A jumbled corner of heaven on Earth

Most of us, at least once in our lives, have dreamt about making our own, private little corner of heaven here on Earth. For some that may mean leaving civilization and building a log cabin in the woods, for others, an electrically powered waterfall in the back yard would be the perfect touch to complement the plastic flamingoes and complete the personal paradise.

Some Shangri-las, though, are of a decidedly more distinctive nature, and may not be complete without 50-foot whirligigs, a few hundred sculptures made from concrete and ground glass, or a three-storey high adobe mountain. Everybody has their own idea of their 'happy place,' and Off The Map features some of the planet's more extreme backyard makeovers. There may be plastic flamingoes here, but if there are, it's a safe bet that you won't notice them.

A web-only production of the Independent Television Service, Off The Map is described by its creators as, "A Multimedia Tour of Backyard Paradises Created by Visionary Artists Around the World." The tour in question is comprised of ten unique (and never has a superlative been in greater danger of being an understatement) projects ranging from a 40-acre rock garden in India to a 13-structure village in California made entirely from bottles destined never to be returned for their deposit.

As for a definition of "Visionary Artist," ITVS describes people who create because they feel compelled to do so (the vision), regardless of public opinion, whether they've had any formal training, or even whether they themselves consider the product to be of artistic merit. And whichever side of that debate each visitor chooses to endorse, there can be no argument that all these people at least qualify for the compelled/vision ingredient. After all, you don't build the Leaning Tower of Bottle Village on a whim.

That said, the first thing that will strike the viewer about the site itself is its design - which, on the home page and throughout the Flash-based Tour presentation is, well...a bit of a jumbled, confusing mess. But I mean that in a nice way. Between the gaudy colors, overlapping content, and links scattered across the pages, the designers go a long way toward putting us in a mindset more conducive to exploring the Paradises themselves. (None of these creations are 'tidy,' and it would probably be disorientating if the site celebrating them was too straightforward.)

Each location is given its own page, complete with most of the major multi-media bells and whistles available on the Web today. As an example, the presentation about The Forevertron, a 300-ton kinetic sculpture in Wisconsin, offers a manually operated Slide Show, a 3-minute video (RealVideo and QuickTime formats), a handful of still images that can be explored in detail through zoom and drag capabilities, and a 'header' image that offers a draggable magnifying glass feature.

Naturally, there is text as well (in a scrolling box embedded in the main page, or in a more detailed essay available in a pop-up window), with information about the Forevertorn's creator, Dr. Evermore. Using a name adopted when he was 45 years old (adding a new persona to his creative resume), Evermore constructed the Forevertron to "perpetuate myself back into the heavens on this magnetic lightning force field." To that end, the structure uses everything from x-ray machines and hamburger signs to a relic of the Apollo space missions.

Finally, a link offers information about the current condition of the project and a connection to its official home on the web.

Each of the other undertakings is given a similar treatment. (Visitors can move from one to the next via a pull-down menu at the upper left of the screen.) Minor variations usually appear in the header image where, for instance, the Forevertron's magnifying glass feature is replaced by an interactive map of Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village, or a flippable scrapbook of Ferdinand Cheval's Palais Idéal. (This latter example, the work of 34 years, transformed over time from the town laughingstock to a tourist attraction that impacts on the income of much of the local population. A common theme with these creations.)

In addition to the Flash Tour, the Travelogue covers much of the same territory in an HTML format which might be more attractive to dial-up visitors. Classroom activities for grades 4 through 12 are included, as is a general list of outside Resources, followed by an invitation to "Make your own backyard paradise." (Fortunately this is strictly a virtual paradise, so you won't have to worry about any confrontations with the neighbors.)

This is a fairly comprehensive interactive, though, with fifteen landscapes to choose from, and more than 200 Yehaws, Thing-a-ma-bobs, Doodads, Watchamacallits and animated Wigglies that can be dragged and dropped into the scenery - with the option to rotate, flip, resize or fade any object onscreen. (It's even possible to build your own signs, should you feel the need to deter trespassers, welcome visitors, or simply bestow an official name on your 'attraction.')

'But is it art?' Well, I suppose that's up to you. Of the three responses featured on the first page of Talkback submissions, one said "this site is terrible," another, "This site is THE BOMB!" and the third had no opinion at all. Not everyone considers a hundred foot tower of sea shells and chicken wire to be art, but if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Off The Map will at least offer you some good long looks before you make up your mind.

Off The Map can be found at http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/offthemap.

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