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Esther Polak and Ivar van Bekkum in Conversation with Edward Shanken and Yolande Harris.
The conversation was recorded in September 2014  during the development of 250 Miles Crossing Philadelphia, and discusses the different outcomes of the project: an interactive website, a documentary film, an installation version “The Mailman’s Bag” and “The Beagle” .


Ed: There is now a considerable history of art practices using locative media as a key ingredient. You’ve done some of the pioneering work in the field: Amsterdam Real-Time, Milk Project, Nomadic Milk, to name just a few projects.  When you began working with GPS as an art medium, the technology wasn’t widely available or used by the general public, so artistic interventions expanded awareness of this emerging technology and its cultural implications.  But now that GPS is ubiquitous, what can artists do with it that the public can’t do and for what purpose?

Ivar:  It is ubiquitous but that doesn’t mean at all that people incorporate it in their living situations or in their environment in ways that exceed instrumental use.  What people do with GPS is they follow it.  So it gives them directions to somewhere they want to go. That’s what it does. We try to turn that around and push it further.  In the projects you mentioned, when people saw their own tracks, it triggered their memories in a different way than if they’d been presented with photographs, audio recordings, or videos made along the same route.

Ed: How do you define that difference?

Ivar: If people look at their GPS tracks not on a map but on an abstract background, they remember really significant but also very insignificant details about the decisions they made during their route. For example, “Oh yes, I went to the left there because there was a little pole on the sidewalk with a yellow top.”  So these kinds of details you might not remember but they regain significance when you’re presented with an abstract map of your tracks.

Ed:  It seems as though the maps jog their recollection of the embodied experience of the route, often in unexpected detail.

Esther: Could it also be that what is considered to be significant is determined by the media we use?  In other words, we tend to find things in our memories significant because we use media that emphasize those kinds of memories.  For example, if you’re accustomed to photography, you might tend to memorize your past as still images and you might organize all memory as if it were a photo album.

Ed: For us … for our generation born in the 1960s!


Esther: Yes, for us, for our generation – exactly. As soon as you start to use GPS tracks as a medium for your memory, you might remember your past in connection with a location, for example. The way that I experience space is based in my memory of space changes, of moving through space. As an artist, I think that is something that you can explore deeply that would not so easily be done in other realms of society.  Ivar, do you agree that the mediums through which we experience the present and remember the past play a significant role in constructing memory?  And that the significance of what you remember might change depending on the mediums through which your life experiences are recorded?

Ivar: Yes, and I think it’s connected to what we have called a sense of location – a 6th sense – in addition to touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight. We proposed that people have a sense of location but they are not aware of it, so we are trying to bring it out. When you observe someone looking at their own tracks, you realize that they are having very unique, personal experience. It’s hard to grasp another person’s experience of a journey and the meaningfulness of particular points along their route.  But we thought if people had a sense of location we might be able to make the significance of this sense more obvious for a broader audience.

Ed: What you’ve both proposed also addresses the question I posed about how the artist can expand people’s awareness of this sense of location using GPS; how the artist can conduct focused, speculative research on such issues in a way that the general public, to say nothing of industry, would not be likely to address.

Esther:  Of course, people are experiencing these things outside of art contexts more and more. For example, runners and bikers record their own GPS tracks and share their movement through space by posting small abstract route maps on Facebook.

Ed:  In your lecture/performance in my class (October 7, 2014, University of Washington), you demonstrated that everyone experiences space differently.  When you asked the students to share their personal experiences of their routes to school, I was struck by how they each emphasized different aspects of their journeys – traffic, things they saw or heard, rituals like drinking coffee or smoking – but I especially impressed by their highly individualized, psychological narratives. You suggested that people’s memories are shaped by the media through which they record their experiences. So if we all experience space differently, is there something specific to the medium of GPS that impacts our experience of space in a particular way?  We just talked about how people of our generation know and can revisit our pasts through still photographs because that’s how a significant portion of our history was preserved. So the quality of our recollections of our own past, which continue to construct and reconstruct our individual identities are mediated by photography.  The importance of the photographic regime of personal historical recollection is emphasized in the movie, The Blade Runner.

Esther: I never connected Blade Runner to this way of thinking…

Esther: Yes, the replicants’ (sentient androids) sense of identity is constructed from artificial memories that have been so deeply embedded in their brains that they experience them as their own personal histories. The photographs they own are cherished above all other possessions as their only material connection with their past.  But today, in addition to still photos (which have proliferated wildly and taken on new forms of presence through smart phones and social media) people are using a wide variety of mediated information, including GPS traces, often combined with still images, video, text, metadata, etc., to record experiences. I wonder if there is something specific about the memory of location that is recalled through GPS traces that informs our sense of identity today that is different from how identity was informed by prior generations of media like still photography?

Well I don’t know yet, but I think it is. And I think it’s also very important that it’s not only the sense of a static location but also the dynamic process of going from location to location. In other words, it’s really about movement over time and space.  To return to the example of the small post with a yellow top:  maybe it’s not important as a still GPS location but it spurred a decision, so it seems to be indicate a decisive moment in a continuous flow of movement.  That’s the theory. When people see their abstract tracks moving along a route, they seem to remember things that had been lost from memory, but were, at the time, significant. Maybe they made their decision based on that thing or they saw it from the periphery of their view.  My theory is that is it is related to moving through space. In that sense GPS is very important because it not only records a static location frozen in time but provides a record of moving through space over time.

Esther: Yes, and that’s why we find Tim Ingold interesting to read because this is exactly what he tries to explain in relation to learning processes.  For instance, a recipe for cooking pancakes can be described as a series of stills, like individual photographs or waypoints. So you have threes eggs, you break them, mix them with flour, add milk, and fry them to make pancakes. But in reality, in between those prompts, there is a world of experience – and that is what really matters in the learning process. He gives the example of learning to break an egg.  A parent stands behind a child, holding his or her hand, gets the egg, and breaks it into a bowl.  But what you will not realize is that you would always first tap the bowl before actually breaking the egg, so you always make two movements.  Have you ever realized that?

Ed: No. I never noticed that.

Esther: When you will teach your daughter to break an egg you will unconsciously totally do that.  You will never break it in one go.  You will always tap first and then break it.  According to Ingold, two steps are required because every egg shell is a different thickness and have to get a feel for how thick the egg shell is in order to determine the force with which to break it.

Ed: No wonder I’m always ending up with eggshells in my eggs!

Esther: Maybe nobody taught you this the right way!  (laughs) Maybe we should re-enact this.  In any case, Ingold refers to research that stresses how learning is not a series of stills that you follow from one to another like a recipe.  It’s not algorithmic in that way. Rather, it is organized in a continuous line that is also cumulative and layered. If you break the egg once you fail, then you do it again and succeed.  So every time you break an egg, all the other eggs you ever broke before in your life are in this current experience.

Ivar: That’s the quality of the recollection of the past that he talks about.

Esther: And you have it as a line rather than a series of stills. I’m not saying that Ingold’s way of describing the learning process is better than the one that goes via the stills but it is a totally different way of imagining your learning, which can also be applied to wayfinding. He provides many examples that demonstrate how wayfinding also goes through that kind of cumulative, layered learning experience.

Ed: But I would imagine that wayfinding is a lot more complicated and subtle in the acquisition and application of knowledge than breaking an egg …

Esther: When we do wayfinding in a landscape, you might experience that people have totally different ways of doing that and totally different approaches. Maybe because we differ so much in our approach this also helps us in our collaborations – although it also sometimes causes arguments!

Ed: In class discussion, a student astutely observed that we all experience location and space differently. Without experiencing it directly, she got the sense that 250 Miles enables access to someone else’s experience of space. In other words, your work enables people to get outside the limits of their own individual experience of space and experience other people’s experience of space.  I wonder if you can talk more about that?

Esther: That might bring us to this topic of mediation and interaction that you can maybe elaborate on, Ivar.

Ivar: Sure. We want a broader audience to experience a personal sense of location and movement through space. All the projects try to convey this. So the audience not only looks at a video and sees someone else’s story but they sense that person’s movement through space and experience it as if it was if it were their own.

Esther: We want the identification between our audience and our material to be organized through these movements. So it might be little bit like if you look at a dancer and you feel in your own body as if you are making those movements yourself. We designed the software so that the movements of GPS tracks trigger the same path over relatively abstract satellite imagery, providing the audience with something very much like an almost bodily experience of movement through space.

Ed:  So the audience identifies with the actual movements of the recorded body as it moves through Philadelphia.  The recorded body serves as a sort of proxy,  whose path, recorded as GPS traces, activates Google Earth or Street View to produce an animation of their journey in the city. The audience is also listening to the surrogate’s audio narrative. So that personal narrative reinforces the experience of spatial movement, giving the audience a compelling sense of being there.

Ivar: Right.

Esther:  Normally, there are two layers of bodily movement in cinema:  that of the person being filmed and that of the cameraman. And, of course, there is everything else that is moving around. But in our visualization, there are essentially only the movements of the protagonist that is being recorded. Those movements trigger the movements of the camera and the visualization of the spheres. There is basically only one movement at stake.

Ed: The movement has a hybrid cyborgian quality. Because it is not just the movement of the protagonist but the movement of the protagonist mediated through the jerkiness of GPS, which is smoothed out computationally by your software, then warped through the quirkiness of Google Earth  the way it folds itself on to space or maps itself onto 3-D space.  So it is a very abstract  kind of camera perspective that joins human and technological elements and produces a highly mediated, virtual representation.  It is really a cyborgian machine for experiencing another person’s movement through space and movement. Maybe you can talk more about your feelings about that.

Ivar: We have these two realities: the reality of Google Earth or Street View, which is a certain level of reality. At the very least, it is always outdated. It is not dynamic. Those are all static images from a prior moment in time. We fly over there with a virtual camera but only the camera is dynamic. The images are not. It suggests something like dynamics: when you go down a street in Streetview that street seems kind of live but it is really only a series of pre-recorded still images stitched together. That is one level of reality we have. On the other hand, we have the reality of audio, which is a very direct, personal, intimate reality, with which you can identify everything.

Ed: And that is genuinely dynamic.

Ivar: Well, the audio is also recorded, but it is continuous, not a series of static moments woven together like in the visualization.  The point is that when you combine  these two types of representation – these two realities – there are gaps and disjunctions in between.  Sometimes you cannot see anything or the satellite or street-view images are warped, like you said, or disorienting. But sometimes you can relate to something that the the protagonists says or that you hear in the ambient sound. For example, in the segment of “The Mailman’s Bag” that we showed you, we saw a virtual video composed of street view images of the houses visited by the mail carrier who agreed to wear The Beagle.  The audience hears doors opening and closing in the audio recording, so they might infer that there is a correlation between the sounds and images. But you don’t see the doors open or close – they’re static images in the Google Street View archive – so you are never totally sure. However, since it is still very synchronized, when you experience 250 Miles as the audience, sometimes you see cars and you hear cars passing by and sometimes you see street signs, so you know they fit together. But there is always a spaces in between that you have to fill in yourself, in your mind. Within the total complexities of the podcasts, recordings, software algorithms, and the visualization, we hope that those spaces in between give people a feeling and experience of location and movement. Above all, that is what we try to mediate.

Ed: You mentioned Tim Ingold’s notion of in-betweenness: the things in-between the instructions, the things that you actually do when wayfinding. This seems to be really a key aspect of your work and especially 250 Miles. There is a fascinating tension that arises in the in-betweenness of the dynamic, intimate, personal account of movement through space and the machinic, stitched-together, static images that are a representation of those spaces – but are really more like the instructions for making a pancakes than the actual experience of making pancakes.

Esther/Ivar: Exactly.

Yolande: Your work centers around location, GPS, our experience of space, and its visualization through mapping. This project is notably different because of the explicit role sound plays in the experiencing of place. Can you comment on what the use of sound opens up in this context and what you are hoping to achieve through the use of sound?

Esther: We have always tried to use sound. In the MILK project, people don’t usually recall we only use sound and still images, never video. So the only moving element was the animation of the GPS trace.

Yolande: But in that work the visual is foregrounded, and the sound is equal but not dominant.

Esther: We have always been interested in using sound in different ways and the power of sound. It is amazing that, when people saw the MILK project installation, they refer to their experience as seeing a video. If you use still imagery, people make a video out of it in their minds, they fill in the gaps in their imagination. I think sound stimulates the  imagination and it provides a more intimate experience of the work. Although people often interpret our work as being interactive (MILK won the Golden Nica for Interactive Art at Ars Electronic, 2005), we recently realized that interaction is not the most important thing. We use interaction to show how the new medium brings a new experience of space. So it is never literally the interaction itself that we are interested in, but rather we use it as a tool to show the mediation of space through GPS.

Yolande: The current version of The Beagle uses a podcast of pre-recorded sounds, which means that Beagle cannot respond directly to the person who is wearing it. But although it is not strictly interactive, in terms of the technology itself, the experience of the participant might be. Do you find it interesting and necessary to make that system responsive to the participant or is that not important at all?

Esther: I think the interaction with The Beagle creates a kind of intimacy between the protagonist who speaks her or his mind freely, and the city, and this dynamic makes it very relevant. Rather than becoming tour guides, we are trying to find ways for the protagonist to share their subjective experience of a trajectory.
But we prioritize  the mediation as  we want the audience to identify with the voice and encourage to empathize with the protagonists, but in the mean time keep the awareness of the mediated representation very present.

Yolande: In my experience, even though I was anticipating a prompt from The Beagle’s voice, I was often surprised by it. You talk about the mediation of experience in the now, the present moment. Walking always makes me enter a state of mind where I become acutely aware of myself in relation to my surroundings. How does The Beagle respond to that sort of mental state of walking? This is not so much a question as an observation. We were talking about the interaction of the object and how that influences your experience of walking and the meditative state of mind that you get into…

Ivar: It was not about a walk or the walking. I think we tried to work with  people in the project as a vehicle to get a certain view on the space around them. And we weren’t particularly looking for a story of one person. I think we started out that way.

Esther: Interestingly, in an early audience test of the material, we presented some of the recordings in a listening space. We thought this would hold the audience’s attention for one or two minutes but to our surprise, people stayed with the recordings for a longer time, sometimes for half an hour or even more. I think your question is very crucial and it is describing our process, where we have worked with  different versions of the prompts. We finally decided to create a situation where the protagonist s can choose between three versions before walking, providing a sense of ownership about the experience. To choose protagonists, we followed the example of Chris Marker in La Joli Mai.  Like him, we went into the streets,  and approached people who seemed expressive. And we sort of grabbed them and asked “do you want to be a participant in our project?” which worked well. Some people did not even use the prompts, they were happy just to speak their minds freely. We want to make tangible people’s subjective experience of the city  and being human through their personal experience of the space.

Ivar: I just want to add one more thing to that:  the project is not only about people talking about their impressions. It also includes the visuals of satellite imagery, and recordings of moving and static objects. The combination of the sound and the visuals creates new meanings as they trigger each other.

Yolande: So there’s a difference between the experience that one has walking, which is an embodied experience in the now, and experiencing the recording in combination with the visual mapping. It seems to me that if you, as a participant,  know your voice is going to be used in mapping visualizations, then you might experience your walk or bike ride differently – you’re asked to be the actor – there is a tension between those two roles.

Ivar: You’re totally right.  The thing is we do not know before hand what happens if we put the audio recordings together with the visuals in Google Earth. For example, the recording made by the mail carrier’s bag conveys an experience going through the street from house to house, meeting people, being at the front door, listening to sounds that are behind. This is not an audio-visual language that has been developed yet.

Yolande: In the mail carrier example the sounds are very intimate, very close to the body. I was even aware of this sense of intimacy when I was walking with The Beagle myself:  the sounds of my breath, my clothing, the rhythm of my steps. Similarly, in the Mailman’s Bag the sound is very clear, one hears the movement of the bag and the sound of the doors. And it’s close, too; for example, the sound of the door flap is much closer than normal. So you are creating an incredibly intimate sound space. In contrast the Streetview images are flat and devoid of people, and full of glitches and inconsistencies of motion. The tension between the intimate real sound and the simulated distant vision is just wonderful! I think that’s what makes it so powerful in the example of the man who falls off his bike during the recording in “Once We Get There” . Although I don’t see the accident, I hear it in detail, and try to interpret what’s happening from the strange change in motion of the image. The lack of seeing this accident and hearing it is almost more haunting, more impressive.  Another example I recall of the power of this dislocation between image and sound, is the horse going under the train tunnel.  I hear the sound of the horses hooves change as it enters the tunnel and yet I see a confused, lost GPS trace on the top of the tunnel, as it appears to be looking for the horse. I find the combination of qualities of image and sound really unusual and very special.

Ivar: Thanks! (laughs) We’re really exploring now how to work with our participants in a way that, within the visualization of the Google Earth, it deepens this experience …

Esther: … So that it strengthens  the power you just described.

Ivar: And some things really do that and some things don’t and we don’t know where that moment is yet.

Yolande: I am curious about the general public’s experience with a voice recording leading them through a city. What is the sonic relationship?

Esther: We did some research about how people experienced satellite navigation systems, that do this in a very literal way.  We found two dominant relationships. Some people feel liberated; they feel as though they will never get lost anymore. Other people felt very trapped and not free to choose. It’s a very interesting divide. While working with The Beagle we are aiming to use this dynamic in a poetic way. Ivar: To get to the poetics  of recorded voices of people in combination with the visuals.

Yolande: So, in a sense, you are developing a new technique for documentary film. That is very exciting!


250 miles Crossing Philadelphia website
Once We Get There trailer
The Mailman’s Bag
The Beagle information

250 Miles Crossing Philadelphia was produced in the context of the Percent for Art Program of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the University City Science Center.