Why is locative media art socially relevant nowadays?

Richard Long, Sahara line (1988)

While net.art has always taken a very strong stand against the mainstream culture and has promoted a so called “counter-culture” (see Networking, by Tatiana Bazzichelli) by coordinating hacktivists and spreading alternative information over the Internet, new media art is now presenting itself in other forms (such as database art, locative media art, etc.), mostly with a less evident political position and questioned social functions. For instance, Tuter and Varnelis point out how locative media artist are not particularly trying to take distance from the government or industries, on the contrary they are in many cases willing to collaborate with commercial as well as governmental institutions.

But also a deeper and more complex topic can be discussed, when it comes to new media art and its role in criticizing society. Van Kranenburg questions the channel and artifacts that are being used by artists for the realization of their artworks. Surveillance technology is often needed in order to realize locative media projects; he believes that we now have the tools and the power to create alternative protocols and networks and we don’t need to make use of the standard infrastructures that we are currently accustomed to.

Recently, I focused my research on the definition of the role of the artist within society, to understand how locative media can be nevertheless used to expose control agencies within society and can involve the audience in new ways. I have also been trying to deepen criticism of the underlying technology and place it in the actual context.

Is freedom of new technology an illusion?

Locative art does not necessarily depend on new locative technology. A very interesting example of it is Richard Long’s locative artworks, where the landscape is used as a canvas and the artist marks the landscape and documents it. Long added an informational layer to space marking the places he visited while he documented his walks. In this way, he created an augmented space. However, although locative art has been possible without location aware technology that we are now familiar with, nowadays artists aim to explore the potentials of new locative media to produce artworks that change our perception of space and its representations.

Locative media that are diffusely employed in locative art projects are context aware technology and location aware mobile computing devices (such as mobile phones with implemented GPS technology). Context aware technology is able to link a computing system to the environment and make the system react to changes in the environment. This link produces more flexible computing systems and creates an artificial feedback channel for the user immersed in the environment. Not only GPS technology is used to send receive and process location data: artists are increasingly involving the users in the creation of topographies, therefore also GIS is used in locative art projects. GIS (Geographic Information System) offers the opportunity to process data through personalized queries and generate customized maps.

Pope, Map generated by tracking movements in the city

The Internet, as well as other new technologies that facilitate unmediated communication among users, tents to be considered freer than other mainstream media. In particular the decentralized networked structure of online communication – opposed to the traditional hierarchical model, has produced a picture of the Internet as a decentralized communication infrastructure, where power is equally distributed among nodes, that allows free communication among users and excludes intermediation, facilitating the action of non-market mechanisms (See Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom). This ideological view of networked information flow is partly debunked by Galloway and Thacker, who focus on the technical aspects of networked communication to expose the strict control that can be exercised through networks.

They also refere to Gilles Deleuze, who identifies in this phenomenon a shift from a disciplinary society to a society of control (Deleuze, 1992). While the barriers were more concrete and recognizable in the disciplinary society (a signature, a number), in the society of control the code is the barrier. The code is not as recognizable as the written word, and is less transparent and less concrete. The threat hidden in new technologies seems to be the lack of palpability of the code, of the underlying mechanism that makes technology work. This issue has also been identified by Van Kranenburg. The author describes the shift from mechanical machinery to software-based technology, and he observes that the user is becoming more reliant on the producer (or the programmer) of hardware and machines because the system is less transparent and less concrete and is based on code. While his critic is very relevant, I think he makes a mistake when he suggests that it is possible to criticize or question the commercial/ political implication of technology only from the outside and not from the inside.

Coco Fusco is very critical on locative media projects for different reasons. His critic refers to the way mapping is being used as a subtler manner to publicize warfare and dehumanize the target of military action in front of the mass media audience. Also he sees a threat in the way geographical data put the human in a Cartesian position, where it is believed that the “human mind and mathematical principles are the source for all real knowledge.”

Locative art and the dynamic representation of space

A good answer to this critic is to find in Townsend and Hemment’s articles. The spread of locative media that allow the single user to tag and to draw maps exposes the objective definition of places, for different people mark the same places in different ways and attribute different meanings to a location. However, I believe that Petra Gemeinboeck, together with Andy Dong and Francesca Veronesi, makes a significant step further in the discussion. Gemeinboeck experiments with locative art projects in the urban space, and she is particularly interested in the intersections between physical and virtual spaces. One of her projects, IG 02: Urban Fiction, combines user demographic data and user geographical data (GIS) with the movements of the user (participants) within the landscape. A virtual fabric replaces the more traditional map structure; in this way the flow of the participants is represented in alternative ways that have very little to do with traditional topography (see fig. 1). Still, documenting the location is essential for the realization of the artwork. The locative art project IG 02 aims to represent in a more bodily way the interrelations between different cultural groups of inhabitants and passengers, and their relation to the urban space they occupy, breaking off with the objective annotation used to establish spatial relations in cartographies.

Fig. 1, Urban Fiction: Ripping and stitching the terrain

Gemeinboeck’s performative geography project would be one of the interactive new media projects that help us rediscover public space through creative technologically mediated interaction described by Bounegru (in the Urban Screen Reader, 2009). The big difference between situationists and new media artist of this kind is that while the former focused their actions on urban and social politics, the latter are more concerned with the aesthetic aspects of space and urbanity. Nevertheless, in essence they have the same purpose, which is in a way the reappropriation of urban space by inhabitants and the stimulation of playful, spontaneous and creative actions in urban space. Gemeinboeck’s work is also a critical answer to the Cartesian objectivity of cartography. I think it is peculiar how her critic does not stop by enabling the user to create subjective maps, but addresses the form itself by replacing the map grid with a virtual fabric.


This research has certainly been useful to better understand how new media artists today try to relate to new technology and generate artworks that can be somehow considered significant to society, despite widespread critics addressed to their connections with the government and corporations and the technology that they are using. It became clear to me that the most controversial debate arises on upcoming surveillance technology that is employed in new media art projects. There are two main reasons why there is a lot of concern about this kind of technology: personal data are vastly used by companies to address their customers more effectively (Hemment, The locative dystopia); and governmental institution increasingly employ surveillance technology to control citizens’ behavior, also by collecting personal data very extensively. Both occurrences render citizens very susceptible for data-collection and generate insecurity and mistrust toward technology that store sensitive personal data.

Nonetheless, locative new media art projects are not just means to develop and spread surveillance technology, and they do not per se support or affirm protocols and communicational infrastructure that are used. On the contrary, they have the ability to question these protocols and networks, not only from the outside (like Van Kranenburg argues, by naming the example of Bricolab), but also from the inside. That is realized, for instance, by using GPS location data to generate graphical representations of space that are by no means objective neither they present the typical characteristics of cartographies, but use a totally different language and suggest a way of looking at space that relates to our bodily experience of it (see IG 02). Artists then fulfill their role by creating the context for interaction, and by offering to the participant of their projects a different experience of the space that they know as a working or living space. This is not only done for the seek of art, neither has to be seen as entertainment; as a matter of fact, it represents a very direct criticism on the use of space that we are accustomed to, which has been instilled by our society and by governmental forces and has been executed in the way our urban spaces have been built, arranged and represented over time.

2 responses to “Why is locative media art socially relevant nowadays?

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « m. wonders.·

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