Contemporary borders operate in ways that are more complex than in the past. They have variously been conceptualised as porous, shifting and solidified. Where a border may be open for some, for others it is an impenetrable wall. Combined with the mobility of geopolitical territorial formations that operate beyond legal frameworks, the very concept and legality of the border is being radically questioned by socio-political phenomena. Such phenomena range from the formation of ISIS to the situation in Europe where states have opened and closed their borders against agreed treaties. We need new ways to make sense of these increasingly complex spaces. The project aims to develop a transdisciplinary research programme for mapping, analysing and intervening in border areas in the form of a digital atlas. The project is global in scope and addresses a series of sites that have been chosen for their place within one common migrant trajectory towards Europe. These borderscapes encapsulate many of the contemporary concerns around geopolitical borders including conflicts, shifting territories, securitisation and increasingly hazardous journeys that are too often fatal. They also show how the border itself operates as a topological entity.
Topological Atlas is developed as a methodology for producing visual counter-geographies at border sites by combining digital technologies with a participative approach that attends to those who are at the margins of traditional geopolitical inquiry. The project uses topology as conceptual framework and methodology to make maps that produce 'seamless transitions' from the space of the migrant to that of the security apparatus that creates barriers to her movement. In doing so it seeks to disrupt the cartographic norms that are being reinforced through the prevalence of GIS technology and mapping platforms such as Google Earth. It investigates forms of visual and co-produced research adapted to situations of crisis and proposes a new model for researching border areas beyond the current top-down international relations or security perspective. At the same time it acknowledges the intertwined relationship between the practice of academic inquiry, the knowledge it produces and what such knowledge can do. The project is organised around the following research question:
How can mapping be used to represent borders as topological entities through the experience of those who encounter them?
The project embraces the composite nature of the architectural map and its echoes today in satellite imagery and crowdsourced data. It will do this by combining hand-drawn maps made by migrants with details from interviews with them, adding layers that show different border jurisdictions, crowdsourced information on relevant events, as well as satellite imagery. The aim is to make a composite representation by mixing embedded research, interview accounts and empirical data with information gained from engaging with legal practitioners and scholars, gathering testimonies from migrants, from others who cross the border and those who police it. Narrative will be used as a way to identify topological relations that are then mapped at varying scales according to the type of relation being described. If conventional geographical maps are purely topographical and network visualisations are purely topological, TopATLAS aims to create a movement back and forth between these two modes. The notion of a seamless transition speaks to this movement, which mirrors that of the migrant moving across an actual physical terrain, whilst negotiating a series of legal and bureaucratic barriers. This approach to the study of borders responds to the call to create alternative visions by using mapping as a platform for engaging different types of knowledge and experiences of the border and by highlighting the agency of the migrant subject.