THEY CALL HER A HUMAN EXPERIENCE CARTOGRAPHER. ARTIST JENNIFER CHENOWETH IS MAPPING COMMUNITY WELLBEING IN A WAY THAT JUST MIGHT BLOW YOUR MIND.
It’s one of the coolest things we’ve come across.
A project that geolocates spots in a community based on the emotional experiences shared by its residents. XYZ Atlas uses story and technology brilliantly to map collective experience in Austin, Texas.
But artist Jennifer Chenoweth didn’t set out to blow your mind. She was simply interested in why people call a place home, and the strong sense of connection to place among those who live in Austin.
“Most of what happens in the art world is a chess game of insular thinking,” she said. “It’s not understood unless you’re a PhD. I pursued art to use the freedoms that I have as a free thinker to inspire others.”
Be glad she did. Picasso once said that the purpose of art is “washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” But Chenoweth takes that dust and gives it a life that speaks of everyday experience in a way that surprises and unites. The project provides a rich snapshot of community wellbeing through intimate stories of identity that both touch and compel those who encounter it.
The genesis of Chenoweth’s projects was a simple color wheel based on psychologist Robert Plutchik’s theory of emotions from the 1970’s. One of Plutchik’s followers assigned it to a color spectrum, which Chenoweth enhanced. The chart, she said, helped her understand emotional wholeness – how all of an individual’s feelings and experiences contribute to being “whole.” Through an interactive question-and-answer series, 503 participants answered a 20-question survey about their life experiences and where they occurred, and thousands more participated in scale-mapping events. The locations were then captured in a mapping system – an X, Y point – and coded to an emotional color on the chart. A Z point indicates whether an experience was positive (a spike on the map) or negative (a valley or drop).
What resulted was an emotional topography of Austin that captures the fabric of community through story. The idea is that when emotion is connected to location, location is no longer space, but place. And place matters. It provides context for the story of our lives, providing a sense of identity and meaning. Place holds our pain and longing, triggering memory or aspiration.
Chenoweth also discovered the work is an active tool for wellness. The map doesn’t tell just the story of happiness, but presents the experience of emotions as a way to understand and accept one’s self, to frame and help healing over trauma. The variety of responses amazed Chenoweth.
“I could get lost in thought for hours, the moral reflection that these stories led to.”