If given free reign to design a map of your city, what would it look like? Would it follow convention, mathematically plotting the relationships between streets and neighborhoods? Perhaps you would represent urban space more abstractly and personally. Rather than a purely geographic map, yours might be a mental map.
The artists included in City Maps have chosen the latter strategy. Erik Benson (Brooklyn, NY), Janice Caswell (New York, NY), Alex Lopez (San Antonio, TX), and Ruth Root (New York, NY) have created colorful guides that convey their feelings about a town rather than charting the space between one quadrant and the next. The works question whether the methodical graphing of space is any more useful than the depiction of what one might experience in it.
In the 1950s French theorist and artist Guy Debord began creating “psychogeographic” guides to Paris. Based not only on geographic markers but also on Debord’s experiences drifting through the city, they emphasized his reactions to urban space, not just what it looked like. Four decades later Frederic Jameson, one of America’s foremost postmodern theorists, hinted at the social potentiality of such ways of ordering the city in his essay “Cognitive Mapping.”2 He proposed that in the present phase of multinational (or late) capitalism there is a growing disconnect between “Wesen and Erscheinung, essence and appearance, structure and lived experience.”3 Mental maps help navigate the increasingly disjointed cityscape by asserting the importance of subjectivity and human experience. The artists in City Maps follow in Debord’s footsteps and have taken up Jameson’s task.
While geographic maps are rooted in physical proximity, the works in City Maps are grounded in the psyche. Benson, Caswell, Lopez, and Root each fabricate their understandings of the city by way of their emotional, temporal, and psycho-physical responses to it. They create links between memory, perception and physicality, simultaneously destabilizing notions about traditional maps and offering alternative ways of making sense of the somewhat bewildering contemporary landscape.
An example of that work is Discours sur les passions de l’amour (1957), which was included in Mapping, a 1994 exhibition curated by Robert Storr at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY which focused on the geographic map as an artistic motif.
2 Fredric Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988) 347-357.
3 Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping,” 349.