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"A Synesthete's Atlas: Cartographic Improvisations" @ Rhizome DC

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Rhizome's graphic for this event gripped me as soon as it popped on my Instagram: a map in vibrant yet primitive colors that could only have been rendered on a screen. I know #0000ff when I see it. I'm a nerd about mapping and data visualization in journalism, but GIS in live performance art isn't something I've seen before. I decided to check it out.

Eric Theise, a San Francisco-based artist and software engineer, came to D.C. last Sunday to perform at Rhizome in Takoma. This was the fifth stop of his tour of the East Coast, with upcoming performances in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The show ran from 7:30-9 PM and opened with Tangent Universes (Carolyn Snow), an electronic sound artist from Baltimore.

I arrived just as Tangent Universes started performing and took a seat near the back, jumping from seat to seat throughout the evening to get a better view. To record, or to enjoy, I’m not sure which—but at the end of the night I’d just resolved myself to the seat I started with. This is the first live performance I've attended with intent to review, so trying to balance in-the-moment enjoyment and recording/mental-note-taking for later was something I reckoned with and likely will continue reckoning with. I forgot a notepad and pen. Maybe that was a good thing.

With no visuals in the backdrop all eyes were ears during Tangent Universe’s performance. I wish I had a better view of how she was building her soundscape. I saw her synths on the table, a smaller device outlined with LED light, and the handheld trinkets she rattled and clicked together to infuse her synth-weaving with analog sound. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe electronic and sound art—I listen to rock and metal—but I liked it. I should go to more modular shows.

After the opening segment, Eric Theise introduced himself and his accompaniment: Darien Baiza on drums and Abe Mamet on French horn. This was the first time “A Synesthete’s Atlas” was performed with French horn; Mamet was filling in for Jim Ryan on winds. At some point while they were setting up, a glitch blared from the speakers causing us all to jump—but throughout the show, we were blasted, primarily, by eyestrainingly vibrant color. Mint green buildings on a hot pink plane. Cyan streets against electric blue. A purple country in a Kool-Aid sea. But within the fifty-minute show were moments of balance where the map’s details were dim and fine.

The performance was a feedback loop. Theise manipulated color, perspective, zoom, line weight, typography, toggling on and off street names and cartographic labels. The maps alternated between flat view and 3D. At one point, Theise blew up pixelated icons indicating transit, pedestrian crossings, dining locations; at another, he redacted every street name into squiggles. Sometimes, we descended gracefully from city to city; others, we leapt in vibrant tremolo from view to view.

Theise later described his maneuvering as “give and take,” both a reaction to the music and an attempt to induce change in the soundscape. At the venue, the map’s projection was front and center, musicians along the periphery, but it took a significant amount of the performance for me to realize where the navigator was. I assumed Theise was in a separate room, but I could hear his voice calling out something unintelligible—some sort of cue?—during the most climactic moments of the show. For fifty minutes, we flowed back and forth between a treading restraint and chaos: light tapping and atonal hums building into a dizzying multisensory echo chamber of flashing and panning.

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After the show, Theise took some time for audience questions. I was working up the aspiring-art-journalist courage to ask about the software he used, but fellow nerds in the audience beat me to it. Theise talked a bit about the Open Street Maps datasets, the open source graphics library he used to render the maps, the soundboard app interface he’d hooked up to his visualization to control it from a tablet. Open Street Maps provided data about streets, signage, infrastructure, and location names, but some of the data he’d collected himself during walks around San Francisco. Originally, he had developed this system to shoot experimental films, but eventually realized its potential for live performance.

With tech talk out of the way, I asked instead if there was anything he had to coordinate with the musicians before the performance or if it was all improv. Theise said that every show is intrinsically different because he performs every show with different musicians. Tonight’s drummer, Darien Baiza, was the only musician he’d performed with twice. Before the show, Theise had asked him for any personally meaningful locations to include in the performance, and so we paid a visit to campgrounds in D.C. and Colorado. Otherwise it was all spontaneous. As a previous collaborator put it—I’m paraphrasing, and maybe Theise was too—“I do my thing, you do yours, and the audience makes it happen.”

Here’s some of that happening, captured from the penultimate row. I promise I had a better view than what the camera is showing you!


A Synesthete's Atlas: Cartographic Improvisations was performed on October 8, 2023 by Eric Theise (maps), Darien Baiza (drums), and Abe Mamet (French horn) at Rhizome DC. Tickets: Sliding Scale $10-20. Opener: Tangent Universes (Carolyn Snow). Upcoming performances: October 14 (Pittsburgh), October 23 (Baltimore).

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