Immanent Cartography

© Nick Axel


Essay and photographs by Nick Axel


In Santiago, Chile, fantastical shapes and figures in bright colors juxtapose the lifeless blank walls that populate lower-class neighborhoods, creating a radical contextuality. Each piece of art can be seen as a landmark, working on a subconscious level by either recalling memory or framing their creation. Designer Nick Axel presents a selection of photographs of contemporary street art in the capital of Chile and elaborates on the role of this art in the built environment.


According to definition, a map represents something. By abstracting, a map communicates something that was incomprehensible prior to the act. As a form of communication, a map is binary; it must be made, and only afterwards can it be read. The graphic content of street maps typically emphasize certain things while de-emphasizing others, representing a spatial hierarchy that may or not be apparent. The consequence of this differs greatly depending on who is reading the map; it’s possibly of little value to one who lives in the milieu of those streets, but for anyone unfamiliar with the context, the map frames the way we comprehend and navigate the terrain. A sociopolitical relation is therefore deeply embedded within its form.

The form of a map is not its content. By giving us the knowledge of how to get from one place to another, the street map says little to nothing about the places themselves, or the spaces in between. Even when it does, by employing pictorial techniques, the medium proves to be impotent regarding the complex amalgamation of historical narratives and sensory environments that constitute the actual experience of the city. This primacy of space fundamentally shapes its perception, determining not only what is there to see but, how and why we see what it is. We can thus transfer the ideological propensity within the act of mapping onto the city itself as a historical form.

In his Psychogeographic Guide to Paris, Guy Debord used the map as a device to communicate the city as space that is experienced. As a map traditionally shows the city as one single entity represented by the continuity of its fabric, fragmenting this form identifies the presence of singular zones of spatial identities. Debord utilized familiar pictographic techniques to reveal the disjunction embedded between representation and content, which in unity forms the epistemological foundation of maps as a productive device for the communication of spatial knowledge.

This drawing revolutionizes the function and significance of what a map is: it does not actually show you how to get from one place to another, or where or what that is. It simply represents that something is. By effectively abandoning content for representation, it communicates not information, but an idea. This poses a problem, though, in that it is merely suggestive; the phenomenological distinction of each of these zones is only implied by the figure ground composition. To someone who does not already have an intimate relationship with the streets of Paris and its map, whether these areas are indeed distinct or not is completely irrelevant.

This map evokes a questioning of the potential means to communicate the content of space. In the context of Santiago, Chile, street art engenders a map of space by establishing the presence of an immanent cartographic device. While the art is abstract, it is not totalizing in the same way that traditional maps attempt to represent the whole of space. There are many different types of maps for many different things, some of which are not spatial at all. The street art in Santiago is unique in that it subversively reveals the conditions of space by offering an alternative way to navigate the streets.

The street art in Santiago, Chile, does not communicate information that can be learned in the way one reads a book of history to obtain the knowledge it is trying to give. It does not speak of the cities’ violent fascist history or its extreme economic and social disparity, as graffiti in many other South American cities do; in Santiago, that content has effective been subsumed and integrated within the artistic process and the form of communication it takes. The surfaces that create the artists’ canvas in Santiago were also the means with which class inequality was brought into and further reified in the 20th century. Fantastical shapes and figures in bright colors juxtapose the lifeless blank walls that populate lower-class neighborhoods, and as such, create a radically contextuality.

Each piece of art can be seen as a landmark. They are not landmarks as specific meeting points or places of interest. They are not architectural nor geographic landmarks. These landmarks work on a subconscious level by either recalling memory or framing their creation. They are effectively the “contours” of the dérive, fusing perception with experience into a symbol. By having no explicit content in and of itself, we furnish it with meaning; the art surreptitiously engenders an immanent relation between the body and the built environment. We can think of this art as the device that inscribes lines onto the map we each individually make as we inhabit the city. Its presence maps the opportunity to perceive local history, its architectural embodiment, its contemporary manifestation, and its future, differently.


© Nick Axel


Nick Axel is currently keeping himself occupied in Madrid, Spain, where he continues his engagement with the discipline of architecture through a variety of mediums in order to reveal latent opportunities for spatial praxis at the limits of the contemporary city. | @alucidwake

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