discontinuous, not unrelated

Babson College, Wellesley, MA

April 4 - May 12, 2007

Project history

The Babson College Great Relief Map was an immense topographic map of the United States. Initiated in 1923 by Roger Babson and completed on December 31st, 1940, the map was made of 1216 blocks, each representing one degree of latitude by one degree of longitude. Housed in its own building on the campus of Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, the map drew visitors of all ages and was used during and after World War II to train pilots. The map was the size of a basketball court and built on a rounded base that accurately followed the earth's curvature. Standing off the east coast, the west coast remained out of sight.

The seventeen years of the map’s construction saw a gradual evolution of the processes by which the map blocks were constructed. After topographic maps and land surveys were gathered for a particular area, these were translated into cardboard layers cut to follow topographic contour lines. Plaster was poured into these cardboard structures to produce a stepped form. Modelers then used maps to work back into these step forms with plasticine, rounding abrupt steps into the continuous slopes of mountains and valleys. These clay forms were then used to cast plaster molds from which the final plaster map blocks could then be cast. The molds were kept on hand in order to recast sections needing repair or replacement.

By 1980 the map was in need of substantial repair. A Columbian cartographer named Jaime Quintero initiated a restoration for which the college provided funds. Among Quintero’s tasks was reshaping the cone of Mount St. Helens to reflect the form it had taken after its eruption in May of 1980. By 1997 the map had again fallen into disrepair and a decision was made to tear it out and to convert the building housing it into dormitories.

The original molds still remain on the campus, as does a small section of the map showing the state of Massachusetts. That section was quietly broken out by members of the campus staff the night before the map was to be destroyed.



Invited to make a site-specific installation on the campus, I arrived with one set of ideas in mind. Seeing an old photo of the map during an initial visit to the college archives completely changed the focus of my project. Encouraged by the generosity of college archivist Rip Rybnikar, and in collaboration with Danielle Krcmar, the college’s artist in residence, I traced my way through the material and archival remains of the map.

The exhibition discontinuous, not unrelated consisted of eight discontinuous sections of the map recast in plaster from the original molds. These new casts were asked to operate as autonomous sculptural objects, but also to recall an abandoned pedagogical impulse and the significant labor of the map's makers. The casts were accompanied by a video shown in projection and on monitors. The video, lesson in conflict, shows two performers simultaneously and continuously rearranging a hundred small wooden houses. He arranges them into armies and she into villages. The wooden houses themselves, arranged by the same conflicted logic, were installed in old library cases across the campus from the main exhibition site.