‘Thinking the Volume’ podcast with Stuart Elden

A re-blog of an interview with Stuart Elden over at Archipelago in which he tackles some of his recent work on volumetric territory. Some important discussions of the area/volume relationship including the issues inherent in ‘flat’ discussions. He draws on Eyal Weizman‘s much-lauded and highly-recommended Hollow Land in order to talk about the architectures and infrastructures of volumetric control with reference not only to Israel/Palestine,  but also to urban exploration and subterranean politics.

Elden’s recent work is of much use for critical cartographers. There’s an underlying assumption that maps cannot do justice to volume. Instead, they only have capacity to cope with area. I don’t necessarily disagree with this. In fact, I think critical cartography has been incredibly poor at picking up on the area/volume debate. Flat maps of, say, Hong Kong just don’t work. See the Cities Without Ground book that I’ve talked about before. Indeed, talking simply about maps of areas fails to take into account the labyrinthine and vertical nature of many urban environments. Although maps attempt to render height through contouring and shading – which obviously requires a degree of knowledge about how these work – they are restricted to still-grounded geological phenomena such as hills and mountains. Bridges, buildings and other ‘human’-made architectures are left flat.

Further, maps deal even more hopelessly with atmospheric or tactical flows, currents or trajectories although this does not preclude their involvement in affecting response to them. Real-time wind maps, for example, are more analytically rather than practically useful visualizations. They do not allow us to experience the swirling effects wind has on the body, but they do condition our bodily and spatial responses to them. I.e. in whether we decide to travel or not.

Digital protest mapping platforms also do not cope well with volume. Sukey, the platform deployed during the anti-cuts demonstrations in the UK, was very good at displaying road blocks and other grounded phenomena but did or was not able to visualize the contingency of verticality. Say, in how, protesters could maintain contact across these boundaries with projectiles, speech or vision. Barriers thus not only prevent areal movement but also volumetric action preventing individuals from simply seeing other possibly enclosed protesters, talking to fellow protestors, or in a more material sense launching items (water bombs, paint, sticks, bricks, stones etc.).

In fact, confirmation that the London Met will be able to purchase three water cannon should only outline this volumetric dynamic as protestors are possibly attacked from above. New tactics will undoubtedly be deployed by both protestors and police in order to account for this change. The use of helicopter support is already common in the capital as a strategic, visual aid to the police. But again, these are dynamics difficult to capture on (digital) mapping platforms.

The questions for critical cartographers thus must be: how do maps render volume and do they generate or modulate actions towards volumetric phenomena? Elden’s recent work is a must-read, then.


Jonathan Olley from Castles of Ulster. Forkhill Security force base Forkhill, South Armagh, Northern Ireland, UK.
Jonathan Olley from Castles of Ulster. Forkhill Security force base Forkhill, South Armagh, Northern Ireland, UK.

Two videos have made their way into the BBC’s most watched list today both on boundary walls. The first sees Frank Gardner head to Saudi Arabia where they’re in the process of sealing the ‘troubled’ border with Yemen across a 1,000 mile stretch. The second marks 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement with a discussion of the ‘Peace Walls’ that divide Northern Ireland along religious lines.

Each time I return to thinking about politics, territory and space I think of Jonathan Olley’s majestic Castles of Ulster photography project. The photo above is from this very series (a short review in the Guardian from 2007 is here). I saw a selection of them at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester and was blown away by their composition. They really do capture everything that is haunting about military occupation, boundary-making and the sheer architectural brutality of territorial dispute.

A corrected in-press version of a Political Geography paper on ‘Interventions in the political geography of walls’ (subs. only) by Karen Till and a selection of other authors is a handy guide to reading all the above together.