Source: Mapping Native Art

This week we were assigned a mapping project. I wanted to map something relating to my interest in contemporary Native American art, the commercial market for Native art, and perhaps the tension between the two. My first thought was to have a layer featuring all of the many commercial entities selling Native “arts and crafts,” aimed specifically at the tourist market. I found a list of such places on a website run by an individual, not an organization, and whose criteria seemed to match what I was looking for. The site listed galleries by state, and also directed readers to a page on “How to Buy Genuine American Indian Arts and Crafts,” and encouraged subscription to American Indian Art Magazine (the current and final issue of which is on display right now in the Sloane Art Library.) This resources seemed aimed at the audience I had in mind. I experimented with Google Fusion tables and Excel spreadsheets to get my data “tidy” (more on that term later) enough to import into the map, and while I was partially successful, I did end up having to do some good old-fashioned data entry. I ended up with over 100 entries, although they only contain the basics: location of the galleries/shops, the websites, and the names.

For the second layer I wanted to map contemporary Native artists whose new media work was questioning the practices of the commercial art market. I struggled with how exactly to map these artists, and decided to go with mapping particular works, and place them on the map where they had been exhibited. I would have liked to add more artists, but since this layer was much more research-intensive and difficult to define, I only have seven artists mapped with one piece each (although James Luna has two pieces.) The choice of which artists I should map was fairly arbitrary, and with no real method beyond my own knowledge of the artists’ practice. I’m sure there are artists that might have been a better choice that I simply did not discover. Of course, these seven artists are probably not really representative of the world of contemporary Native art, I am certainly not qualified to make that decision. Ultimately I went with artists whose work appealed to me and I felt spoke to the issue at hand.

I feel that this attempt at mapping was largely unsuccessful. The obvious results were there, for example a much greater concentration of commercial sites and artists in the Southwest than anywhere else. I suppose part of my reasoning was to try and visualize the interaction between these two spheres of the art world – such as Clarke’s piece Branded where he created a brand of the word “Indian” and branded random objects to question the notions of authenticity surrounding Native art – is there a store proclaiming to sell “Authentic Native Art” down the street from him? I also wondered about the commercial sites that were distanced from any Native community or presence, did they differ from the stores in towns bordering reservations? For example, two store names I found especially problematic: “Long Ago and Far Away” is indeed located in Vermont, but “Cowboys and Indians Antiques” is an Albuquerque, New Mexico. I think what might have been a more useful project would have been to do some text-mining on the websites of these stores, looking at the frequency of the word “authentic” for example, and also do some detailed examination of the websites – the way the pieces framed both visually and textually. In a sense doing “what Franco Moretti has called “distant reading” with more traditional close reading to find rigorous interpretations behind the overall trends” as Dan Cohen describes it.[1] Continuing with Cohen’s thoughts, I don’t think that my map ended up being a visualization that generated new questions, or if it did, that it was able to answer them. Perhaps finding a way to trace the actual objects, the creation of the “authentic” items sold at the sites, be it from a reservation in Alaska, or a factory in China, would be provide more insight into the way the market is functioning. I don’t know if mapping the new media artists’ exhibits was useful, it did feel like a less successful imitation of “Transatlantic Encounters,” possibly because I didn’t have nearly enough data points to really visualize any trends. For example, I wanted to include James Luna’s exhibit at the Venice Biennale to show the international scope of some of these artists, but I later realized that having only one plot point in Europe really just constitutes an outlier, one that most viewers would miss. If I wanted to expand the map to Europe or more internationally, I would have to do so with much more data. To that end, I did learn a lot about data, and the reality of the “major challenge… in the logistics of producing interoperable data” that Matthew Lincoln describes.[2] I pulled the metadata the commercial sites from the HTML of the webpage, but to share it with others it would make much more sense for it to be in an XML format that could easily be plugged into a fusion table or relational database. Even if the map wasn’t successful in the way I intended, it was successful in aim of the assignment – it got me thinking about and struggling with what it really means to use visualizations and data as a method of art history.

 

[1] Cohen, Dan. “Searching for the Victorians.” URL: http://www.dancohen.org/2010/10/04/searching-for-the-victorians/

[2] Padilla, Thomas. “Data-driven Art History: Framing, Adapting, Documenting.” URL: http://acrl.ala.org/dh/2015/10/27/datapraxisart/