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August 22, 2006

[iDC] Interactive City: irrelevant mobile entertainment? Part 2


Mark Shepard's Response

It's encouraging to find such an outpouring of interest and critique on the subject of locative media and its relation to pyschogeography, mapping and urban play. While we had originally planned on addressing many of these issues in September as part of the Architecture and Situated Technologies thread, I think the current discussion provides an opening to address how an evaluation of certain locative media practices (and their failures) might provide a "sandbox" for thinking through the opportunities and dilemmas of a near-future world of networked "things". From locative media to atoms, bits and ubiquity.

As someone whose interest in the Situationists predates my work in new media, I have long felt uncomfortable with media art practices that claim or aspire to transpose concepts of pyschogeography and tactics of the dérive or detournment to contemporary urban environments. It is critical to remember that the dérive emerged in a specific historical context, one that I would argue no longer holds. In part a response to 20th century urban planning strategies promoted by modern architects associated with CIAM (Congrčs International d'Architecture Moderne), the dérive sought to reclaim a space for the creative capacities of an imaginative subject in face of an onslaught of the functional rationalization of modern capitalism. CIAM's strategies aimed to reorganize the city - perceived as an ailing beast in need of a cure - through a strict functional segregation of dwelling, work and recreation (leisure) zones connected by rationalized transportation corridors.

Citing a 1952 study by Parisian sociologist Chombart de Lauwe that mapped the movements made in the space of one year by a student living in the 16th Arrondissement, Debord expresses outrage that her itinerary "forms a small triangle with no significant deviations, the three apexes of which are the School of Political Sciences, her residence and that of her piano teacher." [1] To a certain extent, the dérive was conceived to explicitly counteract this rationalization of patterns of movement through the city and the corresponding limitations imposed on the diversity, messiness, and richness of urban life. Understood as a form of ludic play, the expressed aim was to free people from "their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there." With regard to kanarinka's comment about the gentleman invited to drift with them who "summed it up nicely" by saying "Sorry, I can't go with you. I have to work here until 8PM and then I have to go to my other job," I would argue that it is precisely this mentality that the dérive sought to address.

In evaluating locative media projects claiming or aspiring to a Situationist agenda, I often find myself questioning to what extent their deployment of mobile technologies ends up actually reifying this rationalization of patterns of use or movement. Put another way, to what extent do conventions for the use of consumer mobile technologies actually contribute to CIAM's agenda in their codification of modes of interaction with and within the contemporary city? Perhaps the most pertinent question for locative media might be: how might these technologies be (mis)used in an attempt to counteract (rather than reinforce) an ongoing rationalization and commodification of urban life? It would seem less a question of "locating" oneself, perhaps more one of getting lost...

Brian Holmes' critique of locative media [2] focused on a perceived noncritical ("naive") adoption of GPS technologies and Cartesian mapping systems in the context of Situationist aesthetics. Specifically, Holmes attacks the non-reflexive use of technologies developed by the military and their domestication in the context of scenarios of play, where aesthetics becomes politics as decor. This critique was originally delivered at a workshop held at the RIXC center in Latvia in 2003. Since then the field has expanded significantly, and while early locative media projects may have relied heavily on these technologies, it would be difficult to identify locative media exclusively with either GPS or Cartesian mapping today. At the same time, some contemporary projects built on GPS are far more reflective of the dark side of locative media. [3] This is not to say Holmes' critique no longer holds. Quite the contrary, as it would seem it has been in many cases internalized by the field. While this year's ISEA / ZeroOne San Jose symposium and exhibition presented a few GPS-based locative media projects, they were by no means the majority. Drew Hemment et. al.'s LOCA project is one example of a "pervasive surveillance project" aimed at raising public awareness of how certain consumer technologies (bluetooth in this case) enable tracking in ever more subtle ways. [4] Alison Sant's paper "Redefining the Basemap" [5] addressed the fact that many locative media projects still "remain bounded by datasets that reinforce a Cartesian and static notion of urban space" and made a call for alternative methods of mapping the city, particularly ones addressing the temporal dimension of urban experience.

The critique of GPS and Cartesian mapping systems is by no means new. Laura Kurgan's exhibit "You Are Here: Museu" (1995) [6], addressed the uncertainties that arise when relying on satellite tracking systems to know "where we are." Architect Stefano Boeri's essay "Eclectic Atlases" (1997) [7] addresses the failure of satellite imagery to adequately represent the contemporary metropolis and calls for alternate methods for mapping the city as experienced "on the ground." The exhibition and catalogue for "The Power of the City: The City of Power" (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992) [8] explores alternative mapping practices of conceptual and performance art from the 60s and 70s in terms their relation to Baudelaire's Flaneur, Jameson's notion of cognitive mapping, and (then) contemporary readings of Situationist aesthetics. Kevin Lynch, in his oft cited treatise "The Image of the City" [10], acknowledged that the emotional dimension(s) of his cognitive maps were beyond the reach of his research methods. More recently Marina Zurkow, Scott Patterson and Julian Bleecker's "PDPal" (2003) [9] asks what might an "emotional" GPS look like?

Perhaps the most interesting take on the relevance of locative media today is that of Marc Tuters and Kazys Varnelis as expressed in their essay "Beyond Locative Media," published by Leonardo in conjunction with the Pacific Rim Summit [11]. Acknowledging that locative media has been attacked for its ambivalence with regard to commercial interests and its reliance on Cartesian mapping systems, they find these critiques nostalgic, "invoking a notion of art as autonomous from the circuits of mass communication technologies", which they argue no longer holds. Moreover, they make the case for locative media as a "conceptual framework by which to examine the certain technological assemblages and their potential social impacts. Unlike net art, produced by a priestly technological class for an elite arts audience, locative media strives, at least rhetorically, to reach a mass audience by attempting to engage consumer technologies, and redirect their power." At the dawn of an age where ubiquitous networked objects outnumber humans as generators and receivers of information, this effort is more important than ever.


[1] Guy Debord. "Theory of the Derive" - http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/314

[2] Brian Holmes. "Drifting Through the Grid: Psychogeography and Imperial Infrastructure" - http://www.springerin.at/dyn/heft_text.php?textid=1523&lang=en

[3] See the Institute for Applied Autonomy's "i-SEE - Now More than Ever" - http://www.appliedautonomy.com/isee.html or Annina Ruest's "Track the Trackers" - http://www.t-t-trackers.net/

[4] LOCA - http://www.loca-lab.org/

[5] Allison Sant. "Redefining the Basemap" - http://www.intelligentagent.com/archive/ia6_2_interactivecity_sant_baseline.pdf

[6] Laura Kurgan. "You Are Here: Museu" - http://www.l00k.org/youarehere/you-are-here-museu

[7] Stefano Boeri. "Eclectic Atlases" in The Cybercities Reader (NY: Routledge, 2003)

[8] Cristel Hollevoet, Karen Jones, Timothy Nye. "The Power of the City: The City of Power (NY: The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992)

[9] Marina Zurkow, Scott Patterson and Julian Bleecker. "PDPal" - http://www.pdpal.com/

[10] Kevin Lynch. "The Image of the City" (MIT, 1960)

[11] Marc Tuters and Kazys Varnelis. "Beyond Locative Media" - http://netpublics.annenberg.edu/locative_media/beyond_locative_media

mark shepard

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Posted by jo at August 22, 2006 10:03 AM