Lehigh University
Lehigh University


‘Bethlehem Biopsy’ helps map route to bright future

Lehigh artist-in-residence Christian Nold explains how the bio-mapping device works
during a Bethlehem workshop.

What would a map of your city look like if it read emotions instead of street names? Perhaps you’d navigate the city differently or discover a new hotbed of activity. Maybe underlying tensions between neighbors would surface. Or you might notice intersections where drivers and pedestrians jockey for position.

Thanks to British public artist Christian Nold, local residents will have a chance to see—and hopefully put to use—an emotional map of Bethlehem. Nold will present an early version of the creative project on Friday at the Banana Factory.

Part artist, part inventor, Nold has been emotionally mapping cities around the globe. His project has been staged in 16 different countries and more than 1,500 people have taken part in workshops and exhibitions. Now, thanks to the support of Lehigh’s South Side Initiative, ArtsLehigh, and the Humanities Center, Nold has been mapping this small, post-industrial city, ripe for revitalization.

“From the first time I read about Christian's bio-mapping, I knew that it would help us understand the social makeup of South Bethlehem and, with that, imagine ways that Lehigh can contribute to our community's development during this moment of historic transformation,” says John Pettegrew, co-director of the South Side Initiative and associate professor of history.

The project, entitled the “Bethlehem Biopsy,” is aimed at getting people in the city to think broadly about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. The ultimate desire is to use the map to determine where small interventions could make sizeable change for the city and its residents.

“If the Steel epitomized the productivity of industrial America – the building of modern cities, good jobs for generations of immigrants – why can’t Bethlehem be a model city of the 21st century, with sustainability, economic equality, clean public transportation, and vibrant cultural and civic life at the center of that objective?” Pettegrew asks.

'Reconsidering Bethlehem's future in ideal terms'

Nold hooks up volunteers before a walking tour.

Nold uses slightly unconventional methods to tap into the heart of the city. Through a series of workshops and events, participants have been wired with a device that records the wearer’s galvanic skin response, a simple indicator of emotional arousal in conjunction with the wearer’s geographical location. The device, similar to a lie detector, is accompanied by a global positioning system (GPS) unit that records where a participant walks and marks each of the points of emotional arousal.

Participants re-explore their neighborhoods or walk through the city. When they return, the data is downloaded and participants review their walk with Nold, who captures what triggered these emotional spikes.

Walkers divulged a range of emotions that were triggered by their walk – a fear of crossing certain intersections, a fond memory of attending a South Side school, the site of an accident where someone broke an elbow. Even Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, who participated in the first workshop held at Deja Brew, was surprised by his strong physiological reaction to the blast furnaces at the former Bethlehem Steel site. Their reactions collectively show areas of high and low arousal throughout the city.

Andrew Dealmagro ’10, a Lehigh art student, participated in a bio-mapping workshop in early April at Wired Café.

“I thought it was a great experience in which I had a lot of fun walking throughout North Bethlehem, seeing much of the city that I hadn't seen prior,” he says. “Comparatively, it made it very evident that the difference between North and South Bethlehem is very large, and that the South Side needs a major facelift. Likewise, I also think that Lehigh students need to experience going through the North Side, for most never travel further than 3rd Street.”

Nold blends various mapping techniques to achieve the final project. Through drawings and sketches, participants have been answering questions such as, “Where do you feel safe?” “Where do you go to play?” and “Who’s the most dangerous person in Bethlehem?” Some of the drawings will be extracted and used in Nold’s final design.

“The methods and ambition of Christian’s art always promised to push us toward reconsidering Bethlehem's future in ideal terms,” Pettegrew says. “And he hasn't disappointed.”

Nold explained his process and showed early designs for the Bethlehem map on April 17 at the Banana Factory, located at 25 W. 3rd Street in South Bethlehem.

For more information on the “Bethlehem Biopsy” visit www.bethlehembiopsy.net.

--Tricia Long

Photos by Jandra Weninger

Posted on Wednesday, April 15, 2009

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