Mapping Identity: reversing cultural representation
A subjective mapping venture portraying three cities by using landmarks belonging to their respective colonies and creating smaller systems of identity representation in post-colonial contexts.
It is the outcome of my MA thesis entitled: Identity representation: self-Orientalism and hyper-nationalism in Arab* design, and serves as a questioning discourse for visual communicators and their role in identity representation within graphic design.
Can designers rise to redefine, deconstruct and contextualize an authentic identity without obliterating the collective truth of the subject-matter?
*: a fictional construct
Process & Results
Creating a ‘reversed gaze’ started through several experiments in subverting symbols of national identities belonging to the main past empires of the world by altering money, flags, stamps as well as symbolic visuals and everyday objects. The exercise depicted political nuances but risked falling into the quick-consumption nature of today’s online propaganda. In parallel, a teaser video was created by collecting main works from art, design and pop-culture conveying problematic Orientalist and Self-Orientalist depictions along with an annex documenting the visual essay.
A deeper research into functional visual queues used in urban contexts lead the project into subverting city maps and recreating them through different criteria; new cities were formed by visualizing small units inside the main cities and giving them an independent existence within new borders.
The project’s objective is to stir a debate on design and identity representation: how are designers contributing to the political discourse of power, hegemony and appropriation through their attempts to represent a culture, a city or a certain cause? What criteria should we set to position our work in the proper context while avoiding alteration or dismissal?
The mapping process was facilitated by Google maps, which became our everyday companion in navigation and wayfinding. Maps provided by Google do not convey accurate realities but rather ones rooted in our digital perception of the world and the services we interact with and benefit from, landmarks thus become highly biased, made by both laymen and professional online marketers.
Less accurate but more accessible, the landmarks were found through several attempts at collecting as much data as possible, in different languages and language-combinations. Using Google's technology helped produce a video edit complementing the work; different landmarks were virtually 'visited' through Google Street view and a compilation was created as a sort of digital intervention highlighting the new borders formed by the project.
Design literature has neglected to develop a detailed understanding of how individuals make design attributions, and why individual differences play such an important role in the changing dynamics of representation and cognitive formation of design attributions. In his article ‘Rethinking Image, Identity and Design’ published by Icograda, Sebastian Guerrini posits that “… since there is no identity without material references, the national idea or the idea of the nation setting will be comprised of both, the natural and cultural aspects of each country in only one representation (...), which will reflect some elements of contact between them. In other words, that representation might well be seen as part of the resources that make the social bond linking all the members of any nation at a certain moment in history, become visible” (Guerrini, u.d.). Is a fully didactic visual pursuit of self-representation even possible or is it always eschewed and fragmented? I believe it is a blend of both. If collective identity is accepted as intermingled discourses belonging to each of us, and if individual identity is taken as a set of identifying markers, we are likely to find that the discourses people identify with, are the ones that structure their identities in general terms, and their national identity in particular. Consequently, we can’t escape the fact that we are affected by this collective identity, which in turn affects the parameters of the individual identity presently as well as the matrix where the new generations will develop.
This demonstrates that design, suspect of alteration, is not comp- letely guilty. Visual makers might in many cases be a victim of media bias and market dynamics strengthening the stereotypical polarity between East and West. Therefore, it becomes evident that identity is a designed construct falling on a grayscale of accuracy; while there are no completely accurate instructions for how to represent a culture through the lens of design, one must admit that ‘grayness’ is not a valid excuse for misrepresentation, at times when visual communication can play a pivotal role in changing perceptions of race, space and reshape the world’s understanding of the self and the other. Should we define the nation as a whole, or as a set of fragments and relations? Guerrini talks of opportunity and I agree. We are, at present, facing the possibility of using the power of images, design and words to reflect concepts, ideas and communicate who we are or who the ‘other’ is through them. Can representation of any kind be fully neutral or truthful? While neutrality might be a lofty goal, truthfulness can certainly be a premise from which we interpret, but truth in that context is not always devoid of emotion. It is colored by the way we think and perceive the world around us. While meaning and sense can be set as objectives by diversifying or modifying myths, prejudices and the information about a nation and its people, it will invariably be affected by personal experience or thought synapses that will rear their own expression in what we appose on screen or paper. Positive self-awareness has to be fostered on the part of the designers who can then gain an important leverage: By being aware of how we interpret, we can consciously retrace our steps and possibly influence our visual outcomes to embrace collective reflection regarding what binds people together, who they are and how to translate them visually into a more contextualized representation. I do believe it is the age of possibilities and exchange, however, no designer should rob communities out of their own experiences, their collective memory and years of resistance, under the premise of aesthetics, fashion and absurd experimentation.
Designers should rethink the colonial angle from which they perceive distant communities, while the importance remains for the local to resist, correct, customize, collaborate, preserve and sustain itself, away from parachuted creatives and funded exotic gazing. In fact, they need to go beyond rethinking and into an investigative stance, one detached from preconceptions and open to learning and reinterpreting. Backed by a strong sense of self-awareness and fallibility, designers can and should be open to self and reflective critique to elevate their work, push the boundaries and join a universal discourse that could certainly use more divergent thinking.