By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Then it gets complicated. On his computer he will take a swatch of a neighborhood, then he will tessellate it by creating mirrored repetitions, then he may impose radial geometry on the repetitions. The result is elaborate abstraction assembled from realistic detail, ready for framing at 5 by 3 1/2 feet.
"It's just a cool idea," says Dave Roberts, a USGS cartographer. "I've never seen anything like that before."
USGS employs contractors flying airplanes to get the pictures. Some cities were shot in 2005, but the D.C. imagery is circa 2002. Schiller will have to wait for the next flyover in a few years to make a map revealing his rooftop declaration of "No war."
"He's at the cutting edge between cartography, art, visualization . . . helping people look at the Earth in new ways," says Joseph Kerski, a former USGS cartographer.
"If you come into the geography department, we all have some of his posters hanging in offices," says Lisa Benton-Short, an associate professor at George Washington University, where Schiller was a student. Benton-Short commissioned Schiller's "Central Park Quilt -- North" map for the cover of a forthcoming book she is co-authoring, "Nature and the City."
"I think it's kind of an eight-sided snowflake," she says. "If you look carefully, you can see streets and buildings, but you can see a big swath of green. . . . You get people just staring at his posters, saying, 'Look at that building, I know that building!' " There's a lot of latitude and longitude in the identity of this modern geographer. He is thin and wiry, with long black sideburns. He has a T-shirt that says, "The world is you," in French. On a shelf in his bedroom is a tricorn hat. He wears it as part of his "colonist" costume when he demonstrates for D.C. statehood. He has waited tables and organized seminars for a geographers' association; now he's a Web developer and public-relations consultant. He hopes to publish an atlas. His chief means of transportation, a battered Jamis bicycle, was recently stolen.
To find this mapmaker, you have to know his name, and you have to know where you're going. You can't stumble across his work with a generic keyword search because he coded his Web site, www.nikolasschiller.com, so that Google and other search engines wouldn't automatically index it. Google would turn up his site only if you already knew of his existence and typed in his name.
You can also type into Google "Redacted Name." Click "I'm Feeling Lucky." That will take you to his Web site. Nikolas Schiller is Redacted Name. Statehood, secrecy, online stunts, counter-surveillance: coordinates to explore in the mapmaker's biographical geography. Let's start with the maps. He's made 119 different renderings of D.C. alone.
"Ball of Destruction" shows the Mall and Capitol Hill in the figure of a woman. For security reasons, the feds have obscured photos of the roofs of the White House complex. On Schiller's map, the White House appears to be dangling from the woman's nose like something in need of a tissue. The woman holds a sphere made from satellite imagery of Hurricane Katrina. On the ground before her is a fractured map of the Superdome on the second day of flooding.
Some are meditations on themes such as religion, as in "Cathedral Quilt -- Signed," which shows the Washington National Cathedral neighborhood, upon which Schiller has signed his name repeatedly in Arabic. Many exploit the spacey, soothing rhythm of repeated forms, and imply a dialogue between the real and the imagined, with titles like "DC Lenz #2," "Jefferson Mandala" and "RFK Quilt.""The world is severely out of balance," Schiller says. "These maps I make are an implied reflection of a world more or less at balance."
His maps resist the idea of geography as destiny, but geography was his destiny. His formative map experiences came as a boy from outside St. Louis navigating family vacations with TripTiks. Each summer his mother would rent a car and take Schiller and his two older sisters to a different national park, where the boy would study topographical hiking maps. Growing up in a three-bedroom apartment near neighborhoods of big houses, his family relying on welfare for a period, he tuned into the paradoxes of geographic proximity and social inequity. GWU offered him the most scholarship money.
Like so many transplants, he became outraged by D.C.'s disenfranchisement. "Nikolas looks better in a Colonial outfit and a tricorner hat than practically anyone I know," says Timothy Cooper, a statehood activist. Schiller is also the movement's cartographer, sitting in Freedom Plaza with a laptop displaying aerial maps to plot protest locations.
His most famous map was for another cause. He posted an interactive map of the parade route for President Bush's second inauguration. Designed to help people "coordinate your plans," with a nod and a wink to protesters, it presented everything from access points to webcams showing live pictures of downtown Washington. The Drudge Report caught wind and posted a link. Schiller got 42,155 unique visitors in 28 days -- some of whom posted comments accusing the anonymous creator of "treason."
He had made a separate, anonymous Web site to host the inaugural map. Yet he could tell who his visitors were, or at least where they came from, by studying site statistics compiled from the Internet Protocol addresses of computers that called up the map, a trail that is automatically logged by most Web servers. He got nearly 200 hits from computers with .mil addresses -- the military; about 120 from Treas.gov, where the Secret Service resides; 27 from The Washington Post and 23 from the New York Times. In other words, he found himself watching the watchers. So began a new cartographic exploration, a study of the virtual landscape of the Internet. He posted maps and blog entries on his main Web site, yet he blocked access by the search engines and leaked his address only to friends on MySpace and people he met along the way. He had 1,000 business cards printed 1,000 days ago, and handed them out with his e-mail address to see who would follow the electronic trail back to him.
Neat, but -- why?
"It's about how information flows from A to B," Schiller says. "You can float out balloons and see if someone pops them or picks them up."
By selectively granting access and watching the results, Schiller created a virtual country within the borderless Internet, populated by friends, fans, activists and map freaks. He averages about 140 unique visits a month.
Every so often he makes discreet forays into the public -- posts a link on a local blog or e-mail list; enters an art contest. Then he will track the subsequent increased traffic to his site, watching what pages and what maps people open, observing the routes they take to find him.
One recent morning, he sits at his computer to check the previous day's traffic. The first visitor arrived via his MySpace page at 12:21 a.m. At 9:46 a.m., someone from a Pfizer Pharmaceutical address reached his site through the Statehood Green Party Web page. At 5:59 p.m., someone from Istanbul checked in.
On a recent evening, venturing from his third-floor lair to visit the corner of 14th and T streets, he mulls his next move.
Fourteenth and T is one of the few places outside the GWU Geography Department where you can see Schiller's work without a computer. Here, fixed to a broken signpost, is a rectangular scrap of wood. On the wood is a faded map. It's an aerial view of the neighborhood. An arrow calls your attention to an intersection. There's a caption:
"You are here."
He's thinking about removing the "robots exclusion protocol" that blocks Google and the others. Going public would add a new phase to the experiment, he says. He'd see how the geography of his controlled community is changed by the chaos of publicity. Or maybe not. Imagine coming out of hiding and no one notices. "The null hypothesis is the Web site remains obscure," he says, in the streetlight gloom of 14th and T.
More hopefully, he says, "Most likely, I will change and the nature of this Web site will change." The usually understated Schiller can't conceal his pride when he speaks of his "body of work," the 500 maps created in obscurity. He'd like people to see them. He'd also like to sell some maps.
"I'm interested in seeing other people's opinions," he says. "Will people blog about it? Will I be made fun of?"
For a minute, in the dark on the way back to the rowhouse, it's as if he's the one on the verge of being found by explorers with maps. Mr. Schiller, we presume?
He is there.
Then he returns to his computer.