“What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.”
— Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
Data, metrics, infographics: these are the new design currency. But what constitutes data? Are human beings, and the lives they live, merely information units to be plotted in seductive charts and maps? I hope not.
Recently I have been peeling back the corners of the map in an attempt to find a deeper sense of place. Inspired by the Situationists’ psychogeography, William Least Heat-Moon’s deep maps, and the growing practice of web-enabled experimental cartography, I started with a single street in my home city of Indianapolis.
Washington Street — part of the old U.S. Route 40, a.k.a. “The National Road” — cuts a 20-mile transect through the city. Over the past six months, carrying a microphone and audio recorder, I’ve walked every step of this street. I’ve recorded a homeless camp awoken by barking sea lions, teenage tales of “Napghanistan,” stories about the intersection of bigfoot and prepaid wireless. As these moments constellate, they form a distinct picture of the city. In deference to our era’s fascination with data, I am plotting the recordings on a web-based sound map. Call it a database of moments.
Traditional data collection often relies on the use of sampling, by which tiny parts are examined to model the whole. Since I’m working with audio, I prefer the other mode of sampling, with roots in musique concrete and early hip hop, by which existing sounds become building blocks for new forms of expression and communication. I am not attempting to create a whole, but rather to graft original experiences onto a medium that conveys the essence of a place, evoking in the listener the same thoughts and emotions that were expressed on the street. So I formed a “band” with experimental pop musicians from around the world. We called ourselves FIELD WORKS, and we made an album of music based on the field recordings, The National Road.
This is messy work. There’s no snapping to grid when you’re walking in the wet snow. There’s no command_z. There’s no telling who or what is coming around the corner. But it’s exhilarating, and when working this way I feel like I’m part of the world. Participant and observer. This may just be nothing more than a painfully prolonged site analysis. I’d prefer not to call it analysis at all. It’s an intervention, a celebration, a love letter.