Mapping Invisibility

In the design research workshop Mapping Invisibility, undocumented immigrants and other participants undertook collective mapping in Amsterdam. The aim was to investigate the day to day practices of undocumented immigrants and to look for ways to make parts of those practices visible and perceptible for others – precisely because much of the life of the undocumented is about invisibility. In the workshop (at least) two cartographers – an undocumented immigrant (guide) and a participant (guest) – walked the city together. The walk was tracked via a web application on a mobile phone with GPS and visualised in real time on a digital map that could be viewed by others on a website. The undocumented immigrant guided the participant to places which represented a certain emotion or feeling for them. On the map, as it evolved, particular places would light up, representing the feeling associated with them. Along the way, the conversation between guide and guest was recorded, and these audio recordings stored in a location-based archive that makes ‘unheard’ stories available to ‘the public’. At the departure point of the original walk, using a mobile phone as a navigational device, at any time, invisible storylines can be downloaded as mp3s. The story remains audible as long as the listener stays on the same route.

According to estimates, there are currently 15.000 undocumented residing in Amsterdam. Out of State was a programme – that took place at Frascati theatre in Amsterdam from 19th – 23rd of January 2015 – about the practical consequences of an inconsistent policy regarding ‘illegal’ immigrants in the Netherlands. On the 20th of January 2015 Platform Scenography together with Design politie hosted an evening where they invited a number of artists, designers and journalists to present their works. The presented works had one thing in common; they all sought to trigger a debate about the current policy regarding people without the right papers. I presented Mapping Invisibility; a workshop that I performed a week earlier. In the workshop, I wanted to explore a what-if scenario in which participants could move through/ view the public spaces of Amsterdam from the perspective of being stateless.

The workshop was set up as follows: Designers and undocumented citizens were coupled to walk the city together equipped with a tracking device to follow their route on a map. The idea was to “visualise” undocumented citizens’ hiding strategies in the public spaces of Amsterdam. A week prior to the fieldwork, the participants – citizens of Amsterdam that were interested to join the workshop – were asked to send a list of emotions that they imagine ‘illegal immigrants’ to feel while walking in the city. Each participant sent his/her words, after which the most chosen ones were selected to become the map’s legend. On the day of the workshop, small groups were formed in which undocumented were coupled with participants. The undocumented citizens (experts in living invisibly in the city) guided the participants of their group to places in the city with the emotions in mind. A total of four emotions were mapped and one hour was planted for each emotion. Changing from one emotion to another happened at a fixed time and for all cartographers simultaneously, with which the city became mapped collectively and simultaneously.

In the dialogue with the undocumented, the participants could evaluate preconceived ideas about the emotions (to what extent the chosen words matched reality or not); the probing of the legend in the mapmaking. The guests were introduced to strategies of hiding in the public spaces of Amsterdam with which they were able to discover the diverse meaning that public places have for the undocumented. The participants discovered the places and strategies to hide (the library, pretending to be waiting for a train, etc), the places/ routes to avoid (routes where camera’s are installed), places or things that bring up certain memories (such as a club or the Atlas figure behind Dam square) and places or things that trigger certain emotions (traffic lights, the market, a building).

A web app traced the cartographers footsteps while recording the dialogue. The longer the cartographers stayed on a certain location the thicker the line on the digital map would become, this way communicating the importance of a place in correspondence with an emotion. If a certain strong emotion was triggered, a picture was taken of the ‘thing’ that triggered the emotion. The fieldwork, this way, resulted in three outcomes: A topographic map of the emotional landscape of the city, highlighting places where emotions accumulate/ intensify, an archive of photos that gives insight in the triggers of certain emotions, and an audio-map that can be retracted by people who want to align with an illegal immigrant and follow his/her story.

While the mapping took place in the city, the map was shown in real-time at Frascati theatre as a conversation piece for the people who were present at the theatre. The growing map of emotions visualised the diverse (individuals) way of responding to a similar emotion (one might prefer to be stationed somewhere when it comes to a certain feeling, while another person might prefer to keep walking). The photos that were uploaded in realtime gave insight into the ‘things’ that trigger certain emotions. For instance, a land surveyor’s tool was linked to the emotion of powerless. An undocumented felt that way upon seeing the piece of equipment on the street. The gauging rod reminded the man of his desire to work and the fact that it was unmanned made the feeling even stronger. Crossing streets, on the other hand, was more of a collective trigger of the feeling of stress. Different groups uploaded photos of traffic lights simultaneously while the emotion ‘stress’ was mapped. It was explained to me afterward that it had to do with a fear of being caught if, crossing the road, the traffic lights suddenly turn red.

During the fieldwork, the dialogue with the undocumented was recorded. These invisible story-lines can be picked up at any time by people who are interested in listening to this story. For this, the person needs to go to the website (on his/her mobile phone) and download the mp3. Only by being physically present on the exact same location and following the exact same track, can the story unfold. If the person deviates from the track the audio fades out. This way of aligning with the undocumented to reveal the story behind places or objects in the city plays with a tension of hiding and making public, a daily recurrent theme for the undocumented.

This mapping set in motion an understanding of the variety of emotions that can be felt in public places in the city and how public exposure can be experienced in diverse ways (depending on someones legal status).

More about this research and the results can be viewed via this link:
and this publication:
Photos: anonymous cartographers

A similar mapping was also performed with undocumented women:

First launched in January 2015
Software developer of Mapping Invisibility app: Iván Fuciños Calle