Exclusive Interview with XYZ Atlas artist Jennifer Chenoweth


XYZ Atlas, an interactive, community-based art project, is currently working in College Station to create a map of the city based on the people who live here. We talked to the artist and creator of the project, Jennifer Chenoweth, to get all the details on her artistic ability as well as  what the project is and why it was created.

MW: What is the purpose of the XYZ Atlas project?

JC: The purpose of the project is to ask people where they have had experiences that make them call Bryan and College Station home and to help us understand our emotional attachment to a place.

MW: Can you describe how this community-based project is done?

JC: The main thing we do is we have a survey. We have a lot of other little activities to get people’s’ attention about the project and to explain the project and get them to trust us enough to take the anonymous survey. We are asking some deep questions and even though we aren’t asking for people’s names or contact information, we still need them to trust us with their stories. What really want is for people to take the survey and when they answer a question about where they had their faith in humanity restored, with a place, that place has an XY or latitude and longitude coordinate. So, it is XYZ because we give it an up or down point if it was positive or negative. It is color coded to a chart of emotions. Then, we take all these collective answers and put them through an algorithm and come up with an experience map of Bryan and College Station.

MW: That is quite unique. What maps and events have already been completed?

JC: We did a project on campus at A&M in November of 2015 to reach out and see how people would respond there. We did it on the quad outside Langford and the administrative building, and it was really fun because it was like 200-300 feet, it was a really big map, and we had people put survey flags on a spot on that map after filling out a questionnaire. We did an initial map with the results of that survey. We did it with a black background with white lines for the streets and then with colored spots that lit up the map like a light bright. That was the initial test, and we began the survey at Brazos Valley Worldfest last fall. Now we are gathering information through the survey and will be doing that through April.

MW: I am glad to hear you had a good turnout on campus and at Brazos Valley Worldfest. What inspires you as an artist in all of your endeavors?

JC:  We actually are each others teachers and students and that is really what community is about, that shared connection and growth we get from knowing one another with all our differences and all our similarities. So, it is usually something that I have learned from talking to another person that sparks my interest. The initial creative inspiration for this project was how is it that we are emotionally whole, are we already whole, do we become whole, how do we find happiness, is it happiness or is it all of it? I found through conversations with friends for years and years that it is the acceptance of all of it that makes you a whole person. What is that ‘all of it?’ It is all of those experiences you have in your life that sometime occur in the context or places and people. I think emotional wholeness has been something I’ve been thinking about and talking about my whole life. Really it was the idea of ‘why call a place home?’ that inspired this project. We are all having experiences and we all call it home. Are there common places we go to for these experiences? Do we have this shared notion of what home is? These were my questions are this was a way to ask people those questions about where they were having experiences and see if there were common locations that we all shared as positive or negative or places of despair or places of desperation to see if we could map that and have visualizations that demonstrate what that means.

MW: What goals would you say you are working toward as you map Bryan and College Station?

JC: Finding out who to reach people closer to their neighborhoods is a goal. It’s an art project, not the U.S. census, it is a little aggressive to go door to door. Not everybody is online, so an online survey is easy for a certain demographic but not everybody. So my goal is to reach people that are not usually the first to participate in things and gain their trust to share their stories. We want to reach as diverse of a population as possible, so one of the things we do is use very basic demographic information, which is gender, age, home zip code and ethnicity so we can see what we are missing and set out to reach other people. We take the data in the spreadsheet and see that we are missing people from a certain area so that we can set up in a park in that neighborhood or if we see not many seniors are filling out the survey we can plan to go to some senior programming to make sure we are reaching out to as many people as possible.

MW: That is very cool. It seems like XYZ Atlas strives to reach people from every part of the city in order to accurately display the culture of the city. Now we want to know a little more about you. Could you describe yourself as an artists such as your history, style, and passions?

JC: I say that I am a visual artist to differentiate what I do from musicians or dancers or other types of artists. I have a pretty active studio practice, which means I make things with my hands, but what I’m making is not a set media. I work in whatever material fits with the idea, so in this case I had to figure out enough about technology to be able to supervise someone, an Aggie, to code the digital program used for XYZ. I did have a lot of input on how it would look, but sometimes an idea or project requires collaboration with a professional in another field, and then sometimes it is doing an interactive drawing with a person. I could have a person pose themselves against a piece of paper and then draw around them so that it is like a portrait of where they have been in space. I am really great with color, proportion, and geometry, and then I apply a lot of those skills whether it is drawing something with my hands or collaborating with someone that is working with design software. I picked art because it was the hardest thing to do because there is no roadmap. There is a lot of different ways to be an artist and I like it because it is freedom which is also the thing that makes it the hardest things. The point of art is to inspire people, and it is more integrated in many people’s lives than they even know.

Chenoweth is working hard to learn everything there is to know about our community. If you would like to contribute to XYZ Atlas by sharing your stories about Bryan and College Station, you can submit your survey at survey.xyzatlas.org, volunteer at an event, or attend the final exhibit May 5.


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