Locating Absence with Narrative Digital Maps

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Matt Applegate

    Molloy College / University

  2. 2. Sarah Evans

    Molloy College / University

  3. 3. Jamie Cohen

    Molloy College / University

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This paper outlines an interdisciplinary undergraduate digital humanities course, study abroad trip to Rome, Italy, and consultation with representatives from the non-profit organization Shoot 4 Change (


) focused on teaching students to visualize space critically. Utilizing the Spatial Humanities Kit (


), deployed via both Molloy College and Hofstra University, we showcase narrative geospatial humanities work, media production, and a simple mix of HTML and GeoJSON as vehicles for our students’ critical analysis.

Our maps prioritize student experience, encapsulated in still images, written description, VR video, and vlogs embedded within them. Our course prioritizes methods for researching and unearthing embattled histories of public space, particularly within architecture, monuments, and urban design. Combined, our maps and critical framework result in a practice of teaching students to visualize cultural conflict that prefigures their experience of the space they inhabit--what is formative of, but currently absent or obscured from, the landscape they engage with.
Context & Background

What does it mean to map something that is no longer present? Inversely, what does it mean to visualize something that has been co-opted and ideologically obscured? These questions guided our course and directed our GIS project. Historical absence, charted through existing architecture, is perhaps easier to visualize. For instance, by researching and visiting the

Domus Palazzo Valentini

, a palace that showaces its ancient history through digital projection and glass floors that reveal earlier structures, students saw how architecture layers over time. What one sees in the present may physically elide what once stood in the exact location in the past. Politically speaking, ideological obfuscation, especially for American students abroad, is often more difficult to understand and visualize. Students were asked to consider contemporary political ideologies that co-opt Roman culture and redeploy it. In August, 2017, for example, famed historian Mary Beard characterized a BBC cartoon depicting a high-ranking black soldier as emblematic of a typical Roman family. As noted by
The Telegraph
, Beard argued that the “cartoon was ‘indeed pretty accurate,’” and, “there’s plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain.” What should have been an innocuous observation by an influential historian gave rise to a fierce attack on Beard’s credentials and character by the alt-right. This incident, among others, revealed a trend in alt-right thought now documented through a growing set of popular literature: the alt-right, particularly in the US, consistently appropriates Roman monuments, culture, and history in its effort to garner support for its ethno-nationalist agenda.

This fact reveals itself over and again in the alt-right’s digital footprint. Memes, video, and forum presence form a battleground for manifold acts of alt-right appropriation. Equally as compelling, however, are growing attempts to map and visualize alt-right violence, cultural appropriation, and concomitant modes of exclusion, both historical and contemporary. Several activist map making movements currently document where alt-right organizations congregate as well as the violence they commit. Italian ANTIFA groups have mapped hate crimes perpetrated by neo-nazi movements across the country (


), and similar projects called “Fashmaps” have taken shape in the US (


). Finally, Shoot 4 Change, a European non-profit focused on “humanitarian reportage,” has documented the formation and removal of refugee camps in Southern Italy, a direct result of the country’s closed border policies (https://bit.ly/2DrLA7S).

Parallel to these events, critical GIS work in the humanities, especially geospatial work in DH, has been mobilized to document both present and past inequalities predicated on race and ethnicity. Most recently, the Torn Apart / Separados team visualized the effects of the US’s 2018 “zero tolerance” policy for asylum seekers. DH scholar-practitioners at the University of Iowa have visualized histories of segregation in the US via “Placing Segregation,” and DH scholar-practitioners at the University of Richmond have visualized events leading to slavery’s end during the American Civil War via “Visualizing Emancipation.” In so many words, DH utilizes digital maps to visualize violence, appropriation, and exclusion so as to speak back to dominant histories of national formation and containment.

Taking inspiration from these projects, this paper showcases approachable entry points to humanities GIS work for undergraduates and mobilizes them toward the critical visualization of space. We are specifically interested in the act of locating absence via digital mapping technologies--researching, exposing, and visualizing what has been obscured over time and excluded by nationalist formations in public space, both physical and imagined.
Our paper offers multiple ways in which spatial humanities methods can be made accessible to a layperson audience via interactive and accessible media production tools that document a present space and time as it relates to an array of social, political, and cultural issues. Our focus on pedagogy is primary, and to draw a stark divide between our critical approach and the pedagogical methods we deploy would be anathema to our project-based work.

Map & Production Methods

Our student map of Rome is an outgrowth of prior international trips and deployments of the Spatial Humanities Kit. It demonstrates competence in three areas: basic knowledge of HTML and GeoJSON, media production, and critical visualization.
For ease, we refer to each theme by its essential function in the kit’s deployment: site, narrative, and knowledge produced.

Site: Student training and historical work began months prior to our departure for Rome. Students were introduced to historical texts, maps, and virtual exhibits of the locations we would eventually visit. Concomitantly, students were introduced to contemporary political movements, both US-based and Italian-based, that prioritize appropriation and exclusion toward nationalist goals. On location in Rome, students were prompted by push notifications sent to their phones to reflect on absence and exclusion in one of three areas, depending on the site they inhabited: migration, labor, and infrastructure. Students visited tourist sites, famous monuments, as well as lesser known locations tied to contemporary political turmoil to reflect, gather data, and ultimately visualize absence and exclusion.

Our focus on media production borrows methods from Jason Farman’s
Mobile Storytelling
and non-profit Shoot 4 Change. On the one hand, students were asked to incorporate two methods into their documentation process. First, following Farman’s method for mobile storytelling, students were asked to account for multiple aspects of the locations they documented,
“including its histories, cultural conflicts, communities, and architectures (to name only a few) and makes these aspects foundational for the experience of the space” (Farman 3).
On the other hand, students consulted with Shoot 4 Change to gain awareness around
the sensitivities and necessities of digital storytelling in a global context. In addition to still images taken by students of their experiences, students created vlogs and VR video to capture the times and spaces of their experience, guided by our three areas of reflection above.

Knowledge: Our final area of focus, critical visualization, is an outgrowth of combining site-specific media assignments in Rome with digital mapping technologies.
Our map’s construction combines simple methods for data collection and an introduction to basic coding. Prior to our departure, students learned best practices for organizing and archiving content on three platforms: Google Drive, Omeka, and cPanel. Students were also introduced to video production and editing technologies, while more advanced students focused on the production of VR video. Combined with their narrative training, our students produced a map that both accounts for their own situatedness as American students abroad as well as Rome’s multilayered history. Students draw out Rome’s diverse cultural history in particular as a means of visualizing what is excluded contemporarily by those that would co-opt it for authoritarian gain.

As part of our presentation, we will make our syllabi, methods, and maps available to our audience and discuss the importance of digital mapping projects that prioritize criticality. Our work underscores
how historical research, media production, and simple mapping techniques lead undergraduates to view public space as a multilayered and ideologically driven. We demonstrate how digital map making can create critical awareness of exclusion and ideological obfuscation as authoritarian power takes shape.

Farman, Jason. “Site-Specificity, Pervasive Computing, and the Reading Interface.”
The Mobile Story: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies. New York: Routledge, 2014. 3-16.

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