PROJECT.OVERVIEW: PLAN Report: Reflections on the Pervasive & Locative Arts Network launch at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, February 1-2, 2005

BY: Naomi Spellman

Project website: http://open-plan.org

The PLAN (Pervasive & Locative Arts Network) workshops at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London was organized by Futuresonic founder and director Drew Hemment (http://futuresonic.com), Ben Russell of headmap (http://www.headmap.org), and Steve Benford of Nottingham University (http://www.crg.cs.nott.ac.uk/). According to the PLAN website, the event sought to bring together “leading international figures to review the emerging fields of locative and pervasive media”. There were about 50 individuals or institutions granted 10-20 minutes of presentation time over the 2-day event. Creative teams, independent artists, engineers, interaction designers, curators, and theorists made up the bulk of the line up.

What is locative media? Judging from the PLAN gathering, locative media is the implementation of any context sensitive mobile technology – GPS, Bluetooth, wireless broadband, Sensors, RFID, etc. – to the end of actively examining and shifting how we interact with our physical environment and with each other. Projects span a wide range including social networking projects, walking projects employing digital mapping tools, and location aware games.

My own presentation (http://34N118w.net/UCHRI) as well as that of Andrew Wilson from Blink Media (http://blinkmedia.org) were reflective in nature, asking questions about how locative media is defined and what constitutes applicable tools. Andrew’s presentation was particularly engaging. Titled The Blue Peter Guide to "Geo Annotation" Using Sticky Backed Plastic, Fairy Liquid Bottles and Mobile Phones, Andrew described various lo-fi solutions they’d employed for location-aware projects, including their (area)code SMS project (www.areacode.org.uk). Blink Media provides client solutions for web and mobile applications. Blink affiliate Dan Blackburn (http://www.carbonbasedgames.com) has been realizing intriguing prototypes for mobile media delivery. For example, he used Brew to program a tiny Bluetooth Gumstick drive to deliver micro movies based on proximity. Blink Media has been involved in quality short film programming in Huddersfield (http://shortcircuits.co.uk). Nonetheless, when they “premiered” their device at the Edinburough Fringe Festival last August (by surreptitiously installing the tiny drive on the wall of a venue with a wide line of sight), passersby picking up a text invitation to view micro movies on their mobile phones assumed the worst, and, woefully, they had no takers! This incident points out how social and psychological factors surface in context aware media.

Perhaps the most intriguing inclusion in the PLAN line-up was Eyal Weizman, Professor of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, who spoke about the physical manifestation of conflict in occupied Palestine. A recent interview in Cabinet Magazine online includes his description of land use addressed not from above as on a map, but through a street level three-dimensional perspective (http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/9/wall.php). Israeli and Palestinian access is interspersed and controlled through a complex infrastructure of bridges, tunnels, freeways, walls, and – of course – surveillance technologies, wherein wireless communications play a crucial role No doubt the inclusion of Mr. Weizman had to do with the perceived failure of locative media projects to address what PLAN organizer Drew Hemment describes as locative media’s inherent complicity with modern surveillance systems (Hemment’s Locative Dystopia Essay can be downloaded at (http://www.drewhemment.com/2004/locative_dystopia_2.html). A useful complement to Weizman’s research is that of Christopher Hughes, whose Reflections on Globalization, Security and 9/11 addresses Supra-territorialisation, or a complex and interspersed territorialisation defined by modern infrastructures including telecommunications (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/csgr/research/abstracts/abwp10502/). Additionally, Harun Farocki’s 1989 film Images of the World and the Inscription of War is a poetic examination of systems of seeing and political agency. Farocki, like Weizman, is a Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.

The second day included presentations from Teri Rueb, Katherine Moriwaki, and Lalya Gaye – artists I have developed considerable respect for over the last few years. It was a real delight to meet them in person. Teri is known for her seminal project Traces that utilized GPS and MAX Opcode to deliver songs and memories along a hiking trail in Banff, Alberta, Canada. She discussed the relationship of locative media to past site-specific art practices, as well as her recent project, Drift (http://www.kunstverein-cuxhaven.de/ohne_schnur/englisch/index2.htm. Click “Teri Rueb” on left nav bar). In her words:
“ Drift is a large-scale distributed installation that employs GPS and pocket PC technologies for the delivery of interactive, dynamic location-based sound and text. In Drift, the content itself floats freely, as un-tethered as the participants who explore it and the wireless technology that delivers it. The piece creates a space of flows consisting of sounds and words that travel like particles on simulated air and water currents loosely based on actual oceanographic and meteorological data”.

Lalya Gaye, an acoustic engineer by training, described a number of projects from the Future Applications Lab, Viktoria Institute in West Sweden. A recent project, Sonic City, uses biosensors and the layout of urban streets to generate an intimate, reactive soundspace for flaneurs. Katherine Moriwaki of the Disruptive Design Team of the Networks and Telecommunications Research Group at Trinity College Dublin discussed her Oscillating Windows workshop, which relies on a spontaneous ad hoc WiFi network to generate awareness of how social groups are configured and maintained.

Gender seems to play a role in the kind of interaction encouraged by the various projects. Whereas xy projects might be infrastructure or applications based (Marc Tuters Where-fi and GPSter open source locative applications) or goal specific (Blast Theory’s street games), xx projects tend toward prioprioceptive and sensory experiences (Rueb, Gaye, Kettling). On Tuesday, Dutch theorist and educator Rob Van Kranenburg managed to rub nerves on both sides of the brain in framing RFID – not wireless broadband, GPS, or Bluetooth – as the pivotal context-aware technology. Tensions flew when the inevitable concerns about the invasiveness of embedded and implanted Radio Frequency Identification tags surfaced. Given the surveillance capability of mobile phones and the other communications tools utilized by the practitioners present, this criticism seemed illogical.

Panel discussions were convened each half-day to discuss ideas and suggestions. The PLAN event provided a challenging format in which to engage a fruitful discussion. The presentations were dense and fast-paced. There was no formal opportunity to switch gears and provide for more thoughtful interaction, although there were ongoing informal discussions in the I.C.A. café and bar. During the wrap-up discussion at the end of the day on Wednesday, one recommendation was for a policy committee for the network – a good suggestion given the plethora of ethical concerns with these potentially invasive and often invisible communication tools. Several mentioned the need to address a consensus on the language being used, with the observation that terminology was being applied inconsistently by practitioners and theorists.

Between sessions at the conference I tried out Sarah Kettley’s interactive jewelry, which “locates” nearby jewelry wearers to instigate a visual dialogue among participants (http://www.eca.ac.uk/tacitus/SarahKettley.htm). This project echoes the fluctuating meme device explored in Jonah Brucker Cohen’s Umbrella net project (linked from http://coin-operated.com. Jonah was not present at the conference). I spoke with Manu Luksch of AmbientTV.net, whose Myriorama performance utilizes GPS and live data transmission (http://www.vargas.org.uk/press/ambienttv/myrio_qa.html). I caught one of their performances last summer in London’s East End. Ilse Black, an independent artist and curator, handed out CD compilations of site-referenced sound art she c0-curated called Interference. I listened to it several times that evening. Composer and DJ Doug Benford stopped by after the Wednesday event to say hello to associates, and I decided to forego joining the conference crowd for a dinner meeting with him. Doug’s SPRAWL project can be found online at http://www.sprawl.org.uk.

After 5 days in the London area, I took the train to South Wales to hang out with a broadband policy advocate I befriended last summer, John Wilson (http://www.arwain.net/arwain.htm). John’s background is in art history. He became involved in public policy through a report he was commissioned to prepare. In rural South Wales broadband accessibility concerns differ greatly from those encountered in densely populated urban areas such as London. John’s knowledge of the local history and the surrounding topography ensured a couple of fantastic hikes. The first one began at an ancient Welsh tribal fort above Caerphilly, where John lives, and wound along dirt roads and sheep and cow pastures. The following day we drove to the Gower Coast, where we hiked to Worm’s head, an aptly named rock configuration arising out of the water. The view was stunning, with the long empty bay on one side, and massive limestone cliffs on the other. The best part of hiking in the UK is the local pubs, which provided opportunity for long discussions.

On the way back to Caerphilly we met with Simon Pope, whom I’d missed at the conference. Simon is a wonderful artist and a friend of John’s (a recent project Simon did for the Venice Biennale of Art is described at http://venice.ambulantscience.org/documentation/index.html). We talked about time, specifically how locative media generally deals with granular time, or discreet instances, as opposed to the more complex models of time that have been explored in literature, film, technological art, and in disciplines including historiography, philosophy, sociology, etc. Sociologist Brian Roberts, who participated in a discussion Brett Stalbaum and I conducted in November 2004 (http://34n118w.net/UCHRI), has identified a complex structure of time, which includes a “what if” tense. He maintains that individuals actively construct not only a notion of past, present, and future, but also an active narrative which tracks what one might be doing if their life’s path had taken an alternate route – a time “layer” that could be exploited in locative media projects dealing with narrative. One point on which Simon and I agreed was that sociologists had a tremendous amount to offer in the way of implementation of methodology. Many of the concepts being discussed in the context of locative media have been actively explored by sociologists in a social setting.

I was especially curious about Simon’s tenure as a lecturer at the Business Institute at Cardiff. His appointment is connected with the British Arts Council’s Ways of Working initiative, which introduces the methods employed by artists in their practice to business people, and vice versa. (http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/aboutus/project_detail.php?sid=5&id=27&page). Simon described a shift in his understanding of the role that business practices played in dotcom era innovations. And John described a British telecom “locative media” application developed about 10 years ago – seemingly forgotten today. In discussing where things are headed, Simon suggested that RFID would emerge as the technology with a profound potential to alter how we interact with and perceive our immediate environment. Radio Frequency Identification tags are tiny affixable or implantable chips which, together with an RFID reader, provide the means for discrete information exchange in close-range – between people, between things, or any configuration thereof. RFID chips are being used to inventory goods in warehouses (Wal-Mart), and have been implanted in prisoners, exclusive nightclub members, hospital patients, and the homeless in experimental programs around the globe.

Simon pointed out that Locative Media acts as an umbrella for a wide variety of post NetArt practices. As a genre Locative Media has limited currency. It will ultimately be subsumed by an increasingly integrated and ubiquitous computing infrastructure in our environment and by the prevalence of commercially oriented context-aware applications. It is inspiring that governmental, commercial, academic, and artistic interests are finding common ground in the UK, and that technological art receives the degree of support that it does there. Hopefully the Pervasive & Locative Arts Network will succeed in focusing that energy, and providing support for emerging creative experimental work as it evolves.


Contact the Naomi Spellman at naomi.spellman@gmail.com

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