ElasticMapping: a locative media project

By: Jan Bajec
On: October 12, 2009
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About Jan Bajec
Visual thinking has always been the way I responded to my environment. It engaged my interest in arts and eventually led to my enrollment in Visual Arts and Graphic Design studies. From 2001-2002, I had an unique opportunity to be a part of a creative team at S Team Advertising in Belgrade associated with SAATCHI&SAATCHI. From 2002-2003, I worked as a Graphic Designer at Ovation – BBDO. In 2003, wanting to pursue my studies further and get away from advertising I enrolled in Design Art program at Concordia University in Montreal. After graduation I decided to stay in Montreal and work as a full-time freelance graphic designer and web design consultant. I favor an exploratory, investigative approach to design. As I have been in the situation to design for specific cultural environments, I have felt how much of a social construction design really is and how cultural values, tools and technologies specific to each social milieu are reflected in it. This kind of experience demanded broader research ‘routine’ and triggered my interest in many other subjects: sociology, psychology, pop-culture, television, politics, new media. As I was switching my area of interest from print to web design I became more involved in this new platform for visual communication…


On Tuesday October 6th, in the Nederlands Instituut voor Mediakunst in Amsterdam, there was an interesting and envisioning lecture and performance by Amsterdam visual artist Esther Polak (http://realtime.waag.org/). Her main interest in the field of locative media is to trace the actions of the subject in the world, to create new visualizations of these tracks, and to see how they can bring new experiences of space (and time).  In her work Eshter explores the value of GPS data as realistic representation of movement, their potential as a storytelling tool, and connections to local and global experiences of space and time. Central themes for her are mobility, nomadism, memory and technological mediation.

As an artist she has been working with GPS since 2002 in a series of projects. Her earlier projects include prize winning GPS projects like AmsterdamREALTIME (http://realtime.waag.org/)  – ‘a living map’, a real time mapmaking project in which the participants’ routes through town are made visible on internet using the GPS technology, MILKproject (http://www.milkproject.net/) – following with GPS the production, transport and distribution of milk from Latvian farms to Dutch markets, NomadicMILK (http://nomadicmilk.net/) – the sand drawings based on actual GPS recordings of movement of dairy transporters and nomadic herdsmen in Nigeria, and Nomadic Shopping (http://www.nomadicshopping.net/) – a “GPS docu-fiction”, “an extremely realistic experience of armchair travelling” (she combines and synchronizes GPS images with the video footage of the journey).

The main goal of the presentation/performance was to engage the audience with the idea that locative media could have a bold artistic quality. As an artist Eshter Polak is wondering if and how will GPS data evolve as a medium and be an artistic tool for expression by itself (like photography or film)?

Drawing robot, by Eshter Polak

Drawing robot, by Eshter Polak

Esther developed a special tool/program for visualization of patterns and for editing GPS data. She is also using little robots (resembling little toy cars) to draw sand drawings on the ground in order to present the tracks to the viewers. Robots are equipped with bottles filled with sand, placed upside down and having a hole in the lid. This makes them function as a “drawing hourglass”. The robot is making the GPS tracks substantial, present in the physical world, transferring them from the virtual back to the real world, where they have been originally made (‘imprinted’). (Re)Drawing tracks ‘in the sand’ becomes the performance. In many ways GPS is more of a medium to extent memory, and not so much to show us where we are.

In order to present tracks in a way that an audience can relate to, Eshter said that the representation of space and time had to be compressed and scaled. By scaling and editing the GPS path, the artist is giving data a style. She again used film for comparison; rough video and film footage can tell a story more effectively after editing and manipulation. The ‘elastically’ manipulated tracks become a blend of GPS data and tracks drawn from memory and in a way become even more real. She said that “this seemingly contradictory approach between manipulating data and aiming for realism raises questions for future artistic developments in mapping and locative media projects”. With editing GPS data also loses its role as an uneditable record of surveillance, but without losing the charm of its realism. With editing “it gains artistic autonomy and poetic potential.”

For Esther Polak maps had always strongly suggested objectivity and authority, then she started to realize that they are also very much determined by subjective choices of the cartographer. The presented tracks contain memory (private and personal), but it is a subjective decision how much meta information we add to the story of tracks. Her ideal map is one of constant change, constantly updating. Each layer of the map would have separate rhythm of changing, like for example, “the movements of the continent and the movement of migrating birds take place in a different time scale”.

We did not see much drama in the performance, but that is yet to come. These are still early stages in the evolution of this medium. GPS data did gain its artistic autonomy but it will become truly radical in its effects only when it’s not considered exceptional anymore. At the end Eshter Polak asked:” Will we become so literate in subjective mapping that pure location data can tell stories or be used to write rather abstract spatial-temporal data-poetry?” Probably not so soon, as other mediums better suited for storytelling will be developing in the same time and probably faster too, but maybe in the combination with them location data can gain recognition as a representational medium.

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