I was not very familiar with Roderick Coover when I found “Voyage into the Unknown”. I wasn’t very familiar with the style of work or the medium of creativity that the work utilizes, either. The title of the work very much described my initial attitude about the piece: I didn’t know where it would take me, what I would do there, or how I would even reach the conclusion. Being new to the medium, I was skeptical of its effectiveness and uncertain of its worth. Much like the journey undertaken by the characters in “Voyage”, my attitude endured the trials and emerged from the experience entirely different than what it had been prior.
I will be interchangeably addressing the work as a work and a piece, for although it textually resembles a narrative, it visually resembles art. The visual presentation of the piece’s content was the first thing that I noticed as a reader. The narrative is presented as clickable markings on a large map, giving the narrative of exploration and discovery an intuitive structure and a smooth visual flow. At first the overlays of colorful shapes over the cartography were intimidating in their complexity, but as the narrative progressed they began to make sense. At the start of the narrative, the left side of the map, the overlay is shaped in flowing natural forms. This represents the wild and unsettled lands that Powell initially writes of. He writes that “All are aware the West is changing”, a subtle hint of the direction that the overlays will take. They begin as natural shapes, but as time passes in the narrative they begin to reflect the harsher and less flowing shapes of modernity.
The first sign of this modernity is the presence of grid shapes imprinted on the map around the area of Desolation Canyon. Chronologically this is far along in the journey, when the newspapers are reporting the deaths of the exploration group members. These harsh grids appear carved into the map itself, marring the natural shapes beneath and providing a transition to an even harsher shape in the context of the natural landscape: a pole to hold up power lines.
Beneath the power lines lies the faint outline of more catastrophic modernity: roofs, walls, and what appears to be an industrial silo of some kind. The earthy texture of the map turns to black at this point, and on the underside of the map more shapes of modernity pierce through the blackness.
The blackness starkly contrasts with the blue of the river that runs through the map near Gloom of the Canyons, and the blackness even seems to encroach upon the river’s shores.
The transformation of the landscape of the map transcends the content of the work’s narrative, and that is what makes the piece so extraordinary. Through the artistic representations on the map, the author tells a story within a story, a narrative that needs no words and comes to its own separate conclusion about the nature of exploration and the otherwise unknown places of the world. It makes a point about the consequences of exploration and discovery, the changing of the natural landscape to harsh and unnatural shapes that are nothing like what the things that the discoverers saw. My attitude about the piece was likewise transformed. The intimidating composition of shapes and colors became something of value to me over the course of the voyage; I discovered the meaning behind the overlays and the colors that gave the map its distinctive features. This piece was truly a “Voyage into the Unknown” for me as a reader, but I emerged with an enlightened appreciation for the natural beauty of undiscovered landscapes before their transformation into the familiar shapes of modernity.
If you want to read more of Roderick Coover’s work, here is his website: