Creative cartography: David Thomas Smith’s Anthropocene

This is the start of a series of blog posts I’m doing on Canadian Geographic’s blog, about artists who use maps in their art. 

In the heyday of exploration, the act of making a map combined navigational expertise and artistic ability to produce invaluable documentation for future visitors to an area. The maps weren’t perfect representations of the land, but reveal much about the evolving knowledge of the world’s frontiers.

Aerial photography and, later, satellite images brought even the blurriest corners of Earth into sharp focus. Despite the detail we know about the world around us, maps are still about more than getting from point A to point B — they represent a way of viewing the world. Today, many artists are using maps in their work to explore humanity’s connections to place.

We have put together a series of Q&As with some of the world’s best artists working with maps. We begin with David Thomas Smith and his series Anthropocene.

Some scientists believe the human race has had such an extensive effect on Earth that the time of our species deserves its own geologic name: Anthropocene.

Picking up on this idea, David Thomas Smith creates tapestries based on digital maps of our cities, buildings and infrastructure. By manipulating satellite photos of Earth in his series Anthropocene, the artist reminds us of the scale of human impact on the planet.

Las Norias de Daza, Spain

Why do digital maps inspire you?

I find maps in general to be a great source of inspiration. I’ve always been fascinated by them, whether they’re ancient maps that depict places and the mythological creatures that travelers could expect to encounter or their more contemporary counterparts that depict the rise and fall of nations and empires.

What is the connection between the medium and the subject?

The photographic medium is inherently connected to the subject; images are an integral part of the machinery of capitalism, they’re the spectacle for the masses and tools of surveillance and control for those in power.

Google Maps, or any digital mapping system, is just the logical conclusion of a process that began with the first photographic print. It is the ultimate archive of the landscape, an archive that is growing in size and complexity. Images extracted from digital maps allow us to look at places and examine subject matters that may have been unreachable for financial and logistical reasons.

Having access to these places via the online images allows us to see and to ask questions.

How do you choose the sections of Google Maps you use in your work? How do you work with the images to create your art?

Each section was chosen after a great deal of research. I wanted to find places of real social and economic significance. I chose a combination of well-known places, such as Las Vegas and Beijing International Airport, and places people may not have heard of, such as Australia’s Super Pit Gold Mine and Canada’s Delta Port (left).

Once I selected an area to work with, I would create a few prototype images using just a few low-resolution jpegs. This would give me an idea of what the final image would look like. Once I was happy that the location would be aesthetically interesting and could provide enough detail, I would set about gathering the thousands of jpegs needed for the final piece. This was simply done by zooming into each individual building and making a screen grab. I would then reconstruct the image in Photoshop by hand, like a giant jigsaw puzzle. That’s what gives the images such good resolution.

What are you hoping people will take away from your art?

I would like people to come away with a sense of the scale on which the world operates; the power that mankind has at its finger tips, and then, hopefully, they may begin to question how that power is used.

View more of David Thomas Smith’s work on his website.

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