When objects talk with each other – the new turn in locative media

On: March 20, 2012
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About Laura Burlacu
I finished my BA Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam in the summer of 2011. I did research on how local political parties in Amsterdam are using social media (ie. Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, Youtube) to get in contact with the citizen. Besides this, I was team leader of the Culture Vortex project at the MediaLab Amsterdam in the spring of 2011. We made a multi-player game based on images of the Dutch Institute of Sound and Vision and we launched our game in July on Festival Mundial. At this project I did research on how we can make more use of the Creative Commons licenses model. I am co-founder of the company SecuReceipt. We developed a mobile application and an online management system which companies can use to digitalizes their intern reimbursement process. Topics of interest: Gaming / Participatory Culture / Social Media / Politics / Society / Installations / Football


This article is a co-creation by Laura Burlacu and Daan Fliervoet

In 2003 a workshop hosted by the Latvian RIXC electronic media center first introduced the locative media, a term which has since been used to describe a new media practice which aims at “creating a kind of geospatial experience whose aesthetics can be said to rely upon a range of characteristics ranging from the quotidian to the weighty semantics of lived experience, all latent within the ground upon which we traverse” (Bleecker and Knowlton, 2006).  At its core, locative media is represented by a wide array of programs and applications which engage the users in a more active way, to an extent which other types of new media art forms have not been able to achieve. And while the commercial side of many locative media projects have put into question whether or not this practice can be considered a form of artistic expression, locative media practitioners seem to be less concerned with this aspect and have moved towards embracing the consumer appeal of their projects.

Tuters and Varnelis argue that locative media are either annotative (virtually tagging the world) or phenomenological (tracing the actions of the subject in the world), however, Bleecker and Knowlton use a wider taxonomy when describing locative media projects. They suggest that locative media practices are made “by those who create experiences that take into account the geographic locale of interest, typically by elevating that geographic locale beyond its instrumentalized status as a ‘latitude longitude coordinated point on earth’ to the level of existential, inhabited, experienced and lived place” (Bleecker and Knowlton 2006). These concepts led them to categorize locative media projects into six different types:

  1. Geographic Space: Indexing the characteristics of a physical location on to a map or virtual word, in order to express some kind of media content (Example: Location 33).
  2. Map Hacking: With ‘hacking’ of maps, these locative media practices create new maps of reading for instance a city (Example: Public Art Locations).
  3. Experiential Mapping: Capturing the histories, fictions, futures or experiences of a location in geographic space (Example: Urban Tapestries).
  4. Cartographic Legibility: Mapping location-based datasets (Example: Fund Race 2004 – now)
  5. Mixed Reality: Authoring connections between fictional and non-fictional places is a media experience particularly well-suited to location-based practices (Example: Can You See Me Now?)
  6. Hyphenation: Making use of affordable location-enabling technology – typically a GPS device – and hyphenating it to an existing, understood practice, thereby creating a hybrid media expression (Example: GPS – Drawing)

Due to the innovations and developments of the past 10 years, today’s smartphones have integrated location awareness technologies which have led to locative media playing a role far beyond the field of new media arts in general. The consequence of this built-in location technology has resulted in the ‘disconnect’ of the technology itself. We, as practitioners, do not know how it works anymore; it just does. By using this notion of the disconnect, according to Marc Tuters, “we now can use the concept of the black box, which actor-network theory derived from cybernetics” (Tuters 2012: 2). In other words, locative media technology is becoming ubiquitous, which also means that the technology itself is being standardized and the content makes the difference rather than the innovative aspects that relate to programming.

But one cannot talk about locative media without having one particular name come to mind: Bruno Latour, French philosopher and anthropologist, whose key works relating to actor-network theory (ANT) and the object turn have been at the basis of understanding and analyzing locative media. As in any discussion relating to Latour and locative media, the first step is to understand what the actor-network theory is. Developed by Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, John Law, and others, ANT refers to the relationship between things and ideas and how these apparatuses that surround us possess a sort of agency and are part of a larger network in which we also find ourselves. A key to understanding ANT is that relations within networks can be simultaneously material and semiotic, and these relations work together as a whole in order to form the network as a whole and cannot be considered as being inconsequential to or separate from it. “Things” are controversial assemblages of entangled issues, and not simply objects sitting apart from our political passions. The entanglements of things and politics engage activists, artists, politicians, and intellectuals.” (Latour in Tuters and Varnelis 2006: 362).

From these concepts comes indeed the idea of the object-turn. If we see all objects as being intrinsically part of a network, then we can no longer treat them as were tools aiding us, but their existence becomes key, as well as the ‘discussions’ that take place among objects (for example, in the case of locative media, we can say that GPS devices have a discussion with computers, the first sending the information to the latter, information which in turn gets assessed and analyzed). In this sense, locative media helps reveal how manmade objects are composed of issues around which public form (such as environmental debates and policies).

This mode of thinking situates itself diametrically opposed to the more classic, but now rather outdated, situationalist paradigm. Situationalism, which came from traditional Marxist theory, was an ideology which advocated for the construction of situations, meaning that individuals needed to take action and set up environments that would fulfill personal desires and not align with capitalism ideals. In the end , these concepts materialized themselves in the form of strikes and sit-in, which are still prevalent today. Some might also argue that Occupy Wall Street can be regarded as a form of situationalism put into practice, although its ideas and forms have much changed since its initial days in the 1950s-60s.

However, according to Latour, these types of disruptive approaches have no place within the world of networks. Rather that debunking and breaking down theories or even social structures, critics and individuals need to focus they energy more on analyzing what draws and holds things together rather than what keeps them apart. In this sense the ANT helps by putting focus on material objects as well as semiotic constructs, and allows people to better understand networks function on different levels and dispels the myth of grandeur of certain institutions. Mediation becomes a key aspect and alliances can be thus formed in order to strengthen the network to the advantage of its actors, but without breaking it down.

In this sense ANT and the object-turn also become important when thinking about environmental, urban planning or technological issues, and how locative media can help with their understanding. In his 2011 lecture, “Waiting for Gaia. Composing the Common World Through Arts and Politics”, Latour places particular emphasis on environmental concerns and the need to debunk the mysticism that has surround nature for too long and which has led to individuals being disconnected from their own actions and the consequences that they have led to. However, while not being made implicit, it seems that locative media could help reduce this problem. Through locative media projects that are centered on environmental issues (or any other large issue for that matter) individuals can be made aware of the networks that are at their basis and begin to understand how they can also have an effect on them. By moving attention away from the large and hard-to-grasp concepts and onto the cogs that are part of them, actors can more successfully act to their own benefit if the consequences of their actions are made obvious. The object-turn thus allows individuals to better direct their actions so rather than taking down the system, its inner networks are strengthened to improve general well-being.

Keeping in mind the concept of object-turn and the use of ANT, we could mark four important differences between locative and post-locative practices. The origin of locative lies in its historical use of GPS-devices in order to track and trace, wherein post-locative has its origins in the more relational concept of location (Tuters 2012: 8). In other words, it is not merely about some location, instead it is more about the relations of the object, regardless of whether the user is human or non-human. As a result locative media is becoming more about the assembly of the objects within a network where the connections are central instead of just the geo-locations provided by GPS-enabled devices, therefore, connecting the location of an object with the Internet of Things.

Second, most locative media practices have sought to re-visualize or re-create urban space and place from a human point of view.  You could say that post-locative practices, using the Internet of Things or ANT, reveal the networks of relations to objects (Tuters 2012: 8). Furthermore, these visualizations bound the objects with other objects within the network, which means that the non-human objects are re-visualizing urban space as well. A common used example is the “Pigeons that Blog” project, where pigeons, equipped with air sensors, measure the air quality in a city. Moreover, this project shows the emerging of a non-human agency by giving voices to objects.

Third, with the development of new technologies and the ubiquity of location-aware devices, the post-locative practices could bring the network of objects into our homes and daily lives, such as through precise GPS-trackers and through the introduction of RFID’s or barcodes. These barcode-based applications also have a lot in common with the early locative media practices by personalizing urban space via GPS (Tuters 2012: 14).

Lastly, through these examples we can rethink locative less as technology and more as a metaphor referring to local matters-of-concerns (Tuters 2012: 11), wherein the local is still important because it is related to the objects in the network. In other words, post-locative practices give us a framework to look at how objects are assembled and constructed by the environment, for instance Jeremijenko’s “Environmental Health Clinic“. Jeremijenko runs a research lab, which she calls the Environmental Health clinic, that seeks to change the way we think about technology and nature. Whereas traditional health clinics focus on the idea that health is centered with an internal, biological, atomized individual,  Jeremijenko’s idea of health in the EHC is formulated as something external and shared, something that we can act on and change (Jeremijenko 2008: 23). Instead of getting medicine from a doctor, you get a prescription to improve the local environment you live in (e.g. planting trees etc.), using the institutional authority of a health clinic in an innovative way.  In this case, health is seen as network between non-human objects and humans. Moreover, as argued by Jeremijenko, “it  has to do with changes in adaptive behavior and in personal microevironments that would work to eliminate the beginnings of un-health” (Jeremijenko 2008: 23). Alternatively, it can be seen as the bottom-up way of thinking, such as in the case of the OneTree project that shows the importance of the local environment in a network of objects.

All in all, location-awareness seems to become more and more part of our everyday lives and it has started to create significantly different relations between us and the objects that surround us. Besides helping us locate ourselves in relation to objects, the object themselves are also communicating with each other in much more obvious ways, making the networks between them more transparent. And, as networks become more obvious, we in turn learn how to place ourselves in relation to them and how to act within them in such a way so as to create beneficial results without disrupting the networks. Or, as Jeremijenko argues, “we are trying to translate these techno-scientific, industrial and political resources allocation issues to be self-evident to the everyman, such that they could act as if they were self-evident” (Jeremijenko 2008: 31. “What matters is the material context, so the capacity to contest, to be in the position to have an opinion, to question the evidence, is where locative media devices can really contribute” (Jeremijenko 2008: 33).



The MILK Project

by Ieva Auzina and Esther Polak (2004)

What is probably one of the most well-known and often-mentioned locative media projects, MILK (2004) is the brainchild of Ieva Auzina and Esther Polak who went on a quest to map the trace that Latvian milk left on the road to becoming Dutch cheese. In order to do this they used GPS devices to map the milk’s trail and co-opted workers that were involved in the process in order to also track their movements. Their installation was positively received among many artists, critics and the public alike, winning the Golden Nica new-media prize, and it was also part of Latour and Weibel’s “Making Things Public” exhibition. While the artists never envisioned their project as aligning itself to Latourian ideas, it did allow for a strong representation of how locative technologies can help make the networked society more visible by revealing how products are commodified and globally distributed. Despite these interpretations, Auzina and Polak still think of their project more as a form of romantic landscape art rather than an example of invisible networks being made public.

Shadows from Another Place and Cherry Blossoms

by Paula Levine (2004) and Alyssa Wright (2007)

In her work, Paula Levine tries to represent and imagine the impact of political or cultural traumas that take place in one location upon another. With “Shadows from Another Place” she reposition the war in Iraq onto San Francisco. This installation maps the missile and bombs sites in Baghdad from the Iraq war, with the help of GPS coordinates, upon San Francisco’s city map. Subsequently, each site in San Francisco is also allocated a geotag and geocache, and in those locations people can discover a small canister that contains the names of the fallen soldiers in the Iraq war until then. This is done in order to compose and extra layer to the real world as well, which, finally tries to collide the distinctions between foreign and domestic, making the consequences of war more understandable.

“Cherry Blossoms” is Alyssa Wright’s reaction on Levine’s installation. In her work, participants are equipped with backpacks that use a small microcontroller and GPS-location devices. She uses the GPS-coordinates from the bombings in Baghdad and superimposes them on a map of Boston. If a participant walks near a location of a Baghdad bombing, two confetti cannons attached to the backpack will fire confetti in the air. Every piece of confetti is printed with an Iraqi civilian name on it who was a victim of the war.

Area’s Immediate Reading

by Brooke Singer (2006)

Area’s Immediate Reading” (AIR) is an air monitoring device which, surprisingly, does not employ pigeons. The project was initially launched in 2006 in New York and afterwards also travelled to other locations. The devices are meant to allow the exploration of urban environments in order to obtain readings on air pollution levels within the areas where they are used. Individuals or groups can walk around with the device and monitor pollution levels in the neighborhood, while at the same time receiving readings from other AIR devices within the network as well as information of pollutants within the area, such as chemical plants or factories. And while AIR is meant as a tool for individuals to monitor pollution themselves, the online platform can also serve as a debate forum where the results can be compared and analyzed, and solutions can be discussed.

Constraint City – The Pain of Everyday Life

by Gordan Savicic (2007)

The Pain of Everyday Life” is a digital art performance which critically addresses the public and private space within the realm of everyday constraints. By wearing the “Straight-Jacket,” the invisible city of WIFI-spots become visible on the body of the participant. In doing so, the artist tries to map this hidden architecture that is “subconsciously perceived and which constantly oscillates as resonant landscape, consisting of electromagnetic waves.” The corset is equipped with servo motors that tighten the straps of the corset if you come closer to a WIFI-spot in the city. Furthermore, locative media applications inside the corset will map the WIFI-spots onto Google Maps in order to reveal the “pain-map” of a city.

My City =  My Body

by Tuur Van Baalen (2008)

My City = My Body” is a complex project started off in London by Belgian artist Tuur Van Baalen in 2008 which is part of ongoing research into the future of biological interactions with the city and how the increasing understanding of DNA and the rise of biotechnologies will change the way each of us interacts with our environments. The project was composed of two different steps, First Experiment, Urban Biogeography and London Biotopes. The initial step was marked by participants being asked to donate a urine sample, together with their postcode, after drinking Thames Water in order to analyze potential chemical and compounds that could be found in the samples and how they are geolocated. The second phase of the experiment had the researcher conduct tests on sewage water in order to scan it for pharmaceutical and chemical traces, and the last one featured Tuur Van Baalen selling tap water from three different areas (Nothing Hill, London and Golders Green) and inviting buyers to describe its qualities, as well as the characteristics of their own local tap water. The experiment concluded with a large map of London’s water, together with the chemical founds predominantly in certain areas, as well as short stories describing the potential qualities of such tap water.

Trash Track

by MIT (2007)

Trash Track” focuses on how pervasive technologies can expose the challenges of waste management and sustainability. Instead of visualizing the supply chain of product, MIT revealed the removal-chain of products with the view to create a more sustainable society. In this project, all kinds of waste products were equipped with location aware tags to track them in the whole process of the waste management system in the United States of America. On the one hand, this project shows where all the waste is going to, and on the other hand it shows how and where we could improve our waste management systems in order to create the perfect recycling chain. With this bottom-up approach, it shows the future of tracking systems in modern society wherein every object is constantly being tracked and traced by computers.

Give Me Back My Broken Night

by Circumstance (2011)

Give Me Back My Broken Nights” is a mobile performance work using pervasive technology that asks audiences to collaboratively imagine the future of their city. Using a combination of location sensitive mobile devices and portable projectors it creates a magical, relevant and cinematic experience for participants. Audiences are given a mobile phone and a blank folded paper map, a micro projector is hung around their neck. In the streets, a performer guides them to vacant lots and buildings under construction, where they speak about what is actually being planned, but also ask the participants about what they’d like to see there, at which point an artist starts drawing luminous impressions of their descriptions on the paper. They participants then return to the theatre to meet other audience members to describe, debate and share their visions for the future.

The Transparency Grenade

by Julian Oliver (2012)

With the Wikileaks files fresh in our minds, Julian Oliver made a perfect tool for its supporters. “The Transparency Grenade” is a device to open up corporate and governmental processes by leaking information from closed meetings by just pulling the trigger out of the grenade. According to Julian Oliver, the grenade is equipped with a tiny computer, microphone and powerful wireless antenna to collect and capture all kinds of information which is automatically sent to a dedicated server where it is mined for information. If the pin is pulled, the grenade will capture all network traffic and sounds on site, which are then used to create an online public map with the exact location of the devices on it. On the one hand, this project shows the vulnerability of all kinds of ubiquitous Wi-Fi devices and on the other it raises awareness to the critical notion of corporate and governmental practices not being open enough.



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