RGS Conference: Nexus thinking

I had the pleasure of attending the Royal Geographical Society’s (with IBG) Annual Conference in London in early September. I really didn’t know what to expect, and it turned out to be a great experience. Over three days, I attended every single session each day, 12 sessions in all. The work presented was very inspiring – and it wasn’t all about maps. In fact, I rarely heard the word during the entire conference. This was about geography, or geographies.

On this page, I’ll highlight some of the sessions. Click here to read more detail about how I chose sessions to attend and more about the people I met.

I attended the evening plenary on the first night to get an overview of what the conference was about and who these people were. The theme of the conference was Nexus Thinking. Like many fields, including graphic design or design in general, the profession has expanded over the years and silos of practice and thinking have developed. Geographers work across disciplines, cultures, politics, interior and exterior spaces and are involved with familiar subjects of sustainability, technology, and the human condition. One speaker said, “Geographers aren’t in the same room enough.” Sound familiar? Another said, “Sustainability is about politics, not the technical.” This sentiment came up often throughout the sessions I attended.

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I was up bright and early the next morning for the first session featuring the Leverhulme Trust’s Artists in Residence. This program pairs artists and geography students in universities. This interdisciplinary approach helps the students look at their profession with fresh eyes and gets them out of their comfort zone. The work was quite varied. One person worked with a university geography department and had everyone from the administrators to the professors write stories about geography. A photographer documented the (vanishing) habitat of cuckoos in Africa. Another photographer documented the Shard, a newish pointy highrise office tower that dominates the skyline from South London (where I am staying).

There was a lot about “reading landscapes.” An artist I had met prior to the conference, Flora Parrott, was partnered with a geographer from Kingston University. They conducted a special (non credit) workshop for Fine Art and Geography students in which the students devised ways to “read” the disused entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel in East London. It was one of the early tunnels under the Thames where people walked to the other bank. Students measured and made charts, they took photos and did some 3d modeling of the space. They put it all together in a film, with spoken word lists as the soundtrack. Very ambitious and impressive.

I was intrigued with one session about learning GIS – because eventually, I would like to determine if this is a tool I could use. An energetic guy, Patrick Rickles, from Cleveland(!) discussed whether or not when learning GIS context was important – did the learner need to understand the content of the lesson? It seems students equate GIS software with geography–when GIS is one tool they use to communicate their findings. Sounds a bit like teaching Creative Suite. Photoshop is not Graphic Design, much like ArcGIS is not Geography. I introduced myself to him and will meet up with him later in the month.

I asked this particular panel if they were concerned about everyone’s maps looking the same, because they all use the same software. The response was that they didn’t seem to mind because they were more interested in the data being presented. Since mapping software is sophisticated and generally fairly legible, even if sometimes too dense with information, maps created with common mapping software look pretty good! Therefore the aesthetic does not seem to be an issue for them. But as a designer this is one of the issues I have with digital map making. Take Google Maps, for instance, Cairo looks like London, London looks like Milwaukee and so on. Each lacks the character of the place. This year one of my investigations will be how to establish place through texture and imagery on digital maps.

Friday’s 9am session #275 – “Sensory orientations: transversal practices and dissemination within art and geography” was a real treat. Each person presenting was an artist. A few presented their work as performance. Very nice! These artists were recipients of grants and their work centered on geographies and sense of place. Listening to these people and seeing or experiencing their work was very inspiring. It was very interesting to see how each one of them approached the subject of geography in a very unique way. Read more about the artists here.

One session was fascinating – it was about “home.” Anthropologist Vitalija Stepusaityte, whom I met at the first cocktail hour, presented her research about Lithuanian women living in Edinburgh (she is also Lithuanian, living in Edinburgh) and how they make their “homes” in this foreign place, as “home” is an ongoing process. Another researcher spoke of professionals living in foreign places and how they cope with creating a temporary home.

Artist Janetka Platun had a very different way of approaching people about the subject of home. She created “Globe,” a large copper sphere equipped with small cameras, that she rolled through the streets of London, engaging people along the way. The cameras captured the sights, sounds and conversations that went on around it. More about Globe here.

I enjoyed the presentation “Learning from Blackpool” a take off on Venturi’s “Learning from Las Vegas” purely for its entertainment value. I’m very interested in historic beach towns, such as Margate and Brighton in the UK and Asbury Park and Coney Island in the USA. Blackpool is a seaside town on the western coast of England. It’s known for its “Illuminations” – they light up every possible thing on the boardwalk, or promenade. He spoke of how the illuminations create a sense of place in Blackpool. It’s pretty tacky and over the top. I want to go!


Prior to the conference start, I signed up for TAGSCAPE, a workshop, just to break up the conference and get me outside. Luckily, the day was beautiful. TAGSCAPE “explores ways of visualizing information about natural landscapes and turning it into innovative maps that will engage the general public and not just the specialist”. This seemed to be the focus of involving artists with geography “to make geography more accessible to everyone.” We were taken across the street to Hyde Park, just near the Prince Albert Memorial, to three different landscapes (chosen by the staff at Hyde Park). We were asked to pick up grass or leaves or whatever we found laying on the ground (we weren’t allowed to dig anything up.) As we gathered things, we were told a bit of history about the area and were also asked to write down what were feeling, seeing, hearing and smelling (collecting data). We put our treasures and our recorded “data” in little bags that were brought back to the Society Tea Room. Here, artist Dominica Williamson and geographer John Martin had set up all kinds of park flora for us. We used the plants, dirt and flowers to create mini landscapes in these wonderful terrariums. We added some of the words recorded in the field (our data) to enhance our work. At the same time, in forest in Dartmoor, a group of university students were doing the same type of project in a local forest. They were teleconferenced in to the Tea Room and we presented our work to each other. Normally, this type of reading landscape session would last several hours or a day. We had about 2 hours to complete the whole exercise, but it was a lot of fun.

The last session I attended was given by, in my mind, the rockstar of the conference. By this I mean I had actually heard of his company several weeks before coming to London. Chris Sheldrick, of What3Words presented. To think that he and his buddies started this company only three years ago! What3Words has split the globe into 3 x 3 meter squares and given each a coordinate of three different words. This helps locate homes and businesses that do not have any kind of traditional addressing. The Mirror wrote an article entitled “Brilliant British app what3words will stop you getting lost in the favelas at the Rio 2016 Olympics” that circulated on social media around the time of the Olympics. He told a great story about how he started the company because he was responsible for getting his band mates and their instruments to the same place for a gig. Often the bandmates would be in one place and the equipment would be in another due to mistakes in reading directions. They tried long/lat coordinates, but that didn’t work for them either. They needed a better system to make sure everything that should arrive at one place would arrive at that place. Hence the company was born. I spoke with him and intend to contact him as well!

I’m really glad I attended this conference. I learned quite a bit, even though it was not specifically about maps. I met many interesting people. The whole experience has been inspiring. Geography is a broad subject and maps are just a tiny tiny part… much like typography is a just part of the overall field of design. Geographers continually define and redefine their profession, just as design is always changing and being redefined. These geographers recognize the importance of partnering with other disciplines, because their work and message cannot be narrowly defined.

There is far too much to write about in one blog post, so this is the short version. (!) if you would like to read more on my conference reflections and how I decided on a program, click here!

Read more about the artists here.