The wildfire map is fairly unique in its futility. It’s attempting to pin down an incredibly dynamic phenomenon (wildfire – something employed as a metaphor for unstable, rapidly changing and moving things) as if it were a stationary feature of the landscape. By the time data is collected and processed into a passably functional image of the wildfire, it’s inevitably outdated. Despite the use of satellite and GPS technology, they’re necessarily used allowing for large margins of error. There’s something about this unreliability and futility that I find both poetic and representative of a larger discrepancy between the human desire to exert control and the landscape’s ability to evade it.

I use wildfire operations maps collected over nine seasons spent fighting wildfires in the American West to explore the interface between the embodied experience of mapping and the disembodied image reproduced in the map. Wildfire maps lend unique insight into the role of representation in the confrontation between the ubiquitously human desire to exert control over our surroundings, and uncontrollable natural forces. I’m interested in maps as both record and directive – the traces of embodied interactions with a landscape, which also dictate the form of future interactions. The information visualized on most topographic or satellite-perspective maps is unambiguous and curated, projecting specific interests, desires, and ideologies onto the depicted landscape.

According the J.B. Harvey, in Deconstructing the Map, in the “size of symbol, thickness of line, height of lettering, hatching and shading, the addition of color … we can begin to see how maps, like art, become a mechanism ‘for defining social relationships, sustaining social rules, and strengthening social values.’”[1] Where do these mechanisms we engage to communicate (and to facilitate) our experience and understanding of the landscapes we inhabit and traverse come from? Nowadays, google maps (or a similar mapping application) plays a significant role in how people navigate. The map acts as an interface between the body and the landscape, it presents an abstracted image of the landscape – in effect, an ideological construct. The first topographic maps were military, developed concurrently with the widespread implementation of colonial rule.[2] Topographic drawing facilitated the colonial project, at the same time as it reflected a characteristically Eurocentric, proprietary understanding of the landscape. Aerial-perspective cartography remains inextricably linked to this legacy of military conquest and colonialism.

Using fire maps as materials in my work is a way to engage with what I see as the fundamental paradox of filtering of the fire-affected landscape through this kind of top-down cartography. The perspective is given authority through its association with a scientific gaze – sufficiently mediated through instruments and procedures to garnish the resulting image with a sense of objectivity. As if human subjectivity is undetectable behind all that technology. Quantifying, in this context, is a way to neutralize or defuse the landscape – reducing it to something manageable, and easily containable. Yet, in the process of dissecting, weighing and measuring, not only does the burning landscape evade cartographic containment, but in so doing, creates a vague, generalized image of the landscape reminiscent of unmapped or pre-colonial, terra incognita. In my work, I am treating this ambiguity as a blank space to be repaired, extracted, or filled in with new material.

[1] J.B. Harley, p.58, citing Clifford Geertz, “Art as a Cultural System” p.99.

[2] Ann Bermingham, “Drawing the Social and Political Landscape” in Learning to Draw: Studies in the Cultural History of a Polite and Useful Art. 98-126.