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Interview: National Geographic’s Guerilla Geographer Daniel Raven-Ellison
November 16, 2012 | 9:00AM
It’s National Geographic’s Geography Week ladies and gentlemen! What? You didn’t know? Put away those atlases, this is more than just memorizing capitals of countries far, far away.  Geography Week is an  awareness program focused on highlighting the importance of geo-literacy and geo-education created through National Geographic .  I had the pleasure of talking about this and many other fascinating topics with Emerging Explorer Daniel Raven-Ellison, the brains and face of Guerilla Geography and Project Mission: Explore.
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  • For our readers, who may not be familiar with you, what is “Guerilla Geography”?  Tell us how you got into exploring urban landscapes in the first place.

Guerrilla Geography is about being radical, creative, unexpected, unusual, informal, strange, critical, curious, alternative and subversive. We’re all familiar with guerrilla movements that range from violent guerrilla warfare and the occupy movement through to guerrilla gardeners, yarn bombers and a raft of other artists. As well as having a cause, what many of these groups have in common is a desire the change places by occupying them in some way and in doing so, cross political, legal, cultural or emotional lines. These are all core geographical ideas and I would argue that all these groups are engaged in guerrilla geographies. As a guerrilla geographer I see things I don’t like or I’m curious about and find ways to explore, question and challenge them.

On the flight to the US from London I watched Step Up Revolution. I wasn’t expecting much from the film but with my guerrilla geography brain in gear I was riveted. If you’ve not seen it, written by Amanda Broody and set in Miami the film tells the story of a flash Mob of  who break (un)written rules through what’s essentially a sexed up and dancing occupy movement. Taking over streets, museums, restaurants and public events there aim is to prevent a property developer from tearing down their homes for a new hotel. This is a story of threatened topocide (the process of killing a place) and gentrification that’s tackled head-on by acts of guerrilla geography. I’ll not spoil the ending for you.

We’re all unavoidably and inevitably explorers. From the moment we exit our mothers we spend our entire lives (and possibly beyond) asking questions and searching for answers. As I see it, exploration is the physical manifestation of geography as we ask where we’re from, where we can find a decent rave, where we like to be touched, where we want to go on holiday, where can want to work, where we want to live, where we want to die… all big and important questions that are routed in places.

The question then is what to do with our power to explore? Are we passive, accepting and unquestioning or do we actively search for experiences and new ideas. I’ve been fortunate enough to explore lots of different places, but cities fascinate me.

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  • Your films tend to include pictures you take every eight-or-so steps as you traverse from one side of a City to another.  How did this concept come about and what do you think it teaches you about each City?

As I see it these massively important places are largely misrepresented by tour guides, tour books, the media and many of the anecdotes that we share. I wanted to see another side of specific cities and so decided to walk across them using routes that reflect social, cultural, economic or environmental factors in a project called Urban Earth. Working with a Geographic Information System specialist or a cartographer we develop a map that shows the distribution of deprivation or another variable. I then spend time planning out a the route so that it reflects what the map shows. By doing this the city often defines where I have to walk for me, taking away much of the bias that would be in the walk if it was left to my devices.

The films are certainly a big piece of these explorations, but a massive learning point for me is always in my sense of loss and mourning for the things that I don’t get to ‘capture’. For Urban Earth walks I always photograph the space that I’m moving into. I’m often surrounded by fascinating people, objects and stories but all I record is what’s in front of me. The experience heightens my awareness of the things I am drawn to and makes me question why I find a scruffy cat, dead badger, long alley, abandoned shoe or something else so much more interesting than other things in my surroundings.

Urban Story walks are different. These are about intentionally doing violent, depressing, scary or other walks to explore and record the specific theme.

All of my Urban Earth videos are available under a creative commons license which means anyone can mash them up into whatever they like. I can share the original photos too. I like that they’ve been used in lots of stuff from Street Knowledge by Kind Adz and Ecological Urbanism from Harvard HSD through to VJs at raves.

  • You’ve been to DC before… can you give us the lay of the land through your own eyes?  What has your “Guerilla Geography” shown you about our City?
I think it would be healthy to organise some collaborative polar explorations in DC. Walking between different extremes in the district… most to least healthy, most to least walkable, most to least access to good food, far north to far south… with the focus being on discussions between walkers as ‘strangers’ from different parts of the city meet, reflect on and share their experiences of it. There are some clear geographic divides in the city and if handled well this kind of activity could bring about some unusual and interesting results.
  • We’re broadcasting in New York now too.  Can you tell us a little about your experiences in New York as well?
I’ve not been to New York in ages. I’d like to do a walk across it’s urban footprint though and this extends way beyond the city itself. From a distance I’m always inspired to here about lots of playful ‘guerrilla geographies’ being played out in the city from street art through to urban wide games.
  • You talk a lot about “food deserts,” can you explain what that is and why it impacts a locale so heavily?

A food desert is a place where there is a shortage or even a complete absence of healthy food. There are places that despite being urban, heavily populated and connected to transport systems have no decent grocery stores. Options are limited to deep fried chicken and heavily processed foods. For people living in food deserts walking to a store with fresh fruit and vegetables is a challenge and an drive may be the only reasonable option. Obesity, diabetes and other health conditions are worse in these places have knock on effects not only for the health of individuals and their families, but whole communities and ultimately all of us.

Walking across a food desert is an interesting thing to do and that’s one of the things I’ve done while in DC.

If it was down to me then a tax would be levied against heavily processed foods and the funds directly invested in subsidising fresh fruit and vegetables.

 

  • In a time where we can connect with anyone from anywhere across the globe, why do you think there are still stigmas about communities and cities?

You say “in a time where we can connect with anyone from anywhere across the globe” and link that to the issue of stigmas, prejudice, ignorance, fear of the other and unknown, but in your questioning you’ve fallen into a thought trap.

I’m always amused by the adverts that United airlines use. I’d guestimate that around 80% of their adverts are based on lying to their (potential) customers through distorting and twisting their geographical knowledge and reasoning. They make statements about ‘foreign’ losing its meaning, brining places closer together or, in the current most used advert claiming that “70% of the world is covered by water. We cover the rest.”.This is a lie.   They don’t cover the rest at all, they cover a relatively limited number of the worlds cities focussing almost entirely on the richest and most connected ones. It would be fair to say that they don’t even cover 99.9% of the world’s surface.

For those of us who belong to a relatively privileged elite (by elite I mean living in one of the world’s most powerful and richest nations) advertising, large brands and neo-liberal economists give us the sense that we can connect with anyone anywhere across the globe, but we can’t. Differences in technology, location, language, culture, desires and the sheer number of people on the planet can all stop us connecting in a personally meaningful way. So, I’d argue that if we are to deal with stigmas we first need to accept and understand our geographies of (in)difference.

  • What are some ways we, as readers, can engage in social/environmental justice?

A big part of guerrilla geography is taking action on an issue that you care about. Anyone can do this. Interventions I’ve been involved with include holding a Waterboarding Championship outside the US Embassy in London during the Bush administration to put this secretive activity into a public space and raise awareness of torture issues. More recently a group of use organised Guerrilla Geography Day, an international day of action that focussed on exploring, challenging and in some instances creating “No Signs”. The next Guerrilla Geography Day is on March 7th and we’re keen for lots of people to join in.

I think gender inequality and violence against women is the biggest social injustice we face. More men and women need to start calling themselves feminists and taking daily actions to move feminism forward in an inclusive way. I’d like the next Guerrilla Geography Day to focus on identifying, highlighting and challenging public gender inequalities.

  • What is project “Mission:Explore,” and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

Mission:Explore is a project that I started with The Geography Collective. We’re a team of geography teachers, explorers, artists, therapists, designers and more. The aim of the project is to encourage and support more children, families and schools to benefit from exploring, playing and learning outdoors. We do this through lots of quirky mission-based challenges like investigating the murder of an animal, photographing the most beautiful poo, crossing a place but only being allowed to breath while touching a tree or asking a bunch of old people to hang-out on a street corner to see how people react.

We’ve a website that’s full of missions and have four books out too. We’re really excited about our most recent book, Mission:Explore Food, as it not only gets children outside, but it focuses on such an important topic. Unlike most cookbooks for kids and families we challenge children to think about where their meat comes from, how it’s slaughtered, the ethics of invisible costs and their poo. All important stuff brought together through fun challenges and illustrated by the wonderful Tom Morgan-Jones.

Guerrilla geography and exploration are at its heart, but these two ideas a very much dependent on those taking part having some level of freedom. The reality is that many schools are cutting recess and don’t take children on fieldtrips as they’re risk averse and slaves to a system of assessments and standards. When children get home from school the picture does not necessarily improve. So many parents are afraid of cars, strangers, mud or their kids not being home in time for dinner that they’d prefer them to risk getting obese, having diabetes, being depressed and/or not learning how to deal with risks or talk to people in their communities.

So Mission:Explore has had not only to be about giving children, parents and teachers ideas, but also making the argument to give them the freedom to go outside. We love the freerange kids movement.

  • Has there ever been a place on your travels that you wouldn’t return?

At the risk of sounding pedantic I don’t think it is possible to return to the same place. You can go back to the same location, but by the time you return it will have changed and so you won’t actually be visiting the same place again…

…but to take your question in the way you meant it: No.

  • What is the hardest part of daring people to challenge preconceptions about place?
Daring people is not hard. People not wanting to be dared is the hard part.
  • Anything else you’d like to add?

Follow Daniel Raven-Ellison and his team on twitter @RavenEllison and online at www.ravenellison.com.  Want more on Daniel and his works/mission you can also check out:

  1. www.guerrillageographyday.com
  2. @GeoCollective www.geographycollective.co.uk
  3. @MissionExplore www.missionexplore.net

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