Abstract

Research is often thought of as a process of discovery/uncovering of truth, with map-making as an obvious model for knowledge production. In reference to Michel de Certeau’s concept of Tactics and the practice of hacking this paper argues that how something is used determines its meaning, and that meanings are actively composed by those who create new practices. It suggests that the map is not well-placed to either describe or even acknowledge these multiple meanings, and that the attempt at objective distance hides the researcher’s relationship to the world, presuming a single authoritative account. In this paper I will give an overview of the meaning-making practices that formed my art practice, and introduce ‘gonzo research’ as a way of presenting art-generated knowledge without falling back on the epistemological model of the map.

Introduction

We’re flying blind in the shadows of unknown Beijing streets: beyond the reach of Australia’s 3G service and damned if I’ll pay $20 a MB for it here…

I’ve finally made my way out of sight of the towers, within a sprawling labyrinth of alleys that make up the Hutong – a collection of traditional courtyard residences – adjacent to the Forbidden Palace. My companion and I are slightly drunk, searching for a Mongolian bar that’s rumoured to be hidden down one of these winding paths.

Castaways from the digital abstractions of space that would give us bird’s-eye views of the whole area. All I know is what I’ve “touched” – the street scene around me, the path that brought me here – like a blind man encountering an elephant. And just like the proverbial elephant, each person gives a different answer to what they think the city is, formed from how they’ve encountered it. (Harle 2013)

I arrived at gonzo research out of necessity, in about 2011, mid-way through my doctorate 1.

A doctoral thesis can be considered as a process of mapping new territory. A gap in the knowledge of a certain field is identified, and the researcher then sets out to explore and illuminate their own little place within it; documenting “frontier regions” (de Certeau 2002) and replacing fearsome dragons for landmarks.

My own thesis explored the practice of map-making itself. It examined descriptions of space through the drafting of maps and models, and how these provide different perceptions of a city and an inhabitant’s place in it. For the past few years I’d been looking at various emerging spatial technologies, and – armed with a progressive social agenda, articulated through Henri Lefebvre’s Le droit à la ville (Le Droit à La Ville 1968) among others – I tried to figure out if I could categorise their effect as emancipatory or repressive.

My basis for judgement was spatial theorist Michel de Certeau’s argument that something is lost through the abstraction of the world into a static map, and that the represented, intended use of a space is privileged over the changing ways it is actually inhabited. I was reading de Certeau’s description of strategic and tactical practice of space through Gilles Deleuze’s discussion of arboreal and rhizomatic thought, in order to critique how established maps (of cities, countries, ideas, bodies) restrict our potential to make our own sense of the world.

While I watched, new tools and geo-spatial technologies were developed and transgressed from experimental niche to public adoption and everyday use. Twitter’s use in the Arab Spring had shifted from a coordination tool for pro-democracy protesters in Iran, to lockdown, to government surveillance (Comninos 2011). It took a while, after being thoroughly frustrated in this categorising activity, for the implications of de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life (The Practice of Everyday Life 2002) and Deleuze’s lines-of-flight to sink in; that – be it physical space or technology – meaning can be actively generated through how something is practiced. In response, I developed my thesis around the idea that the landscape of the city is constantly changing through the emergence of new relationships between body, environment, and technology – territory opened up or closed off with the shifting boundaries of different conceptions of space: exciting assemblages of body-environment-technology articulating various ways that spaces (real and virtual), technologies, and bodies could be composed together and relate (Harle 2013). I no longer tried to pin fixed meanings down, but instead sought out examples of exotic, outlier practices, and – through my technology-focused art practice – composed my own. It felt like I was getting close to what Michel Foucault meant when he talked of a form of critical theory that would “bring ideas to life”:

It would multiply not judgements but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes — all the better. […A] criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. (Foucault 1997)

My works took various emerging digital capture and mapping technologies – laser scanning, photogrammetry, geolocation tracking – and re-appropriated them as expressive mediums, altering their outcomes to emphasise a performative element which was normally effaced.

But alas, as hands-on, experimental, and in-the-world as an art practice can be, the textual component of a practice-based fine art PhD is usually seen as a cool-headed documentation and a discussion of theory, i.e. a map of the works’ theoretical and artistic context, an illustration of where the works themselves sit within this context, and a comforting indication that ‘you are here.’

I’d sabotaged my own mapping process. I wanted to talk about these strange creatures as I encountered them, not dried and pressed between the pages of a reference book. I needed a methodology that understood research as an active ‘making sense’ in the world, rather than the uncovering, mapping, and presentation of empirical truth.

In this paper I will give an overview of the meaning-making practices that formed my art practice, and introduce gonzo research as a way of presenting art-generated knowledge without falling back on the epistemological model of the map.

Tactics

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argues that despite various apparatus that reinforce dominant meanings of place (laws and regulations, urban planning, maps), heterogeneous meanings are formed through the everyday spatial practice of its inhabitants (The Practice of Everyday Life 2002). De Certeau borrows military terminology to distinguish between two epistemological approaches to space; the “strategic” and the “tactical”(The Practice of Everyday Life 2002). The strategic approach formulates place as a demarcated territory, viewed from a privileged position of control, whereas the tactical is everyone else’s experience of inhabiting space ‘on the ground.’

Comparing the strategic place to a language, and the tactical spatial practice to an enunciation of that language, he points out that while the strategic representation of place attempts to dominate our understanding, the space is actualised through its tactical use, for example in the walker’s decision to respect conventions, or interdictions such as Keep Out signs.

The long poem of walking manipulates spatial organisations, no matter how panoptic they may be: it is neither foreign to them (it can take place only within them) nor in conformity with them (it does not receive its identity from them). (de Certeau 2002)

The allowances of the built environment – particular configurations of spatial ordering – give a structure for possible use, but they don’t dictate how the location is actually practised. A place provides the conditions to perform an “ensemble of possibilities” (e.g. stairs to ascend, monkey bars to climb, doors to open) and contains obstacles and blocks to other possibilities (e.g. walls, fences, locks). The inhabitants might choose which of these possibilities they actualise, but they can also invent altogether new ways of using the space (e.g. sitting on the stairs, vaulting the fences).

Meaning is not implicit to a place, but comes out of how space is used. From the rented apartment (which I make my own through furniture, books, etc.) to less prosaic examples of alternative readings of the urban environment such as parkour, where regulating architectures “fall short in light of [the] potential for different ways of encountering and moving with and through supposedly rigid structures” (Brunner 2011), to temporary poaching of space (through graffiti, squatting, guerrilla gardening), tactics are an opportunistic reappropriating and repurposing of what is available, to make sense of it in your own way – a ‘making do.’

According to de Certeau, the tactical transformation is only possible when the right sort of intelligence (Metis - Μῆτις) is present at the opportune moment (Kairos - καιρός). Metis is a practical intelligence; know-how/savoir-faire, of improvisation, of “flair, sagacity, foresight, intellectual flexibility, deception, resourcefulness, vigilant watchfulness, a sense of opportunities” (Detienne and Vernant 1974) .

Hacking

Coming from a computer-literate background, reading about de Certeau’s tactics brought to mind another form of meaning-making and system re-appropriation: hacking. Hacking unpacks the black-box understanding of the system, (Latour 1987) questions the accepted set of relationships and connections that are embedded within, and looks at the possible ways its constituent parts can work, in ways that were unintended by the designers and missed out from the ‘maps’ used to describe them.

In the popular culture sense of hacking, an intruder logging on to a system can gain unauthorised access by exploiting knowledge of the low-level workings of the system: whereas in the idealised model, a visitor’s identity is determined by entering their username validated by a password, the intruder may be intimately aware of how the login code handles the entered text, and how it fails to adequately check its length before placing it in memory, allowing them to craft an input that will overrun the buffer and allow them to execute their own code.

In the more contemporary use, hacking refers to an ad-hoc, creative remix culture combining disparate elements (or in ‘mashups’, different data sources) to produce entirely new outcomes, with hackerspaces providing rapid prototyping tools (3D printers, laser cutters), soldering stations, and supporting collaborators becoming more widespread.

So where tactics can be thought of as an idiosyncratic journey through a space, sometimes traveling in spite of what the map indicates, hacking connects points through paths omitted from the system diagram or user manual, both happening through the right know-how applied at an opportune moment.

At the intersection of hacking and tactical practice of space, researchers have noted the surprisingly effective ad-hoc emergency response networks, created and run entirely without an organisational hierarchy by communities ‘on the ground’, that have formed in the place of ineffective or broken command-control structures: Twitter’s use (via an SMS gateway) in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake as a robust way to communicate medical and logistical needs, (Starbird and Stamberger 2010) the use of shared custom Google maps to track the Southern California wildfires, and Facebook groups to coordinate the creation of an accurate victim list for the Virginia Tech campus shootings.(Liu and Palen 2010)

Less dramatic uses of technology have significantly changed how people perceive the city: proximity-based dating apps like Tinder have changed localised mating rituals and spread them across virtual spaces. GPSs and Google Maps have disconnected sign-posts, road markings, favourite short-cuts, and our grandfather’s out-of-date advice from our experience of navigating the city, replacing them with distributed cloud-based path optimisation.

Of course, digital technologies aren’t the first to contribute to our meaning-making of cities. Out of the alienating Brutalist architecture of Los Angeles, urban skateboarders managed to conjure the spirit of freedom and exhilaration of surfing: evoking a poetic image of the city as an ocean of concrete waves. (Borden 2001)

In his own PhD research, artist and architect Prof. Richard Goodwin (my supervisor and primary investigator for the ARC research project my thesis was part of) used a designer suit to perform a kind of spatial hack. Donning the suit and entering private office buildings in Sydney’s CBD, he was able to reconfigure the defined boundaries of public and private spaces of the city (Goodwin 2007) – places that would normally be closed off were open for him to freely enter (a nice computer security and sociology crossover for the concept of “privilege escalation”) 2 (Dziura 2013).

When Charlie Chaplin tactically re-purposes his cane for comic effect, he is pushing it “beyond the limits that the determinants of the object set on its utilisation”(de Certeau 2002) . When I hack my Nook E-ink reader I remove artificial constraints on the functioning of its software and hardware, and it becomes a cheap, miniature Linux computer. When Goodwin infiltrates the city it becomes something temporarily more porous.

Gonzo research

As de Certeau says, “space is practiced place”: its meaning comes from use, not static or existing a priori. The implication to researchers is that their object of study is something that can’t be observed from an objective distance – it changes depending on how you engage with it. Research must contextualise the researcher in relationship with the field, must be experimental, tactical: a process of ‘making sense.’

Tactics are both an ontological and epistemological activity. They are creative practices that not only bring things into being, but also manifest a way of understanding the world. Beyond the schematic process of re-purposing places, concepts, or technologies lies a way of making meaningful the world one inhabits, which is both a practice of composition, and a type of knowledge itself – a theory of being.

The ways of operating do not merely designate activities that a theory might take as its objects. They also organise its construction. Far from remaining external to theoretical creation or at its threshold, [tactics] form_a field of operations within which the production of theory also takes place._ (de Certeau 2002)

Approaching my written thesis with this methodology in mind, the activity of talking about my art practice mobilised the same sort of tactical engagement as making the works – it became indistinguishable from the tactical art practice itself. The process of writing critical theory is made explicitly performative through its own creative meaning-making, inextricably linked with its subject:

A possibility offers itself for making explicit the relation of theory to the procedures from which it results and to those which are its objects: a discourse composed of stories. The narrativising of practices is a textual “way of operating” having its own procedures and tactics. (de Certeau 2002)

This approach is not new in Philosophy. As de Certeau points out, Foucault claimed to write only stories, while for Bourdieu stories form the “vanguard and reference” of his system (The Practice of Everyday Life 2002). Likewise, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A thousand plateaus (Massumi 1987) is effectively a multiplicity of stories.

This “discourse composed of stories” is something embraced by Fictocriticism, an approach to writing within the Humanities which departs from the traditional use of an objective, authoritative voice in argumentation. Fictocriticism has been utilised by contemporary anthropologists as a way of avoiding the oversimplification of reductive models, and the contrived maintenance of subject/object divide: the narrative forms a relationship with the practices it encounters, “writing with rather than writing about(Muecke 2012) .

Taking inspiration from Bruno Latour’s Compositionism (Muecke 2012), fictocritique proposes a critical style that attempts to build pragmatic accounts of the world evaluated not on the basis of truth versus fiction, but (since all arguments must be constructed in one way or another) on how well constructed they are (Latour 2010). In striking contrast to the scientific method’s foundation on isolated variables and impartial observation, it presents accounts as contingent, provisional, and tentative; a tour or recounted story rather than a map.

As such, I was inspired to call this methodology gonzo research, channelling the spirit of Hunter S Thompson’s gonzo journalism, which eschewed the pretence of objective distance in favour of the author’s embedded, active part in the story. In gonzo research the researcher-author isn’t positioned outside the territory they are discussing: they speak from ‘on the ground’, and acknowledge that their viewpoint, experiences, and associations colour their observations.

As a tactical practice, gonzo research exhibits these four features:

1. Performative

What may seem like a radically subjective agenda in presenting research as personal field-reports and tours rather than an objective ‘map’ is actually just a change in the authoritative voice and a preservation of the context in which it was performed. The strategic map separates the visible presence of the observer from the observations, but the observer was nonetheless instrumental in the mapping process, bringing to it a set of values, judgements, and politics:

Maps are transitory and fleeting, being contingent, relational and context-dependent; they are always mappings; spatial practices enacted to solve relational problems (e.g., how best to create a spatial representation, how to understand a spatial distribution, how to get between A and B, and so on). (Kitchin and Dodge 2007)

Unlike the map, however, the tour or recounted story does not try to efface the conditions of their creation, they are fundamentally performative.

2. Creative (experimental)

Gonzo research does not only rely on pre-defined archetypal structures to make sense of the world. Rather than utilise a set of ready-made pigeon-holes and strenuously resisting “[the] idea that for a new object we might have to create a new concept, perhaps a new method of thinking,” 3 the tactical approach composes meaning ad-hoc.

These newly birthed creations aren’t ‘true’ or ‘false’, just as an artwork or a hacked-together invention isn’t true or false. They may or may not be well composed for their purpose. The status of one account as better composed than another is decided by what they can accomplish, and how compelling it is: the strategic map is not ‘untrue’, but is less reliable or helpful for understanding the territory it describes on anything other than an imposed structural level, i.e. it does not help discover new connections.

Tactics are vitalist, bringing new concepts to life. Tactics produce prototypes, provocations, proofs-of-concept, and even maybe the occasional hideous The Fly-style experimental combination that is better left to die quietly in the dark. If the practices they generate are to thrive, they must be compelling enough that others will reproduce them and keep them alive.

3. A multiplicity

Tactics make sense of the world in spite of a strategic, prescriptive, totalising system. As an experimental approach, the accounts gonzo research produces are partial and provisional. Each one is simply a field-report, but notably not a contributing piece of the puzzle that comes together to give the whole picture. There is no whole picture beyond individual attempts to make sense of the world, just as there is no universal artwork, or way of inhabiting urban space.

De Certeau describes the operation of tactics, but Delouse and Guattari provide a manifesto for tactical critique: write rhizomatically. Have short-term ideas. Form new assemblages of concepts that can become further re-appropriated and transformed into other ways of thinking (Deleuze and Guattari 1994) .

Gonzo research is comfortable – and honest – in its provisionality, not attempting psychoanalysis, but rather ‘schizoanalysis’: not a reduction to the single semiotic system, but a splitting into a multiplicity of accounts that brings out new “assemblages of enunciation” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987), like Italo Calvino’s Marco Polo exploding Venice into a multiplicity of stories (Calvino 1974).

4. Ecological (or rhizomatic)

Gonzo research doesn’t beg the question by demarcating its territory beforehand. The area of investigation can change according to the path the researcher takes. The boundaries of concern are opened up: no easy delineation from one to the other once we start opening the boxes and making a mess of all the parts. We no longer have the well-defined boundaries of a discipline or a system, but instead something ecological and architectonic.

In particular, it is open to an acknowledgement of ‘magic thinking’ in tactics, where things in proximity can bleed into one another, can form intangible relationships. It includes an appreciation for dreams, myths, and poetic images in an account of the world, as articulated in Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space (Bachelard 1964) , de Certeau’s example of familiar-sounding street names influencing foreigners’ paths through a city, Latour’s actor-networks of “heterogenous chains” of association, or my own experience of the residual effects of playing first-person video-games on my perception of the world.

Making sense

The artworks that formed my thesis investigation articulated my own ways of connecting technologies in contrast to their intended schemas and work-flows. I was taking the “rational technics of legibility and distinguishing” (de Certeau 2002) disconnecting them from the production of useful, readable, stable maps, and generating my own meaningful spaces with(in) them.

As with spatial tactics, the artworks took what was at hand, and – through a set of engaged practices – produced a meaningful story out of them that was neither in conformity with the authoritative account of the world nor foreign to the world:

[…A]rt does not transport us to an elsewhere but utilises the stuff of the world (we might say the stuff of capitalism) albeit in a different way. Art here is the discovery of new combinations and new ways of folding the world ‘into’ the self, or put more simply, new kinds of subjectivity. (O’Sullivan 2005)

Taking what was given, applying my own know-how (hacking skills from computer science education) at the opportune moment for this particular wily transformation: combine these technologies, modify this one, etc. A subjective, thoroughly sited and timely view of the world through the experiences and perspective of the artist. While the works came about from emerging technologies (some work was needed to hack experimental technologies into playing nicely with others), the outcomes were distinctly new aesthetics of these technologies.

The Path series of works transform a conventional map-making process and technologies of capture and analysis (composite image processing, cloud-computing) to trace a spatial practice. They represent my walks through various cities, but rather than the familiar GPS ‘breadcrumb’ line tracked through Google Maps (an object in a fixed relationship to the map containing it), the paths follow the point of connection between the city and my body, abandoning reference to buildings, roads, or absolute scale and location, leaving only the point of intimate contact.

Harle, Josh. ‘Path: Berlin’. 2013.

The Surround works take a set of strategic technologies (ubiquitous image capture and sharing, photogrammetry, mobile devices, internet) and use them to produce an evocative, atmospheric sketch of a space. Surround installations are composed of a spatial assemblage of photographs, enveloping the user inside an ambiguous, layered cloud of images that extends to their periphery. The photographs that form the space are intangible and constantly destabilised (shifting and overlapping, fading in and out of opacity), yet taken together are able to give a sense of a space and the photographer’s movement within that space. Unlike the photogrammetry technology the works utilise, Surround installations maintain the specificity of the images and do not produce a solid object, never giving a static view of the entirety. Instead, they take tours through fragments of viewpoints, resisting readability; one image never entirely distinguished from the rest.

Harle, Josh. ‘Surround:Chinatown’ . 2013.

An older work, Demonstration, proposes imaginative play as a methodology for ‘making sense’. Laser-etched figures are offered as a research tool for investigating the temporary emotional landscapes of spaces of civil disobedience. The player/researcher plays-through a scenario to gain insights into the lived experiences that would be entirely absent from an isolated, ‘objective’ account of the situation. The material particularities of the space are considered subordinate to the emotional, and squares, roads, and obstacles should be formed ad-hoc out of whatever comes to hand (a tissue-box or stack of books for example). The researcher is directed to roleplay the different actors in the scenario in the style of a child playing with dolls or toy soldiers. The play-through of the situation should be considered a legitimate form of knowledge-creation akin to, say, the simulations a material engineer would run on a composite aircraft wing: a low-fi artistic research technology.

Harle, Josh. ‘Demonstration’. 2010. Video still.

A tactical art practice is nothing surprising, but approaching the written support for the works with the same methodology is more unusual:

…He falls, rises scrambling, bobbing and weaving towards the only unblocked exit from the square. We speak together as the territory is enclosed by a wall of police; “Crap!”. Not really to anyone, not for the sake of communication; an expression of resignation that echoes across the space, mingles with the other voices of anger, desperation, panic – shouts and cries and weeping – that have transformed Westminster into a prison battleground. (His body shakes with frustration.)

But of course, we’re only playing a game. In the ground between the slick BBC infographics and official injury figures, we are playing a game of soldiers, of barbie dolls, and even Indiana Jones. Conducting an archaeological dig in the tabletop space flanked by a tissue-box parliament and coffee-cup cathedral, we are unearthing a long-lost chamber of secrets that lasted only a few hours. A kind of protest in itself really….

The figures are caricatures; each body unambiguously inscribed with its agency and identity within the game. But this is not chess, or the war room. Child’s-play is always open to an extraordinary transformation: the superman protester that decks the entire police force, or the police horses who fall in love and elope taking their riders with them, or the hoodies anarchist who decides to leave this field and pilot the toy car.

So with my right hand I pick up a laser-etched piece and “walk” it a few centimetres across the tabletop. My protester stops, confronted by the deployment of riot police I’ve scooped towards her with my left hand. I take turns speaking out the voice of each figure, role-playing a naive over-statement of the desires of each: “Don’t raise the tuition fees! Oh no! Ouch!” as I twitch the policemen in simulated baton-swing.

A poetic forensics; rediscovering a lived architecture through the sparsest factual account of real urban clashes. Making use of our faculty for feeling to rediscover a hidden space.

All of these works are examples of my tactical practice of spaces and technologies. Each work was a story of its own composition; seeking an alternative form of (spatial) knowledge-creation that departs from the productive outcomes and rationalising tendencies of their constituent technologies, and reaffirms the importance of performance in the creation of meanings of space.

Knowledge (re)production

In Science in Action Bruno Latour describes the social practices and relationships of scientific research. Later he warns that the layperson’s failure to understand this process – a form of composition of argument – has caused disillusionment with climate change research (Latour 1987). There is a difference between the stoic face of Science, and the activity out of which discovery comes:

[…on] the one hand, the tentative moves, pragmatic ruses, and successive tactics that mark the stages of practical investigation and, on the other hand, the strategic representations offered to the public as the product of these operations. (de Certeau 2002)

Latour points out that scientific discourse has talked about the influence of culture and politics only in the context of explaining previous failures, implying that the successful exclusion of these outside distractions from the lab will avoid any further error (Luckhurst 2006) . At the same time, he illustrates how scientific research is thoroughly socialised, and requires a vast network of allies to be successful (Latour 1987) .

Though the process is described as objective, consisting of neutral measurement and testing, there are just as many opportunistic tactics, as is illustrated by the twitter hashtag #overlyhonestmethods and the confessional posts associated with it 4. It’s entirely possible to tell the story of science research using a very different voice from that used in academic journal papers: Latour does just this in his account of “How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society”.

Institutional science needs to work its way into the cannon (the agreed ‘map of territory’) to be circulated, fighting hard to turn its propositions into the neatly enclosed blackboxes representing accepted ideas in scientific discourse, which can then be reproduced through others’ paper citations.

The story, artwork, or spatial practice reproduces in a very different way though. The ‘knowledge’ of parkour for example – a drastically alternative way of thinking about the city and the body, or a sort of body-city hack – was interesting enough to catch the imagination and thrive.

De Certeau speaks of the disruptive power of spatial practice: how a simple act like walking can shake the strategic narrative of the city. The potential for change comes from tactical spatial practices that jolt and seduce: “Like a peddler, carrying something surprising, transverse or attractive compared with the usual choice.” At any moment the walker can break from convention, can (for example) become a traceur taking a parkour line-of-flight across buildings that is “neither foreign nor in conformity” with the authoritative meaning of the city (de Certeau 2002) .

Gonzo research allows these acts of creative provocation, of seduction and playfulness, and the genuine thrill of generating and exploring new territory.

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  1. I’ve previously referred to this approach as describing a ‘tour’ in opposition to presenting a map, see (Harle 2014).

  2. “Privilege escalation”, Wikipedia, link, retrieved 1 January 2015.

  3. Creative Evolution (Bergson and Mitchell 1911) , quoted in Deleuze and the Meaning of Life (Colebrook 2010), cited in (Muecke 2012).

  4. As reported in The Guardian (Lorch 2013).