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Arguing through Archival Objects: A Z-Axis Method for 3-D-Printed Interpretation

The following paper was delivered at the 2015 Modern Language Association conference and presents work developed by myself, Adèle Barclay, Stephen Ross, Jentery Sayers, Katie Tanigawa, Belaid Moa, and the INKE-MVP research team.


All too often, electronic mapping environments treat historical maps as images rather than artifacts. When we import archival maps into digital environments, they are usually displayed as a base map; this allows us to add data to the map by dropping base pins, annotations, scaling, zooming, and so on. However, these ways of handling geographic data function within the interface of the mapping environment, subjecting historical maps to contemporary ways of expressing and interacting with geography. Reproducing historical and literary maps within mapping environments such as Google Earth imposes GIS-specific understandings of space upon maps that predate GIS or understand space in other ways. Each map comes with its own spatial and cartographic codes, its own procedures for representing and navigating space: these codes are designed, inscribed, and navigated. They are legible in the material arrangement of a map and correspond to historically situated understandings of space in accordance with ethnicity, politics, and class. When it comes to mapping, perspective is often visual as well as cultural: different maps offer different cultural perspectives on a given geography, reproducing power and politics at the level of design. J.B. Harley explains this process in “Deconstructing the Map,” where he writes:

“A map of the British empire in America with the French, Spanish and the Dutch settlements adjacent thereto.”
“A map of the British empire in America with the French, Spanish and the Dutch settlements adjacent thereto.”

The distinctions of class and power are engineered, reified and legitimated in the map by means of cartographic signs…Using all the tricks of the cartographic trade—size of symbol, thickness of line, height of lettering, hatching and shading, the addition of color—we can trace this reinforcing tendency in innumerable European maps. We can begin to see how maps, like art, become a mechanism ‘For defining social relationships, sustaining social rules, and strengthening social values.’ (7)

For instance, one may consider early European maps of the New World, which elide indigenous territories in order to construct America as a possessed, European colony. Or one could instead consider the work of James Ackerman, which reads twentieth century American road maps as artifacts that construct a national motorized space.


Interpreting maps as historical artifacts therefore requires engaging their cartographic techniques directly, rather than papering contemporary geospatial paradigms on top of them. Put differently, it requires critiquing maps through process rather than product. Cartographic processes are not dissimilar from cultural analytics, since they tend to treat cultural phenomena as cartographic data and design strategies. For instance, thematic maps show the distribution of population density, poverty, or the spread of disease, while travel maps codify infrastructures often tied to the development of state and national power. (Ackerman 151) Deploying maps as a site of artifactual interpretation therefore means anchoring cultural and political critiques in historical expressions of cultural and political processes. While scholars cannot directly access the politics of the past, we can reengage material expressions of those politics. Taking a materials-based approach to culture therefore expands cultural critique through a process of critical making.


“Oblique view of contour lines representing distribution of AIDS cases in the U.S.”
“Oblique view of contour lines representing distribution of AIDS cases in the U.S.”

Interpreting maps as artifacts means understanding politics as design and culture as data. It allows tacit knowledge about the past to unfold through the manipulation and remixing of cultural artifacts. This is one of the chief aims of the Implementing New Knowledge Environments and Modernist Versions Project z-axis work, which “[unpacks] the social and cultural depth of archival maps that are otherwise treated as surface or image.” (Christie et. al.) This project is being developed by Katie Tanigawa, Stephen Ross, Jentery Sayers, and myself, with additional input from Belaid Moa at compute Canada. The Z-axis project transforms flat, archival maps into three-dimensional digitized maps. It then takes geographic data mined from literary texts of the same period and expresses it through the digitized map. Rather than separating data from object, this method rematerializes data by expressing it through digitized artifacts. Our title evokes culture as a third axis of inquiry that underpins expressions of geographic data. Broadly defined, z-axis scholarship expresses data through digital objects whose culture and politics appear as physical properties. The result blends aesthetics with algorithm and culture with computation.

Z-axis map showing class distinctions in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.
Z-axis map showing class distinctions in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.

The z-axis method affords a materials-based approach to literary critique. For instance, one could map indigenous accounts of American settlement against maps produced by the settlers. Similarly, one could transform an early American map of the states using data mined from a slave narrative. The same approach could be extended through shipping maps of the middle passage, colonial maps from Europe, and could even be expanded to include artifacts beyond the cartographic. Rather than approaching marginal narratives through normalized conceptions of space, z-axis maps interpret those narratives in conversation with geographic expressions of racial, national, and class-based power. The example above expresses data for Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood through an interwar tourist map of Paris. The data captures each location described by the novel, with the specificity of the geographic reference expressed as radius and the length of the description expressed as height. The length of description is calculated by word count and the specificity of reference is determined through an interpretation of the passage; in other words, the data is produced through an interpretive close reading of the novel. Wide circular deformations represent general areas and thin, granular deformations represent specific areas described in the novel. The warped map visualizes a Paris divided by class: cumulative warping effects are visible south of the river on the left bank and granular, isolated warping effects appear north of the river on the right bank. The aesthetic differences between these two areas correspond to class distinctions between the two parts of the city: the area south of the river is a working class and student neighborhood, and the areas north of the river are inhabited by wealthy and foreign residents. This class-based division of Paris is confirmed by Barnes’s novel: the wealthy, English Jenny Petherbridge lives on the right bank, where other characters come to visit her, while Barnes’s impoverished and queer characters live on the left bank, where they often run into each other on the street. Reading the map is therefore a two way process. On the one hand, the cartographic object offers cultural materials for reading onto contemporary literature. On the other hand, the literature offers narratives for reading back onto the map. Here, workflow and theory are both part of the production process of the 3D map. The maps don’t simply express an interpretation in 3D; instead, we arrive at our critical interpretations of the map and literature by producing the 3D map. In what follows, I will outline the theoretical insights generated through the production of our initial Dublin prototype. I will then return to our Paris maps and discuss future directions for the project.


1925 Ordnance Survey map of Dublin.
1925 Ordnance Survey map of Dublin.

Our work on this project first began when Katie Tanigawa and I proposed a 3D map of James Joyce’s Ulysses as students in Jentery Sayers’s digital humanities course. Once that course concluded, we continued to refine and expand the prototype as part of the larger Maker Lab, Modernist Versions Project, and INKE teams. While refining our initial workflow, we came to understand the materiality of the map as an argumentative medium for experimenting with tacit arguments. This critical making process began by digitizing a 1925 Ordnance Survey map of Dublin housed in University of Victoria Special Collections. In order to express the two-dimensional features of the survey map in 3D, we converted the scanned map into a displacement map. Displacement mapping converts differences in black/while contrast into differences in elevation, raising areas in white, while lowering areas in black and accounting for shades of grey. In this sense, the displacement map isn’t so much stamped onto the 3D surface as much as the surface is displaced vertically around the map image. The displacement map is applied to a 3D plane using the 3D Modeling software Autodesk Mudbox. But in order to produce a three-dimensional map that accurately models the features of the original, the plan surface must be subdivided. This process entails creating a grid that measures the surface of the plane, such that each section of the grid can be mathematically manipulated, and this is where things get interesting.

The subdivided displacement map of the Ordnance Survey map rendered in 3D.
The subdivided displacement map of the Ordnance Survey map rendered in 3D.

The use of subdivision to divide space into controllable, quantifiable units is both a computational and an administrative practice. In the same fashion that surface subdivision standardizes space through gridding, the cartographic practice of triangulation was implemented through the original Ordnance survey to standardize the space of the British Empire. By dividing the surface of the globe into standardized units, the process of triangulation united the British colonies through a totalizing cartographic logic. It further imposed a standardized time upon the imperial globe by quantifying the distance between Engand and its colonies. In this way, the temporal distances between the colonies were both unified and spatialized under a gridded globe, reifying the adage “the sun never sets on the British empire” through the twin logics of measurement and cartography. Jon Hegglund explains this exceedingly well when he writes:

The Ordnance Survey of Ireland was part of a larger British imperial project: the systematic possession of territory by means of codified spatial knowledge….The map, then, was both a synecdoche of the imperial archive and a grid for all its data; it both represented and measured the British Empire. (169-171)

Partitioning geographic space through the gridded axes of longitude and latitude, the cartographic design of the Ordnance map transformed the territory of Ireland into a controlled and totalized colony. We now understood the mathematical manipulation of space as an imperial act, expressed through specific cartographic practices that we were engaging through the 3D transformation of the Ordnance Survey. In this context, our workflow for producing the maps became not simply a means for producing a 3D product, but a process of political and historical inquiry where insights came directly from our experiences with the artifact.

Z-axis map of the Riverwalk and the Commercial District in Joyce’s Ulysses. Click to expand.
Z-axis map of the Riverwalk and the Commercial District in Joyce’s Ulysses. Click to expand.

With this fresh theoretical understanding of our method, further findings emerged from the expression of data through the 3D map. These instances of warping were produced using the bulge function in Autodesk Mudbox. We divided the word count for each location described in the novel against the total word count for the novel, producing ratios that that were entered as strength measurements to determine the degree of warping produced by the bulge function. The features of the deformations, bumps along the surface of bulges and, in more extreme instances, the stacked leaves that form the looming haystacks, are composed of the subdivided units of the map (now distorted and deformed). This means that the instances of warping are produced by skewing, transforming, and rearranging the measured, gridded space of the colonial city. The strangeness of the warped map, the ruptures, fractures, and deformations that populate its surface, deliberately renders the cartographic logic of British imperialism unreal, exploding its totalizing logic through the expression of data. Here, postcolonial critique becomes a material practice. Through the systematic engagement and unmaking of colonial cartography, we engaged in a practice of artifactual interpretation with findings that we can read back onto Joyce’s novel. The cubist rendering of the haystacks invites me to think about Joyce’s cubism in “Wandering Rocks” as not only literary montage, but also as a postcolonial reconfiguration of space. In the context of colonial cartography, shifting between multiple subjective perspectives quite literally remaps space in ways that push against the totalizing and normalizing practices of British cartography.

Street level view of 7 Eccles Street.
Street level view of 7 Eccles Street.


“Guide Psychogeographique de Paris.”
“Guide Psychogeographique de Paris.”

Theoretical methods for resisting dominant constructions of space deeply informed our project as we moved ahead. As we transitioned from Dublin to Paris for year two of the project, the team drew inspiration from modernist built media experiments in remaking the city. Paris is not only a dominant center of modernist literary production, but also a city deeply enmeshed in experimental methods for remapping cultural currents through space. As the metro expanded and metro maps became commonplace, commercial games emerged that asked players to remap the metro. Le métrolic was a 1922 strategy board game that divided the metro between North and South, transforming industrial modes of transporation into rules for gameplay. The commercialization and commodification of the city was quickly picked up by Surrealists, who experimented with methods for unmapping commercial expressions of the city. André Breton’s 1933 “Experimental Researches: On the irrational embellishment of the city” extends the remapping of urban geography from a literary technique to a methodological practice. This surrealist game asked participants to conserve, displace, modify transform, or remove monumental areas in city using their imagination. Directly inspired by Breton, Situationist practitioners extended the modification of a city to a built media practice. Situationist psychogeography worked to re-map cultural currents of the city by cutting-up and rearranging different cartographic representations of that city. As Simon Sadler explains:

Rather than float above the city as some sort of omnipotent, all-possessing eye, situationist cartography admitted that its overview of the city was reconstructed in the imagination, piecing together an experience of space that was actually terrestrial, fragmented, subjective, temporal, and cultural…In short, the situationist maps described an urban navigational system that operated independently of Paris’s dominant patterns of circulation. (82-88)

We looked back to this strain of experimental practice not only to push against the totalizing views of Google Earth, but also top-down epistemologies that normalize space to the exclusion of marginal perspectives.

Nouveau Paris Monumental Map housed at the Newberry’s Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography. This map comes folded inside a tourist pocket guide of Paris.
Nouveau Paris Monumental Map housed at the Newberry’s Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography. This map comes folded inside a tourist pocket guide of Paris.

Katie, our colleague Adèle, and I chose to focus on subjective views on the ground that disrupt objective ones from above, working with the novels Nightwood by Djuna Barnes and Good Morning, Midnight and Quartet by Jean Rhys. These novels document the experiences of impoverished and queer characters living in Paris, describing a Paris on the margins. We chose to express these marginal narratives through an interwar tourist map, which (like Breton’s game), focuses on monumental Paris. During a recent trip to the Newberry’s Center for the History of Cartography, I found a map from the series as part of a pocket tourist guide of Paris. Pocket guides serve as historical artifacts that present specific trajectories through the city, often in accordance with the aims of tourist exploration. These guides materialize cultural and social perspectives of the city; for instance, Paris For Everyman contains demographic, industrial, and sociological maps of the city. When read against these maps, the queer characters in Barnes’s novel occupy marginal areas right on the edge of wealthy and populated neighborhoods. Things become more interesting when these areas are expressed through the monumental map of the city, which deliberately expands wealthy areas around monuments while shrinking impoverished areas that don’t generate profit. In the instance of Barnes’s Nightwood, the warped areas in the south expand poor neighborhoods that are shrunk in the original map, materially expressing the marginality of Barnes’s locations. For Quartet, Katie has found that characters often dwell in areas just near monumental locations, but never at or in them. As Katie writes: “this map shows how Rhys’s narrative privileges spaces traditionally marginalized in social and economic discourse and inscriptively marginalized in popular maps at the time.” (Christie et. al.) Across these instances, the team’s material interactions with the changing map not only brought us new cultural insights, but also anchored those insights in material expressions of the cultural currents we engaged.



Temporal chart of places mentioned in Barnes’s Nightwood. Developed by Belaid Moa.
Temporal chart of places mentioned in Barnes’s Nightwood. Developed by Belaid Moa.

As we continue work on the z-axis project, we’re looking to expand our process of critical insight for scholars to reproduce with their own artifacts and expertise. Through a collaboration with Belaid Moa at Compute Canada, we’re working to develop an automated z-axis workflow that produces moving and animated maps. Belaid is leading the way on this front, working with Python, Open GL and Paraview on the Compute Canada Westgrid servers. I’d like to end with a very short preview of what we’re working on. This grid shows geographic locations for Nightwood automatically mined from the novel against Stanford’s Name Entity Recognizer. The distribution of recognized entities for the novel is then charted for each text unit of measure (right now we’re using paragraphs). As you follow any given location up along the y-axis, you see the mentions of that location as the novel progresses. This produces a temporal expression of the changing view of Paris given by the novel as it is read. This data will then be applied to a map of Paris in 3D, which will render as a video that progresses along the text unit axis. Using this automated method we plan to visualize journeys, consider references to areas outside the city, and compare two different versions of the same novel against each other. We also hope to open this automated workflow to the community to expand z-axis mapping as a social knowledge enterprise. Look for more developments from the project as this work progresses.


Works Cited

A map of the British empire in America with the French, Spanish and the Dutch settlements adjacent thereto. Map. Amsterdam: Printed for I. Covens and C. Mortier, 1741?. Web. 8 Jan 2014. <>

Ackerman, James, ed. Cartographies of Travel and Navigation. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2006.

–. The Imperial map: cartography and the mastery of empire. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2009.

Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. Faber & Faber: London, 1936

Breton, André. “Sur certaines possibilities d’embellissement irrationnel d’une ville.” Le surrealisme au service de la revolution. No. 6. P. 018. Web. 8 Jan 2014. <>

Christie, Alex, Stephen Ross, Jentery Sayers, Katie Tanigawa, and the INKE-MVP research team. “Z-Axis Scholarship: Modeling how modernists wrote the city.” Digital Humanities 2014. Web. 8 Jan 2014. <> <>

Christie, Alex and Katie Tanigawa. “Dislocating Ulysses.” ENGL 507. Web. 8 Jan 2014. <>

Harley, John Brian. “Deconstructing the map.” Cartographica: The international journal for geographic information and geovisualization 26.2 (1989): 1-20.

Hegglund, Jon. “Ulysses and the Rhetoric of Cartography.” Twentieth Century Literature. 49.2: 2003. 164-192.

Gould, Peter. Oblique view of contour lines representing distribution of AIDS cases in the U.S. Map. Association of American Geographers, 1988. GEOG 482: The Nature of Geographic Information. Web. 8 Jan 2014. <>

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Shakespeare & Co., Paris, 1922. Web. 8 Jan 2014. <>

“Le Métrolic.” Lombrail-Teucqam. Web. 8 Jan 02014. <>

“Map of Dublin 1925.” Historic Dublin Maps. Compiled by Noel Kissane. Dublin: National Library of Ireland, 1988.

Ovenden, Mark. Paris Underground: The Maps, stations, and design of the métro. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Paris for Everyman: Her present, her past & her environs with forty-eight coloured maps and full index. Compiled by Arthur K. Griggs. London J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc.

Rhys, Jean. Good Morning, Midnight. New York: Harper & Row. 1970. First published in 1939.

—. Quartet. London: Andre Deutsch. 1969. First published in 1928.

Sadler, Simon. The Situationist City. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 1999.

Swinski, Casey. Percent Population Under Poverty Level in 2000. Map. FREC 480 Project 1. Web. 8 Jan 2014. <>

Alex Christie

is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Victoria, and a Research Assistant with the Modernist Versions Project and INKE in the Maker Lab in the Humanities and the ETCL.

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