Denis Wood: Radical Geographer

Author Bios & Interviews, Library

February 26th, 2013


Imaginative atlases, radical cartography, and experimental geography make up a vibrant world of artists, flaneurs, political activists, psychogeographers, critical cartographers, poets, and others for whom a new way of mapping is equivalent to a new way of seeing and engaging the world. Denis Wood’s four decades of work as a geographer and writer has directly influenced the creative, anarchic, and activist spirit that inflects this growing phenomenon.

The author of the popular and highly influential The Power of Maps, Wood has been a key figure in disseminating the idea that all maps reflect a certain and powerful subjectivity rather than represent an objective reality. The Power of Maps began as Wood’s curatorial vision for an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in 1992 and became a book in the same year (now in its tenth printing and translated into several languages). The exhibition was remounted the following year at the Smithsonian.

While The Power of Maps fueled a once heretical notion that has now transformed into the very premise for so much current creative and critical cartography, it is only one facet of Wood’s work. With wit, irreverance, and rigor, Wood has written numerous books that critique, investigate, and, ultimately, reorient his readers not only to the micro-spatial—our neighborhoods, homes, and bodies—but also to our own very human instinct to understand where we live through making maps.

At the very heart of Wood’s life-long investigations is a legendary endeavor: the Boylan Heights maps, now published in Everything Sings. For geographers and cartographers (who’ve talked about them, saw fleeting glimpses of a handful of them), these maps liberated the imagination from the confines of what a map should map and how it could map it. They were storied for their unconventionality, their style, and their substance. When Ira Glass interviewed Wood for This American Life, these maps—and the wondrously obsessive endeavor of making them—captured the imagination of thousands of listeners far beyond those specialized worlds. Selected maps from Everything Sings have been exhibited internationally, such as at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, and reproduced in a variety of publications, including You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination by Katherine Harmon.

His other books include The Natures of Maps: Cartographic Constructions of the Natural World (University of Chicago, 2009) co-authored with John Fels, Rethinking the Power of Maps (Guilford, 2010) with Fels and John Krygier, Five Billion Years of Global Change: A History of the Land (Guilford, 2003), and Home Rules (John Hopkins University Press, 1994). He is currently at work with Joe Bryan on Weaponizing Maps, a genealogy of US Army mapping of indigenous populations where counter-insurgency military measures have been used for U.S. interests abroad.



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