John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The Bay Area's Jenny Odell creates maddeningly complex sets of similar structures, like stadiums, nuclear plants and cargo ships.
Call Jenny Odell a collector of spaces. Some are public, like all the basketball courts in Manhattan; others are most decidedly not, like smoke-puffing nuclear cooling towers. She doesn't discriminate – she just wants to get her hands on as many as possible, so she can lay them out into maddening arrangements akin to a nutty entomologist's butterfly collection.
Odell, who's 27 and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, creates her works on a computer (sometimes at a Mission coffee shop) by pulling similar structures from Google Maps and spreading them into complex arrays that measure as large as 3 by 5 feet. "The main thing that I want people to take away from them is a new way of looking at their surroundings, specifically the ones so banal we risk ignoring them," she says. "Being humans, it's easy to forget how uniquely human we have made our environments."
The artist began her odd quest to categorize the planet's components on a whim in 2009, when she decided to find out just how many parking lots there were in her native San Jose. And she's still making her meta-maps today, working on a series that deals with the massive machinery behind shipping and container transport. (She also manages the fun Tumblr, "The Satellite Tourist.")
Seeing as how Odell will be showing new work beginning July 11 at SOMArt's Electronic Pacific show – a promising-looking exploration of Pacific Rim culture staged in a bunch of shipping containers in San Francisco – I asked the artist to explain a little more about her obsession with ultimate order from above. Here's what she had to say, with examples from her "Satellite Series":
"137 Landmarks" (the key is here)
How'd you get the idea for these things?
I had just moved to San Francisco from Berkeley and since I relied a lot on maps at first (I didn't, and still don't, have a smartphone), I was thinking a lot about maps and how they can be seen as selective abbreviations of space. Different maps choose different things to show and other things to omit. In other words, I was already considering maps as collections of a certain type of information, an extraction from something infinite (space).
The first collection I made was of 144 empty parking lots; I grew up in San Jose always vaguely feeling like I was surrounded by empty parking lots but wanted to see what they would look like collected all together. I was expecting the result to be as depressing as the actual parking lots, but instead what was revealed was, somewhat humorously, the "personalities" of the parking lots – the careful or not-so-careful landscaping, the angles and density of lines, the blobby shapes (never the same), the tire-marks of people doing donuts, etc. Something I had meant to show similarities actually ended up showing their differences and idiosyncrasies. And I never took parking lots for granted again, which can be said for most of the things I've made collections of.
Is constructing these intricate pieces a terrible chore?
It can be painful in the sense that it's very time consuming and labor intensive. But it's definitely also satisfying to build something that slowly and see it come together over time. The concreteness of this work, both in process and outcome, is sort of like my stand against the quickness, distraction and immateriality of our usual experience of imagery on the internet.
The amount of time I spend with the imagery changes my relationship to it (and, I hope, the viewer's), forcing a level of contemplation that might not occur naturally. And yes, it is satisfying to wrest some kind of order from the infinitude of satellite imagery, even if that order is completely subjective and personal, like a child organizing his or her favorite things according to imagined systems.
Is there meant to be any commentary on humanity's sometimes ugly effect on the landscape?
Of course there is an environmentalist bent in pieces like the collections of landfills and waste ponds, but on a much broader note, what I'm trying to illuminate is the utter humanness and strangeness of the marks we've left on the earth. Only humans would build boxes of chlorinated water in the ground to occasionally splash around in, or engineer something as complicated as a water slide for the sole purpose of entertainment. Imagery taken from the inhuman perspective of a satellite provides us enough distance to appreciate the time and species-bound specificity of our surroundings, and to see ourselves reflected in them.
964 Round Parts of Wastewater Treatment Plants
Recently, I have been making collections of largely infrastructural elements like wastewater-treatment plants and power plants (and, for the SOMArts show, structures related to container transport) to highlight, on top of the specificity of these structures, the sheer effort it takes for us to continue existing on this planet. It can seem, from within the everyday perspective, that civilization is somehow magically running itself. Depending on who we are and where we live, our experiences of these things can often be removed and abstract – like how I know when I throw something away it goes to a landfill, but I have never seen that landfill.
At some point, a large portion of reality seems to have dematerialized. So by cutting out and collecting things like landfills, transmission towers, dams and container ships, I'm trying to highlight in a concrete sense the material mechanisms we have built and that we remain completely dependent on for our current existence. Having spent a lot of time with this imagery, I can say it's quite a humbling realization.
Images used with permission of Jenny Odell