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CHOROGRAPHIC ART

 

WHAT
IS ATLAS ALTERA?

WHY
USE A MAP?

WHERE
DOES LANGUAGE FIT IN?

WHEN
DOES HISTORY COME IN?

SPECIAL GROUNDS
SYNTOPIAN FICTION

REDISCOVERING THE MEANING OF DISCOVERY
MEET THE CREATOR

LANDING A COMMUNITY
MEET THE TEAM

What is Atlas Altera?

 

LAMENTING THROUGH WORLDBUILDING

Multiculturalism, pluralism, liberalism—these ideals are more and more co-opted for free trade and the logic of neoliberal globalization instead of being ends in themselves. Global citizens are now global consumers. Twenty years into the new century, the United Nations and most cosmopolitan projects face widespread cynicism, all the while as we trade in a millennia of human complexity and ingenuity for technological idolatry. For a lack of inspiration, we’re losing what makes our world rich. 

 

Though our planetary ecosystems are in dire straits, we also stand to lose the lion’s share of the immense amount of cultural diversity that has made it thus far in human history. 

 

To take action, we must challenge our imaginaries. After all, the medium is very much the message. For decades, humanity as a species was represented by a gold disk now floating in deep space, and more recently by an arbitrary photograph of an Akha couple in northern Thailand. Humanity's backdrop, the world—both as a lived reality and an imaginary—is represented, however, by a political world map designed to make sense to elementary school students. Atlas Altera is a fictional and cartographic exercise to reimagine that backdrop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Atlas Altera is a response to how we geographically depict and imagine the world we live in.  Instead of achieving a sterile and homogenizing "end of history," in the strange yet familiar world of Altera, cultural differences flourish. The worldbuilding is developed using alternate history scenarios whenever it suits the overall goal of the project, which is to maximize difference. Though there is some grounding in history, the project also diverges in that, as Aristotle observed in poetry, instead of depicting things that have been or as they are, it describes things that might be.

The project stems from a belief much like Richard Rorty’s, that to take meaningful action is to depict the past in new ways. Here, it is not just the past but all that exists which is renewed. But unlike irredentist fantasies and conventional alternate history, Atlas Altera is about making room for those that lost out in the drawing up of borders without the winner takes all logic. It’s about making space for those currently clinging on in the margins. 

In recognizing how the classroom prop of a political map has the power to rally and erase, and in being pragmatic with territoriality, Atlas Altera plays out the logic of the twentieth century nation-state paradigm and puts into focus countries as the base unit to illuminate the geographic diversities in our own timeline—peoples and their dialects, knowings, wisdoms, practices, traditions, beliefs—which everyday threaten to vanish.

Apart from thematic wall maps, the lore of Atlas Altera is doled out in map plates and chorographic narratives, which can be characterized as a sort of encyclopaedic travel writing style, and which is inspired by the tradition of chorography and regional geography more in line with Carl Sauer than Vidal de la Blache or Friedrich Ratzel.

REDRAWING THE WORLD MAP FOR REPRESENTATION

Why use a map?

Atlas Altera is a work of syntopian fiction. It comes from a love of the uniqueness of place and the need to share that love through maps and chorographical narrative. It is a celebration of geography, history, and languages, as well as all the marvels that lie in us—us in all our own ways. Recognizing how world maps and place descriptions hold imaginary possibilities, it is a creative attempt at creating the backdrop we deserve. As romanticists might have once believed in the 19th century, Atlas Altera is about giving people poetic backstories to lead them back to a world of wonder, one worth cherishing.

In Atlas Altera, the cultural diversities in our own timeline—peoples and their dialects, knowledges, wisdoms, practices, foodways, traditions, beliefs, myths—are brought to the forefront. The world is rich in these things, but not enough, and not now. At the basic level, Atlas Altera is about representation. It’s about putting the marginalized, obscured, and erased onto or back onto the map, if only to give more urgency to certain causes or to pinpoint where solidarity needs to take place.


This project could be labelled chorographic ironism. It is a work of re-description, an exercise for depicting places in new ways. The intention is not to aggrandize any historical or present nation, nor is it a revanchist stab, but instead, it is to spotlight the cultural diversity that we have inherited in the present, though much of it is no longer clearly visible or has been obfuscated. More importantly, it is about putting to the forefront what we stand to lose in our lifetime.

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The leading image for the Wikipedia entry for "Human."

Derived from the photo by Manuel Jobi, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

THE BACKDROP WE IMAGINE FOR OURSELVES IS JUST AS IMPORTANT AS HOW WE DEPICT OUR HUMANITY.

 

Special Grounds

SYNTOPIAN FICTION

Though alternate history is a creative device in Atlas Altera, the project differs from most works of alternate history. Instead of choosing one point of divergence in our history, it investigates a plethora of counterfactuals or points in our history, each having the potential to have led to the preservation of more difference. As some might point out, this means the project does not  embody a realistic approach.

It’s better to understand the project as a work of syntopian fiction—the first of its kind—a creative exercise to surface the human wonders that exist within and under the current nation-states of our world, which are often hidden, subsumed, marginalized, and even persecuted or in the violent process of eradication.

 

As the goal is to capture on a map as many different aspects of our world as possible, the world of Atlas Altera is realistic in its very own way. Ironically, what is unrealistic is how we imagine and come to know our current world through the uninspiring classroom political world map. Humanity’s distinctness and richness is lost in the geographic imaginaries painted by such maps, as if memorizing the 197 or so country labels on there could be meaningful.

 

Along with what critics might call an unfettered use of historical wishful thinking, Atlas Altera also features alternate geography, or, in other words, flirts with physical geography fantasies. These physical geography changes are mostly conservative and, in theory, have only hyperlocal effects, meaning there should be minimal changes to earth's overall natural systems, or even delicate regional systems like climate. Moreover, these fantastical interventions in the geographical landscape are often limited to a few strategic areas to achieve the overall goal of the project of maximizing difference. In every case, differences in the physical geography of Altera with our world offer some protection or act as a sort of historical insulation device for certain peoples that would have been swallowed up in times of expansion. 


All this is to say: Atlas Altera is a creative work caught in-between genres. In one sense, it straddles the grounds of liberal alternate history and hard fantasy. To complicate matters, it has the seemingly counterproductive and contradictory trait of telling the truth through lies. Fiction, after all, is often better at getting certain facts across. The belief here is that by redescribing the world, there is a better chance of achieving the objective of giving people more holistic geographic knowledges of our own world. To tell these lies, Atlas Altera draws heavily from facts and knowledges from geography, anthropology, linguistics, history, and even archaeology.

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Instead of depicting things that have been or as they are, Atlas Altera describes things that might be.

 
 
 
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EMBRACING BABEL AND MAKING PEACE WITH A SCATTERED WORLD

Where does language fit in?

Today, only two or three dozen languages act as the prevailing official languages for the 197 or so countries in the world. These are languages which, due to a combination of cultural hegemony, economic globalization, and the force and violence of the nation-state, will more than likely crowd out and lead to the downfall of all other adjacent languages. Even other official languages are not immune. From Ireland to Nigeria to India, the prognosis is bleak. English, as the prevailing and dominant language of business, art and literature, online communication, and bureaucracy, is tracking to win it all—if not within this century, then a couple centuries later. What’s worse, the dominant languages of our contemporary era represent perhaps only a dozen language families, when there are close to two hundred independent language families currently in existence, each one being worlds apart from the next. 

 

In Altera, the situation is the opposite. Altera boasts more than a thousand distinct prevailing official languages. Every language family is represented at least once on the map. In doing so, there are more language families and isolates represented in Altera than there are countries in our current world. And still, Altera is far from being unrecognizable. It’s not too disorienting to compare the linguistic map of Altera with one of our world. It seems there is enough room for all of it after all. 

 

 

In most cases then, a country in Altera is in the first place a cartographic representation of a real existing ethno-linguistic group as the prevailing majority of the population. But the countries that appear on the map of Altera also showcase as many contrasts as there are similarities in our world, and they explore as many twists and turns in history as possible to allow for more outcomes and possibilities that could have been—more difference in every imaginable way. And it’s not just human difference either. As the project is oriented in geography, different possibilities in landscapes, biomes, and flora and fauna are also explored. 

 

The nuance to the focus on language, however, is that Atlas Altera is not about ethnic nationalism, not in a myopic sense at least. It’s important to not to conflate the project’s pragmatic position of recognizing the coercive power of the modern state to ensure cultural persistence with an endorsement of states pursuing ethnic homogeneity or that a nation-state’s population ought to be coterminous with one ethnicity.


It would also be futile to try to represent everything. Not everyone makes it onto the map. There are still magnitudes more of minorities in the thousand and one states of Altera, peoples who do not get the privilege of political representation at the highest order. Though the fate of those ethno-linguistic groups are a lot more uncertain, they are, in almost all cases, in analogous or better positions than their real world counterparts due to how global politics takes shape in the 20th century in Altera.

When does history come in?

CRAFTING A RADICALLY  DIFFERENT BUT RELATABLE TIMELINE

How to achieve a modern political world map with a maximized diversity represented at the highest political level is simple: use alternate history as a creative device, repeatedly. In major historical events where there are zero-sum outcomes, have the winners win less and the losers lose less.

 

The caveat, of course, is for Altera to compel, the world needs to be repackaged in a relatable way. Though Atlas Altera makes use of the alternate history creative device quite liberally, in every point of divergence, there is a reasonable degree of consistency to create a cohesive and interconnected timeline with as much complexity and authenticity as compared to our own. This means that the alternate history scenarios in Atlas Altera are also not wildly radical, for all the new borders and countries yielded need to also be balanced with historical processes that still favour the development of somewhat familiar territories like the United States. And with the extra touch of having professional map aesthetics, a wall mounted world map of Altera can easily convince the unsuspecting that they are seeing mere reality. The backdrop may be taken for granted, but in doing so, syntopian fiction still gets smuggled into reality. 

 

This is, however, not a utopian project. Threads of real world territory get rewoven into new patterns. Some peoples stay as minorities. Wicked problems and intractable conflicts persist, if only for more realism, historical continuity, and complexity. Violence and mass atrocities do still happen, though the path to correction may seem more resolute in this fictitious timeline. Ultimately, the project of Altera is about mitigating loss and inspiring something akin to hope, but not quite.

 

Atlas Altera’s main trick is to pick up plot lines, especially ones that have been abandoned in our history. The point isn’t to bring back the distant dead, but rather, to lend validation and encouragement to those who are struggling to find a place in the present. Though generations may perish, culture can cling on at the margins. All it takes is for one person to remember for resurgence. 

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Though generations may perish,
culture can cling on at the margins.
All it takes is for one person to remember for resurgence.

MEET THE CREATOR

Rediscovering the Meaning of Discovery

Another way of coming to understand Atlas Altera is by coming to understand how it slowly unravelled as a passion project of sorts.  I call myself Telamon Tabulicus out of convenience. I live a great life in Vancouver, but for the longest time, I have also had this weird hobby of making fictional maps, mostly by redrawing the borders of the real world. I mostly did this alone, in my spare time, and I did not connect with others online. 

 

My hobby started with the same premise as most cartography-obsessed youth do at a young age: historical what ifs. Not that I want to judge others, but reflecting on this now, I see that in those days, I was under a spell. I thought in terms of states and empires, and I employed the vainglory logic of outdated statecraft. Although alternate history enthusiasts are interested in the “underdogs” of history, they almost always use the logic of conquest and "lost glory.” Most of my early maps were Eurocentric, and I think partly this was informed by the things I learned in school.

 

One day, while envisioning a larger and lasting German New Guinea territory, my perspective shifted. Here I was trying to surface a viable alternate history scenario in a land where there is this immense cultural diversity, which, unlike where I am in the Pacific Northwest, hasn't even undergone as much erasure as done by states like Canada and the United States. So if I were to dream, why fantasize over more colonialism? More importantly, why dream for more similarity?

 

I think this shift partly has to do with the fact that I started to go down rabbit holes on Wikipedia, leading me to amazing but obscure topics in anthropology, ethnobotany, and linguistics. I realized any fantasy or science fiction work ever produced was limited by what the authors could imagine, and their imaginations could only ever build from what they could know. In short, their worlds grew from all the ingenuity humanity has ever produced. The worlds of Frank Herbet, J.R.R. Tolkein, and George R.R. Martin draw from things as obscure as the initiation rites of the Sateré-Mawé of the Amazon to the grand mythologies buried in Anglo-Saxony philology.  

 

Slowly, I started to collect on my maps the buried histories and peoples and lands that I encountered in my readings. It was a sobering journey of discovery, both inspirational and disheartening. I was learning and relearning about our world, and in the process, I realized most of what I was learning about was either hovering or on its way to the past tense. I realized that we live in an uninspired world. Our backdrop has become uninspiring. It seems everywhere is a Georgia, a Springfield, and a Newport—recycled geographies of the colonial and now neoliberal imagination. Soon there will be no more difference to encounter.

 

Instead of giving up my hobby when pursuing my B.A. and then my M.A., I took on a more critical lens. I began to read academic articles outside my fields of specialization, especially for cutting-edge topics. My knowledge broadened, in a sense, while others were beginning to hone their interests. And I realize now that my maps—and all the notes I took to keep track of my development—is basically a diary of my discoveries, a convoluted memento device for retracing what I have encountered, from one new and unexpected learning after another.

 

It’s been ten or eleven years since I started making the maps that would grow into Altera. During the onset of the pandemic, I tried to wrap up this hobby and take a stab at new interests. I also had a real-life experience of true discovery when I unexpectedly saw the comet Neowise in the night sky on a camping trip in Desolation Sound. This factored into my motivations for printing my maps, but I’m not sure I can articulate why. I tidied up my work and got my main two world maps printed to mount on walls. That was an ordeal in itself, but the end result stunned not just myself, but my friends, family, and even the printer and framer. My partner encouraged me to share my project online, and that came to be the beginning of Atlas Altera as a formal project. 

—T.T., Vancouver, 2022.

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So if I were to dream, why fantasize over more colonialism?
More importantly,
why dream
for more similarity?

There are more language families and isolates represented in Altera than there are countries in our current world

 
 
 

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MEET THE COMMUNITY

Community

Along with a core project team, Atlas Altera is fortunate enough to have supporters and fellow travellers from all across the world, lending themselves to translation work, feedback, and the odd contribution to graphics and video content. The growing community behind the project is diverse. Dozens of languages are spoken on the Discord server, with speakers from Tamil to Portuguese, and even Nahuatl and Inuktitut. Get in touch if you have some skills and knowledges you’d like to share for the project.

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Telamon Tabulicus

Telamon Tabulicus is a writer and geographer with Taiwanese ancestry. He works in civic engagement in his hometown, Vancouver. He is the creator of Atlas Altera, having taught himself graphic design to make A Wealth of Nations and Chorographical Depictions. He researches, copywrites, and designs or oversees all content for the project. 

Triambakou

Triambakou is a cartographer in Vancouver with a French and Quebecois background but grew up in locales across the globe. He helps render Altera in different map projections and is completing GIS compatibility for the project. He is also Tristan on the YouTube series for the project. 

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Babus Hopesto

Babus Hopesto is a French graphic artist and designer based in Bordeaux. He is the main designer of the postage stamps for the project and helps create Atlas Altera postcards and associated symbology and philatelic contents.

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Matteo Cavallo

Also known as Zveiner, Matteo Cavallo is a communication designer and cartographer from Piedmont now based in Paris. He has taken over as the lead graphic designer for Atlas Altera, being responsible for designing monthly feature maps and website graphics. 

Ilyas Lebleu

Ilyas Lebleu is a student completing their studies in Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. They are passionate about languages and game design. They help with IPA transcriptions and linguistics-related research, record the pronunciations for the endonyms of countries in Altera, and are also designing games for the project.

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Varjagen

Varjagen is a Dutch-Frisian university student and graphic artist. He regularly contributes to feature map graphics and helps manage the growing Atlas Altera community. He is the creator  of A Dove Takes Flight, a science-fantasy world in which the solar system is hyper habitable.

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Frank Hambach

Frank Hambach is a German software developer who is rediscovering his interests in calendric systems, linguistics, and scripts and font design through Atlas Altera. He is completing the Visible Speech font for the project and reigning in the project’s sprawling content through database management. He also copy-edits and codes for the project, and is the last voice of reason for pitches. 

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Escodrion

Escodrion is an Anglo-Pole based in Poland, living in the territory of the former Grand Duchy of Poznan. He is a trained linguist and a translator by trade. He helps with coding and translation work for the project and is a common voice in project meetings and discussions. He is the creator of the alternate history scenario known as Commonwealth Triumphant.

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Juan F.

Juan F. is an Argentine economist who has a passion for cartography and literature. He is working on translating into Spanish the website and map plate narratives for Atlas Altera.