Locative Media in a city under corporate control

By: Roman Tol
On: November 15, 2007
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About Roman Tol
Roman Tol is an Ecommerce specialist. Both techical and as a marketeer. Hands on and with vision. Keyword: Innovation.


Let me start with a story about an old joke. In 1996 Dino Igancio, a San Francisco artist, started the ‘Bert is Evil’ website on which he posted photographs confirming that Sesame Street’s Bert is evil. The images showed the muppet next to notorious people and in famous historical scenes. The photographs were meant as a joke; the muppet was inserted into actual photographs using Photoshop. After a while Ignacio stopped producing new pictures, however a community of ‘Bert is Evil’ enthusiast had already emerged which continued posting new material from all over the world on several mirror sites, including an image of Bert interacting with terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden. Meanwhile in Bangladesh, Mostafa Kamal – a production manager of Azad Products – picked up an image of Bert from the web after scanning the web for Bin Laden pictures which were to be printed on anti-American signs, posters and T-shirts. The company printed 2000 posters; “we did not give the pictures a second look or realize what they signified until you pointed it out to us,” Kamal would explain to the Associate Press later. CNN reporters recorded the unlikely image of a mob of angry Pakistanis marching through the streets waving signs depicting Bert and Bin Laden. American public television executives spotted the CNN footage and threatened to take legal action, saying the people responsible should be ashamed of themselves; “we are exploring all legal options to stop this abuse and any similar abuses in the future.”

Evil Bert and Bin Laden

The story aptly illustrates how de-territorializing technologies assist distribution, mobility, reproduction, and community forming. Moreover the story is a fitting example of conflicting artistic and cultural perspectives, textual interpretation, and institutional authority. Consumer friendly software packages, such as Photoshop and the Internet, allow anyone with basic practical and creative skills to become producers, making their creations available for anyone with access to the Internet. In the last decade cyberspace has been cluttered with recycled images, texts and data; there seems to be few restrictions with regards to filtering, editing and authority – anyone with a two bit opinion, a photograph or a mere rumor can (together with mistakes in grammar, spelling, and sources) share their contents, leading to an overflow of untrustworthy information and a decline in editorial decision-making as hierarchical structures diminish. This new form of participation in media may assist grass-rooted democracies, as it allows users to actively contribute directly in the text; at the same time making it an opponent of traditional institutions, as it negatively affects market control, promotes an overload in diversity, allows for (negative) feedback, and damages a century old copyright system. The harsh remarks by the public television executives regarding legal action against those responsible for the uncontrolled act of doctoring copyrighted material and its after effect, exemplifies how this new media form of participation culture conflicts with the old media form of institutional authority. In the last decade the cultural industry endured many changes at all levels and accordingly, so did society. Let’s start with the city.

Contemporary cities are taking the shape of a spectacle as public spaces are bombarded and overloaded with images, messages, art, signs, texts and ads. Nowadays the street, the public stage of political movements, theater, playing children and social contact, are increasingly becoming virtualized with electronic screens and projections, taking away the public function of open space: “public functions become blurred by the flow of light and images drenching us in a fetish of alienating desires as we follow our necessary route through the city, from A to B” (Kluitenberg, The Network of Waves, 2006). Over the last decades our pubic space has gradually more been privatized; streets, squares and parks are more and more covered with brands and logo’s; public domains such as schools, universities, and libraries are ever more dependent on corporate sponsoring and turning in a shopping mall variant; public transport such as busses and trains are equally being privatized and transforming into mobile billboards. Furthermore, the city is converting into a pool of diversities; similar to the Internet the city is storing up an immense variety in cultural expressions and products. The uniform and the traditional costume have made room for an assortment of multiplicity; being different allows one to belong seems to be a fitting fashionable statement. However, the range of cultural expressions goes hand in hand with an overflow of dissimilar opinions, products and meanings. Not only does it become increasingly difficult to find your way, the devaluation of hierarchical control both on the Internet and in the city makes the whole thing superficial and lacking depth; of course there are places and sites that are reliable and insightful, yet they are getting more and more swallowed up by the homogenizing machine of shallowness. Whilst one might argue that diversity and egalitarian contribution lead to collective intelligence and the collapse of the cultural industry monopoly, marketing experts have already discovered that diversity is the defining issue for Generation X and that by incorporating an emphasis on diversity into their brands, they can enhance their market shares. Diversity marketing makes global expansion less costly; “rather than creating different advertising campaigns for different markets, campaigns could sell diversity itself, to all markets at once.” (Klein, No Logo, 2000)

With the commencement of affordable portable devices connected to the Internet, such as 3G cell phones, users are able to make use and contribute to the computing and communication capabilities cyberspace offers at any place and at any time. For many developing countries, where desktop and laptop computers are considered too expensive, these portable devices are a first time opportunity to be part of the global network. The rise of and increasing expansion of cell phones, Internet enabled devices, and Wifi connections facilitates an integration of cyberspace in urban areas. Virtual information is converging with the actual city, creating what Lev Manovich calls an ‘augmented space’ (Manovich, Learning from Prada, 2002). In this augmented reality the bombardment of images on and off the Internet are mixing creating new forms of disinformation and commercial spam. Moreover, the technology makes annotation and mapping of location easier and thus facilitates possibilities for users to contribute on another altitude. Theoretically it is possible that there are as many maps as there are mapmakers, making it practically impossible to find your way. Yet, it also assists new forms of privacy intrusion and an increase of surveillance, allowing authorities to track and trace anything and anyone. Whilst telecom providers store conversations and geographic coordinates, and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips are implanted to track and trace objects and people, and CCTV Cameras keep an eye on everyone, the technology we created is grabbing a hold on us and shaping reality at every level. In due course urban space will be controlling all motion of people, cars, and products everywhere.

In Simulacra and Simulation (1981) Jean Baudrillard begins with a tale about mapmakers that create a map of a powerful Empire. The level of detail in this map is so high that it integrates perfectly with the represented territory. However, as soon as the map is finished, it starts to perish. Eventually only the desert still contains some remains of the map. Baudrillard suggest we currently live in a reverse situation: not the map – the representation of the physical world, the simulacrum – is decaying, but the represented reality itself. Every corner of the world has been mapped, mediated. The western person lives in a world dominated by simulacra: films, photographs, paintings, novels, newspapers, radio and television programs, and internet. We hardly know the world from our own experience. The world as we know it primarily consists of simulacra, which gradually more and more seem to have no relation to something ‘real’. It becomes increasingly difficult to find pieces of the old, non-signified reality in it. The non-imitated reality is incorporated in a reality of imitations. The map, the model exists before reality and ultimately shapes reality, is reality itself – the precision of simulacra. Baudrillard observed a historically pattern based on the relation between the tendency people have to define and mark reality with signs – simulacra – and technological development, with which these signs can be multiplied. Imperative in this statement is that Baudrillard argues every artifact potentially can be a sign, a carrier of meaning.

Baudrillard asserts each simulacrum contains a life cycle, which can be categorized in four phases. In the first order of simulacra the image is the reflection of a basic reality; in the second order it masks and perverts a basic reality; in the third it masks the absence of a basic reality; and finally in the fourth order it bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum. The story of Bert and Bin Laden is a fitting case of reproductions leading its own life: Bert is a ‘talking’ puppet on a television show, representing a stereotyped grumpy man in the world outside the show. One could say Bert is part of the first order of simulacrum, as it is a reflection of a basic reality. The popularity of the sketches and its cross-border recognition made Bert into a celebrity appearing on T-shirts, mugs, cartoons, and in the hands of fans as a doll. Bert stood for more than just a complaining man: Bert became an icon, one that characterizes the sketches and its comical element, Bert stood for the show. Consequently Bert shifted to a second order of simulacrum, as images of Bert mask and distorts the original veracity. When in 1997 images of Bert were photoshopped for a series of “Bert is Evil” appearing on the Internet (showing the puppet with a mean expression on his face as Jack the Ripper, the assassinator of J.F. Kennedy, with Pamela Anderson, and as mentioned next to Bin Laden), Bert moved to the third order of simulacrum. Bert no longer represents the world-weary man, this original reality is dead; images of Bert mask his dearth. Finally Bert moved to the fourth order of simulacrum when his picture appeared on a series of protest posters, leading to controversy and shock. The image is what it is and nothing more: an image that refers to everything and nothing, but above all relates to itself and many contrasting interpretations. It leads to a direct effect, a sensation, a stimulation dismayed from depth. With digital technology it can be reproduced unlimited and unchanged, allowing it to lead its own life.

But there is more to in the story of the map; the map determines the territory. The assembly of images and signs has constructed its own reality, one that directs and controls all aspects of our life. Not only have the fictional characters of the sit-com Friends become closer to many people than their ‘actual’ friends, urban space is shaped by hyper-real situations and is influencing our everyday practices. Consequently one might argue that maps construct the representation of public space; is our perception of spatial organization and proximity between cities and urban spaces constructed by mapmakers? And are places loosing their relation to reality, turning into meaningless transit spaces? And are people prisoners of an enclosed space whose walls are people’s own routine? Are representations ultimately routing our cities?

In The Space of Flows (2000) Manuel Castells creates a dialectical opposition between the spatial organization of our common experience defined by cities – referred to as the ‘space of places’ – and a new logic of space structured on networks and flows of information – referred to as the ‘space of flow’. Castells proposes that the space of flows in traditional urban spaces transforms the city forms into ‘processes’. The film Koyaanisqatsi (USA: Reggio, 1982) exemplifies how metropolises are representative of circulation spaces, where people generally do not walk on the streets and prefer cars and freeways to move around, whilst being controlled by technology, architecture and corporate sponsoring. Following Castells it is possible to argue that urban public spaces have become increasingly non-places, it is a transit space that neglects social interaction, gazing and context. Although the space of flows should not be interpreted as a placeless space, places have increasingly lost their meaning in comparison to flows. A place can be described as a setting that carries meaning and has a self-contained form within boundaries of physical contiguity. These places may contribute to bringing people together as places have a capacity to encourage communication and interaction both socially and with the environment. Koyaanisqatsi shows how after the dawn of modern society characterized by advanced transportation technologies and mass production in the 19th century, people started to circulate faster through urban spaces, losing the capacity to communicate and interact with each other while in transit; modern cities are designed to control the flow of people, similar to information networks controlling the flow of processes.

In 1984 the Automatic Traffic Surveillance and Control Center came into existence when the city council and planning board of California decided to link the electronic traffic light sensors in the asphalt to a central computer. The computer was programmed to respond to Olympic Games timetable, which were held in Los Angeles, making it possible to direct the traffic flow to the stadiums during peak hours. Currently thousands of electronic measure points provide information to the central computer, which controls more then three thousand traffic lights. The computer compares the collected data to public transport schedules; if a bus is delayed, the computer will react by keeping the traffic lights green until the delay has dropped. Furthermore operators are able to alter the flow of traffic; in case of an emergency or a terror attack, the system can close off or open up specific streets. Currently improvements in consumer technologies make it possible to connect the traffic center to cell phones or mobile navigation systems. Cell phones facilitate a ubiquitous data space allowing control centers to calculate the position and traveling speed of individuals, making it possible to optimize the stream. In addition commercial navigation systems allow people to choose an alternative path; a child friendly way, an ecological route, or a picturesque road.

The city, as suggested by Baudrillard, is a scenario. Every corner, every square meter of city space is in the process of being mapped, curate, narrated, staged and being played with. However, as this map is constructed, the represented world is in decay; not only are effects of postmodernization – namely downsizing and outsourcing – causing massive unemployment and leaving cities to crumble, moreover the map and its representations are loosing their relation with reality. Multinational corporations, together with their stars, blockbusters, bestsellers and billboard charts are prescribing publics to belong to a sensation, an experience or an ideology, each with a universal way of life; ‘The American Dream’. Corporate multinationals have outgrown governmental authority. Western cities have transformed into service centers; the fabrication of products has shifted to one of advertising and sales of bulk obtained from low wage countries. Consequently the migration of labor forces from farm land to factory cities has resulted into unemployment and a festering of urban space. As institutions of confinement – school, barracks, factory, prison, hospital – are gradually disappearing, or turned into shopping malls and luxurious apartments; cities are turning into centers of control: the marketing capitals of the world. Copyrights and advertising form the basis of urban culture; corporate logos cover our streets, clothes, domains of education and healthcare, thus turning life and space in a matching corporate chimera. Advertisements do not longer promote a product, they promote a way of life; and sell an illusion. These illusions mask and distort the basic reality: ghettos, shanty towns, and possibly loss of all meaning.

Moreover these illusions control our life. The backdrop is that our society is confronted with deterritorialization, homogeneity and superficiality; former structures of authority in society were more about the individual and local identity than its dominant contemporary form. Meaningful social public places are lost in the flow of space; city design is reflecting the structure of technological networks, where data is processed through monotone routes. This ongoing transition will take new shape with the commencement of augmented space, and the possibilities it offers its public. There is now a large body of work and practice by new media artists concerning portable and wireless technologies and the cultural shaping and connotation of location. Various new media theorists, such as Drew Hemment, suggest a possible return of place from that ‘placeless place’ of cyberspace; “the exploratory movements of Locative Media lead to a convergence of geographical and data space, reversing the trend towards digital content being viewed as placeless, only encountered in the amorphous and other space of the Internet.” (Hemment, Locative Arts, 2004)

Locative Media distinguishes itself from older forms of media because of its quality to annotate and trace, with the former standing for their emancipatory potential and the latter signifying a perceived ‘Orwellian Society’. Because both annotation and tracing are symbiotic constituents of Locative Media, analyzing affect will have to include both the unfettered and authoritarian function of Locative Media. Cities are conveying publics how they may, can, sometimes how they have to, and sometimes how not to, behave and move. This can be related to the concept protocol – a universal, controlling logic that produces a horizontal network – in the sense that publics are voluntarily participating in the creation, expansion and tweaking of the pronounced norm. This process is assisted by technology, which in turn is managed by internal protocols. As urban territory is increasingly being integrated with virtualized information networks transforming into augmented space, assessing the role of Locative Media is increasingly vital. Some relevant questions to ask are:

Will Locative Media practices in augmented city space ultimately liberate or confine place?

Following the convergence of media and devices in one wireless, all-encompassing, wearable module, are we not giving privacy and ‘police monopolization’ away to an integral network of citizen and consumer surveillance?

Are Locative Media yet another form of distraction, to mask the third world entering Western society?

Are Locative Media practices the result of the global masses, modeled in order to unite, fight, emancipate and democratize?

Are annotating practices ultimately giving birth to a co-created utopia, or will it result in contradicting interpretation and loss of connotation, as authority and selectivity diminish with peer productions?

Can collective and artistic use of Locative Media give voice to silent, repressed and hidden to bring back individuality and local identity, or will they be another form of distraction limiting and confining its users?

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