The Map Is the Territory: On Lucas LaRochelle’s Queering the Map
by Kat Benedict
As long ago as 1931, Polish-born American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski coined the phrase “the map is not the territory.”1 Inherent in this famous negation is a logic of representation that insists on the original in assessing the worth and legibility of the reproduction. As we know, the map is an authoritative record keeper, a coded, colonial tool to pursue a rational, scientific understanding of the natural and social world; Korzybski’s truism epitomizes the linear, functional perspective by which maps guide the user to a specific destination—or orientation. Reading a map requires navigating signs and symbols and thus depends on the endless repetition of norms and conventions, such as “beginning” and “end,” “real” and “copy,” “true” or “false,” “map” and “territory.” In contrast to this reading method, Queering the Map (QTM), an ongoing community counter-mapping platform by Montreal-based artist and designer Lucas LaRochelle, unfolds the possible meanings of negating Korzybski’s negation by challenging these binaries—digitally archiving LGBTQ2IA+ memories, moments, and histories in relation to the cyber and physical worlds.
Using digital mapping technology, QTM breaks down barriers between map-maker and user, creator and spectator—map and territory—by collectively charting geographically dispersed individuals and experiences. The pale-pink and periwinkle interface pre- serves LBGTQ2IA+ life by allowing users to plot their queer realities anonymously and in multiple languages. As a kind of virtual collaboration, communities of belonging and new realities emerge from a range of differ- ent but related desires. Pins range from the humorous—“this town is gayer than it seems, you just need to look closely. ;) -your ex-local lesbian”2 reads one in Livno, a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina—to the heartbreaking: “falling in love with a guy for the first time but he never loved me back”3 one says in Bandung, Indonesia. Also: declarations of trans identity in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar—“July 2008, in the airport at 3am. I realized I didn’t want to be a man—I already was one, I just needed somebody else to believe me”4 —and narratives of medical transition in Linköping, Sweden: “I woke after top surgery here three years ago, aching but ecstatic because my upper body finally looked like it should have from the beginning.”5
Across the globe, there remain many places that are not safe or accessible for LGBTQ2IA+ people. As our histories and spaces continue to be contested and erased, QTM does the work of layering, synthesizing, and collapsing digital and physical realities. The result is a complex landscape, place, and site of political, cultural, and social negotiations and renegotiations between queer groups and individuals. As a map undergoing continual construction, a small moderator panel exists to screen for hateful content as the digital world grows. For the queer kid growing up in a country where homosexuality is illegal, reading through the pins dotted around their region re- veals the many people existing beside them. An icon in a small town outside of Doha, Qatar, reads: “not a great place to realize you’re gay huh. Welp.”6 Another pin in Yarram, Australia, simply asserts, “I’m the only queer in this town that knows how to use the internet. There’s another trans man somewhere here. Who is he?”7 Clusters of pins concentrate in places where governments have passed anti-gay legislation, as well as in areas where Pride marches or gay bars are mainstays. No single notion of “queer” makes its way onto the map, which gives rise to new orders of representation.
As feminist scholar Sara Ahmed writes, “The more a path is used, the more a path is used.”8 In other words, the path is made clearer with each use, reiterated by each pass- ing body, begetting further use. “To become straight means not only that we have to turn toward the objects given to us by heterosexual culture but also that we must turn away from objects that take us off this line.”9 Queer people exist outside these lines—off this path—at least in part because of their perceived lack of “origin” or “realness” within the heterosexuality matrix. Origin stories—also known as creation myths—are used to create intelligible subjectivity. Compulsory heterosexuality presumes a shared origin story until and unless something deviant enters the scene, at which point LGBTQ2IA+ people are pressed to locate an originary moment of queer desire in themselves, the precise moment they “knew” something of it, being asked to account for their difference in logical terms. Given the often evasive origins of queerness, such regulations can create impossible situations for individuals not recognized as intelligible subjects within the heterosexual matrix.
Baudrillard offers some fruitful thinking around origins here, positing that our post-modern culture has become so dependent on models and maps that we have lost all contact with the world that preceded the map.10 His theory of signification reverses the semiotic relationship in which users treat signs as stand- ing for or representing other things, suggesting that the signifier, object, image, symbol, phenomenon, or experience (all of which I’ll refer to hereafter as a “model”), reproduced in mass culture, precedes the signified. In other words, signs no longer represent reality but implode in their meaning to simulate and create their own hyperreality, our reality now imitating the mod- el, which then precedes and determines the world. “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory.”11 The way this plays out, the real and the fiction seamlessly blend so that there is no distinction between where one stops and the other begins. While Baudrillard saw this as causing alienation in our capitalist reality, I’m misapplying it to think generatively about queer subjectivity; truth loses its footing, and the ability to locate an origin is lost.
Queer theorist Judith Butler extends this concept to gender, arguing that, detached from all referents, “gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself.”12 Thinking about the map/ territory within cyberspace and in relation to Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality and Butler’s notions of gender performance removes the boundaries of a fixed reality, allowing gendered bodies to be fully legible in the contexts they occupy. In QTM, each body enacts an experience in a specific place and time, and each instance is itself a primary incarnation of queer activity. The platform thus proposes a new method for languaging and defining queer subjectivity that refutes the significance of an originary moment. Users can peg their experiences on this map despite not recalling precisely where a queer moment transpired; as an icon absentmindedly placed along the Amazon River remarks, “not exact, but i played a game set here that helped me realize i’m trans.”13 This map allows us to tell our stories outside of a “chronological chain that links the present to a fixed past.”14 Without the burden of the tenuous and fictional original, the indexical bond between map and territory blurs. No longer indexing a relation between original and copy, the ontological given of the map as an orientation device is destabilized; arguably, the map is the territory.
This move away from the origin story is a quest to return to wholeness. To get there, LaRochelle focuses on the act of disorientation, contrasted against many cartographic and phenomenological studies whose priority is orientation. A queer phenomenological experience occurs when one’s typical perception of the world is shifted: a sense of disorientation allows us to interpret reality in a new way. The act of play constitutes a significant element of LaRochelle’s method, just as queers rough-house with heterosexual structures, trying to alter them without the objective to create new ones. As I scan the spatial data, I embark on the relational act of time travel while somehow also being in touch with where I am presently and what might unfold in the future. Each memory, each act of narration, is a manipulation of time, searching the map an experience of temporal togetherness. Discourses of trauma and healing, hope and memory, joy and loss, make for temporal drags and co-presences, anachronisms and proximities, contaminations and feelings across time and geography. In Broome, Australia, a pin recounts when the author cut all their hair off at age 15, their first step in not identifying as a woman. At a small party in San Juan, Philippines, a closeted trans man wears a suit for the first time. Another in Yokohama, Japan, recalls the moment they went by their chosen name in a professional setting. Emerging as these stories have from different time-spaces, hundreds of thousands of inverted drop-shaped icons are tied by moments identified as poignant, based on all kinds of criteria.
In a material manifestation of disorientation, the platform employs an artificial intelligence called QT.bot that uses OpenAI’s GPT-2 text generation model and a StyleGAN trained on the textual and visual data associated with each entry. Using Google Street View-style imagery, the living archive has no search bar or algorithmic orientation method. You cannot set a destination, find a specific address, or follow a route plan. The plus and minus keys allow a user to zoom in and out, and the arrow keys and cursor assist in moving across the map’s geography. In LaRochelle’s words, “the experience of viewing the machinic narratives and environments of LGBTQ2IA+ life that QT.bot propagates is one of disorientation— time, space, and subjectivity collapse.”15 The platform’s multiplicity of realities extends unto the user an experience of disorder, celebrating an innate inability to pin down meaning and making an instalment in collective efforts toward a world not defaulted to heterosexuality. QT.bot showcases applied queer theory in practice, its political dimensions possessing a worldly potential that always assumes the body as the starting point.
I zoom out to see the whole world map and am drawn to a lone black pin in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Identical to the rest, this icon pulls me for no unique reason other than it floats alone, and I want to know more of its content. When I click, the message displays: “read stone butch blues whilst flying over the atlantic ocean. can’t believe we queered the entire atlantic ocean. iconique.”16 The entry refers to the historical fiction novel written by Leslie Feinberg about life as a butch lesbian in ’70s America. I am reminded of when I first read the book as a lonely teen and feel connected to this unknown soul. Each joint experience, each intimate encounter reshapes the paths that directed us here, just as each coordinate shapes the many ways we follow therefrom. The mapping criteria here are not reference and accuracy but rather generation.
In reflecting on cartography as a political technology, QTM presents alternative views of the world in a manner more equitable than cartography has historically enabled. Mapping processes require careful consideration and may be reflected on and communicated in var- ious ways, as feminist scholar Donna Haraway observes: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.”17 QTM treats queer cartographies as practices of world-making. The site gives a rich vocabulary for a kind of counter-mapping praxis that searches for collaborative, symbiotic, and promiscuous material connections, fluid constellations, and configurations that engender alternatives to discipline, order, power, and compliance.