Map Critique: Spreading Deep Mapping Very Thin

I have chosen LaToya Ruby Frazier’s short film LaToya Ruby Frazier Takes on Levi’s for my map critique. Although I would like to describe the film as a mapping process rather than a map itself.  The film is mapping process of Braddock Pennsylvania, Frazier’s hometown. Frazier describes her project as an “archive of the economic and environmental decline of her hometown”. This process is in response to a Levi campaign claiming Braddock as “the new frontier”, an underdog story of a city that bounced back when the Steel industry deserted the town. Frazier has a story to tell of disenfranchisement and exploitation. At the time this video was created, if a non Braddock resident were to look at a more traditional representational map of Braddock they would see a town with an old manufacturing district that has been reformed, in its place a hub for the hospital industry. Frazier contests this claim: she says on the ground it is not “revitalized”; the people are suffering from the injuries and diseases as a result of the intensive industrial labour that dominated Braddock in the era of Steel.

Les Roberts writes: “very little of what deep mappers are doing is in fact oriented towards the production of maps so much as immersing themselves in the warp and weft of a lived and fundamentally intersubjective spatiality.” This quote is my primary argument illustrating why LaToya Ruby Frazier Takes on Levi’s could be considered a mapping process. Frazier seeks to illustrate the hidden relationships between the people and the town of of Braddock in a dynamic and visual manner.

In terms of the form of the mapping process, it is focused on expressing the sounds, sights and emotion of the labour endured by the citizens of Braddock. Frazier’s use of the material object of Levi’s jeans as bridge between the narrative she knows and the narrative Levi’s has created is both complex yet easily understandable to viewers. Her own emotion is always present in the frame, declaring her narrative subjective and powerful. She unpacks Braddock’s layers of history, while expressing the ways in which objects change when they are ripped away from their spatial origins. In New York City Levi’s are fashionable, in Braddock they have historically served as a uniform for the hard labour of steel work. Frazier has done an excellent job of setting a “base map” by starting the video with her own story of growing up, in tandem with the photography she took when she was younger. 

Les Roberts discusses the possibility of ‘spreading the art of mapping too thin’ with the expansion of the term deep mapping; LaToya Ruby Frazier Takes on Levi’s could be considered an example of this. I have chosen a map that is a bit of a strech as a response in support of Frazier, as a response to companies like Levi’s who often rewrite or remap history without the “cartographic hoops” that Roberts speaks of. I argue that Frazier is purposely challenging the mapping process, “spreading the art of mapping thin” in order to respond to the large companies like Levi’s that often co-opt the culture and stories of marginalized communities and form them into something else. Frazier is declaring her narrative to be just as important as the one formed from the outside.  

Inspired by Frazier’s work I have created a video mapping process for myself. Last week I returned home for a short amount of time and during my journey I drove from Cleveland, Ohio to Athens, Ohio. Coincidentally, my atlas is focused on these two sites and the people who journey between them. Just as Frazier focused on creating a visual experience of labour and trauma in Braddock. I choose to create a map that is focused on the experience of travel between these two places. My map is set up as if the person is in the car with me, looking out the right and left side of the passenger windows. I chose this set up as an alternative method of expressing travel, hoping to illuminate the spaces between the destinations.


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