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Impossible Maps

Instructor: Mimi Onuoha (
Term: Spring 2019, Olin College of Engineering
Office Hours: MHL36, Tuesdays 1-3pm (sign up here) or by emailt
Time: Wednesdays, 9:30am - 12:00pm
Assignment Wiki
Map Resources and Inspiration

Independent Study Description

Digital technologies have created new opportunities and resources for mapping, cartography, and geolocation-based visual investigation. They have also brought with them the need to consider issues concerning power, representation, and space.

In this group independent study, a small group of students will partner with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and a number of community youth organizations to create pieces that consider the intersection of art, data, and space in new ways. Students will conceive of and gather creative information and datasets about Boston with the goal of collectively creating a series of objects that take the form of maps, models and manifestations. These creative objects will be shared with and presented at the Gardner. They will ultimately serve as a form of research, visual inspiration, and raw material for the ISG Museum’s Big Plans: Picturing Social Reform exhibition and Community Engagement program.

During the independent study, students will learn the practical realities of working with spatial geographies in digital, physical, and web-based contexts. Much time will also be devoted to investigating a number of conceptual questions:

  • What makes a good digital or web map?
  • What do maps represent as visual information artifacts?
  • What happens when we consider claims to space as topics for art-based investigations? How can we subvert, reinvent, and respond to these claims?

Students will gain exposure to a broad range of techniques in web and digital mapping, with the goal that they eventually focus on one or two. Throughout the course, students will be challenged to make maps (or map-based creations) that function as artful objects and challenge common conventions of the capabilities of maps. We will primarily use JavaScript, with assignments making use of git and Github. Other technologies taught will include mapshaper, Leaflet.js, Mapbox.js, and Carto. At the conclusion of the course, students will present (individually in groups) a map or map-based object to a team of critics. If these projects are judges as being strong enough, they will then be presented to stakeholders at the Gardner, where they will be on display to museum visitors.

Expectations and Requirements

  • Course attendance and punctuality
  • Participation during group discussions and presentations
  • Weekly assignments + accompanying blogpost
  • Midterm and final project (completed individually or in groups)

This is an independent study, not a class. In the first six weeks or so, it may be difficult to tell why this has been designated an independent study, as you will be expected to complete readings, discussion, and assignments like a typical class. I would suggest you think of this more as a research group: a chance to learn some foundational material, and then pursue the research and technical topics that are most intriguing to you. Over the second half of the semester, the distinction will become clearer. You will work on one project, and you will be expected to come bearing a high degree of motivation and self-direction. You will be expected to engage with one another's work both inside and out of our group. We will elaborate on what this looks like practically the first time we meet.

In addition, a degree of flexibility will be required over the course of the semester, as we will be working alongside others and schedules may need to shift last minute. None of this should affect you outside of our meeting time, but it means that the syllabus below may shift.

This is intended to be an inclusive and harassment-free space for everyone, with no tolerations of discrimination based on gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or appearance. Please feel free to let me know privately if you have an academic accommodation. All students are allowed a maximum of one absence.

Homework should be submitted the night before before we meet. This will provide me time to look at your work, provide feedback, and structure the class in response to what you've submitted.


Final evaluation will be based on the completion of all assignments, class participation, quality of work, and attendance.


Our sessions will be different each week, though each week in the first half of the IS will be oriented around a central theme and accompanied by some exploration of a digital mapping technology or concept. All assignments and readings will be posted through the class GitHub repository.


WEEK ONE (Jan 23): Introductions
Introductions to class and to each other/semester set-up: What is a map, what is the history of mapping, what the different parts of a web map do and what they can be used for, what are impossible maps?

ASSIGNMENT: This week's assignment is about diving into readings and allowing you to assess your comfort with some of the tools we'll be using over the semester.

  • Go through this (may take a minute to load properly)
  • Read (in this order, all from readings folder):
    • On Exactitude in Science, Borges
    • excerpt from The Precession of Simulacra, Baudrillard
    • Experimental Geography, Paglen
  • In the week1 folder, find the base map or extended base map file. Use the Leaflet documentation to change the view and zoom of the map and add a popup or marker. Get the map online and post it to your blog or website (which you should create for this class).
  • In addition to the map, post at least 200 words on our thoughts about the readings, the process of creating your first web map, or anything that we talked about in class. What interests you about maps, space, and the representation of both digitally? You can write anything, but you must post to your blog and post the link to the Assignments wiki.

WEEK TWO (Jan 30): The Perils of Web Mapping
Slippy web maps, the differences between Leaflet and Mapbox and vector vs raster tiles. What is geodata, how do we create it and add it to our maps?


  • Read:

  • Beginning with one of the maps in the week2 folder, create a web map using map boxgl.js! You should include data in the form of points, circles, or markers on top of the basemap (and are welcome to include more than that). Map whatever you like: you can work from one of the existing maps (such as the earthquake map), remake your map from last week, or create your own dataset (using or any other tool.) Get the map online and update the assignment wiki with it.

    [A quick note: You've got a lot of work this week, but remember: this isn't a class, it's an independent study. You are welcome to lean into the parts that feel most interesting, useful, or challenging. If you find yourself more excited by making a web map, do this and skim the readings; if the readings draw you in more, focus on them and spend less time on the map; if you want to experiment with tiles or finding data, shift the assignment in this way. This is the beauty of independent studies!]

WEEK THREE (Feb 6): Thinking Poetically about Mapping In light of our partnership with the ISG and community groups, we consider poetic approaches to mapping and space.


  • We'll be going to the ISG Museum next week, so your assignment for this week is to familiarize yourself with the community groups who will be inspiring the work that you create:

    • Urbano Project: Urbano is a non-profit community art studio that fosters public and participatory art as a vehicle for personal transformation, community cohesion and social change.

    • Hyde Square Task Force (Jovenes en Accion): When HSTF was founded in the late 1980s, a coalition of neighbors and community leaders felt a sense of urgency to address the violence and economic and social challenges facing the Hyde/Jackson Square neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. Today the neighborhood is known as Boston’s Latin Quarter, and while in some ways the community has transformed, many challenges persist. HSTF now engages over 800 youth ages 6–25 in college and career preparation, Afro-Latin arts and cultural enrichment, and community-building initiatives.

      • Read about HSTF's neighborhood vision here.
    • Sisters Unchained: Sisters Unchained is a six-week summer program for young women of color with loved ones currently and formerly behind bars. Our goal is to build community among women whose lives have been affected by incarceration. Through art, radical education, and collective healing and visioning, we seek to create an environment where women are supported and do not feel alone.

WEEK FOUR (Feb 13): Visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
We meet our collaborators and stakeholders at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and get a tour of the space.


You can do these in any order, but I suggest seeing one as homework for this week and one as homework for next week. There's a lot of material to sift through!


  • The community groups have shared with us more of their work and their thoughts on space and mapping. Visit the links below:
    • Sisters: find here and see video in week4 folder
    • HSTF: see documents in week 4 folder
    • Urbano:'re responding through their work to questions about mapping and space, which are in bold)
    • After going through these, think about what stands out to you about each group. What are the themes they are working with? What resonates with you, and why? Are you seeing any connections with other things we've discussed or talked about? Either write out your response or make some kind of map (or map-based object) in response to one or more of the groups. Post this on your blog and the wiki.


BONUS (completely optional, we won't talk about these in class):

WEEK FIVE (Feb 27): Counter-Mapping as Practice
Exploring aerial imagery and the material experience of mapping.


  • Read Feminist Data Visualization, Catherine D'Ignazio
  • Read Mapping's Intelligent Agents by Shannon Mattern
  • Sisters Unchained posted some responses for us, read them here and see the video in week4 folder. Also note that in the Resources folder I have included information on when the different groups are free!
  • **What idea are resonating with you in the class? What are you thinking of doing for your final project? Begin posting your ideas, thoughts, or sketches, or follow up on what you posted last week. **
  • Skim this post on balloon mapping so that you're more familiar with the equipment and what you'll be doing next week:


WEEK SIX (March 6): The View from Above
Aerial data and mapping


  • Work on your counter-map of Olin, and come prepared to show us what you did next week in class. See the document in the week6 folder if ymou need more information.

WEEK NINE (March 13): Initial Project Proposals


  • Take a look at Urbano's posting here and then write up a quick post about the final project. Is there someone you are really interested in working with, a project idea that you really want to pursue, or a community group that you want to respond to? Ideally do this by Friday March 15 if you can!

OPTIONAL READINGS (aka topics that might interest some of you, read them as you like):

  • Art as a Public Issue - The articles in this issue of Open are engaged with artworks that take place in public and social spaces. Skim the titles and overviews to see if anything intrigues you.
  • "Socially Engaged Practice" - Socially engaged art might be the closest thing that the art world has to participatory design. You can read up on it in this short overview from the Tate.
  • Relational Aesthetics - Relational aesthetics refers to "art that takes as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context." In other words, art that isn't about the traditional space of the gallery, museum, and studio and takes as its subject the entirety of life as it is lived. Emerged from the 1990s, was quite contentious, and Nicolas Bourriaud (author of this reading) is the one who coined the phrase.
  • Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (excerpt) - Adjacent to many of the discussions that we've had, this reading considers space through the lens of infrastructure.

WEEK TEN (March 27): Project ideation & Research


  • Next week you'll have a chance to present your initial ideas, findings, or leanings to the rest of the group and to Rhea. This could take the form of research, prototypes, sketches, first gestures/interventions, materials, etc. This is still the ideation stage, so be gentle on yourselves, but bring enough that we can be useful in responding to you.

    • If you're lost, consider the categories that you wrote about in class this week. What form, material, audience, location, etc are you thinking? If this still feels like a stretch, just try making something! (Sometimes you can't think through problems, you have to create your way through them.)
    • Remember that Rhea will be at our class next week! We may also have a photographer.
  • NOTE: you can revisit the overview for this project here. Remember that you're creating something that is inspired by mapping + the group that you're responding to, and hopefully you will create materials that serve as inspiration to them.

WEEK ELEVEN(April 3): Rhea visit | presentation of research and initial gestures

WEEK TWELVE(April 10): Work on project | Physical prototypes

WEEK THIRTEEN(April 17): Informal overview of progress (with course mates only)

WEEK FOURTEEN(April 24): Work on projects | Refinement

WEEK TWELVE (May 1): Final Presentations to internal critics

WEEK THIRTEEN (May 8): Final Presentations to the ISG and community groups


Impossible Maps | Olin College of Engineering, Spring 2019






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