'Right There: A Hedonic Map of Pleasure and Pain in Austin, Texas'
Jennifer Chenoweth marks the places in town where we feel the most feelings
Where was the best night of your life in Austin?
Where was the worst night of your life in Austin?
Where did you fall in love?
Where were you terribly afraid?
Where did you act like a jackass, according to your own standards?
Where did you laugh the hardest?
Where did you experience your own mortality?
Hey, it isn't me asking all these personal questions. Jennifer Chenoweth wants to know. And not because she's nosy. She's making art out of the answers.
See, the intensely curious creative powerhouse behind Fisterra Studio wants to locate the spots in Austin where people have enjoyed their highest highs and suffered their lowest lows, in order to map them – literally mark them on a map – and see if any patterns emerge that might describe the collective emotional experiences of the residents of our city. After researching the work of various psychologists and behaviorists, Chenoweth devised a survey of 20 questions about people's distinct emotional experiences in Austin, and put it on Fisterra's website for anyone to answer anonymously.
Chenoweth has been gathering results for a few months now, and this week she reveals the first version of her hedonic map – after the psychological study of pleasant and unpleasant sensations – in a solo installation at Co-Lab Projects, "Right There: A Hedonic Map of Pleasure and Pain in Austin, Texas." The Chronicle emailed Chenoweth to learn about the background of the project.
Austin Chronicle: What sent you down the road of identifying and noting different kinds of pleasure and pain?
Jennifer Chenoweth: A friend emailed me Jeremy Bentham's "Pleasures and Pains, Their Kinds" – www.utilitarianism.com/jeremy-bentham/index.html#five – in response to a social media post I made about hedonism. It helped me learn about new ways of thinking about "how am I?" in order to better understand my own feelings and motivations, and then to better understand others' feelings and motivations.
I'm such a geek, I made a spreadsheet of Bentham's list, so I had a way of checking in with myself.
AC: How did it make the leap to geographic representation? What led you to pinpoint where in Austin you had had specific experiences of pain and pleasure?
JC: I was also thinking a lot about our sense of attachment to place and community. I actively create art, and I actively create community. So many of us have such opinions about places in Austin (think Continental Club or Las Manitas) and feel we own them because of our experiences there. I think it is our emotional experiences in a certain place that bring us back to a business or park, or make us glad when we get on a plane back home to Austin.
AC: How did you decide how these experiences would be represented visually?
JC: I'm still playing with the visual representation, and the installation at Co-Lab Projects is very much a demonstration of my thought process. I'm still arguing in my head about which color represents a certain emotion. That's very subjective.
AC: At what point did you choose to survey the community and map everyone's experiences?
JC: I love walking into a place I go regularly and seeing people that I regularly see there, or know from some other context, and what-do-you-know, our values overlap somewhere else, too. That is community. That makes me feel excited and safe. The survey is a way to get people to stop and think about how they feel and where they have felt it. So far the response has been surprising, and causes people to pause. Not everyone wants to reflect on bad experiences, but there have been moments of grief that have intensely changed my life for the better, so I'm all about all of it. I envision the survey going on for several years and checking back in with the results and updating the maps with new data and looking for patterns over time.
AC: Did you have any preconceptions about the responses – say, expecting a lot of pleasure events at Barton Springs? Have you indeed seen patterns?
JC: Yes! There are lots of "Barton Springs" in several categories, but really, I-35 is where we experience our own mortality often.
"Right There: A Hedonic Map of Pleasure and Pain in Austin, Texas" will be on display Oct. 13-19, by appointment, at Co-Lab Projects, 613 Allen. Artist's reception will be Saturday, Oct. 12, 7-11pm. For more information, visit www.co-labprojects.org or www.fisterrastudio.com.