3.6 / Review

Here Be Dragons: Mapping Information and Imagination

By Zachary Royer Scholz December 8, 2011

Intersection for the Arts’ group exhibition Here Be Dragons: Mapping Information and Imagination investigates the language and power of mapmaking from a variety of contemporary perspectives. The exhibition’s title references the dragons and monsters some early cartographers drew on maps to indicate the mystery and danger lurking beyond the known. Today, GPS satellites have three-dimensionally mapped both the surface of the earth and the depths of the ocean to within millimeters. There are no more places for dragons to physically lurk, but there are still uncharted terrains for maps to reveal. 

About half the artworks in the show engage San Francisco explicitly. The most technologically based of these pieces is JD Beltran and Scott Minneman’s circular, interactive map-table, which allows viewers to aerially fly across a digital globe and to zoom in and out by tilting and turning the table’s surface. The artists have embedded a number of audio recordings of personal narratives at points marked around San Francisco, but this content pales in comparison to the table itself. It is intoxicating to virtually zip up into the atmosphere, drift across the Atlantic, and drop down to check out the Great Pyramids and the adjacent, sprawling Hilton golf resort.

Photographer, computer programmer, and amateur digital cartographer Eric Fischer displays equal, though more understated, technical chops in his series of images that present information mined from publicly accessible data sets and websites like Flickr, Cabspotting, and NextBus. The resulting digital prints of the Bay Area reveal difficult–to–perceive patterns of race, tourism, traffic, and crime. In an art gallery context, Fischer’s graphical statistics possess surprising formal beauty, but they succeed or fail as artworks based on their information’s legibility and relevancy. Pieces that clearly compare occupied versus vacant housing or outline the distribution of adults and children are both visually stimulating and offer interesting new perspectives. But some works, such as one that contains an indecipherable tangle of bus speeds, fail to become anything more than just colorful patterns. 

Jenny Odell does not place information within maps, but rather creates ghostly maps by digitally collaging closeups from Google Satellite View and painstakingly removing everything but the tiny, incidental figures they contain. There is something haunting in the way Odell’s ant-like figures—captured in public spaces such as Pier 39, Dolores Park, and Baker Beach—trace sites that have otherwise disappeared. Recognizing these public spaces through amusing human “features,” such as the bathroom line in Dolores Park, is entertaining, but Odell’s work asks deeper questions about the way collective action generates public space.   

Wendy MacNaughton. Around Here, 2011 (detail); mixed media. Courtsey of the Artist and Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco.

Wendy MacNaughton also maps people in space but not from Odell’s distant remove. Drawing on her background in social work, MacNaughton has documented the urban population around Intersection for the Arts through a combination of observation and conversation. Her character study of the neighborhood—built from sketches and hand-lettered recollections affixed atop a grid of streets drawn on the gallery’s wall—offers an intimate portrait of an impoverished but proud community of individuals making do within the shadow of social neglect. MacNaughton’s breezy brushwork and bright color palette lends the work an approachable, friendly quality that contrasts nicely with her subjects’ relative invisibility. 

Most of the other works in the show take a decidedly different tack by using the language of mapping as a more abstract aesthetic tool to trace memories, emotions, and imaginary spaces. One of the more elegant of these works is Burst Apart, by Val Britton, which deftly employs her hallmark map-based visual vernacular. The immersive installation climbs up and around the gallery’s newly installed spiral staircase, and its subtly muted color scheme wonderfully echoes the weathered, flaking surface of the concrete ceiling toward which it ascends. Delicately strung together with thread, Britton’s continental cutouts sway in otherwise imperceptible air currents and gently dance as visitors ascend and descend the stairs. These unexpected motions lend the piece a whimsical quality that shifts Britton’s lyrical visual vocabulary toward the playful fantasy of fairy tales.

Tucker Nichols. Untitled (mp1111), 2011; mixed media. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery 16, San Francisco.

Next to Britton’s installation, Tucker Nichols’ piece takes abstract mapmaking in an even more humorous direction. Nichols’ unassuming drawings are deceptively simple. His crudely rendered abstract city grids are ludicrously pinned and taped to and over a bulletin board. They form a sort of urban ür-map, a delineation of nowhere and everywhere that is profoundly universal and yet no more authoritative than a cocktail napkin sketch.      

Taken together, the artworks in Here Be Dragons live up to the exhibit’s subtitle, offering up compelling visions of the ways modern mapmaking can simultaneously encapsulate information and foster imagination. The exhibition is by no means exhaustive, and there are other contemporary artists, such as Guillermo Kuitca and Simon Evans, who could have been included. The show could also have extended the conversation by including iconic older artists such as Alighiero Boetti or Joyce Kozloff. However, Here Be Dragons is not the only exhibition that has explored mapmaking within art. Perhaps cognizant of these previous shows and the wealth of books published on the subject, curator Kevin Chen wisely chose to constrain his exhibition’s scope to two localized types of mapmaking: works defamiliarizing San Francisco’s local terrain and pieces that chart subjective personal landscapes. This limited scope allows the modest-sized Here Be Dragons to selectively expand particular boundaries of what is otherwise an expansive subject.


Here Be Dragons: Mapping Information and Imagination is on view at Intersection for the Arts, in San Francisco, through January 14, 2012.

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