Can modern cartography shape what we see and the way we feel about our sunburnt country? University of Wollongong alumni and brothers Alex and Jared Pescud are merging art and science with the aim of changing our perspective.
The Pescud brothers have been making maps together for years. As geographers, the pair have mapped coral reefs around Lizard Island at the northern tip of Australia and plotted urban green spaces in our swelling cities, such as Wollongong.
But none so far are quite like the maps they have made recently for their latest project, Dreadful Maps.
With a shared love of cartography, Alex and Jared Pescud are using their trade, spatial science, to make maps for everyone to see. Maps to be held, not buried in a research paper or stored on some secure, obscure hard drive. Maps to be pored over, not scrolled through. Maps that are not only informative but also works of art.
“We get inspired when we look at a map, not just in a computer and when it’s digital, but how it actually comes to life when you hold it in your hands,” Alex says. “You immerse yourself in it and you connect with its story – but that only happens when you look at a hardcopy. That’s some serious value to us and that’s how Dreadful Maps came to be.”
Learning the trade
Maps have been the key to exploration and colonisation, to winning wars and battles, and aiding trade across the oceans.
“They are a functional tool that transforms the way people see the world around them, and they’ve transported humans to where we are today,” Alex explains.
While printed maps are their passion, Alex and Jared learned how to craft digital maps after their studies in physical geography at UOW, tinkering at home first then working on a few government research projects.
Aerial photography, satellites, drones and airborne laser scanners give geographers detailed information about our world and its earthly processes. The data is then overlayed and stitched together by its precise location. These maps get complicated and it takes a lot of computer programming but they allow geographers to explore and examine landscapes from new perspectives.
“Studying geography, you learn all the different techniques of cartography and spatial science, that is, taking an abstract view of the world and then computerising it, building a story around what that means,” says Alex, who now works as a geospatial analyst at the Australian Hydrographic Office.
Jared soon followed in his footsteps to UOW, also majoring in physical geography. “[Alex] opened my eyes to spatial science and that’s the road I’ve gone down. It’s given me a better understanding of the world.”
In this day and age, so much of the Earth’s surface has been explored in detail already that you’ve got to do something different with what you’re given.
“We always try to tell a story whether it be to capture how towns are built and developed, or to show how rivers form and how water cuts into the Earth, or with elevation, to accentuate the roughness of the landscape,” Alex says of the artworks they’ve created.
In each map, one element of the landscape is exposed. The story might lie in the how the data was collected, how that feature has evolved over time, or the sheer scale of continent laid bare in front of you.
Making the map with orange contours of the surface of Australia, Jared says he found the difference in elevation between Mount Kosciusko in the Snowy Mountains and the rest of Central Australia quite striking. Looking west, the desert stretches on until the mountains peak again in the far northwest of the continent. “I’m a geographer,” he says. “I should know that. But once you see it [in this map] …”
His brother, Alex, continues: “Spatial science and cartography give you a vantage point like no other to view the earth and its natural features. No words, painting or photograph can give you the same perspective. With spatial science, you can take in all this information all at once.”
And that’s the beauty of these artworks: it’s like looking through a filter. Each monochromatic map summons you to look closely at just one feature of the landscape so that when you step away, you might look differently at the country around you or discover something new.
Data, data, every where
It all starts with the data, black and white pixels coding information about our world.
Satellites are silently criss-crossing the earth overhead and phones are traversing the Earth’s surface in people’s pockets, so there are plenty of datasets to choose from – if you can get your hands on them.
The open source data movement has been a game-changer for creatives like Alex and Jared, who take open source data and enrich it with other layers of spatial information to create their maps.
“There is just a plethora of data out there which we can integrate [into our practice] whether it be temperature, wind direction, ocean currents, animal migrations, transportation routes, or popular rock-climbing locations,” Alex remarks.
Data which might have once been collected for a specific research program and restricted to the institutions or governments who captured it is now often released for others to share, use and build upon under a Creative Commons licence.
“One dataset, which might be the end of the road for someone else’s project, is just the start for us,” Alex continues. “Where once you would pay thousands and thousands of dollars for these datasets under strict licence conditions, the open data movement means that all this data has come into play.”
From pixels to print
Making meaning out of mountains of data can be a slow process. A raw dataset can be like the Matrix with potentially gigabytes of information that has to be sifted through, analysed with other datasets or stripped back and pulled apart.
“It’s a matter of slowly going through it, understanding what it says about where things are and how to represent that,” Jared says. “Then you change your scripts to say do it this way or that, like an artist would when they are colouring something in.”
During that process, it becomes something else. “Data is only useful when you take it through that process – from data to information to knowledge – so we can learn something about the theme or the current time that we’re in,” Alex says.
“You have to make it intuitive enough that people can look at it and learn what that map is trying to say without having to read a big blurb about the information in there; so that they can derive some sort of meaning from it that doesn’t happen by looking at the raw dataset.”
Lessons from the land
Every Dreadful Map is an invitation to ask questions and learn more. Jared says that people often ask what has happened or how the landscape formed when looking at their maps. “We can tell them about the geological history of the continent. It opens up a whole new conversation,” he says.
The map Jared is referring to, specifically, is blue on black and traces ancient waterways that have run through the Australian landscape over time, permeating the continent like capillaries. In blue, groundwater systems stretch from the Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape York down to Dubbo and west to Coober Pedy. Together, they are known as the Great Artesian Basin.
“A lot of people when they see that map, they don’t realise how much water was in the Great Artesian Basin, that there were [and are] so many waterbodies out there,” Jared explains, his enthusiasm for teaching surfacing.
Jared works as an educator at the Illawarra Environmental Education Centre, Killalea. He recognises the value in getting students out in nature so they can appreciate its beauty first hand. But with the maps the Pescud brothers have made, people can look through the landscape, peer back in time or beneath the surface – which is another kind of learning experience altogether.
Making meaningful maps
Alex and Jared have started with a small number of prints and are taking note of how people respond to their artworks, which will shape their next series.
“We’ve learnt that if you create maps or artworks of areas of significance to a person, they will enjoy it more and have that connection,” Jared says. “People point out where they live or where they come from. You assimilate yourself with an area but you see it in a new light.”
Alex continues: “Everyone gets something different out of each map. Some people might say that it helps them put natural features into perspective. Someone else might look it at and say they don’t even know what it means but they love the colour. Someone might feel at home, or be inspired to go for a bushwalk or just have a look around their city. We’re happy either way.”
The maps are also inspiring the Pescud brothers to set their sights further afield. Having grown up in Wollongong, they’ve always hugged the east coast, but Jared says making these maps has lit a fire in him to get out and explore Australia.
“There are so many interesting features about Australia and we’re just looking at the data; it’s not even a photo,” he says. “All it is are pixels of information, pixels of colour, that make you want to go out and look at [the country]. These maps make me want to learn so much more.”
This story is part of the Meet The Makers series profiling UOW people who are rejecting the mass made and getting their hands dirty making real things.