‘Counter Cartographies’ asks: How do we ‘map’ our lives on the land?

SPONSORED: Maps are just one way we record our relationship to physical places. In a new exhibition, northern artists explore the idea of cartography as a way of experiencing, sharing, and communicating about our landscape.

Presented by the Anchorage Museum

What does “cartography” mean to you?

If you’re like most people, the term probably brings to mind a paper or digital map. But a new exhibition at the Anchorage Museum aims to get you thinking beyond those two-dimensional representations of place by exploring other ways people think and communicate about landscapes -- and how our relationship to the land is formed by factors like time, identity, power and culture.

“Counter Cartographies: Living the Land,” which opened Oct. 8, features impermanent and experiential artworks that go beyond the traditional topographic geography or satellite images typically associated with western maps, said Anchorage Museum Senior Curator Aaron Leggett. The exhibition -- and its exploration of differing perspectives on place -- grew out of the museum’s efforts over the past several years to contribute to the growing awareness of Indigenous place names and land acknowledgements. It also evolved from the museum’s work to find connections and commonalities throughout the circumpolar north, according to Leggett. Through those connections “we start to realize that there are these shared histories and shared concerns,” he said.

“This (exhibition), to me, if you boil it down to an essence, is: How are other ways that people communicate information about a place or landscape in nontraditional ways?” Leggett said.

Those other ways of communicating vary across cultures and landscapes. Accordingly, “Counter Cartographies” features a wide range of works, said Chief Curator Francesca DuBrock.

“This exhibition is meant to kind of destabilize and question and reimagine what we think of when we hear that word,” DuBrock said. “So it is intentionally open-ended, and it is intentionally going to kind of push people’s comfort levels in terms of what they might find recognizable or relatable. Some projects are very conceptual and some projects maybe are using maps, using something someone would visually recognize as a map.”

“Counter Cartographies” emphasizes works that are impermanent or experiential. One piece features water falling on drums; another is a film that will change seasonally throughout the year the exhibition is on display; a different film uses puppetry to explore the idea of homeland and the African diaspora. All of the works are installations, incorporating audio components, storytelling, and even dance and choreography.

“It’s not just a picture on a wall,” she said. “There’s sound, there’s video, there’s water, there’s built sculptures in the space. It’s going to be pretty visually and physically dynamic.”

Nearly two dozen artists are represented, as the museum wanted to showcase a variety of voices.

“Mainly we wanted to highlight circumpolar perspectives, perspectives of Indigenous (people) and people of color,” DuBrock said. “There are some queer perspectives represented. (We wanted) to be inclusive and expansive in terms of who is doing the talking about these ideas, and really to let the artists lead the conversation.”

The museum worked collaboratively with the featured artists to develop the gallery space. Some of the installations were created specifically for “Counter Cartographies,” but even among the works that were previously developed, there tended to be some evolution as they were installed, according to DuBrock.

“There are artists from across the spectrum, across the circumpolar region and beyond, who are all working with these ways of thinking about place that either use western cartography to sort of critique geopolitical structures and forces, or they’re completely reformulating that sort of western approach to mapping and communicating about place and thinking in much more kind of abstract and imaginative ways about how we experience the places that we inhabit,” DuBrock said.

Just as individual relationships to land vary from person to person, the abstract works in “Counter Cartographies” elicit different reactions in each viewer. The exhibition includes both the artist’s and the curators’ reflection on each work, and there’s space for the viewer to interpret each piece, too.

“The show is not meant to present a single view or any kind of dogma around what a map is or what people should think or feel when they experience the artwork. It’s really meant to be an open exchange between the viewer and the work,” DuBrock said.

Variations on theme

Although “Counter Cartographies” emphasizes the abstract and impermanent, there are more traditional physical maps on display in a complementary exhibition curated by Leggett -- one of several places in the museum where the same themes and ideas are being portrayed.

This map exhibition explores how the modern understanding of Alaska has developed over the past several centuries, as well as how the Municipality of Anchorage has evolved over the last 100 years, Leggett said.

The maps in the exhibition date show the circumpolar region as far back as the 16th century -- when there were many more blank spots in the cartography.

“There’s some little squiggles, Alaska doesn’t even really exist, and then as it moves through time up into present day you start to see Alaska emerge on the maps, and then you start to see things like mapping for different political and economic agendas,” DuBrock said.

The more modern maps show the interests of the mapmakers, depicting resources for extraction, land use, military communication, real estate, natural features, and more. Leggett said he was pleasantly surprised that the museum had more than enough maps in its archives to put together an interesting narrative about the state and the north.

“We had to cut out quite a few to tell this story,” he said. "

Leggett said the museum hopes the maps will help Alaskans think about the different ways to view and consider their state.

The map display is just one of several complementary exhibitions and events planned at the museum. Two more related exhibitions open this fall -- Christina Seely’s “Dissonance/Disturbance” and Stuart Hyatt’s “Stations” -- and additional programming will also explore the themes and ideas raised in “Counter Cartographies.” Visitors may attend talks about Indigenous place names, make their own creative maps in mixed media art workshops, and even submit their own memories of important places for the museum’s archives.

Through “Counter Cartographies,” its companion exhibitions and the slate of related events that will be held over the next 11 months, DuBrock and Leggett both said their wish is for visitors to leave the museum thinking about the idea that there’s more than one story about a given place -- and that, just like not all cartographies are the maps we recognize, not all stories are written down.

“My hope is that they can get a new more nuanced appreciation of place,” Leggett said.

“Counter Cartographies: Living the Land” will be on view through Sept. 4, 2022. Learn more about the exhibition and related events at AnchorageMuseum.org.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the Anchorage Museum. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.