Thinking on GPS

This blog post is taken from the intro to the book of the same name, available here in PDF form, or from here at Blurb.

01GPS technology retains some of the magic that all astronomical instruments possess – a dimension of reconciling the scale of the spaces that are outside of earths atmosphere with a personal sense of place. Offering self identification in space through a blue ball that drops on to a digital map in the palm of your hand, by communicating with half a dozen satellites that are orbiting the planet is an amazing idea to wrestle with. Achieved by calculating the difference in time that it takes for signals to be received from a network of satellites, GPS is one of the most practical examples use of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

The conceptual and technical notion of our body’s relationship with the instruments that are ‘out there’ and the devices that we hold in our hand is akin to the experience of drawing. A cognitive act that relies upon a reflexivity between representation and idea. Whether mediated through a pencil that offers a very short feedback, or a GPS receiver that has no display and it’s ‘marks’ only visible after they have been downloaded and processed later, drawing occurs in the reconciliation between the representation and the concept.

It was this gap between the action and the image that offered students of ESALA an opportunity to consider how they might draw the city of Edinburgh through the Drawing with Satellites workshop.

Students were asked to do two drawings over two days. Idea lead, since the results couldn’t be imagined, the students adopted a range of strategies in response to three starting points (assignments) that were presented to them by Esther Polak:

i. Work with 2 lines:
This requires two groups to collaborate.
The collaboration needs to be essential.

ii. Relocate an existing, meaningful route.
This means that participants should rotate, scale or change its
starting point, or all of these.
The relocation needs to give the route a new meaning.

iii. Draw a spiral.
The spiral needs to be meaningful in concept.

Students using GPS devices during the Outside/Inside workshop on Dartmoor

Students using GPS devices during the Outside/Inside workshop on Dartmoor

Responses were varied and the results are presented through this book. What was particularly interesting was the range of methods that the group adopted which fell into four overlapping categories:
Social Practices, Temporal Projects, Code Controlled and works that were intentionally Ludic in approach.
Social Practices: The projects that fall in to the category of Social Practices tended to use the habitual journeys of people, whose Edinburgh is defined by professional, institutional and occupational routines. Following people, or carrying out processes that adhere to centres of employment or practice, these works offer an insight into the city as a container for production.
Temporal Projects featured a particular focus upon time. Not equipped with a map, the GPS receiver tends to concentrate the user on time: the time that it takes to walk routes, the time between way points, the time between partners. Three of the projects in particular used time, as a driver for their drawing, and the results reminded us all of the value of time in articulating space

Code Controlled: Perhaps due to the digital substrate upon which the technology operated, or to the binary communication that was often required to instruct each other, a series of drawings used Code to inform their development. Following rule bases that were developed, written down and then performed across the city, drawings that used Code tended to reveal the city’s structural properties, and less the social.

Ludic: Finally was play, adopting gaming processes that echoed aspects of Code, the artists carried out drawings that engaged themselves with the city through recreation. Sophisticated at one level and more simple at another, the drawings that embody a Ludic quality that negotiated the landscape through amusement and fun.

The final drawings are evidence to these four inter-related means of interpreting the city. Guided to an extent by the instrument, in this case a GPS receiver, the drawings and their methods do not present the city per say, but rather its symptoms. Symptoms of its social, symbolic and structural form that gives us clues to its character. Body storming the city with strategies in ‘hand’, the architecture students learnt to draw Edinburgh in a way that made the ‘image’ subservient to the conceptual method. And with up to a four hour wait before the final image was processed, students operated in a non-representational void for significant parts of the workshop. A gap that seems to be ever increasingly important to understand as technologies continue to mediate what we think, what we see and what emerge as our drawings.

The GPS work is part of a series of projects that ‘fields’ have been involved in most notably the Comob project and the Outside/Inside workshop.

Comob http://www.comob.org.uk/

Comob is an iphone application made to explore relationships between embodied movement, social relationships and GPS navigation. The software has been used in workshops at arts events to explore how mobile gps technologies might mediate relationships between abstract ideas of pollution and experience on the ground.

There are a free iPhone and Nokia applications that support this research. The software allows members of groups to see each others movement in real time on their mobile phones. The group is linked together by a line that shows their relative spatial distribution.

Comob was initiated as a digital arts project to explore social relationships. The software has been used in workshops throughout 2009. These workshops are integral to the development process and allow us to see how groups respond to the software and interpret how it can be used. The three main workshops took place at Futuresonic 09 (May), ISEA 09 (August) and Edinburgh College of Art (September). Artwork conceived of and developed in collaboration with Jen Southern, Tech by Jochen Ehnes and Henrik Ekeus.

Outside/Inside workshop http://x2.i-dat.org/~cs/inout/

Description: Touch is our bridge with architecture and the world. All of our senses are extensions of touch, since ears, nose, mouth and eyes are specializations of the skin, the most sensitive of our organs. As Pallasmaa’s put’s it; “touch is the unconscious of vision, and this hidden tactile experience determines the sensuous quality of the perceived object, and mediates messages of invitation or rejection, courtesy, or hostility.”. Digital technologies are allowing us to ‘touch’ different spaces that are both inside us and outside us, and close to us and far away from us. This two day workshop encouraged students to consider the design space that is found between the GPS satellites that orbit the Earth at a height of 12,600 miles, and the 20cm sensing depth of Ultrasound that can reveal the organs beneath our skin. The first day involved a day trip into the wide open spaces of Dartmoor National Park to explore the idiosyncrasies of recording movement, form and location through the correlation of data gathered from the satellites and space vehicles that are circling the Earth. In contrast the second day involved a short workshop at The Peninsula Radiology Academy where students had the opportunity to use ultrasound technology to scan the insides of a live human body. Punctuated by a dinner on the evening of the first day, student worked toward creative design propositions for exhibition at the Bartlett School of Architecture later in the year.

Footage of Bartlett and Plymouth PostGrad students drawing with GPS devices.

Footage from the ultrasound scanning session.

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