Maps tell lies. Oh, they may get you where you want to go, but they’ll whisper distortions in your ear as you travel. The Mercator Projection of the earth — perhaps the most famous map in history — has misled millions by exaggerating the size of land masses at polar latitudes and diminishing the tropics. Many of us deal daily with Mercator’s local cousin: the New York City subway map on which an artificially fattened Manhattan lords over the shrunken outer boroughs. Artist Jacob Ford is a man attuned to the political implications of cartography, and his MTA Peutingeriana redraws one of the most ancient maps of the Roman Empire in the unmistakable colors and fonts of the Big Apple underground. The Romans, too, warped space in the name of clarity and put their capital at the center of the world.
Monkeying with maps, it seems, is an ancient pastime, and Ford’s pointed, persuasive piece is representative of a new pair of shows running concurrently at two galleries on the NJCU campus. Maps Everywhere (curated by Donna David and on view at the Visual Arts Gallery until Nov. 26) and Mapping Life (curated by Midori Yoshimoto and on view at the Lemmerman Gallery on the third floor of Hepburn Hall until Nov. 26) ask and answer questions in slightly different tones, but they’re best understood as a single continuous exhibition. In order to catch both halves, you’ll have to navigate the campus — and yes, that trip across the quad and Culver Street does feel like part of the show.
It’s an exhibition with salience to Jersey City. Our town has been aggressively mapped over the last few decades. Much of this activity has been benign: Signage has improved, there’s been an increasing amount of crosstalk between neighborhoods, and public policymakers, some of whom are affiliated with NJCU, have sought insight into how our town functions. But maps have also been the faithful tools of developers and planners who have redrawn the lines and zones in an effort to squeeze every penny out of land that has rapidly appreciated in value. Walking the streets of Jersey City means engaging with the practical consequences of mapping. In 2019, maps are, as the show suggests, everywhere – and for those who require or prefer hiding places, this is downright problematic.
The omnipresence of cartography is a recurring theme of the show. It’s expressed in visual and tactile language that’s sometimes humble, like Vivian Rombaldi Seppey’s homey slippers made of maps, and sometimes striking and invasive, like David Nuttall’s Human Terrain photographs of naked bodies illustrated with roads and grids. Noriko Ambe’s Under the Big Tree crafts a great hollow stump from history books; Adrienne Ottenberg’s painting A Walk in Algiers is so warmly ornamented that its map of the African city could double as an image of a quilt. Her Algiers is a cloak — a repository of the elements of local culture, a long weave in the making and a comfort on a cold night.
Other contributions to the exhibition are stark, minutely observed, hyper-local, captured with the probing eye of the social scientist. Brooklyn artist Jennifer Maravillas, a specialist in creative cartography, gleans the contours of JERSEY CITY: 1841, 1976, 2013, 2019 from four historic maps and highlights their similarities with bright washes of color. The piece borders on an infographic: It’s as informative as any wordless work of art can be, and it suits a show held on a college campus. Dominique Paul traveled New York City in an electronic dress that doubled as a data visualizer: Wherever she went, her outfit would light up in a hue that corresponded to the street’s median income level (the dress and a video documentary of her trip are both on view at the Lemmerman).
A performance art piece like this wouldn’t be possible without thorough census records, and it shrewdly exposes the benefits and problems that accompany scrupulous mapping. From one perspective, Paul is demonstrating the remarkable unevenness of wealth in our region, and, in so doing, she’s raising awareness of income inequality. Yet she’s also poking fun at the social-scientific tendency to color code and classify a place as complicated as New York City. What happens to a neighborhood when it’s stigmatized and consigned to the troubled regions of the map? Is it really helpful for the government to know what everybody is making, or is all of this cartography simply an extension of surveillance culture?
At least one of her documentary interview subjects has a strong opinion on the subject. He believes that it’s only the taxman who is interested in his low-rent neighborhood, and he stands to be counted only so he can be shaken down by the authorities for the little he’s got. Whether he knows it or not, he’s echoing a popular argument against mapping and census taking that goes back at least as far as the Bible. It’s a perspective that Nyugen Smith would probably understand. His beautiful wall hanging of a reimagined Hispaniola echoes motifs common among the maps used by colonizers and juxtaposes them with more alarming images: a skull, dry bones, a snake warning away intruders. It’s an effective critique and a reminder that cartographers were indispensable to the Columbian exchange.
Ironically, it’s also a reminder that the tools of the oppressor could also be beautiful. Nyugen’s Bundlehouse Borderlines No 6 (emembe) really does communicate that sense of curiosity, play, and new discovery that is often visible in maps from the colonial era. Some of these explorers did actually believe in magic, but even those who didn’t had their imaginations fired by the encounter with the not-yet-known. Their maps were unions between the realized and the purely theoretical; they were documentaries, yes, but in another way they were speculative fiction.
It is hard for modern maps to cast the same spell although contemporary artists do like to recapture some of the mystery by blurring those state-sanctioned lines. Abby Goldstein’s Reimagining Brooklyn paintings begin with historic city grids, which she then smothers in her own colored ink — and the artist’s defiant glee as she smooths over artificial divides and mashes neighborhoods together is pleasantly palpable. The full wall of her work at the back of the Maps Everywhere gallery feels gently impudent: a kiss-off to the developers currently dominating her borough. Kingsley Parker’s Atlas takes this desire for a personal and alternative brand of city planning to its logical extreme. His maps look authentic, right down to the book he’s bound them in, but they’re entirely fictitious. This is escapism, pure and simple, and it’s wonderful.
So, it’s more than a little surprising that Maps Everywhere closes with an entreaty to viewers to participate in the collective manufacture of a large wall map of Jersey City. After viewing art that is unmistakably ambivalent about the implications of exhaustive mapping, you’re invited to plot your home and businesses you frequent on the grid. Surely most of the artists featured in these two concurrent exhibitions would agree that such a map would be a very cool thing aesthetically, and practically, too. They also might tell you about the real benefits of getting, and staying, lost.