questioning institutional representations in tourism and cartography
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challenging the accuracy of the official map
The physical and psychological geography of cities has long been a source of inspiration for artists. Historically, cities are the muse, from Joyce's Dublin to Van Gogh's Paris to Stieglitz's New York. With the proliferation and ubiquity of digital technology, documenting, categorizing and transmitting the visual "catalogue of forms" of the city is made much easier. Just as each brush put to canvas paints its own representation of the city, digital technology is allowing for ever-increasing angles, approaches, and points of view from which to study the city. Cell phone cameras, video phones, video surveillance cameras, wireless web cams, and the ever-shrinking digital camera capture multiple layers of city spaces-from the banal to the breathtaking. At the same time, the invisible signals of urban geography such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and wireless Internet hot spots are being made visible through location-specific art practices that alter their intended use and create alternate urban narratives. These practices are known as location-based media, and are works whose central focus is a specific location.
The emergence of these new technologies has facilitated a resurgence and expansion of the theory and practice of psychogeography. Psychogeographers have been experimenting with cities for over forty years, but only recently has this theory manifested in ways other than in texts. The new wave of psychogeographic artists and practitioners-following (literally) in the footsteps of psychogeography's early enthusiasts, the Situationists-are interpreting its ideas in a tangible, inclusive way, and creating projects that are accessible and even fun, bringing psychogeography to a much wider and more popular audience.
This new generation of practice, which includes numerous websites, art collectives and conferences, is committed to the "mental mapping" of physical civic spaces-that is, mapping the versions of places as they exist in our minds and are represented by our emotions. These projects range from those using technological devices that leave geo-markers (precise coordinates of where something is located) to the graffiti tags left behind by unknown artists. Buildings poised for demolition or lonely bus stops-these sorts of things are worthy of attention from the psychogeographic gaze. This is a new kind of cartography, and it rebuilds and alters the way we represent various urban environments, blending new, often personal, elements into these maps that challenge the so-called "objective" institutional representations of cities.
Cartography is the study and practice of making maps or globes. Maps are inherently problematic. First of all, they assume an "objective" reality: a version of the world that can be inscribed, framed, and trusted. Anyone who has ever been lost in a city knows that even the most fastidious map is still a subjective document, and that its version of the world is a matter of its own opinion. The second fatal flaw of maps is that they have been used, throughout political history, as weapons in political power struggles. When the British army occupied Ireland, one of its first military initiatives was a re-mapping of the entire country. Why bother, when maps of Ireland already existed and were serving their navigational purpose? Because Britain wanted to be the author of the Irish map. Britain knew it: the hand that draws the map rules the world. America knew it too: the vast and total overwriting of aboriginal maps by invading "pioneers" was a clear and legible testament to their imperial victory. Maps are drawn by the dominant power, and that is why they're such powerful documents. It's also why they're so dangerous, and it's why the recent movement by artists to reclaim cartography is of such enormous importance.
Digital and new media arts have revolutionized cartography in a physical as well as a conceptual way. Maps, which traditionally have been made using pen and paper, are being digitized with the spread of computer technology.
When we look at an institutional map of a place, we are seeing an abstraction of the facts and qualities that the state thinks we need to know. However, what are often abstracted out of these "official" photos and maps of places are those everyday elements that make these places what they are, and that make them recognizable and navigable. The layout of these places might be passed along, but the feel is left out. The emotional effect that places have on human beings is lost in the official document.
The omissions of objective maps and photographs can be frustrating. Why don't they show the unofficial landmarks? The homeless woman who sleeps in front of the video store, the narrow alley that serves as a great shortcut between two main streets or the smell from the fortune cookie factory that radiates for a block and a half: these are the things people remember, the landmarks that resonate. And why aren't the official photos as satisfying to look at as the ones in our personal albums? Of architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said "God is in the Details"-but when it comes to geography, humanity is in the details. Imagine a standard map or photograph of the city that also shows emotional or important hot spots-a notorious crime scene, the site of a first kiss-that are traditionally left out. These things won't show up on an "official" map, which decides, on our behalf, what's important and what can be left out. While this kind of reductiveness is often necessary (nobody wants to see a love story when trying to get from point A to B as quickly as possible), any claims of representing the true reality of the place become problematic. Recognizing the need for more detail, psychogeographic practices attempt to experience, manage and document those details. They offer alternative maps of oft-mapped places, and, perhaps more importantly, offer an alternative to the very concept of the institutional map.
This project looks at some subversions and reiterations of the institutional map. The three main projects examined here, Every Bus Stop in Surrey, BC, Townsend Retraced , and One Block Radius, use maps and government archives as portals into the emotional, non-rational terrain of the places they represent. Their use of institutional maps to question the veracity of institutional mapping is a brilliant form of detournement, one of psychogeography's wiliest tricks. Every Bus Stop in Surrey, BC represents a public transportation system in a sprawling Vancouver suburb in the midst of transition; Townsend Retraced represents a failed 1970s planned utopian urban community on the shore of Ontario's Lake Erie; One Block Radius is an extensive survey of a one-block area of New York's social geography. Transferred from the physical (flat government maps) to the virtual (the artists' web-based work), the readymade maps serve both as conceptual counterpoints to the institutional originals and as spatial representations of the large amounts of indexed data contained within each document. These three works are the centerpieces of the exhibit, but their techniques and motives are reflected in numerous location-based media projects.
The psychogeographic works that will introduce the three main pieces in this exhibit attempt to bridge the gap between the reality represented by institutional maps and that of the lived experience of these places. While cartographic and photographic documents pretend to be objective, psychogeographic documents are entry points into a broader, more complex spectrum of social space. The projects surveyed here use institutional maps or mapable situations as their starting point, but go several steps further into the details between the lines on the map. The artists respond to the deterministic nature of cartography by augmenting each map with personal annotations and subjective perceptions of place.
What separates digital art projects from those using more traditional media is the architecture of the web (screen-based or not), with its capacity for storing vast quantities of data that can be both spatially and categorically organized. It's an appropriate medium to navigate and explore the depth and multiplicity of documents exhibited in psychogeographic projects, and allows for near-infinite growth. Surfing the web, with the vast array of choices and directions one can take, is very much the virtual equivalent of a psychogeographic derive through the city. On the web, we can end up at a corner far removed from our intended trajectory in as little as two or three mouse clicks. Like heading down an unexplored alley, navigating a new website presents us with the possibility of discovery and further adventure. The depth available on the web allows for alternate histories that can compete with hegemonic or official views of public spaces.
Leading the new wave of psychogeographic practitioners influenced by the Situationists is the Social Fiction group out of the Netherlands. Led by artist Wilfried Hou Je Bek, Social Fiction stages various events and experiments that involve exploring urban environments on foot. Like the Situationists before them, Social Fiction attempts to find new perspectives from which to look at the city, and, in so doing, maps out a new, always-evolving, always-subjective document of the city-one that can't be found in any government archive.
The last few years have seen a massive proliferation of Photoblogs on the web. Very much like text-based blogs, or web-logs, photoblogs showcase digital photos, often taken during daily routines in public space. Brandon Stone created a photoblog database called Photoblogs.org, which features over 10,000 photoblogs. The photoblogger's gaze-or lens-falls on institutional landmarks as well as on the nitty-gritty details of urban life (an abandoned shoe in a gutter, a series of utility-drain covers, or some often-ignored detail of one of those institutional landmarks, for example). Photoblogs do not privilege one view-the city is represented from high and low, dirty and clean-and the viewer or surfer can meander through them either chronologically, by subject, or randomly. One Toronto photoblog, for example, represents the city not through its iconic images (the CN Tower, Ontario Place) but through its more intimate, street-level details. By documenting cities from so many points of view-10,000 points of view on Stone's site alone-the phenomenon of photoblogging subverts the idea of the singular institutional gaze.
With technology facilitating location-based experience and knowledge through mobile devices and GPS, the spectator can experience direct relationships with geographic space. Teletaxi, for example, is a mobile, site-responsive project presented in Montreal and Toronto that allows taxi passengers to experience geo-specific artworks on a touch screen installed in the back of a cab. As the car moves through the city, the computer, which is attached to an onboard GPS receiver, triggers location-specific media artworks to appear on the screen. Similarly, [murmur] is an audio documentary project that allows pedestrians to listen to stories, in the very spots they originally took place, using their mobile telephones. Installed in various neighbourhoods in Toronto as well as Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary, [murmur] records people sharing their memories and short stories in a casual, conversational way. What [murmur] stories do best is put an emotional layer onto public space-the listener hears about what other people think is important. A seemingly generic, nondescript urban space suddenly becomes a place once a narrative is layered on top-and often these narratives are slightly at odds with the official view of that neighbourhood. Just as photobloggers capture the minutiae of subjective local experience, [murmur] provides the details of the myriad personal histories of each place, drawing up a new and nuanced map. Thus, the notion of an "official story" is disrupted.
One of the most useful and subversive techniques of psychogeographic artists is that of the detournement. The following projects employ detournement more literally than many others by using, as their starting point, a real institutional document. One of these allows users to annotate the official maps of the public space around them as they explore it. Initiated in London, Urban Tapestries is a software platform that provides public authoring and knowledge sharing through mobile technology and geographic information systems. By providing an "official map" as a starting point and allowing people-anyone-to correct and edit it according to their own experiences and opinions, this project offers an alternative to the institutional map while at the same time drawing attention to the fact that such a map was already flawed and incomplete.
In Spain, a project called Rixome also intends to allow people to annotate public space. Rixome will work on various portable devices including laptops, PDAs and mobile phones and will allow the user to see items that have been posted there by others. Like [murmur], Rixome offers a glimpse into the private and secret details of a place; like Urban Tapestries, it lets individuals be the uncensored authors of the document. It is another example of a project which, using detournement, undermines the validity of the "official map."
In New York City, a cute orange animated figure invites people to try PDPal and "write your own city!" Essentially a mapping tool for recording personal experiences in public space, PDPal ("your emotional GPS"), allows users to download a basic "official" map of the Times Square area onto their PDA device. Then, using the "tool-kit" that comes with that map, viewers can plot their path through the area, making note of the details that catch their eye. Some of these user-made maps were broadcast on the 59th minute of each hour on the Panasonic Astrovision board in Times Square. PDPal welcomes the details of everyday life that can't fit, or are not allowed to fit, onto official maps and images, and, again, lets the individual be the author of the unofficial map.
The projects examined above all use the motives and techniques of psychogeography in various ways to disrupt-or at least acknowledge-the inadequacies of the institutional take on cities. Redefining the relationship that people have with place is one of psychogeography's modern accomplishments: the three main pieces in this exhibit do so in variously subtle ways. Every Bus Stop in Surrey, BC, Townsend Retraced, and One Block Radius, follow these principles and take them even further, essentially "mapping" each place in a thorough, comprehensive (yet always subjective) way. Using the web and its multidimensional functionality to rethink the idea of the map, these projects offer nuanced, complex and sometimes contradictory alternatives to the idea of the official version of a city-while at the same time critiquing the very notion that there can be one official version.
Located approximately half an hour from Vancouver, Surrey, BC is a\ new suburban area with a population of over 400,000 people. It is a sprawling, low density suburban area whose development was driven, so to speak, by the automobile. Surrey's sprawl and feeling of emptiness is represented in artist Sylvia Grace Borda's archival project, Every Bus Stop in Surrey, BC.
Every Bus Stop in Surrey is particularly psychogeographic in the way it guides the viewer through an accidental route of the city's secret spaces. In this way, too, it is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's Passagen-Werk, known in English as The Arcades Project. Essentially a massive collection of notes on 19th-century Paris, it includes Benjamin's own observations along with myriad historical citations, allowing the reader to explore The Arcades Project much the same way Benjamin explored Paris. By providing a surfeit of everyday detail, of alternative history, and of attention to the hidden pockets, The Arcades Project presents a Paris that is different from the one depicted in any "official" historical view. In the same way, Borda's Surrey in Every Bus Stop is the city we're unlikely to see unless we visit it ourselves.
Borda's piece is conceptually reminiscent of California artist Ed Ruscha's 1960s piece Every Building on Sunset Strip. While Borda acknowledges the association, she links her practice to that of 19th-century Parisian photographers Charles Marville and Eugene Atget. Borda draws parallels between her document of a vanishing agricultural Surrey to Atget's changing Paris: "I found a series of images Atget had taken in the 13th district, depicting canals and small gardens and these images read very similarly to works I had too produced in Surrey, BC. Indeed works produced near 176th Street showed similar canals, ditches, and gardens which all seemed under threat from urban housing development." Borda's Surrey was like Marville and Atget's Paris, then, in its precariousness, and Borda was taking on a role similar to theirs in her attempts to document it before it slipped into the machine of progress.
But there's an important difference: Marville and Atget were working as commercial photographers, commissioned by Paris to capture the city for historical record. Borda, on her own, uncommissioned, was capturing the city for herself. We can guess that a state-sponsored version of the Surrey project would not use the bus stops to frame a discussion of the city's growth, but rather might use glossy pictures of the new and modern buses that service them, their plush seats and courteous drivers, their bustling and abundant passengers-just like the images to be found on so many of the official websites of various public transit commissions around the world. An institutional document of this nature would focus on Surrey's new buildings and development, not on the long, lonely gaps in between. Borda's work subverts the institutional view simply through the irony of its subject matter: it uses City infrastructure to draw a deeper, more emotional map than the one that would be drawn by the City itself.
The artists behind Townsend Retraced, an elaborate re-mapping project, ask, "What if they built a city and no one came?" The transit grid of Borda's Every Bus Stop in Surrey, BC is awaiting its teeming population of transit riders, assuming the rapidly-growing city will expand to fill it out. But Townsend, Ontario is a planned town that might wait forever for its full population to arrive. Rarely is an entire urban infrastructure built on speculation of it supposed future inhabitants. Yet, in the mid-1970s, the Ontario provincial government responded to excessive industrial development along the shore of Lake Erie by planning a new city in the Townsend area.
Similar to the way Borda's project was inspired by the official Surrey bus route map, the Townsend Retraced artists were guided by a "found" site inventory map in Townsend Traces, a book published by the Ontario Ministry of Culture and Heritage. The map identifies buildings and locations of historical interest that existed in 1976 (archived before being modified or leveled when city construction began) and was used as a reference for Stephan Rose's photo documents, Hillary Martin's audio works and Laura Cunningham's collection of related documents, materials, articles and museum objects. On the Townsend Retraced web site, the government map serves as an interface between the various elements, allowing the user to make comparisons and interconnections between the graphic representation of space, the aural, and the visual documents. The institutional version of the map itself looks empty and plain; this emptiness, juxtaposed with the vast documentation of the details of life there, gives a sense of the scope and grand failure of the utopian plan. By using a government map as a starting point and placing the unrealized dream next to the empty or ruined reality, Townsend Retraced is a pointed critique of the source document and the ideology behind it. Again, the technique of detournement makes a biting statement about a government map that could not
Today the population of Townsend is close to 1,100-merely one per cent of the imagined population. Each citizen lives among the ruins (imagined or just unfilled) of a utopic plan-a small town surrounded by subtle indications that something else was supposed to be here. Why are the buildings so large for such a small place? Why do some roads just end? But on the official maps of the area, none of this is apparent-obviously, the maps don't tell the whole story. Townswend Retraced adds the layers needed to help convey the history of that utopia, filling the empty spaces between those rural concessions with fragments of audio, found objects and documents, poems and pictures (past and present) that demonstrate just how much is lost in the official view.
Every Bus Stop in Surrey, BC and Townsend Retraced cover large geographic areas of seemingly empty space, and fill it with alternative meanings. Artists mapping projects usually result from a wandering or "drifting" off the established grid or one's patterns of everyday life-psychogeographic derives that lead to a better understanding of that everyday life. Unlike these two projects that exist in either rural or suburban, car-oriented areas, Brooklyn artists Christina Ray and Dave Mandl's One Block Radius is a web-based psychogeographic documentary that explores the numerous layers of an urban microcosm framed within a single city block in Manhattan's Lower East Side. This block was the future site for the New Museum of Contemporary Art's new location. Aware of its role in the revitalization of the storied Bowery neighbourhood, the New Museum has commissioned Ray and Mandl to create a work that simultaneously archives the urban space, as it was and as it is now, and records the subjective and layered responses to the space as the museum (and its gentrifying influence) encroaches on the areas. Like Townsend, Every Bus Stop, [murmur] or some of the other projects mentioned here, there is no correct or linear approach to experience this piece. While an institutional document might attempt to state, unequivocally, that This Is The Way Things Are, artists like Ray and Mandl show that experiences are much more complicated, and with this interface, the user or viewer has much more agency in that negotiation.
One Block Radius provides a framework for urban diversity and history in a piece of the city that, due to its sordid past and current disheveled state, could easily disappear without official recognition, or the documentation of its unique physical and social character. Civic architectural or 'heritage' preservation tends to ignore, even avoid the disorderly, seedy or marginalized, and so these peripheral urban spaces must be "subjectively" mapped through art, literature or personal endeavors. Samuel R. Delany's book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue makes a case for what he calls the democratic spaces of burlesque houses and porn theatres of a pre-Disneyfied Times Square. This once-heterogeneous psychological landscape was ultimately leveled in the name of safety, family values, global tourism and consumerism. While it's doubtful the Bowery will go through the extreme makeover of Times Square, the New Museum of Contemporary Art's fundamental role in the socio-economic transformation of the district is apparent. With the rapidly rising property values, it seems fitting the one affordable place to accommodate and preserve the essence of this irregular little city block as it is today is in the virtual city of the web. And while the web is an ideal place to archive this material, it, like any archive, can never fully approximate what has been lost. What it can do is preserve as many elements of this block as possible and serve as a detailed alternative to an antiseptic official map or photograph.
The three major projects that make up the focus of this discussion are examples of the types of alternative documents that can pop up when an artist questions the "official document." Rich, nuanced, troubled and elaborate stories can emerge from what seemed like a flat, simple government map. All of the projects and endeavors examined here approach a similar goal by using the tenets and techniques of psychogeographic practice. By approaching the city at a different speed, from a different level, or simply with a new and unbiased curiosity, they map out and imagine a place that is more complex and more personal than the place described in institutional documents. These artists recognize that there can be no such thing as an "official story" and that we will never find a map that tells the whole truth. Thus, they offer myriad alternatives, all subjective, all rich with personal detail, in an attempt to build a new cartography for the city.
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