Locative Media Revisited

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Molly Dilworth, 547 West 27th Street (2009). From the series "Paintings for Satellites."

In the early 2000s, as location-aware devices first became commonplace, there was a lot of hype surrounding their potential creative use by artists. However, over time, this initial enthusiasm for "locative media"--projects that respond to data or communications technologies that refer to particular sites--leveled off, even dissipated. Regardless of this drought, geospatial technologies are widely used, and play an important and often unnoticed role in conditioning many aspects of our existence. Responding to this condition of ubiquity, artists have continued to use locative technologies critically, opening up closed systems, making their effects visible, and reconfiguring our relationship with such systems.  

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Welcome to Your New NSA Partner Network: Report from Transmediale 2014

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Photo: Andreas Nicolas Fischer.

A kind of cold weather antipode of summer's "Love Parade," the Transmediale 2014 media arts festival was a beacon of light in the long dusk of a Berlin winter. As a twist on the usual curated exhibition, this year's festival opted for an ad-hoc "Art Hack Day" (AHD) approach, where submitting artists were expected to create new and original artworks in the span of two days (and nights). Opening the exhibition with a more down-to-earth feel, AHD ultimately resembled a DIY, garage-style party instead of a highbrow exhibition space.

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Artist Profile: Julian Oliver

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Transparency Grendade (pre-assembly), 2012 by Julian Oliver

You've been participating in the tech and art community for over a decade now. You're work spans everything from establishing an artistic game-development collective to pushing the boundaries of privacy on public wireless networks with custom hardware. Just this past year you published the Critical Engineering Manifesto with Gordan Savičić and Danja Vasiliev. Was there a specific event or moment that inspired its creation and were their any earlier iterations of the ten statements that didn't make the final cut?

Danja, Gordan and I felt a long standing need to frame our respective practices a little more acutely, foregrounding the languages and cultures of Engineering, rather than Art, in the creative and critical process. We'd each found ourselves frustrated under the vague, ballooning term of Media Artist - like trying to swim in a bathrobe. This came up in conversation enough times to explore alternatives. Afterall, it didn't seem to matter whether we called what we made 'art', even ourselves 'artists', people were quick to do it for us anyway.

One thing that regularly came up in conversation between us is that Engineering, not Art, is the most transformative language of our time - informing the way we communicate, move, trade and even think. The reach of Engineering is so deep that it's hard to disagree it has become part of our environment, with vast impacts on human culture, the Earth and how we understand it. So it follows that to ignore the languages, logics and ideas that make up this thing we call Engineering is to assume a critically vulnerable position - we become unable to describe our environment.

As thinkers with technical abilities in several areas, we want to take on our built and increasingly automated environment by the terms in which it's given, opening it up for post-utilitarian conversation, for play and interrogation. If there's ever a time to be doing that, it's now, especially with opaque and hidden infrastructure in the telecommunications space deeply impacting diplomatic relations and civil liberties world wide.

The Critical Engineering Manifesto grew directly from conversations along these lines and was generally very well received, soon translated into 14 languages. A couple of people wrote in that they wondered why we didn't include or reference 'hacking' as a critical practice to draw upon. Admittedly none of us had an instinct to include it, as it is also a term that has an increasingly vague meaning. I think Danja and Gordan would agree that those that hack in a way we appreciate are already Critical Engineers!

The Transparency Grenade and Newstweek are projects that are designed to disrupt traditional systems of information distribution in news organizations, companies, and governments. Do they achieve your desired affects on the systems they are designed to criticize? Have you been satisfied with the results of the two projects?

It's true that both projects are real implementations with tangible and disruptive effects. That said Danja and I developed Newstweek primarily to spur critical attention to the vulnerabilities of our increasingly 'browser-defined reality', to return an eye to the network infrastructure that plays an integral role in the distribution of fact. If you can control the infrastructure, you can control what's understood to be fact. Newstweek has certainly achieved what we'd hoped in this regard, inciting plenty of productive, healthy paranoia - helped along by us releasing a full HOWTO so that others can build their own Newstweek devices.

The second dimension to the project surrounds an intervention on the top->down news distribution model. We know that our news is being 'tweeked' anyway - an endemic symptom of the (rather bizarre) fact we traditionally depend on privately owned news corporations to inform our summarial view of the world. Newstweek seeks to intervene on this model, an on the ground solution for civilians to have their chance to propagandise or simply 'fix the facts' they know to be untrue.

The Transparency Grenade has been a tricky project as all of sudden some people think I'm in the cyber-weapons business, which I'm not. Like Newstweek, it's first and foremost a conversation starter. It seeks to directly manifest the fears we have, whether state, corporation or individual, around the increased political volatility of data. Indeed it is an implementation that can be used but I'm not selling grenades to be used as weapons. In fact they're limited edition finely crafted objects that look enough like a grenade for you to /not/ want to take with you into a corporate meeting. The Android application I'm still developing will mimic much of the functionality of the grenade and is better suited for such purposes, though I certainly will never suggest it be used and nor will I use it myself. That would put me in a very different legal position.

Many of your works challenge the implicit trust people have in the wireless networks they use - from cell phones to public wifi. In that same way your pieces often blur the boundaries between gallery space and the public sphere. Why is revealing and breaking these boundaries of trust and perception important to you and your work?

Again it comes back to infrastructure and how our inability to describe and understand reduces our critical reach, leaving us both disempowered and, quite often, vulnerable.

Opacity is an important word here too, as is the term 'black box'. Most of our engineered communications infrastructure is not just extraordinarily abstract for people to come to grips with but is actively kept hidden. There are some valid reasons, of course, for keeping infrastructure hidden but the fact is it out of sight is being increasingly exploited in and out of supposedly democratic contexts, largely by surveillance initiatives we were never told about.

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Julian Oliver's Tele-Cartography

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This year, Abandon Normal Devices, a festival of "new cinema, digital culture, and art," commissioned artist and Critical Engineer Julian Oliver to create Border Bumping, a self-professed work of dislocative media that utilizes the contradictions of cell phone signals and networks to rework national boundaries. Housed within a caravan known as a mobile cartography bureau, Border Bumping puts location data into a feedback loop with its visual representation, creating new geographies out of technical necessities. The project traces the terrain of an Earth imagined by communication technologies. It's an Earth where the map destroys and redefines the territory. As described on the website:

As we traverse borders our cellular devices hop from network to network across neighbouring territories, often before or after we ourselves have arrived. These moments, of our device operating in one territory whilst our body continues in another, can be seen to produce a new and contradictory terrain for action..

Running a freely available, custom-built smartphone application, Border Bumping agents collect cell tower and location data as they traverse national borders in trains, cars, buses, boats or on foot. Moments of discrepancy at the edges are logged and uploaded to the central Border Bumping server, at the point of crossing.

For instance: a user is in Germany but her device reports she is in France. The Border Bumping server will take this report literally and the French border is redrawn accordingly. The ongoing collection and rendering of these disparities results in an ever evolving record of infrastructurally antagonised territory, a tele-cartography.

The Border Bumping application can be downloaded and used on your own phone to visualize the new boundaries of your own movement through space.

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