A Dance of Maps

“A Synesthete’s Atlas” at Shapeshifters Cinema
Sunday, September 25, 2022

Using digital maps as his medium, Eric Thiese is honing a new type of visual-art performance. On a projector, in real time, he pans, zooms, and rotates street maps, playing with color and text fonts along the way. Often the street and regional names are visible, but I prefer it when he turns them off, creating an abstract geometric space. Disorientation is core to the experience, and some of my favorite moments come when the image, in motion, stops looking like a map and becomes a sparse universe of lines and curves.

“A Synesthete’s Atlas” combines this video dance/movement with improvised music. Thiese performed the concept nine times in 2022, and I saw the seventh of them, a duet with Kyle Bruckmann on oboe and analog electronics.

Electronics suit “A Synesthete’s Atlas,” maybe because they fit the brain’s expectations: abstract sounds against abstract visuals. Fittingly for a map-based performance, Bruckmann’s electronics were often in an exploratory mode, a gradual hovering of buzzes and clicks. He would later tell us he’d performed with lines and rotations in mind. Oboe segments likewise hovered — long tones and overtones, with gradual variations like a geological expanse — but later moved into bursts of notes, at one point accompanied by an electronics loop with a slight random element added.

Thiese’s browser-based controls have their limits; the occasional abrupt shift in the visuals breaks the spell for a moment. Rotations and zooms, though, operate on computer presets that move smoothly. Overall, the concept is satisfyingly hypnotic, and it adds a novel visual aspect to solo musical performance.

It also aligns Thiese’s interests in experimental film and music with his cartography-related day job. In fact, he gave a presentation about his work at the 2022 North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) conference in October. Here’s the video of his session, which begins with excerpts from five previous performances including the one with Bruckmann. On Vimeo, you can also see snippets from his debut performance, with Helena Espvall on cello and electronics.

Incidentally, Thiese’s NACIS talk plugs a performance with Liz Draper, bassist for the indie rock band Low. He mentions that she was available because a bandmate was taken ill — and, sadly, Mimi Parker would die of ovarian cancer just weeks later. Draper is indeed familiar with experimental settings, and she’s a composer as well. Check out Liz Draper Bass on Youtube.