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Topological Atlas: Mapping Contemporary Borderscapes

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - TopATLAS (Topological Atlas: Mapping Contemporary Borderscapes)

Reporting period: 2019-12-01 to 2020-11-30

Topological Atlas develops an approach to the visual analysis of geopolitical borders as mobile and mutable entities through the experience of those who encounter them, focusing particularly on undocumented migrants and border communities. Increasing inequalities, conflict and climate change have resulted in an unprecedented movement of people who face the militarised and outsourced borders of the so-called developed world. Our research addresses a series of border sites along a migration route from Pakistan towards Europe and investigates the relationships between technologies of border security, systems of documentation, border landscapes and the experience of crossing borders without papers. The project acknowledges contemporary migration as a system of circulation where deportation regimes, precarious lives and militarised borders keep people moving.

We combine ethnographic and participatory research with digital methods of mapping and modelling in order to challenge the evidentiary urge in social research by exploring ideas around affective witnessing, incalculability and opacity in relation to the circulations and unsettlements of migration. We are also thinking through the material, affective and atmospheric qualities of border areas in order to make room for the faint web of sedimenting relationalities that endure in place and often support the fragile movements of the undocumented. We attempt to think the atlas otherwise beyond the now well trodden ground of critiquing cartographic projections and their complicity in colonisation. Instead, we explore the relationship between neocolonial practices and cartography through considering the role of resolution in machinic vision and the deeply embedded idea of the impermeability of the earth’s surface in relation to maps
Since the beginning of the project our research has been focused on developing an understanding of contemporary borders as topological entities that are produced through the entanglements of terrain, technology and subjectivity. We are working with the concept of ‘horizonless worlds’ as a way to think through the use of computational technologies in border management and their intersection with visual regimes of mapping and modelling. This has been substantiated through field research that has often been located in contested zones and border areas subject to occupation, surveillance and colonial extraction. One of the ethical questions we have addressed is how to work within such conditions, recognising the implications of violence, but resisting the urge to think violence as the sole (spatial) analytic.

The bulk of field research to date has been focused on Pakistan with the emergence of four sites: Karachi in Sindh; Gwadar, Quetta and Mand in Balochistan. We have conducted interviews with migrants, local actors and border officials in these areas as well as organising mapping workshops with local communities and activists in order to understand the spatial dynamics of border areas. We have also analysed a large number of legal cases pertaining to migration in Karachi and Quetta to gain an understanding of how the law operates at an everyday level in relation to border security and migration. Finally, we are producing a series of maps through our fieldwork and analysis that will feed into an in-progress mapping platform, working with the idea of patchy representations and the use of narrative as a form of navigation.
One of the main contributions of the Topological Atlas project is the development of novel methodologies that foreground the use of visual methods in spatial research in areas of conflict and contestation. The project combines ethnographic and participatory research with digital methods of mapping and modelling. Usually such work takes one of two approaches: producing data visualisations using quantitative data from surveys; or visual storytelling techniques for ethnographic material that uses a map as a base to navigate. Our approach is different, we use the production of maps and models as a form of spatial analysis capable of producing new and generative insights into social phenomenon. While we use hand drawing techniques as props for participant interviews, we also use digital maps to analyse oral interviews. Combining such maps with a visual representation of legal jurisdictions across border zones produces maps that are novel and can be analysed in multiple ways. Combining a geographical or topographical view with relational or topological connections in order to produce spatial analyses is an unconventional methodology that we are finding to be very productive.