Here Be Dragons
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
He is sly, this rebel cartographer. He makes maps that look like quilts, masks, feathers, acid trips. You can find America in these maps -- you can probably find your house in these maps -- if you can find the maps at all, since their creator has posted them to an online underground.
Nikolas Schiller, 26, is the god of this alternative reality. Making maps at a frenzied pace of one every two days for the past 1,000 days, he has done everything he could to keep himself off the map of the World Wide Web.
This is brazen defiance of the Hear Me! ethos of the blogger age, for which he probably will be punished and sentenced to fame. He's a shadow blogger who didn't want you to read his, thank you very much. He pulled the electronic blinds on his Web site: He blocked Google and the other search engines. When one of his creations made it onto the Drudge Report -- 42,000 hits in no time, baby! -- nobody could figure out who was this masked mapmaker.
So here the cyber cipher is now, on the roof of his group rowhouse off U Street NW, conducting another experiment in extreme geography. He recently used discarded chimney bricks to write a message: "No war."
Nothing like making a bold statement that no one will receive except the pigeons and the spy satellites.
Catlike, he hops down a shaky ladder to a third-story balcony on the way to his bedroom. In the hall he passes another one of his statements, this one more artistic, framed on the wall. It's an aerial photographic view of Schiller's neighborhood -- and sure enough, there, roughly the size of a fingernail, is the roof of his rowhouse. But something strange has been done to the geography.
Schiller barely pauses on the way to his computer, which he fires up to reveal hundreds of his map creations. They are places you know -- the Mall, Adams Morgan, Georgetown, plus other U.S. cities and war-torn ones abroad. But the streetscapes -- photographed from above at a resolution fine enough to just make out cars and people -- have been warped and woven into kaleidoscopic mosaics, arabesques, spheres.
So Big Brother really is watching -- and Schiller remixes this surveilled reality to render geography as politically pointed art. The results have stunned his former geography professors and amazed the federal cartographers who commissioned the original aerial pictures for more mundane purposes, such as aiding developers who are gentrifying neighborhoods, such as, um -- U Street!
"To change the world, start with the maps," says Schiller, who is co-chairman of the Statehood Green Party in Washington. "As insignificant as my art may be, it's still an extension of my feeling that each of us has the capacity to change things."
His map quest is for more than just art, let alone directions from here to there. In a way, it's a pixelated riff that hyperlinks to ancient times, when maps implied a worldview -- flat or round? -- and cartography was existential.
Since Google Earth appeared a few years ago -- and countless office hours were wasted as people mouse-clicked to their own back yards ("Lookee, there's the deck!") -- the starting point of Schiller's creations has been familiar. But he doesn't use Google. He goes to the source, the bird's-eye rendering of America placed in the public domain by the U.S. Geological Survey.