How to Map Nothing

Many pandemic maps depict the macro-scale forces that produced the “Great Pause.” What’s harder to show are all the under-appreciated actors that are enabling our protected isolation, the pulsing activity powering the pause.

Robert Fludd, from Utriusque Cosmi Maioris Scilicet et Minoris Metaphysica, Physica atque Technica Historia
Robert Fludd, from Utriusque Cosmi Maioris Scilicet et Minoris Metaphysica, Physica atque Technica Historia, ca. 1617–21. [Penn Digital Archives]

Embrace the “nothing.”

Two years ago — or a century ago in phenomenological and political time — artist and writer Jenny Odell published to great acclaim a book about, well, nothing. In How to Do Nothing she made the case for retreat or refusal as an act of resistance to capitalist productivity and commodified attention. She laid out a plan for “hold[ing] open a contemplative space against the pressures of habit, familiarity, and distraction that constantly threaten to close it.” 1 Yet barely a year later, retreat was imposed on the world in the form of social distancing and lockdowns, and many people found themselves doing a whole lot of involuntary nothing: no going out to eat, no going away on vacation, no parties or weddings, no SoulCycle classes, no moving into the dorms for freshman year, no properly mourning the dead, and, for millions of folks, no jobs.

For many of us the pandemic has occasioned a ‘Great Pause,’ nothing as escape from tumult and trauma, from the too-much-ness of it all.

Yet all those losses cleared the way for new discoveries. As many commentators have opined, the COVID-19 pandemic has occasioned a “Great Pause,” a “fertile suspension” that opened up “bountiful space and time for deeper wakefulness.” 2 We saw such wakefulness evidenced in the contemplation of community and injustice, the creation of mutual aid networks, and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter. And we saw it as well in the adoption of new hobbies and domestic practices: sourdough baking, birding, gardening, knitting, sea shantying. Instagram posts and TikTok videos documented these shifts in attention; major news outlets chronicled the quieting of city streets and deceleration of urban rhythms; urban journalists featured vernacular maps in which readers oriented themselves within their shrunken but sensorially enriched spheres of existence. Such contemplative practice has undoubtedly been therapeutic, even psychologically essential, for many of us as we’ve grappled with tumult and trauma: nothing as escape from the too-muchness of it all.

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Theater marquee, "The world is temporarily closed"
[Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash]

Clockwise from upper left: "How Nothingness Became Everything We Wanted," New York Times Magazine; cover, Kinfolk; wood and water ; Hoosick Falls, New York
Clockwise from upper left: “How Nothingness Became Everything We Wanted,” New York Times Magazine; cover, Kinfolk; wood and water [photo by Spencer Wing © via Pixabay]; Hoosick Falls, New York [Daniel Mennerich © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0]

Nothingness can be the appearance of asceticism, the stylized performance of retreat — Kinfolking, urban-lumberjacking, ‘upstating.’

The pursuit of spiritual retreat and technological disconnection has, of course, a long history in various religious traditions and cultural movements: the Zen Buddhists, the Luddites, the Transcendentalists, the Amish, the countercultural communes of the 1960s, the digital detoxers of today. Yet according to art critic Kyle Chayka, the current “Great Pause” marks the apotheosis of a distinctive 21st-century anti-Renaissance. In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, he argued that the pandemic has merely accelerated a years-long descent into negation and sensory deprivation, a “desire for nothingness” that embodies the exhaustion of optimism and the embrace of nihilism. “Alongside so much tragedy and despair,” Chayka wrote, “mass quarantine has represented a final fulfillment of the pursuit of nothingness, particularly for the privileged classes who could adapt to it in such relative comfort,” ensconced in minimalist luxury, fortified with food deliveries, entertained by streaming services, sculpted by Peloton. 3 To be sure, Chayka’s portfolio suggests that he’s primed to find “minimalism” wherever he looks — even amidst viral pandemic and political insurrection. His nothingness is a matter of aesthetics; it’s the appearance of asceticism, the stylized performance of retreat — Kinfolking, urban-lumberjacking, “upstating.” Confirmation bias might allow us to find further manifestations of this abstinent affluence in our social media and design magazines. Perhaps even imposed austerity, in the form of poverty and hunger, could be mistaken for minimalism when we’re aiming merely to catalog its aesthetic effects.

But when we looked out our own windows — or through the newsfeeds on our screens — we witnessed not only suspension but also decline, and at a much grander scale. Maps and graphs showed stilled air traffic and transit systems, depressed economies, shuttered businesses, sheltering communities. Those downward-trending graphs were juxtaposed with rising curves and ever-reddening maps indexing the spread of coronavirus infections and deaths. Up or down, more or less? Were we cocooning or incarcerated, standing still or regressing? It was often difficult to distinguish between progress, stasis, or regress. In one of his characteristically twisted Zen-koan-like utterances, Donald Trump reported to the press his own COVID-19 test results: “I tested positively toward negative, right? No, I tested perfectly this morning — meaning I tested negative.” 4 This is the same former world leader who wanted to decrease the rate of testing, which would artificially suppress the infection counts and thereby flatten the curve, thus improving the global ranking of the United States: higher esteem for lower numbers. His reasoning exemplified the streetlight effect in reverse: if you don’t turn on the light, you don’t see what you don’t want to see — or you see the nothing you want.

Undergirding the geographies of suspension were networks in furious motion, continual overstimulation, and exhaustive exertion.

Social media, mainstream news, and an explosion of Substack newsletters often painted pictures of cities quelled and hibernating, in some ways diminished, and of urbanites either turned inward toward self-betterment, or outward, toward their local communities or country homes. But empirical evidence — the look of retreat —was only half of the story. 5 Undergirding these geographies of suspension were networks in furious motion, continual overstimulation, and exhaustive exertion. I think of my doctor — and many like her — who sold her family apartment, sent her husband and children to live with the in-laws, and moved into a tiny studio a block from the hospital. Sure, she’s living a life of sacrifice and asceticism at home, but only because her workdays are a maelstrom of sickness and heartache and crushing responsibility. Consider also the quotidian geographies of delivery and sanitation workers. They are but a few nodes among countless systems of daily logistics and social welfare that have historically functioned off the map, either in informal economies or through proprietary infrastructures. We have plenty of maps and data visualizations that trace the macro-scale public health and political-economic forces that precipitated the “Great Pause”; but we have relatively few that show all those under-appreciated agents that are making it possible — all the something anchoring and abetting that nothing, all the pulsing activity powering the pause. 6 So it’s worth exploring the ways in which maps and other forms of indexical spatial data are registering the ambiguities, contradictions, and inequalities inherent in this geography of suspension — an ostensible pause that instead merely extends, and in many ways exacerbates, the injustices of our society and the inadequacies of our ways of conceptualizing and modeling city life. 7

Rendering Absence, Mapping Erasure

For obvious reasons, cartographers and information managers have typically struggled to manifest nothing. Archivists, for instance, have been so busy processing, describing, and preserving the records in their care that they’ve historically paid little attention to what’s not there: all the silences and absences in their collections. 8 Or they’ve reported to regimes that have excluded or erased particular voices with the aim of transforming those subjects into historiographic nothings. Only recently have archivists — and theorists and artists of the archive — grappled with ways of acknowledging and manifesting the gaps in their collections. 9 New processing and visualization tools, often using machine learning, have aided these efforts. Media scholar Gabriel Pereira and artist Bruno Moreschi have proposed that Artificial Intelligence is particularly well suited for such self-reflexive analysis; it offers, they write, “an untrained eye that reveals the inner workings” of the system — its tacit operating logics and ideologies. Even the tools’ glitches, they argue, might generate new modes of reading or looking, which themselves embody different ways of knowing and different values. 10

From The real face of White Australia.
From The real face of White Australia.

Likewise we can draw inspiration from the work that historian-hacker Tim Sherratt and his colleagues have been doing to highlight the Whiteness of Australian archival collections. Or from a Museum of Modern Art project by the Office for Creative Research in collaboration with Elevator Repair Service, in which the two collectives analyzed and “performed” the metadata of the museum in order to reveal its overrepresentation of white males. 11 Both demonstrations of over-representation make palpable what’s absent. We might also deploy new technologies to register the presence of figures who’ve historically been marginalized. In their position paper “Computing in the Dark,” P. Gabrielle Foreman and Labanya Mookerjee describe how text mining or social network analysis might redress the “haunting imprints and outright absences” of Black women in the archives. 12 And Catherine Nicole Coleman has argued that “convolutional neural network” analysis of the archive of Black Pittsburgh photojournalist Teenie Harris — undertaken by the Carnegie Museum of Art, which houses the collection— might offer a “benchmark against which to test the biases of the … data set.” 13

An ’empty’ terrain can be marshaled as a political tool, as with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

Cartographers have been grappling with their own epistemological barrens. Medieval and Renaissance mapmakers famously demarcated the edges of the discovered world with mythical sea creatures that embodied the limits of exploration and knowledge. As historian Chet Van Duzer argues, those monsters represented a variety of epistemological orientations. They served as “interfaces between the known and unknown,” possible portals to new discovery; they were manifestations of a horror vacui, a fear of empty spaces; and their marginal position pushed threat out to a safe distance, perhaps even relegating those Freudian monsters to the subconscious. 14 But while an unmarked terrain might cultivate disorientation and unease, “emptiness” can also be marshaled as a political tool, as with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. If it’s empty, why not take it? Postcolonial literary scholar Isabel Hofmeyr reminds us that “the myth of the empty sea,” too, “is largely the product of European imperialisms and their map-making traditions in which the sea becomes blank space across which power can be projected.” 15 (Here we might draw a parallel to our minimalist country houses: what kind of power-move is it to live in a Miesian glass box?) In the late 18th century, geographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville deployed the blank canvas for a different purpose: known for conducting meticulous research through correspondence and the study of thousands of maps, he broke from his predecessors’ predilection toward filling in the gaps. As described by one of his contemporaries, his “vast blank spaces marked what was not yet known, but they were a proof of the exactitude of all that was filled in.” 16

Carta Marina, ca. 1539.
Carta Marina, ca. 1539. [via Wikimedia]

Samuel Augustus Mitchell, A New Map of Texas, Oregon, and California, with the Regions Adjoining, 1846; the map reflected the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
Samuel Augustus Mitchell, A New Map of Texas, Oregon, and California, with the Regions Adjoining, 1846; the map reflected the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. [University of Texas at Arlington Libraries Special Collections, via Wikimedia]

Left: Geoglyph on deforested land in the Amazon rainforest. Right: Pedro Reinel and Jorge Reinel, Map of Brazil, 1519.
Left: Geoglyph on deforested land in the Amazon rainforest. [Sanna Saunaluoma via Wikimedia under License CC Attribution 3.0] Right: Pedro Reinel and Jorge Reinel, Map of Brazil, 1519. [Miller Atlas via Wikimedia]

A more recent cartographic survey also underscores the epistemological and ontological implications of how one chooses to render nothing. The Brazilian government has long strategically portrayed Amazonia as a pristine, unpeopled wilderness. But over the past few decades, as architect and urbanist Paulo Tavares explains, satellite-based surveys have revealed hundreds of pre-Columbian geoglyphs in the region. Because these structures had long been imperceptible on the ground, shrouded by forest vegetation, officials were able to claim the land as “terra nullius/tabula rasa that could be rationally domesticated, planned, and re-engineered.” 17 Deforestation programs of the 1970s and ’80s were driven by what the Brazilian Truth Commission has called a “politics of erasure” of indigenous peoples. Yet as in the archives, “new evidentiary technologies” and techniques — including remote sensing and forensic fossil seed analysis — are revealing the forest’s topographically hidden, and politically erased, scripts and structures; they’re demonstrating how, in the words of ecologist William Balée, the forest constitutes a “vast archaeological archive.” That seemingly pristine terrain, an expanse of ostensible nothing, is instead, Tavares writes, “the product of long-term and complex interactions between human collectives, environmental forces and the agency of other species.”

We have witnessed the erasure of Black and Indigenous populations from our pandemic maps and data sets.

Still more recently, we have witnessed the erasure of particular populations from our pandemic maps and data sets. In the United States, Black and Indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19; yet cities, counties, and states have too often been underrepresenting or omitting racial data, which has made it all but impossible to map out systemic effects. 18 The Data for Black Lives movement has tracked these disparities, and called upon authorities to make race data public and to supplement standard data sets with additional information, including personal testimonials from Black health-care workers — the kind of qualitative data that doesn’t readily lend itself to representation on a map or data visualization. 19 Sociologist Whitney Pirtle describes the nexus of factors that have contributed to the “overrepresentation of Black death” in Detroit:

Racism and capitalism mutually construct harmful social conditions that fundamentally shape COVID-19 disease inequities because they (a) shape multiple diseases that interact with COVID-19 to influence poor health outcomes; (b) affect disease outcomes through increasing multiple risk factors for poor people of color, including racial residential segregation, homelessness, and medical bias; (c) shape access to flexible resources, such as medical knowledge and freedom, which can be used to minimize both risks and the consequences of disease; and (d) replicate historical patterns of inequities within pandemics. 20

Try operationalizing all those variables, let alone mapping their entanglements!

From Data for Black Lives.
From Data for Black Lives.

Some cartographic blanks embody things particular cartographic publics are not meant to know; these intentional erasures can hide state secrets: military bases, detention facilities, nuclear test sites, and so forth. 21 We should also consider the possibility that such omissions are a conscious choice on behalf of the excluded population. In her study of the Kahnawà:ke Mohawks’ struggle for political sovereignty, anthropologist Audra Simpson theorizes various forms of “refusal”: the refusal to recognize others or to be recognized, the refusal to cede or to retreat when that recognition doesn’t come, the refusal to participate or consent, the refusal to reveal particular privileged knowledge, and so forth. Unlike “resistance,” refusal decenters the state and traditional forms of authority and hierarchy— and without these conventional political structures to push against, one needs to draw a new map. Simpson thus refers to her method as a “cartography of refusal” that traces overlapping terrains of “colonization, elimination, and settlement”; the contested boundaries of states, reservations, and clans; and the contours of community membership and the social networks formed within those communities. 22 Here the cartography itself (like many Indigenous maps and cultural collections) can refuse to reveal protected and sacred information.

Some cartographic omissions are a conscious choice on behalf of an excluded population: a refusal to reveal protected and sacred information.

The past year has indeed encompassed multiple forms of refusal representing a variety of political orientations. Most visible and egregious, of course, have been conspiracy theorists’ refusal to accept election results or heed public health recommendations. Their refusal — or, we might say, resistance, since it positions itself against the state — has generated telegenic and meme-worthy representation: white supremacist insignias and confederate flags marshaled to defend the right to congregate bare-faced and well-armed. Sociologist Ruha Benjamin acknowledges that even the choice to consent, to refuse refusal, has disparate repercussions for different demographic groups: “You may be wearing a mask for safety and solidarity,” she writes, “but your blackness may still be a threat. … Black people are not only trying to survive the pandemic, but also the everyday racism of a sick society. In fact, we may endanger ourselves by acting in solidarity with everyone else.” 23

In a quarantine condition meant to separate people and restrict movement, different bodies hold different rights of refusal and retreat: unmasked white faces can storm the federal Capitol and enjoy free passage — in the eyes of some authorities, “nothing happened” — while masked faces of color peacefully protesting their own precarity can get shot. And frictions have arisen as different communities, with very different levels of power, pursue opposing strategies of resistance. As some North American urbanites engaged in what Indigenous scholar Kelsey Leonard has called “entitled escapism” — fleeing cramped apartments for more spacious country homes, trading compaction and contagion for “bountiful space” and “fertile suspension” — some sovereign Indigenous nations refused to allow these settler-migrant populations to pass unimpeded through their territories. As Leonard writes, “checkpoints are a line of defense against COVID-19 for many Indigenous nations who lack the resources and medical capacity to respond to an outbreak — a vestige of colonialism and failed government promises.” 24

Biometric sensors (and instruments that block them), rubber bullets, travel bans, and compulsory quarantine hotels are among the other tools and techniques used to draw lines in our contemporary cartography of refusal and exclusion. Yet those same tools and strategies for restriction have also revealed the porosity of our borders and the interconnectedness of our sovereign spatial units. The pandemic has demonstrated how legacies of racism and colonialism and patterns of inequity continue to pervade our urban ecologies, and how those ecologies extend well beyond the city limits.

Beneath Our Geographies of Suspension

Consider some of those dispatches from the Great Pause: What if we took each sourdough selfie, each Zoom class, each Peloton ride, each Netflix binge and mapped the ecology of resources and services that have made it possible for some of us? And at the same time impossible for others? Our Everlane austerity, lo-fi authenticity, and seamless connectivity are the products of vast networks of connection.

It’s all too easy to overlook the rush of activity that enables privileged retreat; the Othered precarity that ensures our security.

Yet the perceived suspension of quarantine — like the horror vacui of the sea or the terra nullius of the wilderness — tends to obfuscate all the vectors converging at our homes and in our neighborhoods: the high-speed internet that bring us preschool classes and podcasts; the libraries that provide connectivity to those millions of Americans who are invisible to internet service providers; the data centers storing our data; the underpaid, non-unionized workers who deliver our pad thai and toilet paper; the health care workers and the vaccine researchers attending to our bodies; the civil servants issuing unemployment checks and paycheck protection program loans; the freight pilots and truck drivers who deliver masks and wet-wipes to our drug stores; the sanitation workers who whisk away those disposables; and the future waste management experts who will have to deal with the mountains of discarded polypropylene that our prophylactic survival tactics have generated. It’s all too easy to overlook the rush of activity that enables privileged retreat; the Othered precarity that ensures our security; the tangle of urban, regional, national, and global socio-technical networks that support our local stasis — unless we are ourselves a node within those essential systems, or unless we experience the repercussions of their inevitable breakdowns.

Clockwise from upper left: A staff member of the Des Moines public schools delivering internet hot spots to high school seniors. April 2020. Fruit and vegetable stalls, Moore Street, Dublin, May 2020. In a workshop producing protective masks, Alger, Algeria, April 2020. Market in Sheffield, England.
Clockwise from upper left: A staff member of the Des Moines public schools delivering internet hot spots to high school seniors. April 2020. [Phil Roeder © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0] Fruit and vegetable stalls, Moore Street, Dublin, May 2020. [Cityswift © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0] In a workshop producing protective masks, Alger, Algeria, April 2020. [International Labour Organization © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0] Market in Sheffield, England. [Tim Dennell © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0]

At the Old Fannie Mae, Washington, D.C., November 2020.
At the Old Fannie Mae, Washington, D.C., November 2020. [Levon Abdoyan © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0]

It might seem that anyone who could disregard all this labor and expertise and affective engagement and see nothingness is alarmingly self-absorbed and willfully oblivious, but we have to admit that essential systems — our public infrastructures and networks of care — are often designed to fade into the background. A lack of valorization and long history of underfunding such services; the prevalence of black-boxed, automated technologies that defy comprehension and repair; a tendency to prioritize innovation over upkeep — all contribute to the obscurity of vital but uncharismatic systems.

Disproportionate Black mortality cannot be unpacked on a COVID-19 dashboard. It will require more qualitative and interactive mappings.

What’s the value of ensuring broader recognition of these entangled systems? Of helping the fortunate recognize that their retreat, their productive suspension, was at the same time devastating turmoil for millions of others? What’s the use of pushing urban administrators to appreciate that cities are complex biopolitical and sociotechnical ecologies and that their various parts are best understood in tandem, and in connection to larger regional and international networks? I realize, of course, that most urban planners and designers recognize these realities; but our modes of representation — especially as embodied in isolated infrastructural dashboards or scorecards — tend to reify atomized conceptions of the city and siloed approaches to planning. Again, as Whitney Pirtle demonstrates, disproportionate Black mortality and other overdetermined phenomena cannot be unpacked on a COVID-19 dashboard. Instead, they will require different forms of representation, more qualitative and interactive mappings that will reveal the extent to which quarantine is contingent upon internet connectivity and teacher training and intellectual property policies and digital literacy and labor rights and supply chains and access to mental health services.

Screenshot from the film The Transscalar Scalar Architecture of COVID-19, by Andrés Jacque and Ivan Munuera.
Screenshot from the film The Transscalar Scalar Architecture of COVID-19, by Andrés Jaque and Ivan Munuera.

How do we map what’s on the flip-side of the dashboard or the Zoom screen — all the pulsing yet precarious systems that make suspension possible for those who can afford to retreat, and that function simultaneously as volatile yet vital lifelines for those who keep the systems running? Well, we have to map across scales, linking quantitative and qualitative data generated through a variety of methods and with a range of tools: surveillance cameras and thermal sensors alongside on-the-ground contact tracing and ethnographic inquiry. 25 At the same time we need to account for the biases built into these technologies and the injustices that have historically characterized their deployment. And we might also look to designers and cartographers who have developed methods for thinking and mapping across systems and scales. I am thinking of the work of Clare Lyster, who tracks logistical systems; Lateral Office, which examines the Canadian Arctic in terms of its resources, trade, topography, colonial legacies, Indigenous affairs, and sovereignty; Pierre Belanger, who studies landscape in relation to colonial, military, and extraction geographies; and Andrés Jaque and Ivan Munuera, whose film, The Transscalar Scalar Architecture of COVID-19, sought to index, in real-time, how the pandemic was reshaping our world.

Feminist geographers have learned how to trace informal networks of care and how to consider emotional aspects of urban experience.

I am thinking also of the work of feminist geographers, who have learned how to trace informal networks of exchange and care, how to consider embodied and emotional aspects of urban experience, how to attend to social differences and intersectional identities, and how to recognize the limitations of GIS-based cartography. In a recent state-of-the-field review, Marianna Pavlovskaya notes that feminist GIS commonly incorporates variables — like access to childcare or domestic services or solidarity economies — that are of disproportionate concern to women, and, in a pandemic, of critical importance to everyone. In line with the principles of feminist epistemology, feminist GIS emphasizes collaborative cartography, in which those represented on the map contribute to their representation; and it combines quantitative data with spatial data derived from other sources: in-depth interviews, participant observation, photographs, diaries, sketch maps, and so forth. 26 Mei-Po Kwan, for example, has used activity diaries created by her research collaborators to map “daily space-time paths” of women from different demographic sectors to better understand the relationships between their mobility, access to city resources, and employment status. Such body-mapping, she finds, better accommodates the “considerable spatial variations in women’s accessibility patterns,” as well as the likelihood that their daily motion will not be tied to the fixed reference points of home or office. 27

I would add that it also allows researchers and planners to assess particular affective dimensions of urbanites’ spatial practices; for instance, embodied mapping can offer insight into “desire lines,” all those paths people carve through the city that might not align with official transit routes and pedestrian conduits. And, for another example, Christophe Robert’s ethnographic research on the streets of Vietnam revealed that, despite the government’s rhetoric of “war-like mobilization” to combat the pandemic, and despite the circulation of images of empty streets that demonstrate compliance, women remained in the street markets, ensuring the provision of basic necessities. 28

Mei Po Kwan, Space-Time Paths.
Mei-Po Kwan, Space-Time Paths.

By developing such imaginative methods, Pavlovskaya explains, feminist geographers “construct geographic stories that the official data sources do not and/or cannot tell. Once placed within … urban space, those crucial social practices and experiences become ontologically and politically important despite being made invisible by standard statistics.” 29 Through her work to map global solidarity economies — worker co-ops, co-housing communities, community land trusts, care work and barter networks, credit unions, participatory budgeting, and so forth — Pavlovskaya realized that maps can serve as “tools for social transformation”; that they can “produce worlds instead of simply reflecting them.” 30 Such hope is profoundly needed in this time of global, national, and urban rebuilding. And rehabilitation efforts should be informed not only by feminist maps, but also by decades of progress in feminist planning; for instance, by the work of planner Eva Kail, one of the leaders in implementing the strategy of “gender mainstreaming” — which seeks to ensure that cities are safe and accommodating to people of all genders — into the urban policy of Vienna. 31

Black urbanists, too, are arguing that we need to grapple with the legacies of inequity in our built environment and our spatial professions — including campaigns designed to render communities of color invisible, to wipe them off the map. The multidisciplinary collective BlackSpace has drafted a manifesto calling for designers and planners to “reckon with the past as a means of healing … and deepening understanding”; to center Black joy and lived experience; to take the time to build trust and deconstruct hierarchies; to ensure that designers act as “humble learners” who “walk with people as they imagine and realize their own futures.” They seek to create environments that embody values that emerge through ethical and collaborative processes — environments that are unlikely to be anticipated via any “key performance indicators” you can graph on a dashboard, or variables that lend themselves to clear geospatial representation. Rectifying the historically forced retreat of women and people of color will require different tools — and there are many points at which these communities’ interests and values align. 32

Blackspace Manifesto; The Seven Objectives for Black Planners, from Black + Urban.
Blackspace Manifesto; The Seven Objectives for Black Planners, from Black and Urban.

From Mapping Acces, a project of the Critical Design Lab.
From Mapping Access, a project of the Critical Design Lab.

Critical disability scholars argue that we must attend to disabled peoples’ expert knowledge about how their bodies function and engage with space.

At the same time, critical disability scholars warn us about the limitations of universalizing “good” design principles, e.g., celebrating the fact that curb cuts are beneficial for parents with strollers, and blind people using canes, and folks in wheelchairs, and so on. They argue that we must support what Aimi Hamraie calls “the critical project of access-knowledge” — that we must attend to disabled peoples’ expert knowledge about how their bodies function, how they engage with space, and with whom they need to interact in the world. Hamraie leads Mapping Access, a participatory mapping and data visualization project that documents — through GIS, photography, film, community conversations, and map-a-thons — manifestations of (in)access in the built world. The project thus makes visible spatial features and environmental conditions that would most likely be imperceptible to the able-bodied. “Typical approaches to accessibility focus on issues of code compliance and checklists of standards,” Hamraie writes. In contrast, Mapping Access recognizes users’ access-knowledge and infuses Universal Design with intersectionality and disability justice to create new standards for inclusive design. 33 Hamraie also reminds us that our virtually distributed pandemic condition — for some, a temporary purgatory, or a portal to nothingness — is a familiar and often rich experience for disabled people, who, they say, “have long used remote access as a method for organizing pleasure and kinship.” 34 This experience and expertise, too, should be recognized and represented in our coronavirus cartography — and in the post-pandemic worlds we build.

Nothingness, then, for all its presumed vacuity, is a multi-faceted thing: it embodies ways of knowing, it has ontological agency and politics, it has degrees and dimensions. A map of nothing demonstrates that an experiential nothingness depends upon a robust ecology of somethingness to enable its occurrence; and it recognizes the particular representational needs of various cartographic subjects and their potential desires for invisibility, for refusal.

Images from Feral Atlas. Upper right: Frederique Ait-Touati, Alexandra Arenes, Axelle Gregoire, Map of Soil. Lower right and left: Feifei Zhou, Anthropocene Detonator Landscapes.
Images from Feral Atlas. Upper right: Frédérique Aït-Touati, Alexandra Arènes, Axelle Grégoire, Map of Soil. Lower right and left: Feifei Zhou, Anthropocene Detonator Landscapes.

Two recent mapping projects refract these facets of nothingness. Feral Atlas is a collaboratively created interactive map of the ecological worlds of the Anthropocene, and their “feral reactions to human intervention.” 35 For this project, over a hundred scholars and artists have mapped out the entanglements of various agents, including plastic bags, Dutch elm disease, rats, and banana fungicides. The result is a sort of anti-dashboard: it allows deep dives into particular niche topics, guided by subject experts, while intentionally and productively overwhelming us with its sheer size and scope.

The abundance of graphics, texts, and impressionistic videos isn’t meant to provide a birds’-eye view or a comprehensive system diagram; instead, Feral Atlas demonstrates, through its own counter-example, that a comparatively limited frame — a widgetized scan, a reductionist map — cannot capture the complexity of the “more-than-human” Anthropocenic world we’re living in. In this light, the pandemic is one such feral response to, and catalyst for, Anthropocenic change; meanwhile the feral map of viral agents and vectors — public health, human-animal relations, vaccines, geopolitics — sustains the comparatively tame nothingness enjoyed by those spared its ruin.

Image of the central black hole of Messier 87, created by the Event Horizon Telescope.
Image of the central black hole of Messier 87, created by the Event Horizon Telescope. [via Wikimedia]

In striking contrast, the depiction of Messier 87 is a literal map of the void. Messier 87 is a black hole 50 million light years away from Earth. Created in 2019 by a global collaborative of observatories called the Event Horizon Telescope project — the name itself hints at a collapse into nothingness —the image required a perceptual instrument as big as the earth, the collection of petabytes of data, and two years for the processing and visualization of that data. Scientists used a process called interferometry to collate the observations from multiple, geographically distributed instruments. 36 The following year, scientists imaged another black hole at the center of the IRAS 13224-3809 galaxy, about a billion light years away, by examining the echo — the time delay between emitted x-rays that head directly from the corona into the cosmos and those that encounter the accretion disk, a ring of swirling matter. 37 This second project was publicized on January 20, 2020, just one day before the Centers for Disease Control confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the United States.

Rendering these two voids visible required a global assemblage of instruments and institutions and intelligences. Scientists couldn’t look directly at nothing to see something; they had to look and listen around the void, deploying techniques similar to image compositing and echolocation. We might apply these lessons, these techniques, to our own attempts to comprehend the pandemic’s pause, which has its own experiential event horizon. We have to look and listen and feel around it to grasp all that holds it, sustains it, feeds it. We have to accommodate its occasional refusals of representation, the retreat into imperceptibility. And for nothings of both the domestic and cosmic variety, we have to acknowledge all the countless somethings that make that nothing imaginable.

Author's Note

I’m grateful to Max Nathan, Jon Reades, and their colleagues at the Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London; and to Synne Tollerud Bull, her colleagues in the Urban Ecologies group, and ROM for art and architecture, Oslo, for inviting me to develop and share this work. Thanks also to Places Journal for its support; to Snowden Becker, who encouraged me to work through the pandemic gloom and to embrace the nothing; and to Nancy Levinson for her expert edits.

  1. Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House, 2019): 6.
  2. Christiana Figueres, “Foreword” to Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart: The Compassion to the Miracle of Mindfulness (Parallax, 2020); xii.
  3. Kyle Chayka, “How Nothingness Became Everything We Wanted,” New York Times Magazine (January 19, 2021).
  4. NBC Politics, Twitter (May 21, 2020): See also Sarah Cooper, “I tested very positively,” YouTube (May 21, 2020).
  5. See Jeff Andrews, “No, the Pandemic Is Not Emptying Out America’s Cities,” Curbed (August 31, 2020).
  6. As Susan A. Crane notes in her new book, Nothing Happened: A History, there’s a long history of people imagining themselves as historical figures because “nothing happened.” “When there is Nothing to do,” she writes, “time moves more slowly and tedium ensues and it all feels like too much Nothing. All these experiences qualify as historical events. … It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering to be historical. Ask any child who wishes they hadn’t done whatever minor thing they did to get in trouble with the parent: It happened. Nothing happens all the time.” That nothing is what many of us are experiencing right now: it’s part of a long self-negating history, and, like all historical events, it’s shaped by larger systems of meaning and value. Susan A. Crane, Nothing Happened: A History (Stanford University Press, 2021).
  7. Emily Bowe, Erin Simmons, and I examined some early data visualizations of the “quarantine quotidian” in “Learning form Lines: Critical COVID Data Visualizations and Quarantine Quotidian,” Big Data & Society (July 27, 2020),
  8. See Ann Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton University Press, 2010); Kristen Weld, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala (Duke University Press, 2014); Michelle Caswell, Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014).
  9. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (June 2008): 1-14; Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (W.W. Norton, 2019); Lauren F. Klein, “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization and James Hemings,” American Literature 85:4 (2013): 661-88; Mimi Onuoha, “On Missing Datasets,” GitHub (2018); Thomas Padilla, “Engaging Absence” (February 26, 2018).
  10. Gabriel Pereira and Bruno Moreschi, “Ways of Seeing with Computer Vision: Artificial Intelligence and Institutional Critique,” Deviant Practice Research Programme 2018-19, Van Abeemuseum, forthcoming. Much of this paragraph is drawn from Shannon Mattern, “Reflexive Machines: AI for Institutional Critique,” Curatorial A[I]gents (Harvard metaLab, 2020): 1.
  11. Tim Sherratt, “The Real Face of White Australia,” Discontents (September 21, 2011); “A Sort of Joy (Thousands of Exhausted Things),” The Office for Creative Research, Spring 2015.
  12. P. Gabrielle Foreman and Labanya Mookerjee, “Computing in the Dark: Spreadsheets, Data Collection and DH’s Racist Inheritance,” Always Already Computational: Library Collections as Data, ed. Thomas Padilla, Laurie Allen, Stewart Varner, Sarah Potvin, Elizabeth Russey Roke, and Hannah Frost, March 2017, 12.
  13. Catherine Nicole Coleman, “Managing Bias When Library Collections Become Data,” International Journal of Librarianship, 5, no. 1 (2020): 12. For a collection of other relevant projects, which deploy machine learning for institutional critique, see here. The Carnegie Museum of Art project was undertaken in in collaboration with Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry.
  14. Chet van Duzer, “Hic sunt dracones: The Geography and Cartography of Monsters,” in Asa Simon Mittman and Peter J. Dendle, eds., The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous (Routledge, 2013): 393-4.
  15. Isabel Hofmeyr, “Oceans as Empty Spaces? Redrafting our Knowledge by Dropping the Colonial Lens,” The Conversation (September 6, 2018).
  16. Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat de Concorcet, “Éloge de M. d’Anville,” Histoire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences, Année 1782 (1785); quoted in Stéphane Blond and Lucile Haguet, “Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville,” in Matthew Edney and Mary Sponberg Pedley, eds., The History of Cartography, Vol. 4: Cartography in the European Enlightenment (University of Chicago Press, 2020): 113. See also Paul Carter, “Dark with Excess of Bright: Mapping the Coastlines of Knowledge” in Dennis Cosgrove, ed., Mappings (London: Reaktion Books, 1999): 125-47; Peter Turchi, “A Wide Landscape of Snows” in Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2004): 27-71.
  17. Paulo Tavares, “In the Forest Ruins,” e-flux architecture (December 6, 2016).
  18. This paragraph is adapted from my forthcoming A City Is Not a Computer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).
  19. Data for Black Lives, “Action: COVID-19 Open Data by State.”
  20. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle, “Racial Capitalism: A Fundamental Course of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic Inequities in the U.S.,” Health Education & Behavior, April 26, 2020;
  21. See Trevor Paglen, Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World (Penguin, 2009).
  22. Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Duke University Press, 2014). See also Carole McGranahan, “Theorizing Refusal: An Introduction,” Cultural Anthropology 31:3 (2016): 319-25. See also Ruha Benjamin, “Informed Refusal: Toward a Justice-based Bioethics,” Science, Technology & Human Values (2016): 1-24; 33.
  23. Ruha Benjamin, “Black Skin, White Masks: Racism, Vulnerability & Refuting Black Pathology,” Princeton Department of African American Studies (April 15, 2020); Seeta Peña Gangadharan, “Digital Exclusion: A Politics of Refusal” in Lucy Bernholz, Hélène Landemore, and Rob Reich, eds., Digital Technology and Democratic Theory (University of Chicago Press, 2021).
  24. Kelsey Leonard, “Medicine Lines and COVID-19: Indigenous Geographies of Imagined Bordering,” Dialogues in Human Geography 10:2 (2020),
  25. See also Ed Wall, “Incomplete Cartographies: A Methodology for Unfinished Landscapes: in OSAE 98: Narrating Urban Landscapes (2017): 109-15.
  26. Marianna Pavlovskaya, “Feminism, Geographic Information Systems, and Mapping,” in Audrey Kobayashi ed., International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, 2nd ed., Vol. 5 (Elsevier, 2020). See also the work of Sarah Elwood and Gillian Rose.
  27. Mei-Po Kwan, “Feminist Visualization: Re-envisioning GIS as a Method in Feminist Geographic Research,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92:4 (2002): 655.
  28. Christophe Robert, “Visualizing the Invisible: COVID-19 Pandemic Season in Saigon,” EchoGéo 52 (April/June 2020). Thanks to Giulio Quaggiotto for the reference. See also Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  29. Marianna Pavlovskaya, “Feminism, Geographic Information Systems, and Mapping,” 32.
  30. Marianna Pavlovskaya, “Critical GIS as a Tool for Social Transformation,” The Canadian Geographer 62:1 (2018): 52.
  31. Dolores Hayden, “What Would a Nonsexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work,” in Susan S. Fainstein and Lisa Servon, eds., Gender and Planning: A Reader (Rutgers University Press, 2005): 47-64; Roberta M. Feldman and Susan Stall, The Dignity of Resistance; Women Residents’ Activism in Chicago Public Housing (Cambridge University Press, 2004); Elle Hung, “City with a Female Face: How Modern Vienna Was Shaped by Women,” The Guardian (May 14, 2019); Eva Kail and Dolores Hayden, “Redesigning Cities and Suburbs for Women,” Georgia Tech School of Architecture (October 28, 2020); Brittany Lewis, “Manufacturing Urban America: Politically Engaged Urban Black Women, Renewed Forms of Political Censorship, and Uneven Landscapes of Power in North Minneapolis, Minnesota,” Dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2015; Keisha-Khan Y. Perry, Black Women Against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justice (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
  32. BlackSpace Manifesto.
  33. Aimi Hamraie, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017): 13. Mapping Access, Aimi Hamraie.
  34. “Remote Access,” Mapping Access.
  35. Feral Atlas: The More-Than-Human Anthropocene (Stanford University Press, 2020). This paragraph is partly based on the conclusion to my forthcoming A City Is Not a Computer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).
  36. Nadia Drake, “First-Ever Picture of a Black Hole,” National Geographic (April 10, 2019).
  37. Nadia Drake, “Astronomers Just Got a Deep Peek at a Black Hole,” National Geographic (January 20, 2020):
Shannon Mattern, “How to Map Nothing,” Places Journal, March 2021. Accessed 04 Oct 2023.

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