Counter-Map: A Poetics of Place (2022)

© Darian Razdar / 2022
From Reflex Urbanism

Poetics of Place is an ongoing creative counter-mapping workshop resulting in publication, exhibition, and public conversation around the future of mapping.

COUNTER-MAP: A Poetics of Place

(Toronto: Reflex Urbanism, 2022)

Designed and edited by Darian Razdar.

COUNTER-MAP presents a collection of poetry and photography created by 12 artists during a counter-mapping workshop in Tkaronto/Gichi Kiiwenging/Toronto in July 2022. Each participating artist was asked to explore the surrounding urban environment and reflect on specific sites of interest using creative methods, primarily poetry and photography. Select works are compiled in this anthology, accompanied by a map, essay and activity guide by Darian Razdar. The essay and activity are available below.

Printed in risograph Blue, Black, and Metallic Gold on 80# Mohawk VIA Vellum paper at Vide Press.

68 pages, perfect bind.

Limited edition: 100 copies.

Copies of COUNTER-MAP are currently SOLD OUT, please use the following form to express interest. I will call another print run once the form has collected interest in an additional 50 copies. :


The Instrumentalized Map

Maps are portals into different worlds. They allow us to imagine wider realities that exist outside our everyday lives or immediate social spheres. As John Pickles wrote in A History of Spaces, “Maps provide the very conditions of possibility for the worlds we inhabit and the subjects we become” (pg. 5). Because the map is such a powerful tool, it is an equally formidable weapon.

We often hear critiques that maps misrepresent physical geography. The Mercator projection, for example, is a main point of criticism. This projection system – created by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569 – was unique as it presented north as up and south as down everywhere in the world, while preserving shapes of land and water features. However, the projection system inflates objects the further they are from the equator. Thus, Greenland seems larger than Australia and the African continent smaller than its relative land area. The Mercator’s linear, grid-style system primarily facilitated global sea travel. Instead of the stars, European empires could then employ Mercator maps to organize complicated logistics related to the trade of extracted colonial resources.

Many common maps we interact with today still use the Mercator projection  —  like Google Maps and OpenStreetMap — or similar projection systems which communicate a particular imagination of the world as logical, divisible, knowable, and flat. The bumpy, imperfect Earth and its equally differentiated cultural topographies become literally flattened into this objective-seeming tool. Such genre of all-knowing map is what I call the instrumentalized map.

Every day we interact with instrumentalized maps, and every day they interact back at us. With each route we map on our phones and each parcel delivered to our doorsteps, companies track and aggregate our whereabouts. What seems a simple matter of convenience means big profit for the googles and amazons of the world.

Nevertheless, there is no such thing as a good or bad map. Maps provide nuanced, often contradictory, uses. Today, the instrumentalized map sheds light on land claims, improves emergency management, and aids in environmental remediation. It is also a key tool in war, surveillance, labour exploitation, and land dispossession.

The booming Remote Sensing industry, for example, instrumentalizes maps to resolve geospatial problems related to extractive resource access (ie. mining and infrastructure), trade (ie. profit and exploitation) and security (ie. war and surveillance). Remote Sensing also instrumentalizes similar maps to improve quality of life — the effects of which generally benefit certain classes. A quick scan of the MapScaping Podcast evidences modern cartography’s ambivalent, albeit autocratic, uses.[i]

Beyond the good or bad maps can do, what really interests me is the way ubiquitous tools like the Mercator Projection and Google Maps envision a single world where every square inch is mappable, and thus knowable, and thus at risk of disappearing. What seems like a matter of convenience and wayfinding in our everyday lives also flattens the mystery and complexity of our planet and the many overlapping worlds that exist here. If in maps good and bad always coincide, I wonder how and if we should map at all.

This ethical issue is deeply embedded in the very practice of mapping. From it emerges a thorny politics of representation: Who does this place belong to?; Who did it belong to?; Who is the mapper and who is the mapped?; What are the implications of being mapped, and how do these implications differ?

This politics of representation has haunted me over the years as I’ve developed and facilitated Community Power Mapping workshops. These workshops ask participants to map places where community power may be cultivated for social change. In my experience, even calls to include queer, working class, social movement, BIPOC, or otherwise under-represented places onto maps bristle with pointed problematics.

Perhaps the social movement organizing space I want to map relies on a level of secrecy as a form of protection against policing. Perhaps mapping my favourite queer hangout will attract uninvited cultural tourists and lead to the demise of yet another queer safe space. Perhaps the Indigenous point of resistance you want to map is cultural knowledge sacred to a particular group.

Détourning the Map

At the crossroad between my desire to map and an impossible politics of representation, I return to Guy Debord and the Situationist International. I am inspired by how they used aimless walks (dérives) and targeted satire to disrupt the “society of the spectacle” through a process they called détournement. Translated as “rerouting,” the Situationists defined détournement as “a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of [the old cultural] spheres.”[ii]

Thankfully, the world is rich with examples of detournement, especially in the arts. The billboard-style art of Barbara Kruger[iii] and Sara Rahbar’s Flags[iv] series come to mind immediately. These artists apply détournement to recontextualize an over-normalized symbol with its counter-point — Krueger between US capitalism and bodily autonomy, and Rahbar between US exceptionalism and its xenophobic wars. Their works create a generative cognitive dissonance in the viewer, begging them to reinterpret both the signifier and the signified. 

Might counter-mapping similarly détourn the instrumentalized map, creating a generative cognitive dissonance from which point news kinds of maps emerge?

For instance, Queering The Map (QTM) — created by designer Lucas LaRochelle and populated by queers around the world — is a pink-toned Mercator base-map with interactive web features. It invites users to add queer stories anywhere on the map through a submissions process moderated by volunteers.[v] The result is a map which archives overlapping queer worlds in multiple languages and at many scales.

Lucas’ follow-up project,, uses the more-than-geospatial QTM archive to leave the map behind (for now). “is an artificial intelligence, trained on the textual and visual data of the community mapping platform Queering The Map, that generates speculative queer and trans futures and the environments in which they occur.”[vi] The result: a “hivemind” of mesmerizing photo-texts that disorient viewers away from any logical sense of space or time. leaves us confused, yearning, and with a ripe sense of possibility — a poetics of place.

Alongside, I often dream about leaving the space of the map behind. In these dreams, we find ourselves lost among many worlds, unfolding ourselves through the cracks between them, and into novel arrangements made up of multiple speculative encounters. Through an ongoing experimental process, we err upon more open-ended, fluid, and unsettling technologies-of-place. Working with tools without stable means nor ends might help us make sense of the equally disorienting layers of experience in which we live. With, we might dream together ways to decompose, disassociate, or even détourne the instrumentalized map — turning its sheer power against itself.

If my dreams sound overly idealistic, it’s because they are. In the instrumentalized map’s world, only what it deems true is mapped and only what it maps is deemed true. What becomes false are the many unmappable spaces — temporal, fluid, and underground — infinitely more numerable than the mappable. The uses of the instrumentalized map (for security and extraction) falsify futures (Indigenous, Black, queer, feminist, etc.) akin to my dreams. As Guy Debord wrote in Society of the Spectacle, “In a genuinely inverted world, the true is a moment of the false.”[vii]

Unsurprisingly, I’ve taken to a style of counter-mapping akin to détournement, rather than a more traditional style of counter-mapping still based on representation. Artists and creative mappers are wise to reroute, invert, and disorient the instrumentalized map — not necessarily to make maps more useful or representative of particular communities, but to highlight the ethical nuance and paradox that the very act of mapping entails. In so doing, more ethical uses may arise.

Counter-Mapping as Site-Writing

Integrating creative practices into the mapping process may help us create such maps. Poetry, for example, is an open-ended practice that relies on abstraction, ambiguity, and opacity to convey deeply human messages. Poems transmit multifaceted feelings and curiosities more than discrete pieces of information.

Likewise, a poetics of place offers a more true (in Debord’s sense of the word) reflection of our subjective, human and more-than-human experience of the world — more assembled through moments and feelings than cemented in logic and reason. I wonder what happens when we reroute the map through a poetics of place?

Geographer Jane Rendell’s “site-writing” practice is one way to channel a poetics of place in the counter-mapping process.[viii]The premise of site-writing is that there is a difference between writing about a place and writing a place. When we forgo the act of describing a site, and instead listen and think with a site, we make evident mapping’s inherently interpretive process that the instrumentalized map hides. By honouring a place’s many possible meanings, mapping as site-writing both respect each place’s autonomy while opening infinite worlds of possibility.

In Jane Rendell’s words, let’s “write sites rather than write ‘about’ sites . . . as a critique of, reaction to, insertion in, or interpretation of the site.”[ix] When we map, let’s err away from writing place descriptions, and move toward writing places themselves. Let’s lean into the act of mapping as the creative process it is.

In addition to creative writing, I invite the idea of (counter-)photography as counter-mapping. Photography — as another kind of site-writing wherein the image serves as text — introduces new sense-information for viewers to interpret. In a way, photography mirrors mapping, wherein the photographic and cartographic gazes are both instrumentalized to perpetuate the myth of a singular truth by and for hegemonic power. Photography in the poetic spirit of site-writing, however, is another chance to détourne flat power against itself.

My hope is that by applying practices like détournement and site-writing to the mapping process, we may create counter-maps that reflect the deep power of life and its mystery. The counter-maps I propose take shape — like poetics — through feeling, curiosity, and wonder. May the counter-map move us past the instrumentalized map and find ourselves back on the molten, moving, messy terrain of the world. Perhaps with our feet on the ground, different kinds of maps will (re)emerge.

A Counter-Mapping Recipe

●     Move around your environment until you find a place, object, or happening that interests you.

●     Photograph the site: You’re encouraged to take photos from different points of view, at various distances, and edit the photos are you please. Take as many as you want, and you can choose which photo(s) to use on the map later. Try to remember which photo corresponds to each site.

●     Using a mapping app, add the site’s location to your list and name the site.

●     Write the site as a poem: A poem can be anything, but try to go beyond simply describing or writing about the site.

●     Repeat this process as many times as you wish.

●     Map-a-thon: Using an online mapping platform, such as MyMaps, add your sites with written and photographic material. Note what each site relates to, and what it might represent.

Authors featured in this collection followed the above guide during Darian Razdar’s counter-mapping workshop (Toronto, July 2022). Material in this collection is selected from sites participants mapped during the workshop. Others are welcome to re-use these as a guide for their own purposes, citing Darian Razdar where necessary, and encouraged to share their experiences with the author.

[i] “The Mapscaping Podcast.” Retreived 20 October, 2022.

[ii] "Definitions.” Situationist International (1). June 1958. Retrieved 20 October, 2022.

[iii] Mark Sanders, “From the Archive: Being Barbara Kruger.” AnOther Magazine (2004). Retrieved 20 October, 2022.

[iv] Sara Rahbar, Flags (2006-). Retrieved 20 October, 2022.

[v] Lucas LaRochelle, “Queering The Map.” Retrieved 20 October, 2022. 

[vi] Lucas LaRochelle, “QT.BOT.” Retrieved 20 October, 2022.

[vii] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red (1983), page 4.

[viii] Jane Rendell et al., “Site-Writing.” In Engaged Urbanism, edited by Ben Campkin and Ger Duijzings. London: I.B. Tauris (2016), pages 35-44. 

[ix] Jane Rendell, Site-Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism. London: I.B. Tauris (2006). Also: (Retrieved 27 October, 2022).