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Dragons @ Intersection for the Arts

Tucker Nichols, 2011, "Untitled", mixed media


One truism about culture: right when you think a trend is over it starts picking up speed. Take mapping. You’d think, given the surfeit of artists engaged in this practice, that it would have run its course, but no. The terrain is way too fertile. Because of their proscriptive, hierarchical nature, maps present artists with an irresistible target.  They ask us to accept the validity of certain facts by promoting the fiction of consensus reality.  Problem is: there is no such thing.  Artists, the cartographers of mankind’s no-consensus zones, continuously remind us of this fact.   

What’s new, thanks to the widespread availability of digital data mining tools, is a fresh pool of raw material from which artists’ maps can be constructed. These technological leaps, by Google and others, have helped widen the already blurry line between art and science, giving scientists and programmers entry into art, and artists a portal into science. Suddenly, data mapping has painterly qualities, while painting and drawing assume the look and feel of microscopic inquiry. There Be Dragons — a show titled for the serpents that populated the edges of ancient maps – samples these cross-pollinating micro-trends, mixing low and high-tech approaches to illuminate and surprise.  

Jenny Odell, 2011, "All the People in Dolores Park, digital print
For a taste of the latter, consider Jenny Odell’s photo collages of well-known San Francisco landmarks, assembled from Google satellite data. In them, Dolores Park, Baker Beach and Pier 39 appear stripped of any identifying topographic features. All we see are tiny specs: people. Their arrays mirror the outline of the geography, and as such, they make each location readily identifiable. This amazing bit of mimicry makes you wonder: can a landmass actually bend its human inhabitants to its own shape? Does an island make people act differently than a peninsula? Odell opens up this line of inquiry, spawning a potentially new discipline that could, if you were academically inclined, be called relational geography.
Eric Fischer, “a digital cartographer,” is expert at transforming raw data into abstract pictures. In them, traffic patterns, race, crime, tourism and other facets of Bay Area life are charted and color coded and arrayed across the
urban grid to form multi-layered, electrically hued “action” drawings. They don’t tell us much that we don’t already know about these topics. What’s revelatory is how the presentation of these facts can be transformed into pictures that are both abstract and truly representational.
In JD Beltran’s and Scott Minneman’s Magic Story Table, the much-vaunted promise of interactivity is at least partially realized. This circular, pedestal-mounted, yard-wide video monitor displays a crude vision of the Earth’s surface, functioning like a user-controlled version of Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten. Tilt it or spin it and you can locate and zoom in on any location – up to a point. At its most granular, this “app” reveals only roof-top views, frustrating anyone who’s hooked on Google Earth. As for the recorded audio stories embedded at various locations — they feel more like rude interruptions than lessons about “place”. What this device really does best is transform the familiar sensation of electronically assisted instant gratification into a bodily experience.  
Eric Fischer, 2010, "A Month of Muni" and "All the Children and Adults in San Francisco", digital prints
Elsewhere in the show, low-tech methods prevail to mostly good effect.  I especially savored the way Tucker Nichols dismisses the idea of mapping only to nail it by combining many of his oft-seen motifs in a collage whose taped and pinned-to-the-wall elements “couldn’t be more useless.”  This set of self-cancelling instructions comprised “of places I have known” make a compelling case for why art should serve no practical purpose. The untitled piece is a map of the artist’s consciousness. So are Lordy Rodriquez’s drawings, which look, alternatively, like pages of a biology text illustrated by R. Crumb. Like cells viewed through a microscope, these cartoonish, pictures, 36 of which occupy a wall, have no present, no past, no destination and no future. They represent, in the manner of psychedelically hued topographic maps, the Petri dish that is the artist’s imagination. Equally electrifying are the works of Flora Kao whose cyanotype-like prints of the LA grid seem to buzz like one great big humming electrical circuit. They compress, into window-sized pictures, the terror of being swallowed up by an organism that is infinitely bigger than ourselves.
Lordy Rodriguez, 2010-11, "00684" from "Small Drawings", ink on paper
The show’s most ambitious offering, an installation by the collagist Val Britton, swirls around a spiral staircase, only to be defeated by it. Britton’s remarkable topographic constructions of cut paper are truly immersive, so the idea of ripping them apart to fill part of a room must have been irresistible.  One can only hope she’ll try again in a more compatible setting.  I enjoyed Matthew Picton’s map of post-quake SF, constructed  from singed DVD covers of the 1936 film San Francisco; but I wondered about Wendy MacNaughton’s wall-length visual/text diary of people observed at 5th & Mission. Its documentary intentions are almost entirely undercut by its high-school-project production values. One thing, however, does stand out: her reference to the destruction, in 1977, of the International Hotel, and the forced eviction of its elderly Filipino residents — a saga that will forever stand as a potent reminder of the price we pay for progress.
While this is hardly a dominant theme in the show, it does encourage you to think about the immediate vicinity, where this and other arts institutions now flourish, and where the working poor once lived in far greater numbers. As you walk among them, it’s worth reflecting on the perverse relationship between money and poverty and how, in recent times, an increase in the former necessarily forecasts an increase in the latter. No doubt, an artist-constructed data map of that relationship will someday be on view in a gallery or museum near you. If past is prologue, it will carry the double whammy of bad news and physical beauty – all in one neat little package. Proving that at the margins, dragons still await.
“Here Be Dragons: Mapping Information and Imagination and Open Process Events” @ Intersection for the Arts, through January 14, 2011. 
About the Author:
David M. Roth is editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.


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