Here There Be Dragons

The back story of my podcast series on identity and security in the Paris region

Carta marina et descriptio septentrionalium terrarum by Olaus Magnus, 1539 (Image via Wikipedia)

The title of my podcast series, Here There Be Dragons, comes from a medieval mapping convention: cartographers would draw sea monsters and demons over unexplored land or dangerous territories accompanied by the phrase — here be dragons. It is a method of defining the borders of a world or territory by uncertainty and fear. Through my own experiences with exploring cities, I came to believe that this system of world defining is fairly common. I wanted to investigate the idea that residents of cities negotiate their identities through public space and define the boundaries of their cities by what is feared or uncertain.

My approach to Here There Be Dragons (which served as my MIT master’s thesis in urban studies and planning) is a mix of social science and journalism. Although the project is a podcast, it is also influenced by a number of filmmakers, artists, and writers, who bring together diverse disciplines through media. In 2014 photographer and filmmaker Bouchra Khalili exhibited a work called in New York’s New Museum exhibition of Arab artists, “Here and Elsewhere.”

In the work, there are four hanging screens with projections on both sides of a map focused on the Mediterranean Sea. A hand appears and traces a line from Algeria or Tunisia or Syria to Italy or France or Britain while a voice narrates a journey of boat wrecks, deportations, and border crossings. The whole image floats, a person detached from a homeland, a hand detached from a body, a screen detached from a wall.

Khalili is the latest in a long genealogy of filmmakers interested in the lives of refugees, illegal immigrants, and nomads. She has produced many works that use interview as a primary medium. But a constraint that I find interesting in is that it flies in the face of the traditional “hearts and minds” models of conflict reporting. Usually when we see the famous images of conflict, a naked girl dosed in napalm or a child’s mutilated face in a casket, we’re not actually consuming their story but their bodies.

In Khalili’s model, the map becomes a screen — almost a shield — which protects the speakers’ bodies; the only body we are allowed is the drawing hand and the sound of a voice narrating a journey. I was very moved by this restraint, by the privacy that asked the viewer not to give in to delusions of trading places with the narrator, but to give in to a deep listening to a first-hand account.

When I first began to develop the project, I knew that I wanted to examine a conflict, the conflict of public space. I wanted to explore the intertwined nature of identity and security, how they inform and mold each other. I knew that I wanted first-hand accounts, but influenced by the seemingly unending images of black death played out over dozens and dozens of camera phones, I wanted to employ Khalili’s model of restraint going further by removing even the hand. The medium of audio offers an opportunity for intimacy and anonymity at the same time.

Season 1 of Here There Be Dragons was a proving ground for strategies to deploy in Season 2. In my first season, I sought out intersectional diversity — age, race, gender, and socioeconomic status and beyond. This project aims to take a temperature of the city through residents’ experiences with identity and security.

One of the best ways to create a full narrative is to populate it with as many perspectives as possible. This approach also allowed me to be surprised and to shift gears in my research as topics like housing policies or transportation became subjects that were important to the people I spoke to.

In the first season, I felt that my very small sample of seven New York natives was diverse racially and geographically, but I wanted to push that intention even further in the next season. In Season 2, not only was the sample size larger, with 32 Paris region residents providing me with roughly 24 hours of tape, but it was also much more diverse in terms of race, religion, age, gender, and orientation.

Episodes from Season 2 of the Here There Be Dragons podcast

This demographic expansion also showed me constructive ways to expand my research and what kinds of institutional opinions I could gather for the podcast. Researchers and professors such as Fabrice D’Almeida, Maurice Blanc, Sylvie Tissot, and Mehammed Mack added big-picture policy elements to the residents’ experiences.

It was useful to seek out expert opinion only after I had completed, processed, coded, and translated the interviews because that allowed for the residents’ contributions to be at the center of the narrative as opposed to placing the experts at the center and using residents to illustrate their ideas.

What this patchwork of experiences and testimonies showed me was that in terms of security, identity markers function like an address. Instead of revealing where you are in space, they reveal where you are on the spectrum of those who should be protected and those who should be policed. Your identity markers signal to the people around you what kind of protections you should be afforded and what kind of control you should be subjected to, not just at the hands of the state, but also by your fellow citizens.

The MIT School of Architecture + Planning: Design is the space between people and their environment. This is our territory.