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The map as image: exploring the carto-aesthetic reflections of Juan Galeano

Discussing process and technique with Spanish cartographic artist, Juan Galeano, through the lens of demographic research and maps.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Aug 11, 2021

Contemporary art is often used to denote a wide variety of techniques and artistic practices that have arisen relatively recently, and do not fit easily into the ambit of more traditional classifications. By its very nature, this body of practice enables, and it may be argued, very much encourages practitioners to interrogate and employ extremely niche subjectivities in the pursuit of their craft. Juan Galeano is no exception, and defines his rather unique practice as 'code-based carto-aesthetic reflections'. The artist hails from Buenos Aires, and after staying in Mallorca, Andorra, Southampton, Manchester and Amsterdam, has come to live in Barcelona, Spain, for the last 20 years. Galeano’s work is grounded within an effort to aestheticise the map, but also utilises very real map data in the creation of his vivid and colourful reflections on cities he has lived in; and mostly those in Spain. Galeano explains, “In general, I produce maps of places where I have been, and Spain has a special significance in my work. Within Barcelona, I live in the beautiful and trendy neighbourhood of Gràcia, which is also one of my favourite places to map.”

Barcelona Hexabin, a piece that typifies some of Galeano’s more colorful work | Juan Galeano | STIRworld
Barcelona Hexabin, a piece that typifies some of Galeano’s more colorful work Image: Juan Galeano

Galeano has not had any formal artistic training and is currently employed as a researcher at the Université de Genève. He tells STIR, “My background is in Sociology and I have a Masters in Territorial and Population studies, a Masters in Demography and a PhD in Demography, which I research. My dissertation was devoted to an analysis of the settlement process; including residential segregation, ethnic enclave formation etc., of the foreign-born populations, such as myself, arriving to Spain since the beginning of the 21st century.” Through this process, the artist would have certainly interacted a fair bit with maps. However, his artistic undertaking began chiefly as a response to trauma. He mentions that a certain event in his life led him to feeling rather lost, and as maps have traditionally been used to find one’s way, the artist began creating highly stylised maps.

Gracia Quilt | Juan Galeano | STIRworld
Gracia Quilt by Juan Galeano Image: Juan Galeano

Galeano has a very interesting perspective on the personal value of a map to him. He says, “One thing I like about maps is they help me to remember places, people and experiences I have not lived, met or visited yet.” In a sense, the artefact of the map constitutes a catalyst that allows the artist to both, remember the past, as well as imagine the future. His work is always ground accurate, and reflects the real layouts of the places he works with. Discussing technique, the artist informs STIR, “First of all, I always need to access spatial data. Whenever it is possible, I prefer to rely on Open Data. Generally, I get my data from Open Street Maps, from NASA for Digital Elevation Model (DEM) data, or from different cartography and statistics institutions from around the world. Once I have the data, I need to decide at what geographical level I want to work at, and this could be blocks, parcels, or other administrative levels like census tracks, neighbourhoods, districts, provinces or entire regions. Finally, when I have a clear idea of what I want to do, I need to decide on the colour palette I will use for each particular map. I always use R for the programming part of my maps and QGIS to produce the final images”. This complex and niche workflow perfectly typifies a great deal of contemporary arts practices, as it was referenced at the outset of this article. Galeano’s work, while highly unique, is similar in spirit to that of so many other pertinent practitioners in that it requires a great and deeply personalised degree of knowledge, not only of various physical and digital techniques and processes, but also regarding the manner in which they may integrate with each other, on the part of the artist.

Urban Evanescences IV | Juan Galeano | STIRworld
Urban Evanescences IV by Juan Galeano Image: Juan Galeano

One very interesting aspect of his work is that it may be seen as carrying the visual qualities of a mosaic. Acknowledging this, Galeano tells STIR, “I have recently been very attracted to the modernist architecture of Barcelona and in particular to the Trencadís style. Trencadís is a term in the Catalan language that could be translated as ‘chopped’, and is a type of ornamental application of mosaic made from ceramic fragments - basically tiles - joined with mortar. It is very common, and characteristic of Catalan modernist architecture. So, recently I have been exploring how to transpose the Trencadis technique to a carto-aesthetic representation.” This interest drove the artist to connect the modernist Trencadis style with Voronoi diagrams, which is a term used to denote the diagrammatic partition of a plane according to certain point-based parameters, and is named after Russian mathematician, Gueorgui Voronoi. Through a combination of the aforementioned, Galeano has created some of the most fascinating and visually rich pieces within his oeuvre. Apart from these, the artist has also utilised a variety of other visual techniques within his work, with some pieces appearing as if they are heavily inspired by the colour-work found in European signage, and some far more abstracted still. One particularly interesting piece uses the layout of Barcelona to trace the outline of a gigantic lizard over the city. Here, again, the lizard looks as though it is made out of stained ceramics, or perhaps glass.

Barcelona Lizard | Juan Galeano | STIRworld
Barcelona Lizard by Juan Galeano Image: Juan Galeano

The artist is not currently a part of any collective, nor has he exhibited his work anywhere. Currently, as has been the case for many during and after the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, Galeano is focusing on his carto-aesthetic reflections and the direction his work will move towards in the future remains to be seen. It may be quite fascinating to watch the artist add an aspect of movement to his pieces, as if to facilitate his viewers’ traversal within the stylised cities one imagines when viewing his work, however, even as it stands, his oeuvre is certainly worth exploring for its uniqueness, its vibrancy and most importantly, as another shining example of the growing tryst between science and art. 

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