Mapping "The Void"

Mapping “The Void”
Tasks, Information Seeking & Flow Theory
in the Phenomenology of “Jerry’s Map”


“The map began as just a doodle. I just made little rectangles and crosshatched them. Carefully. And I just kept adding rectangles and I put a river in....and some railroad stations. But there was this moment when I came to the edge of that sheet of paper…Got out another sheet of paper and put the two together…and I think I taped them together. That’s when I realized that it kind of had a life of its own.”

–Jerry Gretzinger  
describing the creation of the first panel of “the map.”
from the film, “Jerry’s Map” (Whitmore, 2012).

Jerry's Map Overhead view at MassMoca, October 2012Figure 1. 
Jerry’s Map
Jerry Gretzinger placing the last panel at MassMoCA, October 2012.
Credit: Stephen Taylor/MassMoCA

1. Introduction.
Over the past 50 years, Jerry Gretzinger has been slowly drawing, painting and evolving his “map” one 8x10 inch panel at a time. Working in makeshift studio spaces during spare moments plucked out from between career and family, Jerry has taken a singular doodle of a fictitious city center[1] and evolved it into an awe inspiring and sublime world comprised of 2500+ continuously evolving panels.[2]

Panel Detail, Jerry's Map
Figure 2. 
Jerry’s Map
Panel W7/N2,
8in. x 10in., mixed media, 2008.

His tools include hand-held tools like paint brushes, X-Acto knives, adhesive paper, Sharpie markers, acrylic & watercolor paints as well as informational tools like numbered, archival stacks and Excel spreadsheets. There is a rulebook which enumerates the systems governing the growth and decay of the map. “Current census data” in one spreadsheet file correlate with some other variable telling Jerry its time to build a high-speed monorail station in a given “town.” A series of published guidelines provision guest artists with a mechanism to add panels of their own 2D artwork to the map….

Arguably the most important and unique among the tools, however, is something Jerry calls his “future predictor” – a stack of modified playing cards which he draws from many times during a daily creative cycle –­­ designed to introduce serendipity and chance into all facets of his “world.”

In this brief paper I will attempt to model the ways in which Jerry interacts with, seeks and utilizes “information” while working as a solitary “artist” inside a complex social art system of his own design. Combining a modified version of, Leckie, Pettigrew, and Sylvain's Model of the Information seeking of Professionals (1996) with Csikszentmihalyi's Model of Flow Theory (2002), I have developed a model which:

1) traces the connection between roles, tasks, information seeking, and outcomes in Jerry’s creative universe;

2) accommodates chance, change, and randomness via Jerry’s “future predictor” or playing card randomization system;

3) reveals some of the iterative strategies Jerry has implemented over the past five decades to keep himself engaged in a flow state – i.e. challenged and inspired – thus saving the process and outcome from rote graphic repetition;

4) hints at the possibility of an advanced, sociable, multi-artist configuration emerging from Gretzinger’s current model in the near future…

2. A starting point: Leckie et al.
The Leckie, et al. Professional Model of Information Behavior is useful staring point for theorizing Jerry’s creative universe as Leckie has been designed to accommodate the behaviors of a wide range of information dependent occupations (nursing, engineering, dentistry) where objectives are principle motivators for the actors. In the model, work roles determine tasks to be completed, the types of tasks characterize information needs, and after an actor in the system has spent some time or used some mechanism for seeking and finding (or not finding) said information, tasks may or may not get completed – outcomes are reached or deferred.

Model Of Information Seeking Professionals
Figure 3.

Model of the Information Seeking of Professionals,
Leckie et al. (1996).

Just as an electrical engineer in the toaster-oven design division of General Electric with the specific objective of submitting a vetted, UL™ compliant schematic to a patent review board would seek and re-seek a range of information from a variety of sources depending on the relative completeness and accuracy of the design, so too must Jerry vary his sources of information depending on the task at hand. At any given time while in his studio, Jerry is a draughtsman, assembly line worker, archivist, data entry worker, etc. and must execute a range of artistic and organizational tasks like painting, gluing, taping, collaging, typing, cutting, observing, filing etc. in a manner dictated by map assembly protocol. Though after five decades Gretzinger is able to work intuitively on some tasks, his system is now so complex and follows such a dizzying number of rules and regulations that that he must regularly seek information from his own knowledge organization systems.

But what of so-called outcomes a-la Leckie et al.? How are they characterized in Jerry’s iterative cybernetic system? They are two-fold: At once, there is the map itself – a spectacular conversation in scale: From 10 inches away the observer notices staggering representational detail – comparable to the markings scattered across a topographical quadrant or a road atlas (see Figure 2). From 75 feet above however (see Figure 1) the map is an abstraction of swirling hues of blue, red and green evoking something simultaneously familiar and otherworldly: red tide, algae bloom, must, mold… This is a sublime, organic, turbid, dream space;[3] an evolving, dynamic piece of information unto itself.

On the other hand the system produces Jerry “the artist.” As an artist he is constantly becoming enriched by the relationship he maintains with creative machine he has built. If and when the system ceases to offer challenges that match his growing skillset, the aleatoric mechanism he has put in place –“the cards” – nudges the whole contraption to evolve and present altogether new challenges and novelty…Thereby opening up new possibilities for learning and personal growth. When engaged with the map, Jerry is, to strike a Csikszentmihalyian phrase, perpetually, ‘in flow.’ 

3. Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Theory for Artists:
Information gathering and task execution are important parts to the artistic process but recent research on creativity suggest that forces like flow, experimentation, learning from failure and improving technique are all essential for the long term growth of the artist.

A 2007 Nelson & Rawlings study found that,

 “part of the artistic creative process is a movement towards intuitive mental processes. These intuitive processes group together with other factors, such as the sense of effortlessness, confidence, non-awareness of technique, the physical body or passing of time, to constitute an aspect of the experience frequently referred to by participants as ‘the zone’ or ‘flow’” (Nelson & Rawlings, 2007, p. 239).

Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Theory states, briefly, that an individual (or group) is happiest when they are in a state of complete absorption in the activity at hand. To enter a flow state, a balance must be struck between available skills and perceived challenges.  Csikszentmihalyi defines the individual drawn to this kind of behavior as an autotelic personality, – characteristic of a person who “generally does things for their own sake, rather than in order to achieve some later external goal.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, p 117). At 72, Gretzinger has lived a textured professional life: he’s an autodidact of sorts who has worked on archeological digs in Tunisia; designed and sold handbags and accessories in New York City; run a women’s clothing company with his wife…All the while, he’s slowly quietly and patiently worked on the map. And until 2004 – Gretzinger found no need to exhibit, much less profit from this map. It would be difficult to characterize Gretzinger as an individual motivated by rational utility maximizing behavior…

4. So what kind of information is Jerry seeking?
Some researchers would say he’s seeking inspiration information.[4] Cobbledick (1996) in her oft-cited exploratory study of professional artists and their information seeking behavior mentions the common stereotype of the artist as “self –contained individual who create(s) via inspiration.” (Cobbledick, 1996, p. 344) The artist, she explains, will use a variety of searching mechanisms and techniques (browsing, consultation with interpersonal sources, etc.) and will look for a range of materials (visual analogues, mythological stories,) in pursuit of inspiration. But what of this inspiration which artists seek?  Is it information in itself? Does it appear in visual form? If it’s such a bright, promethean fire with which artists will forge their artworks – where exactly does it reside? And how do artists seek it?   

Digging into a range of quantitative surveys of artists working in a variety of media, one notes a few trends: sources of inspiration can be information gleaned from an artists own iterative workings, prior drawings or experimental works (Cowen 2004, Cobbledick 1996). Hemming’s (2009) survey of 44 artists found that in the top three sources of so-called inspiration, the individual artists own personal experience ranked second after forms occurring in nature. Cowan too in her 2004 study consisting of open-ended interviews with artists notes the “personal”, “interior” location of this inspiration information. For one mixed media artist, “the work of art in process is the other most important source of information.(...) The sensory information that she receives from the work in progress and her interaction with the materials she uses (…) tell her all she needs to know in order to progress with a piece” (Cowan, 2004, p. 17).

When theorizing the information seeking behavior of Gretzinger one is tempted to compare him to these other artists who work in paper or paint or fabric or sculpture...But for the most part, as he operates now, Gretzinger searches solely within a system of his own making…for everything. Technical information, operational information, task assignments and inspiration itself.  The work not only teaches him when to do it, in which order to do it, and how to do it, but it also inspires him to do it.

5. (Re)Modeling the Gretzinger Information Ecosystem

Gretzinger Information Flow Model
Figure 4.
The Gretzinger Information Ecosystem as derived from Leckie et al (1996) 
by Whitmore, (2013).

At this point it is essential to walk the reader through the steps in Jerry’s daily process in light of the above model derived from the Leckie et al (1996):

“I get up very early. I go to the basement studio.” [5]
The process begins when Jerry assumes the role of “the artist.”  Here the process mirrors the first step diagramed by Leckie et al.: the assumption of a work role. 
“First thing I do for the day is to remix paints. There are three rows. And the colors range from light blue to dark blue to dark green medium green to browns to reds and pinks up to grey…”

Jerry, now at work, inaugurates the process with a ritual task – the mixing of the paints.  At this point he is seeking information:

“The next thing is to draw a card.  And it says [for example] SCAN.”
In Jerry’s universe there is an essential aleatoric process step introduced: the drawing of a playing card. This card, once drawn will assign Jerry a task. And because each one of the tasks listed on the 53+ cards in his deck require him to perform varying activities, the randomness or “CHANCE” introduced at this stage has profound ramifications for the outcomes of the process. 

Three Cards from a Gretzinger Deck
Figure 5.
Three cards from Gretzinger’s deck. The “future predictor.” 

In Leckie et al (1996) tasks are the prime catalyst of information seeking behavior.  If there is a task that you need to complete, you seek relevant information to help you better complete that task.  In Jerry’s world, the polarity of this flow is reversed at that very stage: Drawing a card is simultaneously a task to compete and an information seeking behavior. The information gleaned from the card assigns the task and the work begins. And the assignment could be to perform any number of tasks or subroutines. In this example, Jerry draws a SCAN card:

“SCAN….That instructs me to take the current stack, count down seven, rotate them, put them to the bottom of the stack. Take the eighth one out. I take that to the color copy machine and I make a copy of it. The original, I archive. The new copy, I work on. And it becomes the next generation of that panel.  That kind of dictates how the map evolves through time.

An executive function control system which can assign tasks and modulate the nature of information sought …all via a random deck of cards. 

“Which tasks need attention first? When should I archive? Is it time to expand the map with a new panel?  Should I use collage? Should I build a new city? Is it time to write in my journal?” These are questions Jerry rarely asks – rarely thinks about. He rarely seeks answers to them. The questions are, more or less, answered for him – and he has no choice in the matter. He has built it this way.

Hence, he is free…free to execute the mundane but essential housekeeping tasks enumerated on the cards (e.g. “Update Logbooks), rapidly dispense action to the quotidian (e.g. “Backup Harddrive”) and then, when those things are finished, and after a third draw from the deck, enter into flow state with minimum resistance.

With each draw of a card and each iterative cycle the universe of the map expands; the map physically expands; Jerry moves closer to a flow state; his personal capacity for flow expands; his number of challenges grow; and at the same time his skill set – a function of practice repetition and experience grows.

6. “Sources of Information”
Case defines information as “any difference you perceive, in your environment or within yourself” (Case, 2012, p. 4). In the Gretzinger Information Ecosystem, information sources are numerous, protean and most surely illustrative of difference. Others however simply order tasks or instruct the minutiae of some simple subroutine. Some inspire. Still others purposefully randomize a process – bringing sharp focus to the difference a game of chance can elicit. Here are some information sources:

  • Jerry’s makeshift workbench: a information desktop which, offering almost every tool within arms length, allows for a work session to quickly enter a flow state
  • Archival “Stacks” of panels which represent prior generations of a panel and have been “retired”
  • Stacks of panels which are “in play” and represent the top layer of the map
  • The 1/16th and 1/64th Master Maps created by the scans of each active panel
  • Jerry’s personal Journal and Paint Swatch history
  • The spreadsheet(s) featuring: Population figures; Sports teams (w/scores); City Name database; “census data.”
  • City Name “scrabble cup” containing roughly a dozen random Scrabble™ tiles. Upon drawing a card with the instructions “generate town name” for example, Jerry will attempt to form a proper noun place names for new cities using from between 4-12  of those tiles. A recent example of a new town name: “Quove.”
  • Color photo copier: serves as both tool and source of information. When the tool is working properly, it does the job of duplicating a panel – setting up the process of retiring the original and working on the copy.  However, when the color copier does not work properly (i.e. ink is low, inkjet heads clogged, feed mechanism malfunctions) it has been provisioned (via the rulebook) to create a new piece of collage paper. Or, depending on the wildness of the misprint, it is often allowed to skew the evolution of the panel like so much mutated “genetic” material.
  • Jerry’s hands: led by deep, somatic intuitions set down and forged over 50 years of process as the map’s cartographer using pens and straight razor blades and burnishing tools and paint…
  • The “Future Predictor” card deck itself: random, almost “sacred” information for Jerry, can change everything. If a New Void card is drawn everything will change.
  • Jerry’s own eyes…

7. “Awareness of Information”
Leckie, et al. explain that notions of trustworthiness, packaging, timeliness, cost, quality and accessibility all come to bear upon the information sought by professionals in their model…And in a continuously interactive way. Nurses, for example will continue to scrutinize the relative untrustworthiness of an information source if information gleaned from that bunk might harm patient health. Some engineers, for example, may eschew Google tools and only search Underwriter Laboratory’s Electro Magnetic Compatibility (EMC) testing facilities when testing out their wireless-infrared-toaster-oven-remote-controls. However, if you are like Jerry, operating in a Gretzinger Information Ecology of your own design and creation, these kinds of qualitative differences in information are quite negligible. In fact, being Jerry, the one “census” document you consult every time a High Speed Monorail Station needs “federal” grant funding, it may be the only document you or anyone else for that matter will ever consult…because you built that document. And it has been designed to be used by you. And the use of it from here on out to eternity is mandated by the rule of law – and ordered to be performed by the rule of the cards. No other systems or sources will work, in fact. 

There are no other systems. Awareness is moot.

8. “Outcomes”
As mentioned before, this information ecosystem and production model produces two distinct types of outcome: The map, and Jerry himself. Here are some examples of map based outcomes:

  • Jerry’s map expands. Day to day, week to week, year to year, this includes:
  • generation of more panels
  • expansion of the territory of the map itself
  • increase in the visual complexity of the panel illustrations
  • addition of tasks and new roles to the map building process
  • derivative works like the assemblage of 1/16th scale models of the map from scanned jpgs of the current panels

Jerry’s creative world expands. This includes an:

  • increase in skill sets
  • increase in manageable challenges introduced to the process
  • expansion of consciousness through longer and longer periods spent in a flow state
  • expanded insight into the map’s properties (i.e. the discovery of new and emergent patterns never seen before)
  • expansion of the number of participants and the growing of the flow state to incorporate the efforts of multiple working parties


9. Something beyond grasp: Flow Theory Explored
Flow is “experienced” when the actor is reaching for something beyond her grasp: when challenges and skill levels are higher than what the actor current possess – i.e. when the actor has something still to learn. In the above diagram, The intensity of the flow experience is represented by the concentric rings: increasing outward from the center or average level of challenge and skill. 

Flow is Experienced.
Figure 6.
Flow is “experienced,” from Csikszentmihalyi, Nakamura (2002)  as adapted from Csikszentmihalyi (1997).

Csikszentmihalyi, et al. (2002) postulates three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:

1) “Flow tends to occur when the activity one engages in contains a clear set of goals. These goals serve to add direction and purpose to behavior.”
2) “A balance between perceived challenges and perceived skills.”
3) “Flow is dependent on the presence of clear and immediate feedback.”

In the course of working on the map, feedback comes in the form of a completed panel. In an instant, Jerry is able to see how a finished panel integrates into the surrounding three panels. This visual feedback is immediate and gratifying. The drafting and painting and cartography and design skills Jerry commands are at parity with an increasingly more complex, more urban, more compressed virtual geography in the panels. And Jerry is compelled knowing that this complexity is born of his subsystems in a dance with the randomness and novelty interjected by the cards. Knowing this he’s able to enter a flow state quite easily. As a result, sophisticated attentional resources develop…While in flow state he’s able to simultaneously execute tasks on a micro level while observation and contemplating on a macro level. Over time, working in multiple valences help provide him with the insight he needs to detect global anomalies and unforeseen problems at the role and task level. Now Jerry can see the devil in the details. And the devil is good. Because the devil is a challenge. He begins to notice unregulated growth; malformed and askew panel azimuth; subroutines with too little built in variation….

10. The necessity of “The Void”
Gretzinger was beginning to notice it in the early 2000s: too little variation in the global picture of the map. Too little risk. Too little at stake in this whole project. Too little narrative. Too little drama. So, one day, shortly after drawing a “create new card” card he wrote two little words on a new card:

 Figure 7.
Explication of the “NEW VOID" card and VOID Defense Wall.
Excerpt from “Jerry’s Map” (Whitmore, 2012)

“The only time [the map] changes radically is that card that says "NEW VOID" -- a white splotch of label paper: "the void." Blocks out whatever features where there originally. In generation one it was all green. Generation two it had some roads and farms. Generation three, the void comes in -- PLOP!  There's a big white blank in the middle of these pretty farms. Next generation that white gets a little bit bigger, and in the middle of the white, is a bud of grey. It's a new world forming.”

Now everything has changed. New challenges arise. There are new goals. New forces to design around. New urban dynamics. New possibilities for flow:

“There is one defense against the creep of the void. There’s a void defense wall. And part of it's been built around the city of Ukrania -- the biggest city on the map. And that's where I step back and I become the observer: "Well who's gonna win?"  "Is The Void gonna -- will they be able to build the wall fast enough? What's going to happen to the towns outside the wall...are they gonna get eaten? Probably. Will Ukrania be saved? I don't know....I'm watching this struggle.”

An emancipated spectator indeed.

11. A sociable world forthcoming?
If, in the future, a sociable creative system emerges from Gretzinger Information Ecosystem – one capable of sustaining multiple, cross pollenating artists – it will happen because the model has designed it to happen. Here is some evidence that an emergence may be in store: Jerry has made a number of recent modifications to the creative subsystems that provision for guest panels; more cards have been added into the deck that instruct Jerry to spend his creative time organizing, updating and digitizing even more parts of the archive, so as to make it more comprehensible and accessible to the outside world; after the first show of the work in its entirety (the first time the artist himself ever witnessed the map as a visual whole) at MassMoCA in October 2012, a prototype model of the entire map, navigable via computer using the Google Maps API was unveiled at the margins of the show. It was buggy. But interesting. Jerry let his son Hank build it.

And six months ago, there was talk of developing an app that would allows guest panel submissions to significantly influence the evolution of the map.  This was found on Reddit[6] and Minecraft chatrooms…

-11 March 2013


Baldegg, K. C.-M. von. (2011). The Mysterious Life of Jerry’s Map. The Atlantic. Retrieved March 1, 2013, from

Buckland, M. (1991). Information as thing. Journal Of The American Society For Information Science, 42351-360.

Case, Donald. (2012). Looking for Information: A Survey of Research on Information Seeking, Needs and Behavior. 3rd ed. Emerald Group Publishing.

Cobbledick, S. (1996). The information seeking behaviour of artists: Exploratory interviews. Library Quarterly, 66(4), 343-372.

Cowan, S. (12/07/ 2004). Informing Visual Poetry: Information Needs and Sources of Artists. Art Documentation, 23, 2, 14-20.

Csikszentmihalyi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), "Flow", in Elliot, A., Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698.

Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, Mihaly & Jeanne (2002), The Concept of Flow, The Handbook of Positive Psychology: Oxford University Press, pp. 89–105.

Gretzinger, J. "More about those cards……" Retrieved March 1, 2013, from

Gruber, Howard E. (1988). The evolving systems approach to creative work. Creativity Research Journal (Volume 1). 27-51.

Hemmig, William (2009). "An empirical study of the information-seeking behavior of practicing visual artists". Journal of documentation (0022-0418), 65 (4), p. 682.

Leckie, G. J., Pettigrew, K. E., & Sylvain, C. (1996). Modeling the information seeking of professionals: a general model derived from research on engineers, health care professionals, and lawyers. Library Quarterly, 66161-193.

Mason, H., & Robinson, L. (2011). The information-related behaviour of emerging artists and designers: Inspiration and guidance for new practitioners. Journal of Documentation, 67(1), 159-180.

Nelson, B., & Rawlings, D. (2007). Its Own Reward: A Phenomenological Study of Artistic Creativity. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 38, 2, 217-255.

Whitmore, G. (Producer & Director). (2012). Jerry's Map [Film]. New York: Derivative Pictures, URL:


[1] “The original four blocks are there, almost at the center, almost square. That was my starting point for creating a city which was, for me, a conflation of what I imagined London to be and what I had experienced in Washington. There are representations of Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, as well as The U.S. Capitol and The White House. A couple of railway stations were thrown in, too, because part of the romance of London was, for me, the notion that it had several train stations with exotic names.” (Gretzinger, 2012)

[2] Viewing the film “Jerry’s Map” before continuing with the explication presented in this paper may be of utility to the reader.

[3] Jerry has only twice viewed his work as singular assemblage: first in the early 1980s, when the map was only 800 panels in total, and some 30 years later, in October 2012 – at the only cultural site in the United States that could accommodate 1,800 square feet of it for a viewing audience, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA).

[4] Inspirtation Information here is not to be confused with the third studio album of the same name produced and recorded in 1974 by Shuggie Otis and released on Epic Records.

[5] [NOTE: All of the quotations below in this section are from Gretzinger as quoted in the 2012 film “Jerry’s Map” (Whitmore, 2012).]


Special Thanks
Prof. Beth Patin & the iSchool @ The University of Washington 


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