On the 1st of July, 2021, Lateral Geographies announced its first artist-collective-in-residence: Wells Projects.
The residency granted Wells Projects the opportunity to present Cryptocartography – a map-making collaborative project born out of the global lockdown.
Since the WHO declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, bringing the world to a stand still, we have experienced a dramatic restriction of our liberties and a similarly substantial loss of space. The relentless spread of the virus (which has claimed over three million victims) has required an unprecedented health response resulting in the spaces (encompassing work, leisure and entertainment) we were long accustomed to occupying being significantly narrowed down.
Within a matter of days, we were to withdraw from our social life and adjust to a new reality of quarantines, shutdowns and closed borders. The impact of Covid-19 on our mental wellbeing is yet to be assessed; however initial studies have confirmed the detrimental effect of the pandemic on different demographics, with increasing cases of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other symptoms of distress. The repercussions are not just merely psychological: a substantial change in volume in different regions of the brain has been observed in people who had been socially isolated for a prolonged time.
While it may sound naïve or even simplistic to some, the process of creating and experiencing art has been proven an effective therapeutic tool in increasing psychological and emotional resilience by reducing stress and anxiety. With its long-lasting effects on our psyche and body, making and looking at art can help us make sense of the present situation, build connections in our communities, process experiences, personal – and even collective – trauma.
In the time of Coronavirus, there is no aspect of our life that hasn’t been affected by the pandemic, including, of course, the way we experience art. Social-distancing policies, quarantine and travel bans have put a strain on artists and art institutions likewise. Turning to mediums of art online has been for many a viable solution to get around the limitations put forward by the health crisis.
When the first national lockdown was enforced in the UK, art collective Wells Projects decided to move their practice into the digital realm, and ran The Digital Commune. While providing and organic and somewhat playful “snapshot” of the extraordinary times it was conceived, The Digital Commune was aiming to create a virtual space for strangers to collaborate and experiment through a series of online participatory art projects. The digital programme included four main projects: Concrete Fragments, (a collaborative poem) Infrequencies (a soundscape designed around field recordings in isolation), Clocked in (a collaborative video piece, documenting a day in lockdown using found material submitted by participants online) and Cryprocartography.
Originally conceived as a map-making group project that revolved around the experience of our social / working / living spaces reducing during quarantine, Cryprocartography invited participants to submit via email a map of the location (either real or fictitious, current or past, physical or metaphorical) they were “inhabiting”. With the help of a digital 3D software, the maps were subsequently turned into interactive digital objects.
Cryptocartography draws in part from psychogeography, an experimental practice of the urban environment perceived at once as an objective and subjective space, one that is complex and in constant becoming. In his 1953 essay, Formulary for a New Urbanism, political theorist, activist and poet Ivan Chtcheglov laid the foundations for the development of the practice, which was later systemised by founding member of the Situationist International, Guy Debord. Grounded in the idea of the inseparability of the external social space and the private one of subjectivity, psychogeography is not just a mode of play using the dérive and the détournement as a way to explore a city; it is also a political statement advocating a new way of being, one that lies outside the commodified time of the capitalist system.
Following the success of the pilot project, in August 2020, Wells Projects teamed up with arts organisation Green Close and the UK National Health System to expand Cryptocartography into a series of online workshops for people dealing with mental health conditions. During the sessions, drawing maps became a catalyst to ignite a discussion about depression, isolation and recovery in a world turned upside down by a health and social crisis of unprecedented proportions. The sketches were then transferred into Tinkercad, a 3D modelling software, to become part of a collaboratively designed virtual space that included elements from everyone’s personal maps. The model was later 3D printed and cast as a solid object.
At the heart of Cryptocartography lies the idea of art as a therapeutic practice, one bringing universal resonance to a process of existential experimentation that aims to release us from the burden of pre-existing emotional impasses. By providing a visual representation of where we are or want to be “right now”, following months of limitations, map-making becomes an opportunity to reposition ourselves within a world that does not necessarily play to our strengths.
The current residency with Lateral Geographies grants Wells Projects the opportunity to present a new incarnation of Cryptocartography: in compliance with safety regulations, a series of in-person workshops are held at the Typa Museum in Tartu, Estonia, with participants from different backgrounds and countries. Only one attendee is participating remotely in the sessions. The residency will conclude with the presentation of a three-dimensional interactive digital model extrapolated from the maps.
Words by Lateral Geographies Curator Jacopo Nuvolari
Biographical Note: Wells Projects is an artist-led, not-for-profit project space and collective. Our team of artists, curators, educators and various creatives have a hands-on approach of working together closely with artists, commissioning dynamic, multi-disciplinary exhibitions, on- and offsite projects and community collaborations with emerging and established creatives alike.
We started in a leaky nightclub in Battersea as a group of live-in guardians, who decided to produce free projects. In this unusual space, we have bonded as a community and grew a supportive artist-network. As is the nature of guardianships, the building eventually was lost to developers and we became a nomadic space, facilitating projects both online, and in other disused buildings in London.
Over the last year and a half, we have worked with more than 200 artists on around 25 projects both on and offline. Wells Projects is free to use, inclusive, supportive and diverse. We want this to be a space that brings people together, softens the barriers between the arts and the local area and supports emerging young artists and performers, offering a more inclusive and cross-disciplinary alternative to the existing art scene in London.