(Re)writing Rivers

Ruth Beer 

Project Description

(Re)writing Rivers is a counter-mapping of the geography (of Northern British Columbia, some of Alaska, and some of Alberta), as it is revealed in the river systems. It forefronts specific names and histories that are not visible on a traditional map.

Layers of information show the paths of the rivers, and names of the people and animals who have lived in them and beside them. The lines of the rivers are representations drawn from cartographic information. The names of the rivers are also taken from cartographic data that has been collected, processed and then re-written across the surface of the land. The names are grouped by colour, referring to European explorers and settlers (brown), aboriginal histories (red), nature (black), and human experiences with the land (turquoise).

The movement of the river names across the map surface suggests the flow of the rivers, and the ways in which these words are imposed on these particular places. The dynamic text also reflects how the geography is unfixed and open to change.

The intention of this artwork aligns with counter-mapping, as an effort to “map against dominant power structures” (see the Wikipedia definition of counter-mapping) as well as what Lize Mogel describes as “Counter Cartography”, a practice that uses maps and mapping to challenge the mainstream narrative of a site or history, from a political or activist perspective.

By linking image, text and movement, this artwork is an aesthetic representation that re-maps and reconsiders the abstraction of virtual scientific data that objectively describes the paths of the rivers and intertwines these routes with the names of people and nature that interacted spatially and materially with the rivers’ specificity on a physical situational level.

How (Re)writing Rivers works

Unlike a traditional map, the image is built up of layers of information, derived in real time from cartographic data, which allows us to draw an image that is flexible and dynamic, even interactive.

The image itself is created using D3, a javascript library useful for creating dynamic and interactive content from data, to be displayed on webpages. D3 is an open source project, by creator Mike Bostock, and sponsored by his employer, the New York Times. It was designed to create data visualizations for the news, including interactive maps.

Examples of D3 projects: https://github.com/mbostock/d3/wiki/Gallery

About the Data

(Re)writing Rivers is generated using public domain map data provided by Natural Earth. The data is at 1:10 million scale, in a vector format called a shapefile, which is stored as points, lines and polygons plus extra properties such as river names and river ranks.

Natural Earth is a public domain dataset built by volunteers and supported by the North American Cartographic Information Society. The data comes from various sources and is combined into high quality datasets in standard formats. The river dataset that is used in this project is derived from World Data Bank (from the World Bank) as well as the North American Environmental Atlas, a collaboration of government agencies in Canada, Mexico and the United States and the trilateral Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC).

Natural Earth: http://www.naturalearthdata.com/