Ward Shelley, knowledge, and maps.

Ward Shelley has been getting a lot of attention lately (at least in my corner of the internet) for his map of the history of science fiction:

"The History of Science Fiction, ver. 1" by Ward Shelley

Among other projects, including performance art, installations, and sculptural work, Shelley specializes in large (the above measures about three feet by four feet) and graphical timelines that recall both the intricate temporal maps recently collected by Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg in their recent book, Cartographies of Time, and the scientific illustrations done by past generations of natural historians.

"Who Invented the Avant Garde, ver. 3" by Ward Shelley
"Downtown Body, ver. 1" by Ward Shelley

These often describe the histories of art movements or genres, like the Beats or science fiction (above), or broader trends in cultural and artistic production, like the changing nature of the avant-garde, or the “autonomy” of art amid shifting economic pressures:

"Autonomous Art, ver. 1" by Ward Shelley

It’s worth viewing these (and the others) on Shelley’s site because there you can zoom in on high-resolution versions of these images, and these are pieces that definitely reward close viewing.

Shelley’s works are of course visually interesting in and of themselves, especially if you consider their real-life dimensions, and moreso for the way they draw connections among bits of disparate information to make visual arguments about the complex terrain of artistic expression and experience.  The generic references to both mapping and scientific illustration seem purposeful, as Shelley’s work meditates on the power that inheres to representations of knowledge.  From the artist himself:

These paintings… are about the struggle of form to express content in the cognitive space that exists between the Subject (us) and the Object (the world). If that cognitive space is a territory, these paintings are landscapes of that territory.

Other works of his similarly explore the materiality of information, as with the collaborative (with Douglas Paulson) installation piece “Archive,” which consists of thousands of stacked, uniquely labeled boxes:

"Archive" by Ward Shelley and Douglas Paulson

We might understand the boxes to represent many things, but to me they suggest the power of the archive–expressed here through sheer volume–to shape future narratives, as well as the sometimes arbitrariness of preservation:

"Archive" by Ward Shelley and Douglas Paulson

I just began reading Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: the Archive and Cultural History, which opens with a discussion of Derrida’s notion of “archive fever,” through which he links the repository of documentary knowledge to the Greek arkhe, “a place where things begin, where power originates, its workings inextricably bound up with the authority of beginnings and starting points” (Steedman 1).  One thing I try to get across to my students is that knowledge production is always contested and freighted with political assumptions.  Some have more trouble wrapping their heads around this than others, but fortunately (for my pedagogy, anyway) American history is filled with examples of specious “knowledge” deployed to political ends:


from Races of Mankind (1854) by Josiah Nott and George Gliddon

The trick is to get them to apply that critical perspective to the world around them.  It’s not easy, but for me it’s one of the major payoffs of teaching history.

For more esoteric cartography, check out Frank Jacobs’ appropriately titled blog, Strange Maps.


One thought on “Ward Shelley, knowledge, and maps.

  1. Pingback: No jest. | Ye Olde Royle Blog

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