Thursday, November 21, 2013

Maps for Artists

This past Monday I had the opportunity to travel to New York for a screening of work by the OpenEndedGroup at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The group (Paul Kaiser, Marc Downie, and Shelly Eshkar) is best known for their pioneering work in 3D film, including the piece Plant, which you may have seen when it was shown at the Duderstadt Center or the DIA in 2012.

A still image from Plant

Of particular interest was the screening of "Circling Detroit," part of their "Detroit transect" project that I became involved with when they were Witt Artists in Residence here at University of Michigan's Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design. The project aims to present a portrait Detroit by focusing attention on a single street. That street is Brush Street, which provides a fascinating slice of information about the city. Its length stretches from the Renaissance Center on the edge of the Detroit River, past the Tigers' and Lions' stadiums, by the bustling Medical Center, through the once grand neighborhood of Brush Park, past the site where the first Model T was manufactured, all the way out past the large, and now emptied, Ford Factory. In order to gain insight into the history of the street, the artists were interested in looking to the map collection available here at the Clark Library. It is fascinating to trace the course of Brush St. over the years, watching it extend farther and farther as Detroit grew.

Perhaps the most exciting resource came in the form of the Sanborn Insurance maps that we have in the collection. These maps were used by insurance agencies interested in the building materials of different structures. Rather than produce a new map every year with updated information (as things were demolished and constructed), the publishers distributed updates that could be pasted over the map a map-owner already had in their possession. This process creates a fascinating visualization of the layering of time and history. Brush St. stretches over many pages of the atlas, which we scanned and provided to the artists. These scans will be aligned with images of the street as it is today, as well as Google Street view, in one of the films the group produces. Looking through the maps of Detroit is certainly inspirational, and it is very cool to think how they could be used in new art.

A page from one of the Sanborn insurance maps

-( Clara McClenon)