Artist Jennifer Chenoweth maps Austin’s emotional hot spots


Oscar Wilde once wrote that a map that leaves out utopia is not even worth glancing at.

Maps have a great tendency to reflect the wishes and hopes of their readers. Wilde wanted utopia, but maps are always changing, and the new regime of satellite maps has made the terra incognita that much more tangible. We can take a kind of digital car ride down streets in countries we’ve never been. Of course, you can always get a virtual visit to Utopia, Texas.

But could you use a map of Austin to mark your emotional experiences?

Austin artist Jennifer Chenoweth has lately been asking friends and strangers to do exactly that.

“I wanted to make a piece about every block downtown,” she said in a recent visit to her East Austin home.

But when that idea petered out, Chenoweth became interested in the unusual visuals that had been developed to chart human pleasure and pain.

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham studied these things in detail and made an incredibly thorough list that put a name to feelings that otherwise go nameless.

Have you ever felt the pain of “privation”? It’s what you experience when something is taken away, Chenoweth explains. Bentham listed other primal sticking points: the pleasures of a having good name, the pains of awkwardness; the pleasure of novelty, the pains of malevolence.

Chenoweth started a spreadsheet and asked herself: “How am I — good to bad — on this list of things?”

Later, she came across a rainbow-colored visual from the psychologist Robert Plutchik. Plutchik called it the “wheel of emotions,” and put “amazement” directly opposite “vigilance,” and “grief” across from “ecstasy.” The wheel also folds into a 3-D form, sort of a Rubik’s cube for emotions.

Chenoweth decided to survey friends and strangers to help create “Right There: A Hedonic Map of Austin,” an interactive installation at Co-Lab Projects that opens Saturday. She made a survey with questions that were upbeat, like, “Where is one place you feel alive and excited?” and others that begged for a good story: “Where did you act like a jackass, according to your own standards?”

Some of Chenoweth’s friends didn’t want to participate, because they weren’t keen to delve into questions that focused on negative emotions, she says. But she told them, “Well, then you’re just being cowardly!”

“Mostly it’s a way to get people to say how they feel about Austin,” Chenoweth says. The survey is anonymous.

She remembers a laugh so hard that she had to pull her car off the road. That was at the corner of East Sixth and Waller streets, and it’s on her own map.

When Chenoweth’s son filled out the survey, he said the first time he fell in love was at the animal shelter where they picked up their new dog.

The results of all this deep searching about participants’ connection with this city will appear as color-coded excerpts from responders, and a topographical map (the highs and lows, if you will) that gives I-35 a well-earned low-spot as the our communal trench of despair.

“A deep groove in our town, where we’ve all experienced mortal terror,” as Chenoweth puts it.

“I’m not working toward an object,” she says. “I’m trying to engage people on an idea.”

More importantly, Chenoweth plans to extend the survey for a couple of years. (Anyone is invited to participate in the survey. Look for it on Chenoweth’s web site www.fisterra.com.)

And that seems like your cue to dig deep and ask yourself — what kind of map would you make?



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