t then the only imaginably (im)possible way to map the world be to flow with them?

Before the arid mapping starts, there is the unmapped void—an idealized blank white page. Yet to employ an ethics of water is to see that whatever site we may be mapping is far from empty, clear, devoid of influences. Shifting our eyesight from arid cartography to hydrocartography includes an emotional and subjective reflection. For us, this has been, intrinsically, part of a need to rethink our practices and ourselves. We began by mapping out instinctively and practically our own interdependent relationships, intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic reality in different forms and weights, believing that whether living in distant continents or being distanced due to pandemic security measures, we move and are moved by common currents.

In order to open ourselves up to these other forms of mapping, in the workshops we organized, we felt that starting the mapping with meditational “inward walks” and body-mapping exercises would facilitate this process. In the former, we prompted participants to produce images from known reference spaces—be they homes, streets, districts, or other contexts. We’d begin by walking in our homes as we walk when in a rush on the street, to agitate and energize the body, then sit down with eyes shut listening to the facilitator’s inward-walking instructions, which attempt to awaken the body’s perceptions and memories of cartographic encounters: “Listen to your feet; how did the ground that they walked on feel? Was it hard, soft, cold, prickly, comforting? Feel your eyes’ memories of the territory. Interrogate your hands about their experience; what materials did they touch? How did they intervene?” With eyes shut, we can imagine the maps as manifold interfusing currents, an ocean of “pluriversal” [7] fullness, beauty, and vitality. Hydrocartography enables us to enact this radical change of perspective. It implies map-makers’ and map users’ right to get lost in the map, to misunderstand, and to derive other meanings. Lastly, we’d draw with watery materials the images that came to us.

Hydrocartography does not participate in the partitioning, dichotomizing, and belligerent rhetoric of national and administrative maps. It is of no use at all for states’ or landlords’ purposes of rendering land decipherable and thus controllable. By mapping from within and embodying the sensibility that bodies contain water, hydrocartography doesn’t just refuse the imperialist cartographic reflex of expanding what’s known and represented. It also rejects ambitions to simplify and diminish the represented topic to a tangible, unequivocal visualization—clearly demarcated points and lines, harsh contrasts, neatly single-coloured surfaces. The sharp dividing line as a graphic element is foreign to hydrocartography. What were borders in arid maps (a clash of binary oppositions) can only be zones of confluence, commingling, and fusing—blurred, opaque, overlapped, whirled shades—that make us see complexity and multidimen- sionality, leaving space for diverging understandings. These confluences are, indeed, zones of becoming (one an)other; new tones appear.

This reminds us of the notion of ch’ixi, shared by Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui from andina Abya Yala: a form of thinking the coexistence of white and black colors, this encounter creating a sort of grey checker pattern. Cusicanqui analyzes ch’ixi, as well as other concepts, to set up an Aimara Indigenous epistemology, to refer to identities composed by contradictory stains, from different references in time and space, against homogeneity. [8] Another way of conceiving of this confluent zone is through Neimanis’s notion of “ecotone”:

As transition areas between two adjacent but different ecosystems, ecotones appear as both gradual shifts and abrupt demarcations. But more than just a marker of separation or even a marker of connection (although importantly both of these things), an ecotone is also a zone of fecundity, creativity, transformation; of becoming, assembling, multiplying; of diverging, differentiating, relinquishing. Something happens.8

In committing to the creation of ecotones—relations between diverse (territorial) experiences, identities, and imaginations—hydrocartography needs to develop new graphic expressions. We strongly encourage experimentation with streaks, confluences, and membranes as graphic elements of mapping—multiple, colourful, straight, wavy, patchy, crooked, interconnected, and interwoven. From the point of view of the cartographer’s desk, this may be hard to visualize, so let’s take a walk at the riverside.

Walking on the margins of a river, we might notice the delicate zone of difference between the water that flows along and the soil we step on. However, our feet, pushed down by our watery body’s weight, liquidate the zone of distinction. While the river flows, taking our eyes to dive into its current’s design, our feet carry the mud, exposing the newness of this contact. We are mapping while we are walking. We are blurring the zone of contact that we just met. The riverbank might be solid, yet at any time, beautifully and fearfully, it might drop inside the river itself—a memory from the Amazon River pops up in us, accompanied by the skin’s memory of the warm humid air, the ears’ memory of the mighty torrent’s constant murmur. The river continuously transforms, composing ecotones. Its bank’s soil, the plants overgrowing, the animals inhabiting it, the air breezing, and us; we are all bodies of water, watering it. No impermeable lines divide where the same water flows through. The same is true even for those spaces in which human intervention has struggled for centuries to conceal and delegitimize lively water flows; rivers have had their courses changed. But all of a sudden, scales are reversed. What seemed controlled by machines, measurements, predictions, numbers becomes a flow. The waters show their force.

When listening deeply during mapping processes, we notice the given environment is not just the where, but also the who, what, and how. Indeed, we, our bodies, minds, and actions, are not separated from it—precise dots and lines on the map—but are connected in, to, and through it. We ourselves are part of it, wet bodies as wetlands: blurred stains, smeared, petered-out spots.

Just as we have soaked arid maps and their graphic elements, we shall commit to wet the cartographers themselves, which is to say: reject any pretension of a distanced view and, instead, accept that we are (be- coming) in this together. Hydrocartography is to take a collective walk at the riverside. It is when neither the maps nor ourselves stay the same, performing a watery movement, flowing with intuition. Situated in boundlessness. It calls us to engage in the “subject- and object-shaping dance of encounters,” as Donna Haraway10 puts it, to drift along the maps inside us, and to be(come) multicoloured shades dripping, scrolling across the map.

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