an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
TEOA sat down with Austin artist Jennifer Chenoweth to talk about creatively mapping the emotional highs and lows of the city in a project called the “Hedonic Map of Austin.”
How do you describe the “Hedonic Map of Austin”?
The Hedonic Map of Austin is a topographical map of the highs and lows of collective experience. It is an ongoing collaborative project using information from the community that is visually represented in many ways.
What inspired this project?
In my life’s process of healing and wholeness, I have learned to accept all my experiences and emotions as valuable. So I was researching philosophical and psychological theories to inform my understanding. In response to my attachment to Austin and the places within it that I love, I started thinking about mapping emotional experiences of others and seeing if there are patterns.
What questions did you ask?
I started with a very academic spreadsheet interpreting the list of “Pleasures and Pains, Their Kinds” by Jeremy Bentham. But it was too much internal shorthand and would not have provoked answers from people taking the online anonymous survey. So I came up with a longer list of questions, shared it with friends who are writers and thinkers, and got their edits and suggestions. We narrowed it to 20 questions on the spectrum of intensity and types of emotions, as charted by Plutchick.
What kind of responses have you gotten so far?
The responses have been very interesting and inspiring. More people told stories and listed fewer addresses than I expected. Then the artistic part of the project evolved in order to capture some of the narrative stories.
Did any patterns emerge?
There were plenty of patterns in the data, but what surprised me was that in life, I often hear people put nuanced detail into their verbal complaints and critiques, but then hear people simply gloss over the good. But in how much we value the experiences of joy and connection take up much more space in our emotional energy. Though that is my subjective interpretation, it cheered me.
Anything that changed or confirmed your feelings about Austin?
Whether we moved here or grew up here, moved away and back again, it is because the overall good outweighs the bad. That the sense of attachment to community is one of the things we connect around. I appreciate that we all have very strong emotional attachment to Austin.
Would you have made this project somewhere else, or is there something about Austin that invites this sort of attachment, nostalgia, and connection to place?
I could not, because I am attached to this place as home. And I see that by mapping those attachments outside of my house, next to neighborhood, then on to regular spots… what is safe and beautiful are what we return to and are glad for. Plus, there are many surprising adventures to be had on any day in Austin.
How does this project fit into your creative trajectory?
The one item I didn’t place in the Co-Lab show, but will include in the online documentation, is that the one item I had in my art school admission portfolio in 1988 was my own color chart of emotions and diagram of self. I’m sure it was more than half-baked, but apparently I’ve been thinking about these things a long time.
You are committed to building and supporting the creative community in Austin through your nonprofit as well as your art. How did your other work inform this project?
I cannot say enough how important community is to me, how much energy I put into sustaining community. I learned late in life the safety of attachment, and allowing myself to be at home an openly attached to a great number of people.
Austin doesn’t have a reputation as a great city for visual art, at least not in comparison to music and perhaps film. (And maybe this is really a critique of Austin museums, not artists?) What has been missing? Is it changing?
There are many amazingly talented visual artists working here. Only since E.A.S.T. started have people had direct access to artists and like buying directly, if they buy at all. What is missing is a trusted source of where to buy art that actually supports our values, and that’s what I’ve tried to start with Generous Art. In Austin, the painting on your wall isn’t a monetary status symbol, it is a piece you love that marks a moment in time, over a conversation with someone important to you.
What’s next for the Hedonic Map?
I want to create an online book about the piece, that tells the story of my thinking process and how it has been informed and changed by collaboration. I want to find new collaborators to help visualize the information in different ways graphically and in maps.
Jennifer Chenoweth is a visual artist in Austin, Texas. She creates contemporary, abstract, conceptual artworks in all media. She is the founder of GenerousArt.org.