Podcast Episode 2: Walking as Counter-Mapping

WalkingLab’s podcast series on walking research-creation aims to distill WalkingLab publications and content into audio form. In this podcast, you’ll learn about counter-mapping, walking and decolonisation, and the geographies of race.


Welcome to WalkingLab’s podcast series on walking research-creation. This series aims to distil WalkingLab publications and content into audio form. In this podcast, you’ll learn about counter-mapping, walking and decolonisation, and the geographies of race. WalkingLab is co-directed by Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman. You can find print publications of these podcasts at walkinglab.org. While not necessary the podcasts are designed to be listened to while going for a walk. For this podcast you might consider walking in an urban area.

I’m Rebecca Conroy, artist and researcher and I will be your host today. 

WalkingLab organizes international walking events, conducts research with diverse publics including youth in schools, and collaborates with artists and scholars to realize site-specific walking research-creation events. WalkingLab acknowledges the traditional and unceded territories on which our work takes place. WalkingLab is accountable to Dylan Robinson’s insistence that land acknowledgements often operate from a politics of recognition and perpetuate settler colonial logics rather than disrupt them. As will be introduced through the podcast series WalkingLab asks walkers to consider where they are coming from in relation to Indigenous peoples and territories where they live and work, and to consider why a land acknowledgement is important to them.

Mapping has been used by imperial and colonial powers to exploit natural resources, to claim land, and to legitimize geographical borders. Maps produce a sense of certainty and entitlement to land, as well as a sense of the land as stable. Cree scholar Dallas Hunt writing with Shaun Stevenson argues that mapping reaffirms dominant, nation state and settler-colonial conceptualizations of Canada’s geography. Settler-colonialism is an ongoing process of occupation that results in the forced removal and disappearance of Indigenous peoples from traditional territories. In this way, Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Woods assert that mapping and normalized geographic understandings continue the erasure and segregation of racialized subjects. The racialization of space, they argue, is often theorized as essentialized or detached from actual geographic places. 

Alternatively, counter-mapping, is an approach that works against dominant power structures. It questions the assumptions produced by conventional maps, and recognizes different knowledge systems. Counter-mapping re-maps the landscape to account for: exclusions and omissions, lived experiences, regionalisms, and local knowledges.

The focus of this podcast are two counter-mapping WalkingLab projects that conceptualize space as regional and relational. These projects were commissioned by WalkingLab and photo documentation of these walking projects can be found on the WalkingLab website: walkinglab.org. To the Landless by Métis artist Dylan Miner and the Red Line Archive and Labyrinth, by Walis Johnson disrupt dominant narratives of place and futurity, re-mapping Land. Throughout this podcast series we will use the concept Land, with an upper-case L, as articulated by the Canadian Indigenous scholar Sandra Styres. Land in this sense is not mere earth, but acknowledges an Indigenous framework that embraces earth, air, water, humans, and non-humans as vital, pedagogical and relational. Land, with the upper-case L, encompasses all living and non-living matter. 

Geopolitical borders are social and physical constructions. They police and protect labour, and materialize understandings of purity and safety. Heightened concerns about migration have fuelled the fortification of geopolitical borders as racialized sites that restrict human bodies. In this way, Gloria Anzaldúa maintains that ‘borderlands’ enact emotional and physical trauma. As Eve Tuck and Marcia McKenzie note, borders and border-crossing have been used by social science researchers as a metaphor. However, a figurative use of ‘border transgression’ fails to account for the lived realities of those who die crossing actual borders each day. Moreover, the ability of some bodies to move freely across borders while others are criminalized reflects unequal power dynamics. 

Walking researchers need to similarly question the ways that border concepts get used and materialized in their work. In North America, the absence of visible borders, such as fences, allowed settlers to believe that the land was unoccupied, or terra nullius. Settlers wilfully interpreted this as though the land was free for them to claim. In this way, fences demarcate ownership and property and are part of the North American ideology of progress and capitalism. Dylan Miner describes how this demarcation impeded Indigenous ancestral movements and failed to recognize Indigenous spatial knowledges. Instead of state-sanctioned borders, Miner asks us to attend to an understanding of regionalism which is based in Indigenous understandings of Land.

To the Landless was created by Métis artist Dylan Miner. On the walk participants walked through Chinatown and Kensington Market, in Toronto, Canada, a dense multicultural neighbourhood situated on the traditional lands of the Seneca and Huron-Wendat and Mississaugas of the Credit River. Kensington is a mix of surplus stores, and ethnic food shops, alongside trendy cafes and restaurants. Chinatown is located adjacent to Kensington. 

During the walk participants read from the writings of feminist anarchists Emma Goldman, who lived between Chinatown and Kensington in 1928, and Lucia Gonzáles Parsons, from whom the title of To the Landless is borrowed. Unable to separate history from the present and future, Miner asked participants to walk-with and converse-with these two contentious and important activists and thinkers from history. 

Gonzáles Parsons and Goldman were often in conflict with each other, in part because their anarchist beliefs stemmed from different generations and different orientations to feminism. Gonzáles Parsons was born in the southern United States in 1851. As a woman of African, Mexican, and Indigenous ancestry, she employed feminist intersectional, anti-state, and anti-capitalist activism throughout her life. 

Goldman meanwhile, was born in Russia in 1869. Goldman was known for advocating for birth control and sexual freedom for women, as well as for her opposition to capitalism. Considered by the government as one of the most dangerous women in the United States, she was eventually exiled and deported in the 1920s when the US government feared persons without US citizenship. Goldman lived out most of her remaining years in Europe, but returned to Canada to give lectures frequently, and died in Toronto in 1940. Goldman is considered one of the most important figures in the anarchist movement. Property, wrote Goldman, “condemns millions of people to be mere non-entities, living corpses without originality or power of initiative, human machines of flesh and blood, who pile up mountains of wealth for others and pay for it with a grey, dull and wretched existence for themselves.” Gonzáles Parsons was similarly vocal about the perils of capitalism. She was one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World, and stated at its Founding Convention in 1905 that revolution would return the land “to the landless, the tools to the toiler; and the products to the producers.” 

Gonzales Parson’s anarchism and her radical thought was in direct opposition to the White pro-capitalists at the time. The media invoked numerous stereotypes to defame her including calling her a savage, and emphasized her hair, dark skin, and black eyes. In the press, Gonzales Parsons was often described using racist epithets and positioned as a former slave. Lauren Basson explains that such profiling was used to create a distinction between capitalist, American bodies, and foreign, anarchist bodies. In this way, borders become racialised, dividing White Americans from Black foreigners. Gonzales Parsons herself denounced any African American ancestry, holding fast to her Indigenous lineage. To be Indigenous, she often claimed, was to be American and as such anarchism was not in opposition to American values, but rather represented ‘American’ ideology (where the ‘true’ American was the Indigenous American). Anarchism, for both Parsons and Goldman, argued for freedom from man-made laws and governments imposed by violence and coercion.

As a counter-mapping walk, To the Landless re-mapped anarchism onto the contemporary Toronto landscape. Miner re-mapped place by speculatively bringing Parsons and Goldman together in Toronto, a place that Parsons never physically visited. During the walk Miner shifted arbitrary governmental borders and instead adopted a spatial logic based in relations, collective practices, and community organizing. 

To the Landless took place in the month of May 2017. This date is significant, as not only is May 1st International Workers’ Day, but also 2017 was the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation—popularly referred to as Canada 150, or Canada’s birthday. Numerous counter-events, including art projects, critiqued the celebrations. These critiques included debates about the treatment of Indigenous peoples, residential schools, missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the current social and economic crisis. To the Landless was hosted in conjunction with an exhibition called What does one do with such a clairvoyant image? at Gallery 44 and Trinity Square Video. The exhibition included a series of photo-based works by Miner, and was curated as a critical response and intervention to Canada 150.  In imagining Parsons and Goldman in conversation with each other, and in Toronto, To the Landless intervened into Canada 150’s commemoration of the violently-imposed Canadian border and nation state, and its reinforcement of the narrative of progress and capitalism.

To the Landless’s counter-mapping, in the words of Gonzales Parsons, imagined an era of labour “when capitalism will be a thing of the past, and the new industrial republic, the commonwealth of labour, shall be in operation”. The collective action of walking, reading, and talking attended to the ways that Indigenous and settler peoples need to engage in what Hunt and Stevenson describe as ‘mutual care,’ as they re-map and re-learn new geographical practices. 

The counter-mapping performed by To the Landless is similarly materialized in Walis Johnson’s The Red Line Archive and Labyrinth, which is the second of the two WalkingLab projects described in this podcast. 

The Red Line Archive and Labyrinth is an ongoing public art project that engages pedestrians in conversations about race, spatial narratives, and the history of redlining. Redlining began in New York City in 1934 to indicate the risk of real estate development in particular communities. Residents in red lined neighbourhoods were unable to access housing loans, mortgages, and other financial services. Race was the primary factor in determining where the red line was drawn. For the WalkingLab iteration of the Red Line project, Johnson created an intricate maze out of red ribbon in the grounds of the Weeksville Heritage Centre in Brooklyn, New York. Johnson invited participants to walk the red line with her.

The red line is an example of a Black geography. Katherine Mckittrick describes Black geographies, as spatial understandings of anti-Blackness and its violence: she argues that there are multiple Black geographies, including the plantation house, the fields, the prisons, the slave ships, and the slave quarters. In this way, Black geographies are not nouns, but ongoing verbs. McKittrick further argues that asking African Americans to assimilate into Euro-Western ideas of society requires Black people to join a system that thrives on anti-Blackness. Anti-Blackness is linked to urban infrastructural decay and geographic surveillance. McKittrick maintains that Black geographies are regarded as dangerous, unruly, and empty, even when they are excessively populated. Black geographies are bound up with redlining, which results in a kind of forced placelessness. Further, while research can focus on the places where Black subjects live to unsettle oppressive structures—for instance, revealing the inequalities of redlining— McKittrick contends that this continues to naturalize racial difference, but this time naturalizing it onto place rather than an individual Black subject. In this way, such research continues to reduce Black lives to statistics and facts. In order to counter-map Black geographies, McKittrick demands that we turn to artists, writers, and thinkers for whom Blackness “works against the violence that defines it.”

Johnson’s counter-mapping project re-claims spaces within the red line for the community; participants shared in relational conversations with Johnson as they walked and performed rituals with water. Like Dylan Miner’s To the Landless, The Red Line Archive and Labyrinth project critically questions North American narratives of progress and capitalism, which are upheld by racist and classist mapping processes such as redlining. Walking, for both Miner and Johnson, becomes a thinking-in-movement, a practice that counter-maps possible futures. Inviting participants into a conversation as they walk, Johnson considered how walking might create a ‘new’ geography of New York that re-imagines Black people, communities of colour, and the working class at the centre, rather than the margins of society. The concluding section of the podcast will consider the counter-mapping practices of Black Lives Matter.

The political intention to counter-mapping was encapsulated by the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Taking place in cities all over the world, these protests responded to the murders of Black people through pervasive individual and systemic racism, including George Floyd and Brionna Taylor amongst others. While marching, protestors were invited to chant the names of Floyd and Taylor. Chanting and holding signs that acknowledge people from different times and places re-mapped these individuals into cities all over the world, counter-mapping against the argument internationally that anti-black institutional violence is an ‘American problem’. Collective action, beginning with Black lives, disrupted geopolitical notions of national boundaries, and instead re-mapped the city through solidarity.

Thank you for listening to WalkingLab’s podcast series on Walking Research-Creation. You can find print publications and references on their website: walkinglab.org. Tune into podcast #3 which focuses on another commissioned walking project by Camille Turner called BlackGrange. The podcast continues to interrogate walking and geopolitics of race. Subscribe to the RRS feed so you can be notified whenever a new podcast drops!

WalkingLab is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.