Inefficient mapping: City birds, city children. Unversity of Auckland, NZ

In November 2018 I was invited by University of Auckland, to present a keynote seminar and workshop on my mapping method and the ways I have applied it to my work into urban citizenships. In this presentation I showed how my most recent work into urban citizenship is influenced by the movement and choreography of starling murmurations.

The script from the seminar follows. 

To cite: Knight, L. (2018) City birds, city children: using arts-based methods to explore our belonging to place. Early Childhood Seminar Series, University of Auckland, 14th November 2018.


City birds, city children: using arts-based methods to explore our belonging to place.

In this seminar I will discuss how arts-based methods can translate our everyday urban relationships and community into posthuman theories of research practice.  We’ll focus on the non-human to extend our thinking about who, what and how is an urban community.

We will watch a video of starling murmurations to explore starling expression; not the song of the birds but the expression in their wings as they move in unison tracing their pathway across the sky. Starlings move together through a globular, swooping, swooshing, interrelational and interactive choreography as they pulse amongst each other and as they move as a collective across the sky.

Watching the complex movements of the starling murmurations will assist a short experiment with my method of inefficient mapping. We will trace the movements and gestures of the bird collaboratories, mapping their choreographies. We will work together and layer the mappings to create a meshwork of interwoven lines. The arrangements of these maps create a complex assemblage of bird movement, sound and community and will prompt our speculative thinking about multispecies presences, citizenship, and of bird-child relations in our cities and towns.

I explore play as a community-builder in urban spaces. My use of the term urban refers to the cities, towns, and neighbourhoods of the world, across climates, demographies, geographies, and affluences. My use of the term play is also diverse: I think about play as an enactment, response, communication, exchange, performance, by humans, nonhuman animals, and inhuman matter. I theorise play to form new conceptualizations about urban communities from a posthuman reading, asking, how is an urban community? My work considers play and community-building in relation to the ethics of urban demarcations and planning.

The literature on the benefits of play to children is significant, especially in early childhood. Early childhood play literature can focus on particular issues, including the benefits of play to aid social development and physical and mental well-being, the problematics of gendered play, and how play helps build relationships with place and nature. Advocacy for urban play provision can hinge on futures discourses about urban population statistics and pathologizing discourses of children disconnected from physical activity and face-to-face social interaction. Humanist play research may have differing contexts and be interpreted through different paradigms, but the consensus is that play is innate and vital for us.

Play is not only a human capacity: Ethological studies help extend humanist notions of play to examine how nonhuman animal play in its various forms offers a distraction for pets in the domestic sphere as well as animals living in capture. Animals living in the wild are also seen to possess the capacities for generating and experiencing play, creativity, and pleasure. Ethological research often claims to provide a window into the play capacities and habits of nonhuman animals, although the preference for behaviorist/positivist readings tends toward notions that animal play is akin to, or a version of, the acts and motivations for human play.

Existing literature recognizes the need to advance and extend our limited understandings of how and why play occurs. Paying attention to play helps enrich conceptions about relationalities and expressions in humans and animals that extend beyond a hierarchical reading of human/animal binaries. Critical thinking about play beyond a humanist focus helps to expand concepts and ideas about nonhuman animal play as “much more complex” than it being a mirror or facsimile of, or for the same purposes as, human play.

We’ll now watch some of the starlings video to think more about non-human animal play.

I now pose the question: how can inefficient mapping help to transfer theorisations into research activity? This is something I have been working on, and the reason I developed my method of inefficient mapping as a speculative, arts based methodology to compliment ‘post-‘ theoretical questions and speculations.

The mappings bring arts practices and speculative theories together through critical, creative, praxis and are a geontologic methodology for theorizing on urban life in the Anthropocene.

Critical context for the method

The rise in speculative research coincides with the growing influence of feminist, theoretical sciences. Feminist theoretical science perspectives have been particularly instrumental because they were the early voices that declared “knowing …[comes] from a direct material engagement with the world” (Barad, 2007: 49). Speculative theories have pushed us to more deeply question our assumptions about thought, knowledge and matter, and how dominant knowledges are formed and privileged, and how these have maintained the centralising of particular understandings and interpretations.

This critical vision remains a vital and central aspect of speculative research, however it has also been the catalytic spark for the development and experimentation of new methods and methodologies that can work effectively with those theories, and prompt greater awareness by researchers of the world.

I developed inefficient mapping to visually articulate concepts and ideas embedded in geontologic and speculative theories, particularly Povinelli’s (2016) geontologies, the concept of Site/ation (Morin & Willard, 2018), Haraway’s (2008, 2016) interspecies kin-making,  Barad’s (2007) ethics of mattering, and intra-active entanglements, and Bennett’s (2010) vibrant matter to consider the changes to non/in/human urban lives due to political, environmental, technological, and social shifts in the Anthropocene epoch.

I am interested in the extraordinary intensities of urban sites and how feminist, geontologic and speculative thinking helps to disrupt the usual economic reading of the urban in favour of paying attention to ethics and community.

Details of the method 

Inefficient mapping is gestural, drawn marking that takes place in situ. The mapping can be produced while still, and while walking/moving. It is possible to engage technologies such as tablet-based drawing apps or the mapping can be done using paper and conventional drawing tools.

There is no single step by step instruction for drawing the maps, except to say a map is created by drawing without looking at the drawing surface. The map is generated by holding the paper or drawing surface against the body or by placing it on the ground. The idea is not to look at the work while drawing but to look up, observe, witness, whilst making marks that record the movements of the things seen.

In each instance the mappings record affective relations within the milieu, in ways that do not emanate from the human but through ethically entangling with, observing, and modestly witnessing (Haraway, 2004) movements in spaces.

The mappings are named inefficient because trying to capture everything is impossible and futile. Partial recordings, or what Dennis Wood (2013) terms the “inefficient map” (maps that do not attempt to include everything but focus on aspects) can record such things as affects or the diverse interactions and interactivities of matters, times, movements, spaces, and scales.

The ‘inefficient’ descriptor challenges the tendencies to think of technocratic/deterministic research methods as ‘bone-fide’ and neutral/untainted. Mapping, rather than other forms of recording (such as a video recording) is a non-representational accounting that notices some of what goes on without claiming to represent a truthful or whole account of the place. Although the maps do not navigate space in the ways that conventional wayfinding maps do, they navigate through non-representational means such as through affects, politics, memories etc. The maker of the maps can use them to know a space through these non-representational modes.

Experimental drawing is not new – The Surrealists created automatic drawings for example. The mapping is not like automatic drawing however. The ideas and reasons for doing the mapping do not appear spontaneously or unpredictably as a drawing is produced, and neither do they tap into a subliminal or dream state. The motivations and contexts for the maps are carefully considered and theorised prior to the mapping taking place. The location and the aspects of that location that are to be mapped would have relevance to a research study and the conceptual frames informing it. The premise of the mapping method is to produce a gestural, drawn account of a phenomena or location whilst the reasons for the mapping are foregrounded in the mind, and that these remain foregrounded throughout the process. Consequently the mappings are not observational drawings but are theorised, gestural, visual and partial (hence the inefficient) accounts of a research fieldwork event.

The graphic orientation of the inefficient mappings allows for visual notation of schizo activity: the overlapping, simultaneous, and multiple movements, forms, and elements that are occurring irrespective of human presence.

I developed this particular mapping technique to compliment theories that disrupt conventional ideas of research and that are questioning the dominant ontologies that have been central to research in the West. Inefficient mapping critically resists ideas of repetition and troubles the idea of method being reliant on a procedural regularity that is trustworthy because of this regularity. So, the method has a processual habit but not to the point of having the exact same steps each time.

Maps can be created differently and are not restricted by material or technology. For example, I have made paper-based maps in different sizes from A5, to 60cmx150cm, and they could go smaller and larger still. Scale can affectively and effectively impact on the mapping, for example scale can facilitate collaborative mapping, such as between adults and children, humans and animals, humans and weather (I have mapped in all these configurations). The paper-based mapping can also be produced over different time-scales, particularly if non-human participants are contributing. This might include leaving the maps in a location to record the markings made by non-human participants.

An important aspect of the inefficient mapping is to layer the maps, either digitally through a drawing app or graphic design program, or materially by drawing the maps on tracing film and stacking them. Drawn maps can be layered in different and random ways.

Layering is an important curatorial process for documenting movement, and to see how some details start to disappear or fade out under the layers.

Technology-based mapping allows for different layering techniques, it also allows for animations to be woven in (some apps contain replay functions and can show the progress of a map from beginning to end). Technology-produced maps can also be generated across programs, this allows for maps created in situ in one app to be migrated into another program that can further grow the map through animations.

You might be asking: what can be done with the maps once they have been produced?

The maps are variously accessible. They are highly functional to the person who created them because they reconnect the person to the place where the map was created. The inefficient mapping technique is also flexible enough to have different forms of functionality, such as if a researcher were to use marks or codes, or lines, effects.

As I have mentioned, my inefficient mapping method interrogates the habits of research. This includes the habit of conflating method and data. There is a wealth of excellent scholarship that considers what ‘data’ has come to mean in contemporary research, including the work of Erin Manning, Eve Tuck, Marcia McKenzie, Kathleen Stewart, Betty St. Pierre, as well as non-representational methodologists such as Stephanie Springgay, Philip Vannini, Derek McCormack and others. I am informed by this scholarship. The maps methodologically activate concepts and ideas, and also intentions and interests in relation to specific projects and phenomena. Maps are produced as a consequence of the mapping, and these have a functional use to the researcher in terms of being records of site visits and fieldwork. Inefficient mapping can also become data if a researcher were to adapt them to that purpose.

The mappings might be partial, but they home in on what conventionally can be regarded as unimportant, unsightly, or a problem: things about a place that “spoil” the neighborhood. The mappings are driven by affect but within our faulty capacity ability to turn, to look, to see, to mark and accurately record everything. We do hardly any justice to capturing everything but that is the ethics of it. Our presence in a place is not crucial or even remotely relevant. We are just one small being in a vast urban community ethically moving and playing together.


Barad K (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. London: Duke University Press

Bennett J (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press

Haraway D (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. London: Duke University Press

Haraway D (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press

Haraway D (2004) Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium. In: Haraway D The Haraway Reader. New York: Routledge, pp.223-250

Morin P & Willard T (2018) Site/ation. Guest edited by BUSH gallery. Cmagazine, Winter, 136. Ontario: C The Visual Arts Foundation

Povinelli E (2016) Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press

Wood D (2013) Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas (2nd ed). Los Angeles: Siglio

Yusoff K (2013) Insensible Worlds: Postrelational Ethics, Indeterminacy, and the (K)nots of Relating. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 31, 208-226

Below are some images from the event.  

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Finally, here is a pdf copy of the seminar slides:

city birds