Guest Editorial: Affective Geovisualizations

February 8, 2006

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By means of the … film … it would be possible to infuse certain subjects, such as geography, which is at present wound off organ-like in the forms of dead descriptions, with the pulsating life of a metropolis. - Albert Einstein.
It may be argued that the very heart of geography and GIS is constituted in large part by the practice of looking and is, in effect, the stuff of images. If we agree, then geo-visualization is highlighted as an important disciplinary and practical endeavor. The last two decades witnessed increasing recognition of the power of articulate, moving images to intervene in the ongoing transformations of everyday geography, and yet there remains a reticence within the geo-visualization community to fully embrace the emotional power of cinema.

This essay is about the intensification of emotional life that is possible through moving spatial images. Our primary assumption is that while data visualized through GIS can be provocative, it is often joyless and over-calculated, with a tendency for the program to overwhelm the content. Even the best GIS-visualized data is often more interesting to think about than to experience, more interesting to create than to comprehend - it is most often not the product of a searching soul but of a highly computer-literate mind. And so we argue that although today’s geovisualized data and digitally formatted movies may look different and may appear to have separate functions, they are both digital, pixelized, spatial data that engages users/consumers in similar ways. The problem for geographers and GIS specialists, we submit, is that cinematic landscapes, in which humans and human culture play a very important part, are a much more powerful producer of emotional geographies than static or animated cartographies, no matter how the data are visualized. If cinema is more concerned with engaging emotions than celebrating computerized visuals, then why should this not also be the case for geovisualizations? As neurologist Antonio Damasio (1994) has shown, emotions are a huge part of, and are not separate from, our intellectual reasoning.

A Case for Affect
Think back to the last time you lost yourself in a series of contours, shadings and cartographic symbols. Perhaps you have a treasured map at hand that will do the job for you right now (indeed, the boundlessness of imagination enables continuous return to the same map for fresh marvels). This process involves a particularly quirky engagement, pouring over the image to the extent that we may lose a conscious connection to our corporeality. The space between our conscious knowledge of our bodies and the borders of the map merge. Perhaps time disappears. We are lost to the task of imagining what it would be like to be in this place for the first time. We imagine tramping over the hills or along the streets depicted in the map. We pick up maps of exotic places and indulge our amazement at the contemporaneous heterogeneity of the planet, what Doreen Massey (2005, 15) calls "spatial delight." There may even be an imagining that projects knowledge of local weather, waves, tides, or of the ways mists curl around mountain tops – knowledge not directly accessible from the map.

Figure 1. A US Geological Survey 7.5' quad map of the Sawtooth Mountains Wilderness in Southern California. (Click image to access PDF of the map at the Bureau of Land Management's Web site.)

And there is other knowledge not necessarily accessible from the maps, which gives us pause. Two decades of warnings from cartographers such as Brian Harley, Dennis Woods and Mark Monmonier highlight the inherent power of maps: the grotesque distortions of variety and uniqueness, the colonialism, the propaganda, the god-trick, the diminishing/submersion of certain subjects for others. Even with these admonitions and understandings, there is still wonder.

We argue, and this is our central twist, that more so than cartography, cinema produces wonders that affectively engage and absorb us - they intensify our lives, if only momentarily. There is no reason why geovisualized data should not do the same.

Filmic Spatial Data
So, let us think for a moment about the mechanics behind the emotional wonders of moving images. Cinema is a particular kind of movement propagated by single picture frames passing rapidly in front of a projection light at a prescribed rate; in its digital form the movement is accomplished by changing hues and colors of the individual pixels that compose the viewing screen.
Figure 2. An artic tern flies impossibly high to emotionally dramatize its 12,500 mile journey in Jacques Perrin’s documentary Winged Migration (2003). (Click image for larger view)

The active promotion of images in motion in the United States began on June 13, 1891 when Harper’s Weekly announced that Thomas Edison had invented a kinetograph, a combination of a moving picture machine and a phonograph. The 1902 Sears catalogue described the kinetoscope’s ability to render a "pictorial representation, not lifelike merely, but apparently life itself, with every movement, every action and every detail brought so vividly before the audience" (quoted in Denzin 1995, 16). What was revolutionary about the kinetoscope was its power over the image. By the 1920s Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was breaking ground with kino-pravda (film truth). Eisenstein’s notion of "the-image-in-motion-over-time-through-space-with-sequence" was about filmic rhythm and the ways film time-space could be manipulated for fullest effect (see Figure 3 and Aitken 1991). Eisenstein’s image-event was not about presenting real life, or even film as a mirror of real life. The focus of kino-pravda on filmic rhythms, sequences, framings, spectacles, jump cuts and montages was about the creation of illusion to the extent that we, the consumers of the images, would suspend our disbelief.

From cartography, DiBiase and his colleagues (1992, 206), closely paralleling the earlier thoughts of Eisenstein, extend spatial images into the realm of non-static, animated representations existing within two or three spatial dimensions plus a temporal dimension. Their dynamic variables of duration (the number of units of time that a scene is displayed), rate of change (a proportion formed by the magnitude of change in an attribute and the duration of scene), and order (the logic of chronological sequencing of scenes associated with a time-series data set) are used to form dynamic representations. This is precisely what Eisenstein did with kino-pravda, but his focus was on the emotional impact - he called it shock-value - of the image-event.

Affecting the Geo-Visual
Geographers learn from looking and the geovisualization approaches established by DiBiase, but also Cartwright, MacEachren and others, offer a unique way of interpreting visual representations. Indeed, MacEachren’s famous elaboration of semiotics to cartography is about a science and art that is closely connected to the study of film (see Aitken and Craine 2005). Let us assume that geography must move past pure semiotics and cognitive theory in order to open up the discipline to fresh investigation. Further, geovisualization must refuse to take vision for granted and should, instead, insist on "problematizing", theorizing, critiquing and "historicalizing" the visual process. As a case in point, data exploration through the use of "map metaphors," Cartwright (2004, 32) famously argues, is changed to "new forms of multisensory and multimedia communication" where visual information gathering is augmented with other sensory stimuli. Unfortunately, Cartwright stops short of exploring the important dimensions of affect and absorption.
Figure 3. Creating a Narrative Through Juxtaposed Image Events (Aitken 1991). (Click image for larger view)

With the recognition of multimedia as a viable way to communicate geographic information, we can examine how new technologies provide new modes of data exploration and new forms of analysis and cognition through affect. To take just one example, Platt (1995) shows how ‘storytelling’ offers the user the option of engaging the geography of a particular place. Video-gaming is a case in point where filmic digital images are merged with usable/controllable products to create innumerable storylines. Imagine the young gamer deftly avoiding missiles and light-beams from enemy fighters and courageously engaging the enemy in LucasArts’ Star Wars series as a Death Star brings its planet-destroying cannon on the unsuspecting world below. Her passion may for some border on addiction, but it is nothing if it is not self-absorbed. Do you recognize something important about the ways young people engage with these games? Watch her weave in and out of the canyons that comprise the surface of the Death Star. And like Luke Skywalker feeling the force, she successfully sends missiles down the postage stamp opening into the main reactor. Boom! We are treated to a spectacular conflagration. Next level and a new storyline. She is now ramping down a hierarchy of scaled images towards the planet below. The images coalesce in a way that suspends her disbelief about a myriad of pixels changing hue. Indeed, she has no knowledge of the mechanics of digital animation. She is simply hurtling towards the surface to chase some of the renegade enemy fighters that escape the conflagration aboard the Death Star. Now she is down in some desert canyons, chasing more enemy fighters. You are impressed at this time with the way she negotiates scale. The pixels change hue to form digital images of dynamic landscapes – aerial photographs if you will – from the planetary scale down to just above the desert floor.

We’d like to finish with a thought about the ways film and animation contrive the stories of our lives. We believe that this is about the power of moving images to create spaces and affect societal change. And it is about the subtle pervasiveness of these images in contemporary culture. Einstein (opening epigram) was right when he suggested that geographers do not appreciate the power of the moving image. Nor do we know how to use that power to better the world in which we live through emotion-charged geovisualization. Obviously, this power goes way beyond video-gaming. As we are absorbed into mobile geographic images, it is possible also to be affected by the power of those images to highlight social injustice, geographies of AIDS, or the tragedies of the global sex-trade. Affective geo-visualizations are soulful; they tug at our hearts to the extent that we may be mobilized to action.

Aitken, S. C. (1991) A Transactional Geography of the Image-Event: The films of Scottish director, Bill Forsyth. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 16: 105-118.

Aitken, S.C. and J, Craine (2005) Visual Methodologies: What you see is not always what you get. In R. Flowerdew and David Martin (eds). Methods in Human Geography, pp. 250-269. Harlow, England: Prentice Hall.

Cartwright, W. (2004) Geographical Visualization: Past, Present and Future Development. Journal of Spatial Science 49(1): 25-36.

Damasio, A (1994) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Penguin Books.

Denzin, N. (1995) The Cinematic Society: The Voyeur’s Gaze. London: Sage Publications.

DiBiase, D., MacEachren, A., Krygier, J., and Reeves, C. (1992) Animation and the Role of Map Design in Scientific Visualization. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems, 19(4): 201-214.

Massey, D. (2005). For Space. London: Sage Publications Inc.

Platt, C. (1995) Interactive Entertainment. Wired 3(9).


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