Data Artist Deciphers Maps Of St. Louis From Decades Ago

Last month, data artist Jer Thorp completed a project as an artist-in-residence at St. Louis’ Center of Creative Arts (COCA) built around maps that grew out of his research regarding how much geography impacts the city—real and imagined. “Something that kept coming up in research was how much the city is defined by its geography. The city/county boundary, all the different neighborhoods, these strange city districts—it seemed like a very natural thing to do a project around maps,” he says. The project became called the St. Louis Map Room project.

Data is more than strings of numbers and variables as Thorp has learned over the years, transforming complex data sets into interactive art. For one of his most notable projects, he helped create an algorithm that sorted the names of individuals who died in the 9/11 attacks and where they would appear on the memorial, which accommodated family member’s requests for “meaningful adjacencies.” With 1200 proximity requests, the first few computer scientists contacted for the project said it was an impossible task.

 

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For the Map Room project, Thorp and his team created a pop-up map space at the abandoned Stevens Middle School near Grand Center, just north of the Delmar divide, where diverse communities were invited to create large-scale maps together. Using everything from markers to drawing robots, groups decided what their maps should show before designing them on 10 x 10 canvas sheets. Then, a projector mounted on the ceiling projected city data onto the maps.  “The idea here is civic data. Who does civic data serve?” says Thorp. “It’s supposed to serve everybody, but it really only serves the technically elite who have the ability to access it frequently.”

Thirty maps were created—each depicting different parts of St. Louis—and were then matched with data sets created by Thorp. “One of my favorite maps charted the streetcar routes from the 1920s,” he says. “Most people don’t understand the extent to which the streetcar network ran. It was much more advanced than the current bus network.”

While organizations like TIF and the Anti-Defamation League contributed maps, Thorp also invited middle- and high-school classes to create their own maps of the neighborhoods where they live, introducing a whole new generation to data. The experiment included the redlining map, a technique with the sole purpose of institutionalized racism, used to deny African Americans housing. “We know now that those maps were obscenely racist. The city decided to make it implicitly difficult for black people to own property,” he explains. “That idea just blew these kids’ minds—that a map drawn 85 years ago could be impacting their neighborhood today. They left here really charged about telling the story of racial inequality,” he says.

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In that regard, Thorp may be inadvertently creating a new type of activist: the data activist. “Meaning gets reflected in all kinds of ways, but I think the simple idea of bringing data into a public, physical space is dangerous and awesome,” he says. “I mean, you can put it on a website, but whatever. How many people know to look for it, or are ever going to see it? But if you put it in a public square or open space, everyone sees it. That totally reframes the results.”

Next, Thorp plans to digitize the maps and make them freely available to the public at large. He also has plans to attempt the project in 100 cities across the nation in 2019. “The long-term goal is to detach ourselves from this so the project can be done on its own. Many cities could benefit from this.”

Thorp lived in St. Louis for three years, resulting in a meaningful connection with the city. “I feel like we really accomplished something. We gave something to the city for a brief period of time, and I hope that it will resonate with these students who will look at maps differently and ask, ‘What does this information mean?’ We always thought of this project as a bit of a pilot, but also the start of something.”

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