A Conversation with Jennifer Chenoweth
This beloved local artist is mapping our collective experiences in this ambitious outdoor project.
by Sofia Sokolove
Photograph by Sarah Wilson
Jennifer Chenoweth’s art starts not with a medium, but with an idea. “Then I work backwards to decide the best way to execute my ideas,” the animated artist explains during a conversation in her East Austin home/studio.
Such was the case with her latest project, The XYZ Atlas, an interactive public art piece that doubles as an examination on how humans create attachment to place. Wanting to visualize those attachments and study patterns, Chenoweth turned to the Austin community. The artist created a 20-question survey asking people to identify where they have had significant experiences. She then used the responses to create a body of work — including a series of Geographic Information System maps, temporary art installations, unique 2-D and 3-D artworks and a digital platform — that maps Austin’s collective emotional highs and lows. (Willing participants can still take the survey online at xyzatlas.org.)
The final edition of The XYZ Atlas: The Hedonic Map of Austin Finale, will be released and on display at Barton Springs during the West Austin Studio Tour (May 14-15 and 21- 22). An interactive mapping event will take place at Zilker Park on May 21 and 22. Before the project culminates, we caught up with the artist to shed light on the project and her inspiration.
You have worked as an artist in Austin for more than two decades, but this is arguably your most ambitious project to date. Tell us why The XYZ Atlas is different.
It’s really outside of class, race, art history, education or whatever, so that all kinds of different people feel valued in it. It’s really been exciting for me, because art can really make you feel stupid sometimes. You can listen to classical music and maybe assume you would understand it more if you knew about theory, but emotionally you can enjoy it just as much. But not all visual art can allow for that experience. I’ve been excited to be able to talk to anybody about it and not feel like it’s arrogant. The whole point is that it’s valuing their stories and I’ll take those stories and I’ll make it into this stuff.
Where did the inspiration for XYZ come from?
I was inspired by the psychologist Robert Plutchik’s theory of emotional wholeness. When I applied that to an elaborate color wheel, I could visualize how surprise is the opposite of anticipation on his chart. I [began to] understand that I couldn’t allow for surprise if I was so focused on worrying. Or that if I was so busy avoiding grief, I might not be able to allow joy. And it was like, ‘Wow, this is incredibly useful as a tool. Can I make art that celebrates that with others and maybe helps or inspires others?’
How did that turn into this three-year long interactive public art project?
The XYZ Atlas is kind of a culmination of … a long series of life events and conversations with friends that started to fall into place. As an artist, you start figuring out that your audience changes you. It’s been a really cool project, but it was nothing I had set out to do. There was a whole lot of improvisation in pulling out all these experimental things I had been working on and figuring out the best way to execute this piece. I just wanted it to be as straightforward and as visceral and visual as possible.
Taking the survey — either online or as part of one the mapping events — can definitely be a visceral experience. The questions ask things like ‘Where did you fall in love?’ and ‘Where did you feel the intensity of your own cruelty?’ Can you talk a little about the survey itself?
When I first wrote the survey with the help of some of my writer friends in 2013, I passed it around by email and got feedback, because I wanted the questions to really inspire a response.
Do you think that translates into how the audience experiences The XYZ Atlas?
Yes. I wanted [the audience] to feel like you’re a giant walking around on a field of your experience in a place, and then doing that thing you do when you orient to a map. [Ask yourself] ‘Where am I on this map?’
You must witness some great moments as people find their spots on the map.
One of the coolest experiences that first night was two of my friends, Lana and DJ, were there and my friend Wells was there. At the exact same moment they were walking to the same spot on the map to put a flag on it, and they were like, ‘That’s my spot!’ The bridge over Waller Creek where it hits Lady Bird Lake is where Lana and DJ fell in love, and it’s also where Wells takes his children to go reconnect with nature. And it was like, ‘Ding ding!’ It was like a live experience of what could have happened separately on the map. My two good friends connected and became friends over a shared experience over the same spot. And that’s the tiny magic that this project has put together — our shared attachment to place. It’s why after all these experiences, both good and bad, you’re like, ‘I could have been somewhere else, but this is home and it’s home because there are all these familiar memories and moments.’ And even bad ones you acknowledge over time, I think your difficult experiences make you full and whole and who you are.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Read more from the Outdoors Issue | May 2016