Art

Where Psychogeography Meets Mobile Phones

TheWorld-TheWall guided viewers to imagine Israel's wall within their own urban context.
TheWorld-TheWall guided viewers to imagine Israel's wall within their own urban context. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — We use our phones increasingly for getting around, taking pictures and finding the next place to eat.  It’s not quite accurate to call them phones anymore — they’re really mini computers and GPS tracking devices, with all your friends tagging along.

LA Re.Play, an exhibition of “mobile media art,” aimed to look at the growing intersection between mobile phones and our offline lives. Here’s a snippet of their statement:

Playing upon the dynamic relations between physical place, digital space, and mobile access via smartphone, we explore art that incorporates cell phones, GPS and other mobile technology, revealing the complex social, political, technological and physiological effects of new mixed reality interactions.

Cell phones with instructions on how to use the Transborder Immigrant Tool.
Cell phones with instructions on how to use the Transborder Immigrant Tool.

Installed at UCLA’s DESMA Grad Art Gallery in conjunction with the College Art Association conference, LA Re.Play offered variety of thoughtful interactive projects that challenge our thinking about the role of mobile media in the broader world.

Consider ETAK – a TomTomopera. For this project, Esther Polak asked visitors to sit down in a theater-scale room and let themselves be guided through Google Earth. Like the Tomtom navigation system, participants hear guided instructions. But instead of directions, they are orchestras and barking dogs and other soundscapes zipping along at some 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour while someone sings GPS instructions in the form of a short story.

Other projects have a more sociopolitical edge. Paula Levine’s “TheWall-TheWorld” tackles Israel’s sprawling West Bank Barrier. The wall’s sheer size is difficult to imagine until Levine juxtaposes the image of the West Bank wall on the left side with a projection of the wall in a city of your choice on the right side.

Relying on the Google Earth engine, Levine successfully gives us a sense of scale of this massive wall, which in Southern California would snake up and down the coast from Los Angeles to Anaheim and beyond. The installation at the Re.Play opening seemed to be broken, as the wall projection didn’t show up on the right side. However, viewers can easily see and manipulate the interaction online. (I’d like to see this in other walled contexts, like the Demilitarized Zone in Korea and the former Berlin Wall.)

ETAK- a TomTomopera screened within a large theater space.
ETAK - a TomTomopera screened within a large theater space.

Then there’s “The Transborder Immigrant Tool,” which in the age of iPhones represents a slightly more low-tech approach. Retrofitting GPS-enabled phones, the Electronic Disturbance Theater developed a a series of tools that would guide immigrants crossing the border into the US to safety sites with water.

Other projects included “Manifest.AR,” a series of augmented reality artistic landscapes developed by the group of the same name. Their Augmented Reality Browser creates public art objects on the world at large. Though my phone had run out of battery before I could test out the software myself, co-founder Mark Skwarek took some time to show me the animated landscape on UCLA’s campus. I had to wonder if this augmented reality public art exhibition was in some sense a commentary on the difficulty of creating physical public art around the city.

The work I most wanted to see but missed was “Indeterminate Hikes +.” One part psychogeography and one part GPS, the Android application guides users through their landscape but reactivates it through a series of prompts determined by artists:

This mobile app imports the rhetoric of wilderness into virtually any place accessible by Google Maps, creates hikes and encourages its hiker-participants to treat the locales they encounter as spaces worthy of the attention accorded to sublime landscapes, such as canyons and gorges. Thus the ecological wonder usually associated with “natural” spaces, such as national parks, is re-appropriated here to renew awareness of the often-disregarded spaces in our culture that also need attention, such as alleyways, highways and garbage dumps.

Indeterminate Hikes+ featured a series of prompts for participants. Click to enlarge.
Indeterminate Hikes+ featured a series of prompts for participants. (click to enlarge)

Prompts included meditative practices like this one: “Take a picture of a cloud. If there are no clouds, improvise as you see fit.” Others call for greater awareness of the cityscape, asking participants to stop “until you feel the rumble of combustion engines.” Then there are social practices like asking passersby if they’ve seen a rabbit in the area.

Artist Cary Peppermint, who worked on “Indeterminate Hikes+,” shared some of his images from a “Fox Trot” he did through the swanky neighborhood of Bel Air. His response to this prompt stayed with me for a while: “Locate the light source illuminating your path — the moon, the sun, the stars, or streetlights. Notice the shadows and colors it creates. Wait for a change in light before you continue.”

The prompt calls for “the moon, the sun, the stars,” but in Los Angeles, the source of light could only mean a street light. His shot appears sideways, confused, perhaps because he’s struggling to find some other source. That answer lies further beyond, in the glow of bright lights from elsewhere in the city reflecting off the smoggy atmosphere.

LA Re.Play: An Exhibition of Mobile Art was on display at UCLA’s Broad Art Center (240 Charles E. Young Dr. Los Angeles) during the 2012 CAA conference, which took place February 22 to 26.

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