Dear locative / nmc
just thought I'd stick my oar into the locative/curative debate at this point.
I've had conversations with many people in the locative.net group and beyond in
the last few weeks - particularly with Ben Russell and Jason Harlan - which
have made me hopeful about locative media possibilities again. Also I found
that thread on gaming kicked off by Marc and Karlis really useful. So, here's a
set of rants I wrote for the upcoming issue of Mute magazine, who have kindly
given me permission to send them to these lists before publication of the
all-new, all world-rocking mute magazine #29, which should be out in July.
Needless to say, you should all buy that when it comes out. ;)
I'd be very interested in comments on these observations / criticisms, especially
if you feel any of them are aimed at you!
locative literacy - four micro-rants on locative media
'Locative media' is a test-category for artwork that utilises media that
can express an index of spatial relationships. It is also a test-category
for a group of people who have been assembled under the banner of
The first large public trial of this genre will be at the Futuresonic festival
in Manchester 2004 (see
http://www.futuresonic.com/futuresonic/mobile_connections/). As usual, the
consolidation of this test-category will involve focusing attention and
criticism on the early proponents of the term, the individual artists,
technologists and critics who have been using it. At the same time there will
be a struggle to wrest some kind of meaning from the term that is not so
specifically linked to the group in order for a wider group to then use the
term to define their own practices, fitting into the category as it gathers
institutional credibility and becomes the basis for grants and exhibitions.
This process, whether or not 'locative media' makes it to becoming an
institutional category, hangs in the balance. If the existing group can
relinquish ownership of the term while bolstering critical development of
the term itself independent from the locative.net group, the bid might
well succeed. If the process is too messy or the critical discourse too
weak, it will go the way of 'holographic art'. These criticisms are
intended to catalyse this process, whichever way the term goes.
Locative media is:
Psychogeography without the critique.
Algorithmic psychogeography, the term used by http://socialfiction.org to
describe their rule-based derives through the city, is not just a development,
but actually a fundamental reversal of the critical use of this Situationist
tool. Wandering the city, allowing its flows and vectors to push the walker
along and through it reveals, in outline, the spatial imperatives of the urban
planners. Imposing an arbitrary rule set on decisions to turn left or right
removes the critical/analytical basis for this practice leaving behind a
randomly predetermined tour. Not that this is a problem in itself; spaces of
intensity and ambiguity are still accessible to 'dot.walkers'*, whichever
methodology they use to get there, and the sharp, deadpan humour of
socialfiction's discourse does re-introduce a kind of meta-critique of their
own practices, but always focused inwards to a critique of the software, the
location becomes peripheral.
Site-specificity without the critique.
The use of media with an indexical relationship to space, often a specific
space and set of social relationships bears comparison to discourses
surrounding site-specificity. This term itself, which has been a very
successful test-category (now fully institutionalised) has a critical language
and context that 'locative media' has not yet encountered. This is partly due
to the technology-centric trend of many 'locative media' projects that has led
most critics and pundits to adopt technology-centric media critique when
examining them. Site-specificity itself is also in need of a critical revision.
Its use today is often poorly disguised recuperation of cultural trauma as
melancholic, aesthetisized cultural history. A definition of the term in the
Exploding Cinema's Dictionary of Video Art sums this up neatly:
"Site Specific: Locations and environments may have some kind of
drama or meaning for ordinary people (e.g.. a dole office) but this
has no significance for the bourgeoisie until interpreted by the
heightened sensibilities of the artist."
The same is true of locative media's relationship to 'participative' art,
another troublesome art genre that is currently undergoing critical
revision. The necessary revision is an examination of the political economy
of exchange in artistic projects that demand the involvement of
'participants'. This analysis is notably missing from the critical
environment surrounding locative media projects such as Esther Polak and
Leva Auzina's MILK project: an 'artistic mapping' of the delivery and
export routes of several small-scale Latvian milk farms (see
http://locative.x-i.net/piens/info.html), where the politics of exchange
and representation between the 'artists' and the 'participants' are far
Technology-led art development / art-led technology development
Much of the writing and talking about 'locative media' in art is redolent of
early 90's uncritical technology evangelism, and the technology-led art that
sprang from it. But worse, a parallel development of this process has emerged
from the technology market slump and the relative lack of venture capital
available to technologists. Art-led technology development has seen artists and
arts administrators writing funding proposals to art institutions in order to
get technology developed. Needless to say the economies of free software
production, artistic subjectivity and art-institutional imperatives do not mesh
well. The danger is that these art-led technology developments subvert
themselves technologically by placing artists at the helm, and artistically by
turning the artists into PR agents on the one hand, and reputation parasites on
the other; sucking up fame value from the successful delivery of the project,
and mediating the genuinely fascinating ideas of the technologists to the
public and the arts institutions who then credit the artists for it.
These criticisms are harsh, but necessary. Locative media is problematic,
but by no means useless. The fact remains that the battlegrounds of
information politics have shifted from the Net - where authority is now
comfortably intangible and de-centralised, back to the street and the
bodies in it. Without the development of Free Software, copyleft devices,
global networked resistance and open publishing frameworks, resistance on
the Net really would be futile.
Mobile, location-sensitive devices, semantic mapping and data aggregation,
biometric surveillance, distrust networks: these tools will be deployed on
the street and in the body. By experimenting with these tools and
technologies, developing open formats such as RDF, and Free Software tools
for manipulating and exploiting location-based devices and media, or
developing low-tech hacks that do the job better than the expensive
gadgets, locative media practitioners are keeping the technologies close to
the ground, available for hacking, re-wiring and re-deploying in
On a less technologized level, artwork that operates with locative media is
not just about the public communication of this interesting new
technological form. Locative media art at its best enhances locative
literacy. The ability to read, write, communicate is vital for any person
needing to act, take power, to have agency. An awareness of how flows and
layers of information intersect with and augment a person's locality, and
the ability to intervene on this level is a further extension of this
literacy, and of their agency.
So whatever happens to 'locative media' as a test-category for art, it is
vitally important that these investigations and discourses are taken up and
examined, if any kind of resistance to locative mass media is going to be
possible ten years from now.
* Locative media is not necessarily artwork, and the groups and individuals
on locative.net are not necessarily artists, but the terminology is being
used as a test-category for art.
* The pseudo-programming language produced by socialfiction.org to describe
and process instructions for walking. (See