Terra Forma: A Book of Speculative Maps | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Terra Forma: A Book of Speculative Maps

Terra Forma: A Book of Speculative Maps
by Frédérique Aït-Touati, Alexandra Arènes and Axelle Grégoire; translated by Amanda DeMarco

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA., 2022
200 pp. Trade, $29.95
ISBN: 9780262046695.

Reviewed by: 
Jussi Parikka
December 2022

Terra Forma by Frédérique Aït-Touati, Alexandra Arènes, and Axelle Grégoire is a cartographic take that links closely to past years of theorization of the Anthropocene and the various prompts how to develop methods and theories for more-than-human worlds. Reflecting the deep expertise of the trio of authors in history of science, architecture, and visual design, the book functions as a contribution to projects on experimental mapping and current environmental humanities. The project is in many places framed through Bruno Latour’s work, which is not a surprise when remembering, for example, Latour’s collaboration with Aït-Touati (who is also a theatre director) on the philosophical stage experiments of the Terrestrial Trilogy. His preface to the book is, thus, well-placed in both the characteristic Latour-prose style and in linking the spatial methods of Terra Forma proposals with the broader task of inventing new cartographies. If the Modern period has been characterized by a proliferation of cartographical methods, operationalised in different colonial, scientific, military, and other contexts, the current shift to move beyond “the space of grid-based maps” (Latour) takes on a new meaning beyond the instrumental. Maps, to state out the obvious, are operating upon their operators as much as they are depicting the lands, seas, airs they lay claim to.

As the subtitle, A Book of Speculative Maps, promises, Terra Forma presents not only a written text but design suggestions. These come out as seven models for an alternative take of the earth as material, volumetric, dynamic, and in-formation (beyond a grid of Cartesian information). Soil, Point of Life, Living Landscapes, Borders, Space-Time, (Re)sources, and (Re)collection structure the dialogue between the text and the visual design where modeling becomes a tool to investigate not just the earth but the cultural techniques of making sense of the earth. “The map is the territory” the authors state in a refreshing way, echoing Bernhard Siegert’s similar use of the inverted phrase. For the Terra Forma trio, this refers to how “space is no longer a mere receptable for living things but rather the result of their actions”(21). And for readers (or practitioners) of Dietmar Offenhuber’s “autographic visualization” or Susan Schuppli’s argument about how the world expresses itself, this point will result in approving nods.

To dig into the thickness of the world is a key trait of the book. This digging is though not for reasons of extraction of resources but to offer alternative imaginaries of the volumetric earth. Aït-Touati, Arènes, and Grégoire want to detach from legacies of discovering “new Earths” but to notice what already is present; territories are redrawn in the images that populate Terra Forma, but their function is more akin to a counter-mapping. The GPS of Global Positioning System becomes that of Gaia Positioning System. Besides such references to the age of Earth Observation and the subsequent Anthropocene-awareness, one can connect Terra Forma to the lineage of “dehomogenization” of maps of urban space as expressed in maps by, for example, Kevin Lynch or Guy Debord earlier (as Roger Paez argues in his Operative Mapping -book that is a good companion to read with Terra Forma). Perhaps instead of psychogeographic mappings Terra Forma is an exercise in psychogeophysics (a term I discuss in my Geology of Media book) or for example psychopedology (in reference to soil) to continue the same logic of cartographies of non-human.

To take an example, one of my personal favourites in the book, the Soil section argues for a point by now familiar to landscape architects that the Earth might be imaged as a strata of layers but actually is a slowly morphing geographical force. Here the model of the Earth is a description of the interactions of bio-geo-chemical forces at play that characterize also the history of Biosphere thinking (that many would argue is the pre-history of Gaia discourse). While soil had become an exhibited object of national pride in the 19th century, not least for the Russian Empire of the period, the soil exhibited on the pages of Terra Forma aims to speak to the weathering, transformation, and inhabited full earth multiplicities of soil. The soil also speaks to the altitude of atmospheres, also perceived as full of “nanoparticles, clouds, airplanes, birds, a dome of pollution” (37).

Obviously, specific sites are of important to the design-led investigations presented in the book. Models are instruments, and instruments are operative images to grasp a broader epistemic-ethical framework of visualization. The appendix on “data” on which the visual models are based outlines this background and how practices of urban planning and landscape design are present in some of the visualizations: natural/post-natural spaces, sites of ruins and pollution, industrial sites, and land restoration form the underlying narrative thread for many of the investigations such as “the Chemical Valley” in Lyon, urbanism of projects such as “Grand Paris”, “transborder territory between France and Spain”, and so forth. The different cases investigate spatial continuities and discontinuities as well as particular temporal dynamics that is more akin to a gestural movement than one of seeing or watching (81). (Although perhaps there is something very gestural and embodied in seeing and watching too, one might add.) Partly this focus on gestures sounds somewhat like a phenomenological way of inhabiting spaces and their histories but in Terra Forma the point is taken further to encompass non-human entities too. We exist not only as bodies, but as envelopes and trajectories, of strips of topological continuity that might intuitively be difficult to visualize due to their peculiar morphings, multiscalar becomings. Also, Deleuze makes a nice little cameo in their text:

“[…] in the continuum of surfaces, the ground is as sensitive as skin, and all of the phenomena we feel (climates, storms, heat) are also felt by the ground. This skin-map attempts to capture the way in which surfaces are linked in a continuous sensitivity by the elements that cross the different strata, span thresholds, and multiply the leaps of scale. Placed next to each other, these surfaces form a meteorological tapestry, an epidermis bristling with spores, evocative of what are ‘hung with’ on the inside, to borrow a phrase from Deleuze.” (61)

The prose of Terra Forma is in many places very attractive.

The images in the book are in the Deleuze and Guattari style also diagrams that fold as part of the theoretical insights––not supplementary, not explicatory, but parallel strands of visual arguments, points of tension and intensity. Such diagram-images are operational in the sense of not depicting a stable reality but becomings involved in the surfacing of dynamic spatialization: We speak of space but in the trajectories and potentials of its transformation. On the surface of the diagram, a plethora of earth forces emerge as they carve out a space of problematics. As the authors write, “Each model considers a specific question, a problem that it unfolds in space, sometimes in time, using a borrowed and inflected archetypal figure: the globe is turned inside out like a glove, the grid of coordinates of Euclidian geometry deforms and evolves depending on the actors who cross its space, while the division of urban time bend into spirals of space-time” (17). Variation becomes primary, fixity as an after-effect, implying how the authors try to move beyond the subject-object freeze-frames to a more ecological dynamic, asking thus also what this ecological dynamic means for architecture, design, and visual composition of such worlds – or more accurately, in such worlds.

The book functions as a very convenient manual, useful for teaching and the already voiced connection between theory and design. It prompts to think of other locations, other situations, other geographies that could be modelled in this vein. In a manner similar to some other (speculative) designers such as Design Earth (for example, their Geostories book and various exhibition projects), Terra Forma’s pedagogically useful and discursively interesting take resonates with several educational and research-driven design approaches of recent years. Here, the most obvious to mention is the Terraforming program that ran at the Strelka Institute (2022), as well as the Politics of Atmospheres studio by Elise Misao Hunchuck, Marco Ferrari, and Jingru (Cyan) Cheng that ran for three years within the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, and was also invited to participate in the Critical Zones project led by Latour and Peter Weibel.

Now translated into English a couple of years after the original French edition, the Terra Forma book is a great reference point for particular kinds of environmental humanities that work with architectural and design methods. It also establishes further bridges in this sort of an expanded humanities alongside questions of experimental practices of “data visualization”.