NORTH ADAMS -- For Jerry Gretzinger, a decades-long art project started with a simple doodle that exploded into an entire alternate world.
Gretzinger is bringing his universe to Mass MoCA, starting today through Oct. 14. His studio is set up in the Hunter Center and his map will be entirely displayed for the first time ever
"Jerry's Map," which began in 1963, is now made up of over 2,600 panels that cover 2,000 square feet when laid out. The map is Gretzinger's rendition of an imaginary town, but not one that is necessarily stationary. Over the decades, the town has grown and changed, and more recently finds itself struggling with pan-dimensional expansion, thanks to the variations that Gretzinger introduces to his process of creation.
One of the variations Gretzinger has added through the years is a deck of cards that directs what panel will be worked on, and what exactly will happen to that panel. This practice dates back to some point in the 1980s.
"As the map grew, and it began to be hundreds of panels, I was working through the piles of panels, taking the next consecutive panel to work on, and I realized that it was going to take me a year, two years, to get through the whole stack," Gretzinger said. "I wanted some system for randomly selecting the next panel to work on. The easiest way to come up with random numbers was a deck of playing cards. In the beginning, they were just used as straight numbers, one through 13, and I think I counted the jokers as 15 and they were in the deck."
"The panels were all stacked up and if I drew a 10, I would count down 10 panels and that would be the next one that I would work on. That system is still true today, except I've added other chores and instructions to the cards."
Prior to that, Gretzinger wasn't changing panels at all -- the technology just wasn't up to the task, and even that early on, he didn't copy many panels and looked at the cards as an experiment.
Another addition to the map that has stuck was the Void, an area of blankness that invades areas and reconfigures the landscape. Gretzinger introduced the Void about six years ago, after the request for a more specific story about the lands capture in the map.
"People always ask what's the story behind the map, and I usually say that I don't know, there isn't a story there that I know," he said. "I think one could be created. I had a friend who wanted to take on that project of creating a story, but he said to me, ‘There has to be some evil force involved so people will be interested. There has to be some conflict here.' "
"I balked at that at first and then I said, ‘Okay, well, I'm going to create another force, but it's not necessarily evil,' so the void is a part of the map being transported to another dimension. It's not lost forever. People who get consumed by the void have, in this fantasy, been transported to another dimension."
Gretzinger describes the result of the Void as "another world creating itself," with a city developing in the void, done on panels of the original map. The white area of the void gets bigger and bigger until a new city starts to form. Gretzinger predicts this will blossom into a whole other world on its own. And it doesn't necessarily stop there.
"Since then, I've created another dimension, the red dimension, and there are only, I think, two manifestations of that to date," said Gretzinger. "That can supersede the void, or it can supersede part of the original map, but it's a higher dimension. There's a fourth one that I have in mind and that will come along in time, if I live long enough to do it. There's a fifth one beyond that, but that's really far off and I may change my concept of what that is by the time the cards indicate it's time to do it."
Gretzinger considers the most significant thing to happen to his map began sometime in the 1980s, when he began cutting out body part images from magazines and applying them to the landscape.
"That was even shocking to me, because up to that point, the map was very literal," he said. "Things had to be represented accurately. I don't know what possessed me to do it other than the feeling that I just needed to break away from that rigidity of literal representation. I went into it gingerly, but then I let loose, and now I run with that."
When he's asked what the abstract imagery means, Gretzinger admits he doesn't have a clue, but will say that he uses this abstract base to build a literal map gradually, although they free up the nonsensical elements to just happen more naturally.
"I violate lots of rules," said Gretzinger. "Rivers can run in circle or uphill, roads don't necessarily match, they don't necessarily go anywhere, there are isolated pockets of civilization that aren't connected with others. It's not all that literal anymore. Yes I do create and play God and make rules, and they change all the time."
Gretzinger keeps a log book of his changes, which means he not only has a record of when such things as the Void began, but documentation of all the decisions he experimented with, only to drop them because they didn't quite work as he hoped.
"There are many times when I've said, ‘I'm going to try doing this, I'm going to try making only triangular collage,' and I'll do it for a while and then I'll put in the log, ‘I'm quitting that, that's not working,'" Gretzinger said. "I've done that many, many times. I try new things out and I try them for awhile. Sometimes I get impatient so I want to change the rules and try something else and I have to resist that, so I make up rules for changing the rules."
Gretzinger's work has also been opened up to an entire audience he barely even knew existed -- gamers, or more specifically, Minecraft enthusiasts -- thanks to a short documentary about his work by filmmaker Greg Whitmore. It happened when the documentary was featured on the video website Vimeo as an editors pick.
"All of a sudden, whoosh, after having two or three views a day, over the course of three days there were 55,000," Gretzinger said, "and among those viewers were people who were interested in games. They latched onto it and ran with it."
Minecraft is a video game centered on world building renowned for its game play and modifications promoting the creativity of the users. Gretzinger first heard about from an 11-year-old cousin, although admits to only a vague understanding of how it all works. He does peek into online conversations between Minecraft gamers in regard to the map, though, and how it has been adapted to their game in the form of a modification.
Gretzinger may not exactly get Minecraft, but he understands an enthusiasm for games, and points to his activities as a kid as an early indicator of where the map came from. He used to create games to play with his younger brother.
"He'd win and I'd get angry at him and go and create a new game that I didn't think he could win at," said Gretzinger.
Gretzinger created a Euro pean theater war game in which the players had armies that moved through Europe, as well as a railroad game, where players operated railway systems.
"I had an airline game," he said. "That was one of my favorites. You bought airplanes and decided on routes, and then you had to post your fares and you were in competition with your younger brother, in this case."
The games Gretzinger created were in many ways primitive precursors to role-playing games and other free-roaming video games, of which Minecraft is a part.
"We had pieces of paper. It was all done theoretically," said Gretzinger. "We didn't have maps, but we'd say what our routes were and we knew the miles and what the fuel consumption was. It was complicated and this was all pre computer, so the calculations had to be done by hand. It was very tedious, and we never played for very long."
Gretzinger leaves the game applications for the Minecraft fans, and devotes his creative time to the ongoing narrative of his map. His obsessions have crept into his daily life in a more practical way, though, that was designed to add a spice of mystery to everyday chores.
"My brain definitely works in this idiosyncratic, goofy way," he said. "And even when it comes to my daily chores, I have a day planner and all, and my tasks are written in there, and I have a deck of cards to determine what I'm going to do next when it comes to those."
"I'm incapable of prioritizing, so I just select randomly."
Gretzinger can be found online at jerrysmap.blogspot.com.