Communal Cartographies: Examining “Notes for a People’s Atlas of Chicago”

By Helena Shaskevich.

Published by The Arts Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Still ongoing, The People’s Atlas is a collaborative project that seeks to create a collective and open-ended map of the City of Chicago. Residents are asked to download a blank outline of the political borders of Chicago, fill in that space with their own conceptions of the city, and then mail in their work, which is then uploaded. Subverting prescriptive understandings and representations of the city, The People’s Atlas reconfigures spatial representation as always already fragmented and thus maintains an inherent critique of “official cartographies”. I argue, however, that the political effectivity of the project lies not with its critique of official cartographies, but rather with the possibilities the project creates for the formation of new subjectivities and communities. In her seminal text, One Place After Another, art historian Miwon Kwon challenges “the common notion of the community as a coherent and unified social formation”, proposing instead the “idea of community as a necessarily unstable and ‘inoperative’ specter”. Taking Kwon’s arguments into account, I contend that The People’s Atlas both recognizes and propagates the unstable and fragmentary nature of both site and community. In transferring the production of the map to community members and “non-experts”, the project creates a more democratic and collaborative production of space and knowledge. It undermines the categorical boundaries between artist and audience, inciting a continual slippage between the two. Moreover, A People’s Atlas allows for the inclusion of minor subjectivities in political representation, in turn, creating the space for the formation of new communities. It is most effective not as a means of critiquing and subverting official cartographies, but rather as a cartography of subjectivity, a collective enunciation of differences.

Keywords: Cartography, Collaboration, Community, Miwon Kwon, AREA Chicago, Notes for a People’s Atlas, Iris Marion Young, Jean-luc Nancy

International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 6, Issue 4, pp.59-76. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.522MB).

Helena Shaskevich

Graduate Student, Art History Department, Stony Brook University, Glendale, New York, USA


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