Walking art and a short introduction – Brett Stalbaum for C5

Walking has a long history;-) But its role and history in the arts and humanities is a bit more obscure than it is in the social sciences where the cultural/historical role of walking is better studied. (For example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songlines.) In philosophy there were the peripatetics such as Aristotle, who taught philosophy while strolling in the Lyceum of ancient Athens. Others such as Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Søren Kierkegaard and Walter Benjamin are also known to have done a lot of their thinking while taking walks. Artists too have been interested in walking and quite a number have based their work in and around on the creation of walks. This is a terrain I have worked as well, and one that I’m looking forward to traversing with you on the Pukekura Park Demonstration/Environment and Sustainability GPS Tours project. Trudy lane suggested that I give you at least a coarse mini-history of the kind of artists and artworks for context. Of course it is very much off the top of my head as I sit in the airport in San Diego waiting to board. But here it is.

As someone who identifies myself as an artist of the American West, I first note that my cultural inheritance is unavoidably linked to the European colonization of the North American continent, much of which was very unpleasant, and some of which was shamefully genocidal. A familiar story around the world I suppose. My wife Paula Poole and I are avocational archeology nerds who spend a lot of time in remote regions of the Great Basin desert (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Basin) visiting Native American petroglyph sites created by people who were among the first groups of people to walk into north America. We do feel an affinity for these special but now unpopulated sites, which are often difficult to visit, and which can be aesthetically breathtaking and intriguingly abstract. But it is an affinity that is also much removed from us, and we are aware of our inability understand these cultural treasures in any other context than that of archeology. In most cases the people who created them no longer exist to explain them, and their ancestors too are often left to guess.

Another influence is romantic American landscape painting of the American west. Artists such as Albert Bierstadt (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Bierstadt) had to walk a great deal in their relatively difficult travels across the continent in order to pursue their romantic goal of capturing the sublime in their pictorial representations, and of course we recognize that the national expansionism of the time is unavoidably embedded in the ideology of these representations. This work is of course not “walking art” per se. The point is that the intersection of walking and art still has a number of under-explored relationships, some that map to quite contemporary issues. Explorers such John C Fremont (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_C._Fremont) were trained in both cartography and art, the latter order to perform field sketches of plants and landscape along their journeys. (1) Much of the exploration of the American west thus produced geo-referenced representations of the landscape, similar in concept to geo-tagged images you can find in Google maps and Flikr today. Of course, this kind of relationship between cartography and hand-drawn pictorial representation of the landscape is a much older story, indeed as old as cartography itself. There are also some connections between work I have been involved with and the notion of the sublime pursued by romantic era artists and explorers, but that would be an unnecessarily tumid topic for the Pukekura project. (If you want, have a look at this: http://www.paintersflat.net/ylem.html).

The above are what I perceive as my more obscure, or more personal/national influences on the kinds of walking works that interest me today. There are many current and relatively recent artists whose work more directly engages with walking as art, and art and cartography.

It is impossible to ignore the influence of Guy Debord and the Situationist movement on the current imaginary around GPS and mobile phone art practices; to a degree that I am getting a little sleepy just writing a single sentence about it. In the coarsest summary, psychogeographers like Debord were interested the concepts of derive (drifting) and detournment (to make the normal appear strange), in order to promote greater consciousness of class and economic relations, and of course to produce new, experimental art practices. For example, ad nauseam, exploring Paris with a map of London, or walking a city in a pattern of some kind: walk two blocks, walk left one block, right one more block, turn around 180 degrees and repeat. It is actually a very nice way to explore a city, and to the degree that the knowledge gained might actually impinge on social relations, so goes the use value of psychogeography. The project we will be working on, creating GPS/mobile phone guided tours of Pukekura Park, will no doubt inherit something from psychogeography’s example. But from inside of this world of artists doing this general kind of thing, Situationism’s legacy may have been claimed once too often by now, and sometimes to purposes quite different from (or even contradictory to) the radical situationist agenda.

So where I will go from here is to present a series of examples and why I think they are important. With not so much humility, I will mention some of the work I have done with C5 and paintersflat.net in the context of these influential examples. Much of the work I will discuss operates in the art world under the sign of “locative media”. You can look at locative media’s entry in wikipedia for more information, and you might notice that the “definition” has taken on not so subtle expressions of a desire to be seen as operative within the realm of the social and political. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locative_media) And I suppose we could talk about panoptism and surveillance while we are on the topic of mobiles and GPS (often worried over as technologies of social control), or on flash mobs and activist uses of phones (where the social control aspects of new technology are inverted, facilitating democratic or sometimes mob action.) But this little note is already getting a little long, and these issues also are well worn as topics for mobile projects, no matter how important they are.

The Pukekura Park project too, in that it is intended to create an interpretive educational layer for sustainability issues in the park, is unavoidably situated under some sign of “the social”. But when it goes to the definition of locative media, at least qua the art world, I prefer to think in more general terms so as not to disclude any locative practices merely because they don’t adhere to art world fashionability surrounding issues of urbanity, socially engaged art practices, heroic environmentalist statements, and so forth. (Not that there is any inherent flaw in these, just that definitions should not be so exclusive as to favor particular practices when other obviously similar ones are left out.) So I normally propose something like like this: locative media is computational media (often wireless, networked) that processes dynamic location data and presents the user with an interface (information, feedback and control) intended to mediate the user’s spatial behavior or experience. This definition, which is similar to the current wikipedia definition of “location aware media”, adds to the former the focus on spacial behavior. The definition has the advantage of being precise enough to give a relevant description, but abstract enough to be inclusive of more diverse practices. For example, among my interests are the cognitive consequences of locative media, its impact on human spatial reasoning, and a range of ideas from the cognitive science discipline (and computer science) regarding cognitive maps, landmarks, topological networks and path integration. A particular interest of mine related to artificial intelligence is artificial walking. More on that soon, after I present a necessarily short (and unfairly incomplete) list of artists and works that I think are useful for us to think about.

Outside of the computing in the arts sub-genre of art world that I work in, artists who matter a lot to me are Richard Long and Dominique Mazeaud. Long is one of the innovators of a certain kind of conceptual walking practice in which he walks the landscape and creates a subtle work out of found materials which are then photographed, and after which the site is returned to its natural state. (http://www.richardlong.org/) Mazeaud is best known for a related kind of environmental art work in which she performed ritual walks wherein she cleaned up the Rio Grande river in New Mexico, USA. (The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande River, 1988.) Another related work that I really like is Ruth Wallen’s “Children’s Forest Nature Walk”, which involved working with children to produce interpretative etched trail panels for a nature trail in the San Bernardino national forest in California. (http://greenmuseum.org/content/work_index/work_id-12artist_id-5.html) In every sense, what we are going to work on is the same general kind of thing as my colleague Wallen’s work, except the topic, the ages of the creative young people participating, the way navigation is performed, and the manner of distributing the information in the landscape are quite different. But at some level, all stories in space are spatialized narrative, and the history of this kind of work precedes locative media.

A well known computer artist who I perceive as as very important but perhaps under-appreciated in terms of his contributions to locative media is Masaki Fujihata; particularly his seminal work Impressing Velocity (1994). Created quite early for a GPS based art project, research for the project included assembling a GPS receiver, a notebook computer, and transmission network into a large backpack. The system allowed the computer to keep track of and record/report the user’s location, and also for the tracklog of the user’s travels to be superimposed on maps and satellite images. Is anyone thinking Google Earth 1994? The performance art part of the project was the artist climbing mount Fuji with the system, from which impressions of his velocity at various times in his long ascent were convolved onto digital elevation model data of Fuji, creating a data representation of the two realities.

Steve Wilson created another project very much ahead of its time in 1997. The Telepresent was a suitcase that contained a digital camera, computer, GPS receiver and a wireless internet connection using an early regional wireless data network in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Telepresent came with instructions for those who possessed it: they were to spend a day with the suitcase pointing it at whatever they wanted, documenting aspects of their day. The pictures and coordinates were sent back to a server to be displayed/mapped on the web, and each user was responsible to pass the Telepresent on as a gift to someone else. This early geo-referenced image project is very much the predecessor to a common activity of today: taking geo-tagged photos with mobile phones and uploading them to websites such as Flickr. (http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~swilson/art/telepresent/telepresent.html)

Teri Rueb has produced a large body of work using GPS and mobile media for narrative, poetic, interpretive and installation art purposes. 1999’s Trace project situated sound art pieces dealing with memory and loss along trails in a Canadian national park. Now in a daypack smaller than Fujihata’s, the user would walk the trails, and the sound pieces would be triggered at various locations. (http://www.terirueb.net/trace/index.html)

Jeremy Hight, Jeff Knowlton and Naomi Spellman carried the locative narrative theme established by Rueb (and differently mediated projects by very many artists, such as Wallen’s narrative trail-sign project) a few steps further down the road of the creative, expressive possibilities of mobile media. Using a tablet computer, they created a navigational visual interface and sonic narrative triggered by location, that was by 2001 capable of resting comfortably in the user’s hands as they walked. 34 North 118 West explored the layers of history in downtown Los Angeles in what Hight calls a “Narrative Archeology.” (http://www.xcp.bfn.org/hight.html)

Worthy of note here are some stories of technology that we are all of course familiar with. On the one hand we have the continual miniaturization of components, and on the other the consequence of miniaturization: convergence. Fujihata’s custom backpack becomes Reub’s daypack running more ubiquitous components. Wilson adds camera and wireless network, down to suitcase size. Knowlton’s 34 North platform is for yet smaller tablet computer and small external GPS dongle. The situation today is that many of the least expensive mobiles contain real GPS devices, media playing capabilities, cameras and network connections; from backpack to handset, from expensive to $25-50 dollars. As you can see, artists have for a long time dreamed of, and actually built out this convergence in order to realize their artistic visions.The kinds of story telling or other locative hot-spot triggered media practices pioneered by many of the above – requiring tremendous amounts of work, self teaching, planning and often large grants or other deep pockets – should by now be cheap and easy things to do with our mobiles. Why isn’t it? Secondary and even primary age students should be able to create at least simple narrative based locative media. Organizations should be able to create guided tours that the public can run on their own mobile handsets just by pointing their mobile browsers at a URL. It should cost next to nothing, at least from the perspective of anyone who has access to an old PC and a few other resources like web hosting. In other words, it should work with relatively modest technological resources, of the type that many organizations around the world take for granted, or could possibly muster up. (And should it someday allow the OLPC xo platform to be used as a production studio for similar mobile phone content? Most certainly.)

In any case this is a thought that I had while working with my old friend and colleague Ricardo Dominguez on a project intended to facilitate the navigational applications of cheap mobile phones. (The Transborder Immigrant tool project, still under development.) Working on mobile phone user interface elements for land navigation and basic GPS data types for this project, it occurred to me that some of the software I was developing may be of more general use, and this is essentially where the idea of a platform consisting of both APIs and production tools for this and other kinds of work more or less emerged.

The “Pukekura Park Demonstration/Environment and Sustainability Tours” project will present state of the nascent walking tools JavaMe APIs and production tools. Walking Tools currently includes 35 JavaMe classes and interfaces, fewer server-side classes, and proof of concept applications for deploying particular features of the Walking Tools JavaMe code by adding user provided content. Suppoted by the Scanz Residency program and 60 Spring project, I am leading a demonstration or proof-of-concept that will include working with the three 60 Springs students, who will work to produce experimental content on the theme of environment and sustainability in Pukekura Park and botanical gardens in New Plymouth, New Zealand. It is an exciting thing to be involved with and I look forward to learning a lot about the prospects of such a platform and its applications in teaching and the authorship of locative interpretative environments in the process. I’m grateful for the opportunity!

There is more going on with Walking Tools than stated above. For example I am working with Cicero Silva of Sao Paulo and Geri Wittig and Steve Durie of San Jose on some related things.. And I have been talking with a lot of artists about the potential of standards that would let the same content packs work on many different kinds of devices. But those will have to be better revealed in due time, as is the case with the Transborder Immigrant Tool project.

I promised Trudy that by way of introduction I would write a little about some of my other work and collaborations in the location aware media area. But now it is late, the 747 is over the pacific with bearings toward Fiji for my connecting flight to Auckland, so I will keep it short. In 1997 I was in graduate school at CADRE and fellow C5er Bruce Gardner was showing me his GPS device and some C software that visualized the tracklog of his bicycle routes. C5 would from time to time theorize about GPS, but with interests in AI, robotics, database and the emerging contours of what today is sometimes called the Big Data problem, we had plenty to occupy us. That is, until around 2001 when it became clear to us that GIS data sets were among the largest and most interesting of data sets, and that GPS could become a way of interacting with large data in a performative, generative manner in natural environments. So C5’s engagement with locative media began in a very different way than many other projects; the big data problem was the attractor. That led to, among other projects in what is called the C5 Landscape Initiative, Geri Wittig walking and recording the GPS tracks of iconic sections of the Great Wall of China, the development of statistical methods for finding the most similar terrain in a large database of California topographical data (myself and Amul Goswamy), and the application Artificial Intelligence techniques(2) to identify paths through those California environments where the Great Wall of China would mostly likely fit best in a topographical sense if it were actually moved to or recreated in California. Needless to say, a lot of backpacking was involved in finding some of those places. Strangely to C5, many took this project (cleverly titled “The Other Path”) as a kind of data-absurdist or even psychogeographic gesture; letting voluminous GIS data and some algorithms we wrote tell us where to go. But it was anything but ironic or absurd to C5! We were and are still quite sincere about what we see as the possibilities of generative, algorithmic relations between big data and human movement across the landscape. In any case, generative walking is still a relatively underexplored territory for new work, even as generative design and architecture have become standard concerns for new media artists.

Finally, after C5s 10+ year main phase burn of productivity began to slow as members were hired into new academic positions, and/or moved around the country, or took on new responsibilities like directing the 01SJ festival in San Jose, I kept developing and utilizing much of the code work I did for C5. With the blessings of my dear comrades, my wife and life partner Paula Poole and I began to ask what else can we do with ideas like data mining the landscape for locations, and following even better artificially intelligent virtual hikers, all the while taking in to consideration their possible intersections with the pictorial arts as well. A good general idea of what some of those things are can be found here: http://www.paintersflat.net. Sometimes we are following game bots through the wilderness. Enough said about that.

So there, I’m done. Sorry about the tome, but New Zealand is far from my home in Eastern San Diego County, California. My little note to a few students turned in to five pages. Occupational hazard I suppose. So let me just say I look forward to meeting you all! (And I’m sorry I did not write or post this sooner, I found no useful internet connection in Fiji or I’d have had it up before you meet me!)

Thanks again Ian and Trudy and all for the invite:-)

Brett Stalbaum

(1) Fremont was also a poet, abolitionist and politician who tragically lost the presidential election of 1856 to James Buchanan, a president who is nominally thought of as one of our worst. Fremont was the first Republican presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln the second. As you may have heard, our list of potentially most disastrous presidents has grown a bit recently, and our new president is left to try to clean up the mess.

(2) The AI approach was inspired, perhaps not surprisingly, by a pair of archeologists: Ralph Hartley and Anne Wolly-Vaswar. They were researching the relationships between likely walking trails and native american petroglyph art in the American West. So the connection with native Great Basin rock art with virtual hiking and artificial walking is actually rather direct, though through archeology.

A link to video of Brett’s project:

Brett Stalbaum

Brett Stalbaum is a full time faculty member in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego, where he coordinates the Interdisciplinary Computing in the Arts Major. He is a founding member of Electronic Disturbance Theater, C5 and paintersflat.net. Current research involves generative locative algorithms, the development of mobile software platforms for walking, and their applications in art, activism and education. He lives with his partner Paula Poole in an unincorporated area of Eastern San Diego County, USA.

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