DIAGRAMS
OF
POWER

When I draw with pencil and paper — an idea, a bicycle, a family tree, or a park — I draw a diagram that floats between my concept of a thing and the actual thing.

W. E. B. Du Bois, [The Georgia Negro] City and rural population, 1890. Image courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., USA.

I draw it for myself to help me think and to help me communicate to others. My diagram represents what I know and/or what I want to be true. It uses lines, colour, text and information that I have gathered to put forth a vision of what I think is important. The word diagram comes from the Greek — to write through. A diagram is not just a collection of gestures on a plane. It is not a static object. Since it works to organize thoughts and facts about the world, a diagram creates an effect — when I write across a page or a screen, I also inscribe a line through a landscape or between members of a group.

This may be counterintuitive, but a diagram also describes a non-visual thing. It describes an arrangement of things that are felt. For example, I am situated in a map of relations that include an employer, students, regulations, physical buildings, etc. This can be thought of as an abstract machine where different and interchangeable parts may operate directly or indirectly with one another. What is important to note is that these are structures that are flexible and mutable, and that reproduce in different instances with slightly different parts. Visualization involves several processes like gathering data from people and things, sorting and analyzing and re-analyzing data, representing data in a tangible form such as a map or graph and, most importantly, circulating this artifact among different people, experts, or organizations. Thus, as a process, visualization arranges people and things.

It is through these two meanings of diagram that I come to the idea of a Diagram of Power. It is both a visual work that represents and communicates ideas or data as well as a process that arranges bodies and things. In both of these dimensions, I note the way in which power can be depicted and exercised. In other words, a diagram can be used to show how power is distributed and it can also be the actual way in which power is distributed

Maps do this kind of work. They are used to understand the features of a landscape and its inhabitants. From the beginning, maps were used to communicate the understanding of an inhabited territory as well as to transport knowledge of a remote, newly discovered place to a central governing place. In this way, maps have often been used to control a space and dominate a people

Visualizations and maps are often viewed as depictions of truths produced by scientific inquiry or statistical analysis conducted by experts in universities or governments — this is how they draw some of their power. We forget they can never be fully objective. I am reminded of how theorist Donna Haraway warns us of the god trick that maps (and visualizations) can perform. They have a tendency to make us think that they are beyond human and therefore beyond reproach. Yet, we must ask who is doing the representing? Are they made by an objective and omniscient being that only sees truth and therefore cannot lie? Or are they situated in a specific place with a specific knowledge and experience, and committed to a specific agenda — all of which guides the gathering of data, the premise of the analysis and the style of the visualization

Laura Poitras, O’Say Can You See (still), 2001/2016. Two-channel digital video, color, sound. Image courtesy of the artist.

Rather than perform a god trick, DIAGRAMS OF POWER speak from a position — they are situated and they work against representations that hide other stories and other realities. They take extra care of what and who is represented, and who does the representing

Margaret Pearce’s work, Coming Home to Indigenous Place Names in Canada, does precisely this. Margaret has designed a map of Indigenous place names in Canada. A radical project in the sense that it performs the root work of grounding us live within an Indigenous territory and knowledge. The radical work is also performed through the respect given to the traditional Indigenous knowledge keepers of place names. Margaret’s map decentres the dominant idea of Canada as English and French coded territory by reinscribing the names that existed before settler colonization and continue to exist today. She assembles knowledge and thereby forms relations between herself as a cartographer and the many Indigenous communities throughout Turtle Island

Margaret Pearce, Coming Home to Indigenous Place Names in Canada, 2017. Map.

Laura Poitras’ O’Say Can You See is another diagram performed. It sets up a relation between those who watch and those being watched. Laura helps us to see and perhaps feel part of the power relation that implicates us in the war on terror. The image of mourners gazing at the ruins at the 9/11 site in New York City are juxtaposed with the interrogation of a suspected terrorist. The two images are mapped on to each other and therefore imply a causal relationship. Do we relate to the bodies watching or the body being watched? This work and others prompts me to view mapping and visualization as media practices that act critically and not just affirmatively.

All the designers and artists in this exhibition either challenge a dominant idea or unearth hidden knowledge. They present evidence by assembling data, images and/or personal accounts into cohesive wholes to be explored. The arrangement of evidence is a task that diagrams, as visualizations, are particular adept at doing. Ayotzinapa, a work by Forensic Architecture, functions in this way as it assembles eyewitness accounts, social media posts, police reports and many other sources that relate to the disappearance and murder of 43 university students in Iguala, Mexico in 2014.

Forensic Architecture, The Ayotzinapa Case: A Cartography of Violence (still), 2017. Video, 18 min. 24 sec.

Part of acting critically involves resisting narratives used to displace, control, or forget. For example, the Argentine collective Iconoclasistas, formed by Julia Risler and Pablo Ares, uses a mappa mundi (a medieval world map) to reverse a dominant understanding of ownership. In their work ¿A quién pertenece la tierra? / Who owns the land? they have made two strategic choices to resist deep-seated assumptions. First, they flip the North Pole and the South Pole in their map in order to challenge the intuition that north is up and south down — more precisely that the Global South is at the bottom of the Global North, a technique famously used by artist and theorist, Joaquín Torres-Garcia. Second, Iconoclasistas use what is commonly referred to as the Gall-Peters projection which includes the characteristic elongated look of land masses — an attempt to accurately represent countries of the Third World which are often depicted erroneously as equal in size to European countries. These strategies make sense to me as tools for radical pedagogy informed by their practice which revolves around the use of mapping in popular education, collaboration and community-led research. Their critical mappa mundi performs this function, it works as an educational tool to engage viewers and challenge unquestioned assumptions — in ¿A quién pertenece la tierra? / Who owns the land?, who owns what

Ownership and relationships that form networks of power are complex and notoriously difficult things to make visible. Power through governmental or corporate entities, or through capital flow or military force, are largely felt when they intersect our everyday life but hard to see as lines of direct relations — especially at their global scale. Bureau d’études is not daunted by this scale or complexity and aims to make these connections through their World Government maps. Through successive iterations, they create more comprehensive documents of global finance and governmental control

Visualizations of global scale dynamics can be complex and demand an analytical approach yet when I look at Julie Mehretu’s work I find instead the aesthetic and expressive dimension of global movement, history and flows. I read her large-scale paintings and prints as both diagrams and as landscapes. They incorporate image as data to influence the structure and feeling of her works. Her marks on the canvas work as vectors and as trails of movement. Her drawings often evoke rudimentary maps of ambiguous entities in a territory either migrating or gathering. In contrast to these modes for which she is very well known, one of her works, Minneapolis and Saint Paul are East African Cities, is particularly interesting due to its digital, interactive and participatory nature. Working in collaboration with Ethiopian and Eritrean youth living in the USA, Julie mapped their stories onto the city’s territory. While I find that there are visual similarities between this work and some of her more well-known works, there is also a conceptual bridge here that links her use of the diagram and map to evoke a feeling and insert a narrative. Participation in the mapping and telling of stories situated in a specific space also constitutes a diagram. In Julie’s project, the diagram involved the represented, in this case the youth, in a process of representing, in this case the digital interactive map. This is an attempt to distribute power amongst the participants via their choices of what to tell and how to tell it

Maps are often good vehicles to engage community members and visualize their lived experience.

Groups like The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, take a similar approach with their maps that tell the story of resisting displacement through geo-located data and survivor stories. In fact, they make participation even more meaningful by conducting other activities such as interviews, events, creating murals and zines. While the premise is a mapping project, this group, sponsored by the San Francisco Tenants Union, amplifies the positive effects of mapping and visualizing through activities directly aimed at representing and supporting residents

Maps, diagrams and visualizations are both artifacts and processes. They are tools that tell a story, and create ways of bringing people and things together in the telling of that story. The outcomes are often visualized so that they can be viewed and inspected, but also performed so that they can be heard and felt. Evidence that other realities exist is presented through compelling forms. An exhibition like DIAGRAMS OF POWER shows the wide variety of ways in which different people engage in this type of practice. Each designer, artist, cartographer, geographer, researcher and activist demonstrates a commitment to using this mode to tell inconvenient stories that upset and resist the status quo.

—Patricio Dávila, July 2018