City of 7 Billion: A Constructed World

Off the Charts

There’s some irony in the way City of 7 Billion: A Constructed World’s constructors—curators Joyce Hsiang and Bimal Mendis, with a large crew of helpers and contributors—have created a single-room exhibit that feels bigger than the almost infinitely more massive subjects it wants to help us understand.

Irony, yes, but really, human nature. Our brains just can’t wrap themselves around Planet Earth’s nearly 200 million square miles of surface area, or its human population of 7 billion and counting. We can’t come anywhere close to processing raw data at that scale. We need ways of slicing and summing it up. The raw data presented by a 615-square-foot (14-foot-tall) globe, like the one that hangs from the ceiling in 7 Billion, is already pushing it.

There are a couple of natural reactions when faced with the limits of our own processing power. When the stimulus is purely sensory—something we can just sort of take in, like the Grand Canyon or a great guitar riff—awe is what comes. When the stimulus requires serious cerebral engagement, awe can become overload in moments.

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That’s a very real danger at the moment inside the gallery at the Yale School of Architecture, where 7 Billion’s materials, nearly all of which require sustained attention to grasp, grace nearly every available surface—floor and windows included. You can look at these materials—like that 14-foot globe at one end, or a 52-foot array of spires in the middle, or a 255-foot panorama of Earth that edges the space on all sides—and experience them sensorily, with awe.

You can also look at them with an intent to really understand what they’re about. The globe, for instance, scored with textures and lines and garlanded with fine metallic threads, is a map of the world’s “roads, railroads, transmission lines, submarine cables, shipping lanes, air routes, tracklines, topography and bathymetry,” the pamphlet says. Titled “Sphere of the Unknown,” the project fills in some of the blanks that all the other maps most of us have ever examined have left empty.

But even limiting its scope to just “the physical ramifications of the ways we conceive, survey and navigate the world,” it doesn’t fill in all conceivable blanks. Which is also the point. This is a globe, and all globes leave things out, the curators note. “Sphere” is likewise a chance to underscore the fact that cartographers throughout history have been forced to deal with the inevitable limits of their own knowledge—from the days when maps had dragons prowling the outer edges of the known world, to the days of sonar and satellites, when it can still take months to find the remains of a missing airplane.

Here’s a second irony: 7 Billion’s interdisciplinary projects—doubtlessly out of necessity, given how ambitious the offerings are—weave into and out of each other in ways that can make you lose track of their boundaries. Maybe you’re trying to get a good handle on that spire array—titled “Figures & Ground”—and you’re seeing floor markers that look like they belong to that outer panorama, called “Scenes from the Horizon.” And maybe that makes you question your compass.

Here’s my recommendation. First, get a lay of the land. Do a walkabout. Read the space-integrated placards, which’ll help you figure out which features belong to which projects, but don’t get too engrossed. Just get a mental map going.

Then, one piece at a time, start filling in those blanks.

City of 7 Billion: A Constructed World
The gallery at the Yale School of Architecture – 180 York St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 10am-5pm through November 14, 2015
(203) 432-2288

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. To view the above photos in their full glory—uncropped and uncompressed—check out the email version of this article.

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