Early Geolocative Media Practices

New terms have been created for referring to the information communication technologies and practices that are functionally bound to place. These new tools (hardware and software), and the interactions people have with them, are both location-aware and location-oriented. They not only use geographically referenced information to function but also produce it. While media artists and theorists have called these new technologies and practices locative as an affirmation of the “spatial turn” in the arts and humanities (Kalninsin, 2003; Tutes and Varnelis, 2006; Bleecker and Knowlton, 2006; Galloway and Ward, 2005; Guldi, 2009), geographers have named them geo-media as a recognition of the “media turn” in social sciences (Thielmann, 2010; Jekel et al., 2012). In this entry I refer to these technologies and practices as geo-locative media and review some of the early appropriations that new media artists have of them following a longer tradition of experimentation with space, place, interactivity and communication.

At the beginning of the 21st century, artists began to experiment with geo-locative media as soon as GPS receivers and other wireless network devices entered the consumer market. Inspired by creative practices previously developed by situationists, flaneurs and other psycogeographers, new media artists started to use mobile networked information technologies in a subject-centered way, foregrounding the human experience in space and time. For instance, art projects that traced the wanderings of people over a map such as Jeremy Wood’s (2000-present) personal cartography and geo-drawings, and the Waag Society‘s Amsterdam Real Time project (2002) map of citizens movement in daily life, can be associated with some of the experiments that Guy Debord made during the 1960s.

This kind of subjective mapping practice is related to the method of dérive developed by the Situational International group. The drawing of personal trajectories over a map is also evocative of some of the psycogeographic experiments of the French sociologist Paul-Henry Chombart such as the tracing of the daily movements of a young woman living in Paris XVIe neighborhood (“Trajects pendant un an d’une jeune fille du XVIe arrondissement” 1957). These examples of geo-locative media practice, as Marc Tuters and Kazys Varnelis have pointed out, are “phenomenological” because they consist of the tracing of the action of the subject in the physical world.

New media artists have also developed another  geo-locative media practice that can be described as “annotative” (Tuters and Varnelis), and consists in virtually annotating the physical world. That is, in creating media content that is bound to place and can only be accessed at a specific location (e.g. latitude/longitude coordinates or material “tags” at specific places provide the access to the media). Projects such as Urban Tapestries (2003-2004) that annotated parts of London, and the Yellow Arrow project (2004-2006) that was global in its scope, intended to tag specific locations with information that later could be accessed by others when being on the spot. A predecessor of this geo-locative practice can be found in the actions of graffiti writers who since the 1980s have been tagging walls, trains, and other urban canvas.

Although geo-locative media practices were first embraced by new media artists, during the last years they have become mainstream, especially because the massive adoption of smartphones with GPS capabilities has triggered the development of a myriad of applications that rely on location for providing their services. From mobile applications that help us with navigation to apps that allow us to virtually mark the places we visit, mobile smartphones have become a popular geo-locative media technology. As a matter of fact, even if the smartphone user is not running any application that allows him/her to record GPS data in some form, telephone carrier companies are already continually tracking users locations.

Some media theorists and artists have criticized geo-locative media art practice because of its reliance on military technologies of control and surveillance and its supposed lack of political and social subversion. Coco Fusco has stated that geo-locative media practices relying on Cartesian representations of the subject and the world limit the real engagement and connection between people and places. Jordan Crandall has turned on the alarms about the tracking features of geo-locative media, claiming that the technologies and discourses associated with them are aligned with marketing and management regimes. He has claimed that surveillance “has been made friendly and transformed into spectacle, to the extent that is no longer a condition to be feared.” (Candrall, 2005) By the same token, Brain Holmes has pointed out that using geo-locative technologies is a sort of celebration of the hyper-rationalist grid of Imperial and military global infrastructure. However, although such criticism of the geolocative media and practices is right in pointing out the military origins of the GPS technology and the overwhelming state of surveillance, it does not take into account the creative appropriations that users can have of both the tools and the infrastructure. Moreover, it does not acknowledge the potential  that geolocative media technologies and practices have.  Enabling playful explorations of space, fostering social relationships, and supporting civic engagement, to name just a few, are some of the positive geolocative media practices that we can now develop.


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