The Performative and the Political in the Context of Locative Media
American Association for Geographers Conference in Chicago, Illinois
March 12, 2006
I am a visual artist by training. I have been working with digital mapping and communications tools such as GPS, GIS, and Wi-Fi in the context of my artwork, which might be described as Locative Media. Locative Media uses telecommunications and navigational tools to deliver media and information spatially in order to create an alternate experience of a particular site. I would like to parse out a few of the political and performative aspects of work and research I have been doing and of Locative Media work in general.
Artistic practices have of course always had an important relationship to geography. From Lascaux to the site specific and land art practices of the late 20th century, as well as in the broad range of representational and architectural accomplishments that occurred in-between, theissues of geographic location progressively moved from implicit theme toward a status an explicit theme (for example, painters such as Albert Bierstadt, photographers such as Ansel Adams, and Land artists such as Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt deal with places as having unique identities forged in part through artistic mediation.)
The 20th century addition to the trajectory of the art/geography relationship emerged from conceptually oriented performance art. First, the realization that the meaning in a work depends on the role played by the audience centers the art-place relationship on the individual participants more so than the artist. Follow this with Situationist Guy Debord's insight that "derive" (a flow of action), and "detournement" (rerouting of flows of movement toward the unfamiliar), could be applied to the relation between the body and geography, and we can conclude that the notions of participant, body and place become operative in a rather explicit manner in later 20th century performance art practice
In the last few years, advances in wireless telecommunication, sensor technology, and Geographic Information System tools have inspired a tide of experimental creative projects. Artists are using these new tools and location-aware media to renegotiate how communication, navigation, and big data are played out in space.
My own work includes a project I did in 2002 together with 2 collaborators called 34 North 118 West, which uses GPS and a Tablet PC to deliver an audio narrative and soundscape based on the user’s location. This project is situated within a 2 by 2 block area near the 1906 Freight Depot in downtown Los Angeles. The goal with this project was to bring back the aura of turn of the century Los Angeles at the site of this railroad hub. Characters, story details, and sound effects were based on research of the area and early railroad history, and woven into an historic fiction that responds to the listener as she walks around in the area where these events might have been observed or overheard once upon a time.
A polemic seems to emerge between performance-based site specific works on the one hand, and digitally mediated site specific experiences on the other. The former tends to emphasize walking, a direct physical (and therefore provocative) engagement with the public, and directives (a set of instructions followed by the artist, the audience, or both). The latter are required to synthesize an interface – a screen based interface of some sort must be created, but also the landscape or streets themselves must be synthesized or processed in order to produce the experience. One of the things I struggle with is how to embrace these two sometimes opposing impulses – performance and mediation – both of them intrinsic to onsite storytelling. Perhaps a key lies in how we consider narrative.
Gareth Hoskins in the paper session “Storied Spaces: New Research on Narrative Geographies” quoted N White. I am paraphrasing here: The content of any narrative is not created, rather the social function of narrative ensures its content: it is the story of a journey from here to there. The transformation may be physical or metaphysical. But a narrative is a rulebook for a particular journey.
Taking this view one step further our actions describe a continual narrative, an unwitting performance which may at any time serve an instructional function, positively or negatively. So performance can be understood not just as the intentional performed action, but as the continual residual effect of everything we do. So in the example of 34 North there is an unwitting performance involving cables, electronics, and human bodies intertwined.
The emphasis in these analyses is on the social function of narrative, and on the pervasiveness of narrative in our daily lives. Perhaps broadcast and digital media have in large part coopted the narrative function formerly occupied by story tellers, performances, and paintings – in the same way that cars and planes have changed the role of walking and put our physical movement into hyperdrive. One might bemoan the lack of conversational and oral story-telling skills among our youth – but one has to marvel at their adeptness with digital media tools and acknowledge the social role filled by the products thereof.
I would place my own work in the realm of attempts to tell stories with digital media, while situating the work at the site of actual artifacts and events. This work is an attempt to reverse the effects of the proliferation of images in our daily landscape. It asks the audience to smell, hear, touch and see a particular site anew, via the auditory cues provided. Performance here alludes to the performance of a natural response to physical stimuli.
Our other theme today, “political”, can be taken at face value. But at the same time, once one declares a work “political”, one takes on the responsibility of considering the implicit political message embodied by the work. One must consider its social context, its source material, its materiality, the canon into which it fits (or does not), and the particular way in which it goes about expressing a viewpoint.
I organized a workshop was called Locative Media in the Wild, an Interdisciplinary Examination of Digital Mapping tools together with colleage Brett Stalbaum. We both teach in the Interdisciplinary Computing Arts Program at the University of California San Diego. This program emphases computing in the context of art practice.
Part of the inspiration for this examination was our experience of Locative media projects and festivals. These festivals have been attended by tourists, geographers, urban planners, architects, armchair historians, archaeologists, film students. gamers, story-tellers, psychologists, and representatives from the tourism industry. It is the blurring of boundaries between disciplines and the relevance of methods and concepts outside of art making which distinguish locative media as a potentially rich multi-disciplinary practice.This diversity reflects the diversity of the approaches and tactics coopted by artists creating these works. It is also the inspiration for an interdisciplinary workshop I co-organized last summer.
The White Mountain Research Center is a high elevation facility situated above Owens Valley near the California Nevada border. It provided a wide range of physical settings for exploration by both artists and scientists. Our participants were:
Kimberlee Chambers (Geography, UCD, PhD Candidate) Research Interests: the conservation and restoration of biodiversity and cultural diversity, with a major focus on food plants in both agricultural and hunter-gatherer societies.
Nico Tripcevich (Anthropology; UCSB, PhD Candidate): Archaeologist working in Peru looking at pre-Hispanic exchange from the perspective of an obsidian stone quarry in highland Arequipa, Peru, specializing in application of Geographic Information Systems.
The primary question was: How are mapping tools being applied by the physical sciences? What kinds of problems to they solve? How do approaches differ among the practitioners present? But the goal was to foster a conversation among a several discipline areas, share tools and methods, reveal some blind spots, and generate a more meaningful practice. We also intend to hold additional similar workshops with emphasis on pedagogy and the publication of essays on the subject explored.
Part of our workshop consisted of formal and informal demonstrations. Brett Stalbaum took us on a hike designed by a piece of software he wrote, the Virtual Hiker. This software takes into account least cost path and other factors in determining how to design a hike from point A to point B (does this fit White’s definition of narrative?). This path was then loaded onto 5 GPS wrist units so that each hiker could follow the computer generated path.
Nico’s comments on Brett’s hike: “Brett’s software takes an activity as basic and ancient to human experience and forces it into this computer constructed narrative highlighting the oddity of the modern relationship we have with data. It’s as though we’re allowing computer-based algorithms, such as searches, to define the scope of our ability to navigate in the world that is our database.”
“I was also intrigued by Brett not trying to make ‘useful applications' for GPS but in exploring the experiential aspects of GPS in it in its own right. In archaeology we try to consider alternative to the way that landscape and dwelling were experienced by people in other cultures and other times. But in practice, the typical archaeologist is imminently practical and trying to maximize productivity in the field.”
Nico lead us on an examination and recording of lithic artifacts, including rock art sites and the river bed in Chalfant Valley. For the latter we determined an area and direction, and formed a line with about 5 meters between each of us. We then walked parallel in one direction, sweeping eyes left and right while walking. I found myself stopping, or backing up. Wrong! Go forward and focus on goal: lithic artifacts, or any stone modified by human hand. I found 2 small pieces which looked manipulated. They were not. Brett found an obsidian flake which fit the criteria.
For me interesting was the application of my 5 senses in service of data collection, as if the humans took on function of computer in scanning and parsing information.
Note that although we chose the White Mountain high elevation facility due to its cool green surrounding at 10,500 feet, 2 of us ended up situating our demonstrations on the Valley floor.
I designed an Interpretive Tour of the Owens Valley Water Resources. It utilized sound, GIS mapping software, GPS, and a laptop to create an onsite spatialized soundscape of the multitude of of water wells dotting the Owens Valley. Owens Lake was dessicated after its water was routed 300 miles south to the city of Los Angeles in the early 1900’s, resulting in a complete devastation of the indigenous and farming economies that relied on it. The goal was to bring this history to light, and to consider the ongoing water wars in southern California.
This audio piece ran tolerably well on foot or driving around in my 1986 Volvo, but in Brett’s Suzuki Tracker some sort of signal interference interrupted the GPS signal each time we accelerated. My tour thus consisted of stopping, waiting to regain a signal, driving forward, then stopping again to retrieve the lost signal. Walking with the equipment was out of the question, as the tour covered a area and because the spatial differences between the wells were only significant at high speeds. One of my wells did eventually elicit the appropriate response from my laptop, which was now heated so as to be untouchable in the 120 degree sun. Brett gave me a high five for this “success”, a small reward for the 2 nights I spent setting up the project onsite. We eventually abandoned this tiresome process.
Here one important distinction arises in the comparison of artistic and scientific practice. In a performative artwork any technology relied on has to work NOW, while the audience is present, not an hour ago, not tomorrow, but now. Again, an unwitting performance – the struggle among human, machine, and the elements.
What technological artworks and scientific fieldwork have in common is they ultimately rely on documentation for their dissemination and promotion. After all, what art audience would travel hundreds of miles to a remote site just to walk in the hot sun, trying to stare past the glare on the screen, just to listen to some snippets of audio on a set of headphones? In other words, what Brett refers to the “Urban Boutique” approach of locative media festivals is perhaps not such a bad idea after all.
Kimberlee Chambers shared with us a number of pedagogic exercises she uses in her classes, including some cognitive mapping exercises. Kimberlee states: “One of the goals with cognitive maps is to record information at a much different scale. Rather than stepping back from the landscape and generalizing, cognitive maps allows for individuals experiences and single points of data (where bighorn like to graze; where a certain plant can be found) to be incorporated. The results are more detailed information that can be crucial when thinking about things like where a new development should go but also in drawing awareness to climate change by focusing on the local level. ”
Kimberlee's explanation of gender specific growing practices, and gender specific knowledge. Kimberlee's concentration is on ethnobotany - here one understands that one can value inherent differences, and value them for what they harbor, what they hide, what they provide. The value of these differences emerge over time, based on context, needs, etc. Of value for me was to consider these gender differences in the context of the urban environment I inhabit. We tend to deemphasize these gender differences, and yet they are very functional and necessary.
Kimberlee's description of biological signs used as a sign to "read" natural processes. When a certain flower blooms, we know salmon run is near - the plant responds to the same temperature shift the salmon does. In other words, there is no need for a thermometer, the narrative is embedded and is always already there.
We shared many rich conversations over the 4 day workshop. Kimberlee made the observation that :
“the four of us are all ‘generalists’ rather than specialists. We are eager to learn about a diversity of things outside our field and open and ready to share our thoughts and ideas. We are also all educators, not pure researchers. And …. all four of us are story tellers.”
I also noticed this common impulse among the group. Storytelling was a good way to give a picture of the things we do, of the way we think. I don’t know if that was ever the goal, but the stories certainly helped give a picture of lives we don’t live ourselves. And it says something about what is important to people, and about the social culture of the different disciplines as well.
Kimberlee: “Furthermore, I feel that holding the workshop in a remote ‘natural’ location as opposed to an urban center automatically selected for people who would have some things in common. The site was a definite motivating factor for me to apply to the workshop”.
Kimberlee also discussed how choosing a project (a subject, a place) is for life. A geographer is a steward - of information, a liason with a larger context. As I made the switch from representational work, I learned that embarking on site specific work is a journey, a narrative. It is a door that opens rather than a decorative frame.
Of value during the workshop was informal observation, deep hanging out. Time to observe without expectations or goals. For example, we visited two obsidian sites on our first day together in Owens Valley at Nico's request. Nico's research focus is obsidian distribution over a tremendous time and distance span. Particularly fascinating was watching Nico recording his movement around and over a topographic feature in order to archive its shape. He uses the GPS input feature with ArcPad on his PDA. This polygon is then incorporated into GIS - into existing digital elevation models and shape layers defined for the area.
The speed and gesture were like that of an artist making a sketch - which was indeed the goal. As with a bee dance, the movement was economic and precise. The choreography is dictated by the geologic features at hand. For me, the incidental gesture was as interesting as the end result – an unwitting performance which served as instruction. And this small scale gesture alongside the large scale gesture of Nico’s research in Peru and elsewhere takes us back to White’s point about the embedness and ubiquity of narrative in our daily activity.
We thought about how narrative is common to all our work. Nico's search for homogeneity in obsidian distribution establishes a narative - a narrative of obsidian. The course the rock followed outward from its source is the syntagm, or ordering detail. In a sense, anything that orders activity functions as narrative syntagm - a territory or distinct area, a map, an interview, a book. Each provides the context for a linear experience. My interpretive pieces strive to provide this structure, as do Brett’s virtual and physical hikes.
Each of us employed different language for spatial concepts. Nico used GIS terminology points, lines, and polygons. Brett: waypoints, routes, and tracklogs. Kimberlee: nodes, paths, and territories. I think in hotspots, streets, and map areas.
We talked about the arbitrariness of “site” as a concept, and about the non-site. We also talked about difference between site and location. The four of us described site variously as:
A culturally embedded location
A place of communal relevance
A place defined by the presence of specific qualities or artifacts
The workshop made my reconsider my own work. There is an inherent irony in artists co-opting a technology that by design facilitates a specific and exclusive social agenda – that of describing and enforcing boundaries and distinctions , in order to create “political” work. At the same time the small scale, personal, and communal projects that are typical of Locative Media projects apply GIS and GPS tools in ways that are not intended, toward ends that were not foreseen in the design of those systems. And although an aerial view and numeric precision are emphasized by GIS and GPS, Locative Media ties these functions to a landscape view, as it insists upon the physical presence of the audience, and promotes an awareness of the physical surrounding.
But just by setting up the workshop as an examination through digital tools, we set up the conditions for exluding non digital explorations of spatial practices. One of our participants in her application included her paper on the pitfalls of using GIS in ethnobotany with a particular indigenous community. The value of Kimberlee’s participation was precisely her lack of commitment to digital tools, and her understanding of culturally specific determinants that govern the choice of research tools. Kimberlee pointed out the inherent contradiction of applying GIS to non western systems that do not adhere to static notions of space or to exclusive uses for resources. Indeed the sharing of knowledge about territory and resources is often based on sensitive hierarchical systems which take into account the preservation of the resources.
One valuable thing was thinking about systemisation, such as the system Nico uses to record data. Scientists working with data have to structure their analysis before they begin their research. Kimberlee mentioned testing as an important phase in determining the feasibility of the method to be implemented. Once you start collecting data, you cannot change course, otherwise your study is invalid. One must record the same kind of information in the same way across a range of samples. In contrast, conceptual artists tend to critique systems, misapply systems, and have the freedom to change tactics along the way.
Territories are intellectual as much as physical. Perhaps the most important boundary that was bridged was among the disciplines represented. It is not just that information was shared, but participants had the generosity of spirit to consider things they were not accustomed to considering, and to validate the intent of experimental work. In the workshop, Kimberlee described how agriculture initiated our need for organisation on a more complex scale. Nico described how the accumulation of wealth – obsidian – precipitated similar developments in social interaction. This workshop certainly upheld the notion that increased social complexity and improves the quality of life.