Queer Cartographies: Re-Printing Toronto’s Harbour – Deborah Cowen & Bambitchell (Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Mitchell)

The following is part of an exchange between Deb Cowen and Bambitchell (Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Mitchell) about their recent collaborate work Where the Trees Stood in Water. A series of five Cyanotype prints on vellum, this work investigates the transformation in Toronto’s Entertainment District through processes of colonialization, industrialization and gentrification. Using cartographic and textual archival fragments, Where the Trees Stood in Water asks questions about settlement and displacement in relation to the entangled remaking of bodies and spaces.

Where the Trees Stood in Water is showing at the SOHO LOBBY GALLERY in Toronto until November 14, 2013.



Cyanotype Print, Vellum, 21” x 57”
Image Credit: Frances Beatty

Amidst the landscape that once was, stood the trees, peppered across the coastline, awaiting their fate. 1787, the Cartographer marks down, using his charcoal pencil to trace the lines that would eventually become the hub of industrialization near the east coast of the Americas, on the vast intruded land. The purchase was made, the exchange occurred, the men laughed in unison as they walked away not knowing the impact of their exchange. A quarter-million acres later and the derelict naming of a town recalls the bloodline of the Mississaugas of the New Credit.


Cyanotype Print, Vellum, 33” x 45”
Image Credit: Frances Beatty

Furiously tracing from the islands he calls home, the Cartographer imprints charcoal to rice paper and looks out at Fort York. It is 1857, and the streets are filled with the steam of development. Under the weight of industrialization, the multi-coloured bodies push, heave, load, unload, break, crack, lift and drop, animating York’s harbour. From his safe distance, the Cartographer hears the songs they sing to keep afloat through hands splitting, skin breaking, and sweat drenching the grounds of the land they helped build. The interlude breaks the sounds of the steamship engines:

I hollow ships of freight and origin; rising tenor of spitting sea,
do not take from me
A dream of rest and family. We move cargo and coin under sweating suns,
This sprawling circuit of men, whose bodies writhe under industrious invention.
Our limbs unfastened from home, remade while humming pleas
for recognition of our labour, of anguished muscle and skin stretched, metallic.



Cyanotype Print, Vellum, 33” x 45”
Image Credit: Frances Beatty

She walks through her house on the corner of King Street West and Simcoe Street. Trudging up and down the thick wooden floorboards, her dress – frills, bows and corset, dragging their way back and forth from England to the New World. The Cartographer sits across in the grassy knoll, charcoal in hand, tracing the lines of change over the last five decades. The songs of the kaleidoscopic bodies are washed away by horse hooves and dragging carts, wheels on cobblestone, boots on pavement. He watches her sit at her desk, place fountain pen to fresh paper while she stares at the open curtains in front of her and writes furiously.

Johnny* is having some of his colleagues over for dinner tonight – obviously in a continued effort to impress them and exhaust me! I must remember to tell that ragged Irish girl how to make a good banoffee pie:

1. Make a cheesecake base
2. Boil 2 cups of condensed milk for 3 hours and spread over base
3. Slice some bananas on top
4. Add some whipped cream
5. Add another layer of banana

*John Coxwell Gerrard Doe III (Toronto Centre member of 8th parliament, 1899-1907)



Cyanotype Print, Vellum, 33” x 45”
Image Credit: Frances Beatty

Humid and unusually hot for an October evening, the Cartographer stares up at the twilight sky watching the suits and skirts make their way home before the landscape drastically changes to house Toronto’s nightlife. In 1983 Toronto, between Richmond Street West and Peter Street, electronic music is heard as heavy handled doors open and close. The Cartographer sees the man in the slicked back hairdo, chatting with a group of well-dressed twenty-somethings. Hands exchange narcotics. Hands exchange money. Hands exchange hands. The Cartographer bears witness to this exchange week after week, as he himself purchases opiates that will occupy his feet as he searches for a companion.

The metal door bursts open. Rushing, screaming, chaos, loud noises. Gunshots? Fireworks? The Cartographer runs, the sounds of sirens swell in the near distance.

Johnny Doe, shot twice at close range on Richmond Street West, Toronto, October 3, 1983.



Cyanotype Print, Vellum, 33” x 45”
Image Credit: Frances Beatty

On the corner of King Street West and Blue Jays Way in Toronto, the Cartographer stands outside the SoHo Metropolitan, finishing the last of his cigarette, waiting for his dinner companion to make his way downstairs. Stubbing the brown filter into the pavement, he walks into the lobby and sits on a black leather sofa examining the freshly mounted wooden wall panels. Two men walk into the lobby, looking similar in posture and attire. They quibble all the way from the front door to the elevator. The Cartographer notices their affectionate manner, despite their frustration with one another.

Civil Union has just passed in Canada. The quibbling couple donates their marriage certificate and photographs to the Canadian Gay Archives, in exchange for a tax receipt and a thank you letter:

Dear Mr. and Mr. Doe,

We at the Canadian Gay Archives sincerely thank you for your donation of photographs and marriage certificate. This will serve as apt material for documentation of our lives and our histories.

Please see attached to this letter a tax receipt for your donation.

With Gay Greetings,

Staff, Board & Volunteers
Canadian Gay Archives 


Deborah Cowen: Tell me about the idea for this work. Why did you decide to look at the space surrounding the gallery? How did you choose these particular historical moments to highlight?

Bambitchell: We initially approached the project aware of the limits of the space itself. Though we were excited to be working on a new show, we were daunted by two tasks: 1) creating work that could be hung from metal lines running from the ceiling; and 2) making work for a condo in downtown Toronto. We had been looking for an excuse to “work with our hands,” as we mostly work with video in our collaborative practice, so we decided to take this opportunity to work with 2D media and try something new.

We often deal with narratives of immigration, borders and colonialism, and the space of the condo in downtown Toronto’s “Entertainment District” is ripe with these political histories and geographies. We chose to investigate the types of changes the neighbourhood has endured while simultaneously questioning the ways that narratives of “change” or “progress” are often tied to gentrifying or colonial practices.

Maps and blueprints are generally presented as materials that mark space for people to traverse in and through, but it’s easy to take those materials, and the borders they produce, for granted without questioning the processes and people that created them. We therefore wanted to highlight such aspects of these mediums, and show how this neighbourhood’s formation often gets lost or forgotten. We chose the years based on periods in the neighbourhood’s history that would have housed very different kinds of people – from First Nations, to dock workers, to parliamentarians, to club goers, to present-day condo buyers – in order to focus on what information is skimmed over through depictions of Canadian urban “progress”.

We begin with the first map we found of the area in 1797, and end with a blueprint of the SoHo Metropolitan where the work is currently being exhibited.

DC: How did you make these maps?

Bambitchell: With our blood, sweat and tears!

We used a Cyanotype printing method, but we were very stubborn with the materials chosen. We wanted the final products to seem fragile in the same way that old maps and blueprints do, so we printed on vellum, which made the entire process a lot more precarious. We treated the paper with a cyanotype chemical compound in the dark room, transported the paper in a light-type tube to a different location, and then exposed each print one-by-one to the sun, with a positive image attached to it. We then had to wash the chemical off the print – which is another place where the fragility of the paper became complicated. Since neither of us had worked with this process before, we employed Golboo Amani, a friend and contemporary artist, to walk us through the process. Each round of printing and re-printing was a test to our (and the paper’s) strength and durability!

DC: What does it mean to tell this story largely through cartography? Why did you work with maps?

Bambitchell: Cartography became an important tool and focus because of the ways in which our understanding of space is commonly delineated. In researching the neighbourhood, we were limited to the maps and documentation in the archive (The Robarts Map Library, City of Toronto Archives). Through this process we came to understand that our knowledge would always be limited and would always have been tampered with. It was almost as if the more we looked at a variety of maps from any one period, the less we understood about the neighbourhood. We were also limited to the periods of documentation that the archive covered, and so we hoped to highlight the constructed nature of these histories and representations.

Despite the change in medium, we often employ the use of camp or irony in our work in that we take common objects or narratives that become widely accepted (news stories, border documents, maps) and alter them in a way that asks viewers to question their expectations of those representations, mainly by making the aesthetics very apparent and overtly excessive. Maps are a form that many people look to in order to understand something about the space they inhabit (or hope to inhabit). By skewing the form of mapmaking by highlighting maps’ precarious and confusing aspects, we ask viewers to question the narratives they hold in place about the spaces they imagine to know, understand or inhabit.

DC: There is a lively critical literature in geography on maps and mapping. This work understands cartography as a technology of power, vital to colonial settlement, state territoriality, and capitalist property relations more broadly. While maps purport to show us the world as it is, critical cartographers have reiterated that they are not in any simple sense “representations of the world”; instead, “maps and mapping precede the territory they ‘represent’” (Pickles 2004). Maps are performative in that they authorize “the state of affairs which through their mapping they help to bring into being” (Wood 2010, 1). I am curious about your re-use of these plans and maps. How are you using them, and what kinds of provocations does re-making them and re-circulating them afford? What kind of territory do you want your maps to precede?

Bambitchell: By highlighting the processes of map-making we hoped to draw attention to the deep construction of these histories. Though maps give us a sense of some of the marks of colonization, industrialization, modernization and gentrification on this neighbourhood, they are also flawed, constructed and political technologies that, when dissected, serve to complicate these histories even more.

Re-making and re-circulating these maps allows us to directly and sequentially look at the changes to the neighbourhood and the ways in which colonialism, industrialization and gentrification affect the human inhabitants of these spaces. By re-creating these maps void of any human figures, we highlight the problematic nature of development. Beginning with the empty shoreline of Toronto (which, just prior to the creation of the map, was purchased by the British Crown from the Mississaugas of the New Credit), Where the Trees… highlights the devastation of what’s to come – the erasure, movement and ghettoization of people. These maps are definitely not “representations of the world”; they are, however, representations of a colonial stamp, which in recent years has become a neoliberal gavel.

DC: Your cartographer fascinates me. He is a mysterious (and hilarious) figure. He appears more as voyeur than power broker to the spaces he haunts. Who is this cartographer?

Bambitchell: The cartographer is any and all characters simultaneously. He is a somewhat formless character who embodies the voyeur, the narrator, the colonizer, the gentrifier, the colonized and us, the artists, all at the same time. He is an Orlando-esque character who traverses through time and space and is “mapped” onto and through these spaces simultaneously. Initially we did view him as the colonizer, or the person who “fixes” history in one way or another, but as he moves through space and time, that role of the “power broker,” to use your term, is complicated by the various ways that he becomes implicated in what he sees and what he chooses to mark down. In a sense, the cartographer can embody all characteristics and none simultaneously.

DC: Is your cartographer “queer”?

Bambitchell: Well to be honest, the Orlando influence on the character is obvious, so in this sense, yes, we viewed “him” as someone who could embody a variety of genders. But at the same time we made a very conscious decision to gender him, which steers the engagement with him in a particular way. The whole project plays with the line between fiction and “reality”, but we wanted to stay as close to that line as possible. So in thinking through how to represent a character that could be a voyeur in all of these various incarnations, we understood this character to embody masculinity in terms of the ease through which he can move through time and space.

In thinking about this fiction/non-fiction line, we realized you never asked us about the archival documents (the labour song, the diary entry, the newspaper headline and the letter from the archive). Does this mean you understood these as archival documents gathered in much the same way as our visual materials?

DC: We talk a lot about words, whereas we often assume space to be self-evident. So I wanted to probe your maps. I’m also a little obsessed with geography, it’s true, and was excited to see you explore space centrally in the politics of settlement and sexuality. But yes, I interpreted your textual archives as working in a similar way as your cartographic fragments. So what about these other archival documents?

Bambitchell: These documents are meant to function similarly to the images. We hoped to stay pretty close to this fact vs. fiction line so that it would force the viewer to question the legitimacy of the archive. Because the work is new, we weren’t sure how that was being read. We are also very keen on collaboration, so we asked other artists and academics to contribute to the “archive” so to speak. Sameer Farooq wrote the diary entry of the Parliamentarian’s wife, and Hannah Dyer wrote the Dock Worker’s song.

DC: Most projects that aim to do “radical cartography” look very different than traditional state maps. They deliberately change the form of representation. You seem more interested in the context of its use, or at least the potential for resignification, by taking the same images up differently. This seems to suggest a kind of queer engagement with cartography. As part of a growing chorus, I am fascinated by the use of queer methods beyond explicit surfacings of sex and sexuality. Peter Limbrick, for instance, is committed to the potential for queer theory to “uncouple the pathologies of symptom from the potential for queer agency,” well beyond the obvious or immediate domain of sexuality. Drawing on the work of Villarejo (2005), he suggests that such readings can “narrowly delimit or overlook the ways in which queer theory has the potential to unsettle our understandings of normative nationalisms, racialisations, temporalities, and their sexualised and gendered logics.” Your play with maps seems to insist on this kind of queer engagement.

Bambitchell: Yes, definitely, our use of traditional maps and blueprints to highlight what is commonly missing from this form of analysis and storytelling is a type of “queer” intervention into the space. Further, employing humour (as a queer trope) is something we consistently attempt to do as well, often pointing to the ridiculous nature of the things we take for granted, whether it be state policy, border patrol, or the construction of map-making to tease out these insidious power relations between “the state” and those affected by it.

DC: Are there limits to this approach? How does your cartographer live with settler colonialism? Where do responsibility and complicity begin and end?  

Bambitchell: That is a very big question! Of course, there are limits to this approach. Our images can still be read as uncomplicated representations of a neighbourhood and a history of “progress,” if one was to completely ignore the hints and clues we’ve littered throughout the work to suggest otherwise. But this is always the danger in using recognizable forms: people can easily be complicit with what they already (think they) know or want to understand.

The cartographer is meant to embody the complicated nature of settler colonialism. He moves through space comfortably, yet presents a sort of vulnerability. He witnesses the migrant labourers as they work to form Toronto’s boundaries, and is then made vulnerable as witness to Toronto’s drug trafficking. But in the end, he defines settler colonialism in the ease with which he moves through time and space.

With regard to responsibility and complicity, we are asking ourselves and our audiences a similar question. For it is precisely by meditating on these boundaries between colonizer and colonized, migrant and citizen, map and image, truth and fiction that we hope to ask more questions such as this.


Pickles, J.  2004.  A History of Spaces. Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-Coded World. London: Routledge.

Villarejo, A. 2005. ‘Tarrying with the Normative: Queer Theory and Black History’, Social Text 23, 3-4, 69-84.

Deborah Cowen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Toronto. Her research explores the role of organized violence in shaping intimacy, space, and citizenship. Deborah is the author of “Military Workfare: The Soldier and Social Citizenship in Canada” (UTP 2008), co-editor with Emily Gilbert, of “War, Citizenship, Territory” (Routledge 2007), an editor of the “Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation” book series at UGA Press and of the journal “Environment and Planning D: Society and Space”. Her forthcoming book, “Rough Trade: Logistics Space and the Citizenship of Stuff” will be published in 2014 with the University of Minnesota Press.

Bambitchell (Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Mitchell) met in 2008 and have been fostering an artistic collaboration ever since. Their practice uses queer and feminist frameworks in order to reimagine borders, historical patterns of movement, labour, migration and memory. Working in various media (print, video, sculptural installation and performance), they explore these constantly shifting narratives through the use of images, architectures, language, sound and bodies. Bamboat and Mitchell both have independent art practices and they are members of the Pleasure Dome Experimental Film & Video Programming Collective.