Patricia Smith’s mapping practice concretizes the ephemeral. Inverting the Situationists’ concept of psychogeography, in which the experience of a place affects a person’s psychological state or behavior, Smith’s maps reinterpret spaces with reference to specific events or feelings. The Incidents series refers to particular moments in time and space. Like any attempt at describing sensation or memory, the results shift and undulate, making room for both geographic fact and chimeric phenomenological experience. In folding together things that can be known by other people (such as actual locations) and things that cannot (another person’s experiences), Smith’s work challenges the function of maps as reference points for reality and suggests that affective and objective experiences are not so distinct after all.
One can imagine that the Incidents maps are made in much the same way topographic maps are, with the spaces and situations felt out by the mapmaker and recorded as faithfully as her skill allows. By referring to actual geography, usually without declaring the place, a Smith map engages the attention of viewers who recognize the places by sight—presumably people who are familiar with and have connections to them. Though Smith’s references are deeply personal, her maps can tap rather intimately into her audience’s experiences, in a way formalizing a landscape of interpersonal qualia. With her maps, Smith declares the inextricable reciprocity between place and sensation, asserting that each is created and understood through the lens of the other.
This idea, of linking place and sensation, is perhaps most popularly recognized through the Situationist concept of dérive. First developed by Guy Debord in 1956 and meaning “to drift,” the dérive act was intended to disrupt normal experiences of urban spaces by refusing their prescribed modes and uses—allowing oneself to be attracted to certain areas or repelled by others, free from an objective or clear intent, and therefore presumably also free from the site’s imposed logic or use. A person’s resultant movements through the streets were often characterized as somnambulistic, their purpose derived from affective sensation rather than any external curriculum.
But for a viewer of Smith’s maps—rather than moving in a dérive through the streets, allowing them to affect her feelings—the streets seem to move through Smith’s internal experience, their subsequent mappings influenced by, but not beholden to, any static geography. Her maps are delicate and without distinct edges, like a dream-state perception in which only the center of one’s attention holds. Similar to the dérive, her maps feel dreamlike and ethereal, but her functional reversal of the dérive concept privileges the psyche of psychogeography in a way that the Situationists did not, thus allowing for a record of Smith’s engagement with space. This act of mapping affective experience solidifies and, potentially, legitimizes what has always been considered too slippery to trust or believe: memory.
In works like Residue of a Violent Event (L.I.C.) (2014), Smith refers to an incident in her personal history, rooted in a specific location. In hazy watercolor, she sketches out the relevant geographic features: a short section of a river, split by a dark, thin island at its northern bend and trickling into narrower creeks to the east. Two bridges extend from the island to the shore like grasping tendrils. An uneven grid of a few streets is penciled onto the pointed corner of land between the main river and a creek. A stippled shadow hugs the wavering coastline and hovers like a miasma over the roughly drawn streets. Smith neatly labels the features recorded by her map, marking “The Murder” a few blocks away from “Tom Cat Bakery”; the black stipples are named “The Dark Heart of Things.” She maps the dispersal of these shadowy marks, noting “A Stagnant Pool of Grief,” “Absorption into Bread,” and “Absorption into Water.” At the bottom right, Smith inscribes the purpose of the work: “Noting the absorption level of negative vibrations over a period of 18 months.”
By making a record of something as intangible as “negative vibrations” across a recognizable drawing of Long Island City, Smith asserts the tactile effect of one’s internal landscape on the external. The logic of this claim is that subjective experience is not only an important aspect of reality, but also a shared one; we are not islands of personal multitudes, unknowable to one another, but rather are deeply interconnected through and by the spaces we inhabit together. Much like the dérive was meant to be a way to reclaim the streets from inhuman consumerist agendas, Smith’s maps are a way to reassert the power of intersubjectivity and a shared social reality.
Patricia Smith was born in Camden, New Jersey, and studied art at Rutgers University, Camden, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia. She received her MFA from Rutgers University Mason Gross School of Art, New Brunswick, in 1984 and subsequently moved to New York City. She was active in the downtown Manhattan and East Village art scenes, exhibiting at such historic galleries as Sensory Evolution, Helio, Life Gallery, Cuando, Nico Smith, Limbo, Zeus Trabia, and Nite Gallery. She is currently represented by Front Room Gallery, where she has had four solo exhibitions since 2006. Venues of other solo exhibitions include Black + Herron Gallery, Saint Peter’s Church, A.I.R. Gallery, and Piezo Electric Gallery in New York; Croxhapox Gallery in Ghent, Belgium; and S.O.M.A. in Berlin, Germany. Her work was recently featured on the cover of You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography, published by the University of Arizona. She was awarded artist residencies for 2013 and 2015 at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris and in 2014 was an artist-in-residence at Kaus Australis in Rotterdam. She was a 2014 New York Foundation of the Arts fellow in Drawing/Printmaking/Artist’s Books. She currently lives and works in Paris.