Re:Interview #001:
Possibilities in Locative Media | Jeremy Hight

34 North 118 West (2006), by Jeremy Hight

Locative Media—recently becoming more popular in Media Art discourses—has roots dating back to the dawn of history. Early myths like the Epic of Gilgamesh or more specific Homer’s Odyssee deal with issues of location and the recording of movement on earth’s surface. Developments since then include mediaeval cartography as well as the Situationist’s approach to mapping a city. Nowadays Locative Media uses technology to trigger artworks in a specific physical space. Recently, Jeremy Hight, one of the developers of the first locative narrative 34 North 118 West published two papers that investigate the use of Locative Media in different directions: in Floating Points—Locative Media, Perspective, Flight and the International Space Station he proposes, together with the aerospace engineer Alexander Van Dijk, the use of the International Space Station in combination with GPS to gather three dimensional data and thus leading Locative Media into the third dimension. In his latest paper Locative Dissent he is looking directly at how there is a new way to utilize technology and community to bring voice to the lost, oppressed, dissenting, challanged and challenging information, events and thus a new history of what otherwise may not be known or allowed to be known and can have a sense of permanence.

Do you think that technology is an essential part of Locative Media? What role does technology play in this art form?

The most important aspects of the form are the ways it opens a new sense of interaction with space, with layers of information pre-existing in a space, of measurement and movement and with a new way to make a narrative that exists and works with the actual physical environment, be it city or open spaces. The main lineages are to Land Art, to Happenings, to elements of the Situationists but also to land interpretation, mapping and explorations of spatial data. The potential applications are vast and go far beyond what is currently being explored. The field is still in its arguable infancy. The technology simply allows these things to be possible because of what it works with and can do. We built 34 North 118 West (2003) with a 100-dollar laptop and a 40-buck used GPS unit bought off e-bay. The technology is advancing and this simply allows more possibilities in terms of speed, ease, data and spatial interaction. The danger is in seeing this as a field of high-tech exclusion and in working with its preliminary set paradigms and subsets. The need is to keep pushing its boundaries, its conceptual capabilities, the depth of information and creative content and to see new expansions and possibilities as opposed to a narrowing aperture. The avant-garde history often comes alongside experimentation, with new tools or new tool combinations. My concern is not that the field will become exclusionary, too technologically sophisticated for entrance or (as some are concerned) will allow itself simply to be consumed by commodification from big tech business and the bottom line. My concern is that the field must keep expanding, pushing its possibilities, challenging itself, working with deeper content and interactivity, both informational, narratively horizontal and vertical.

Speaking about technology in Locative Media means at least having access to it. To put it bluntly: is Locative Media a phenomenon of affluence?

No. It is seen by some as such and the tools can seem intimidating and quite socio-culturally stratified. The important thing is that work can be made with GPS units bought for almost nothing, older computers, older technology, inexpensive newer technology. The tech divide is a big concern and I am also deeply passionate about grass-roots fundraising for what I termed ‘Locative Dissent’. The technology is available for immediate, organized protests to be held at key symbolic or high visibility locations as well as dissent as signal to pick up in locations of tragedy or oppression that can circumvent the media and its under-reporting and non-reporting of dissent and certain information that must be known. The paradigm of protest is unchanged in many decades and the time is now to change that. The Smart Mob concept a few years ago was a fad of people being able to instant-message each other and all show up at a donut shop at once, kind of absurdist street theater, but this has massive potential as immediate dissemination of information and organization. The wireless signal can also be used to trigger phones at the actual locations of underreported or forgotten incidents and injustices, this can reach many people beyond the scope of news or publications. This can also be made available to those who can’t afford the technology if we work at a grass-roots level to raise money for equipment that can be made available.

So, compared to projects like The World’s biggest IF (2002), would you say that Locative Media needs to address more sociopolitical issues?

Absolutely. The potential is so huge, so potentially powerful, galvanizing. Dissent and socio-political information dissemination, analysis and study in spatial navigation can all benefit from Locative Media, as the works can be more immediate, give voice to place and events and avoid the primary media and its bias. The tools of Locative Media and how it creates a narrative archeology (ability to ‘read’ a place and information by direct spatial navigation) have applications in education, history, art, narrative and architecture, but also essentially creating a way to link injustice, brutality, corporate crime, environmental abuse and class discrimination in gentrification to their location as chronicle, memory and commentary. The field has created tools and paradigms but has not dug deeply into socio-cultural applications for dissemination, awareness, education and creative commentary.

Coming back to your own work, how would you define what you are doing? Is it art or do you see your work more in an activist context?

I have been working in Locative Media for several years now and increasingly see how it has such great potential to elevate awareness of history, of unknown or forgotten information, people and events and of dissent. It is art, it is narrative but it can be so much more. My two latest essays deal with the need for the field to expand its limits in terms of depth of information and use of elevation to see how it changes in perspective (Floating Points (1)) and how it must be used for a more immediate, organized and effective dissent (Locative Dissent (2)). Floating Points pushes questions as to why can’t location be ‘read’ from above, from different vantage points and can’t this tell much more about history, place and what is forgotten in time. Locative Dissent pushes for activism and dissent in ways that can circumvent the biased media and create both immediate organized reaction and a way to give voice to places and the truths about injustice, deception and violence. The main thing is content. It is also voice. The immediate one is for Locative Dissent. There has to be a new paradigm of dissent that is like Smart Mobs but also has the ability of Locative Media to bring sound files, text, video and mixed media to specific locations to give voice to what must be known. I am in a country that currently is led by an administration that wire taps and spies upon its public and openly bullies reporters who do investigative pieces. The level of control of information is obscene. There have been several massive protests in the last few years that have been vastly underreported or ignored. I once saw open bias on a major national news show during the beginning of the war, which was a sequence of ra-ra jingoistic images and then an image described as “and here are some people protesting the war in Los Angeles” and then the camera swung to across the street and people waiting to take the citizenship test, to which the reporter said: “and these people just want to be Americans.” The message was inferred with an ugly semiotic clarity: the dissenters were ‘un-American’ and not appreciating what they had by voicing dissent. I am an artist and writer but increasingly I feel that the activism in my work that before was among many layers (partially out of wariness of this administration) is now essential to the core of my being and gives me a sense of something a lot of us here have little of lately: hope for change.

But dissenting through narration and getting the vision of life as a complex arrangement of perspectives across to the people seems to be somehow ‘slow’ compared to the ‘fast’ media you’re criticizing. Some people argue that, according to the speed of the information interchange and the globalization, a change can only be done fast. Don’t you believe in revolution?

Good question. I need to clarify that this is three pronged. There have been large-scale protests organized and directed by Smart Mob messaging globally in the last few years in parts of the world. This needs to become a standard and be used here in America and other places that still cling to older paradigms of protest and dissent and it needs initially also to include more information within the first word of oppression, injustice etc. … it can be, say, 3:00 o’ clock that the news feed (RSS for example) goes out about what just was revealed. By 3:30, word can be out to thousands and discussions can be underway on what to do and where. Say the majority of these people work 9:00 to 5:00 … by 5:00 it is set where to go, why, in what organizational form and for what symbolic protest (blocking traffic, blocking access to a place, standing en masse in front of a symbolic location).

This is prong 1. It is fast. It is very fast. It also has already subverted the larger media and its role of disseminator/intermediary as word has gotten out to many at a grass-roots level and with the speed of technology.

Prong 2. Initial documentation. People at the protest at say 6:00 can capture images, video, do interviews and all with many points of view to both give more information and to prove by number of its valid real numbers and existence to counteract it being ignored or unreported or to make that moot. The images can go to Flickr that day, the videos to YouTube and that alone immediately gives it voice to millions who view those sites daily and communities online that have a worldwide membership. This now is a new media and documentation.

Prong 3. The connection of voice to place for longer-term permanence. This is the slower part but also an extremely important part. The protest is over. The physical entity lasted a short while/is ultimately ephemeral. Any traditional media coverage, if at all, is over. Now the information on what happened, its first-hand accounts, images and video can be placed in the location so that for years it will organically simply be fused to where it happened, so the injustice cannot be forgotten. The actual place of what occurred (the initial event) will have information of what happened that must be remembered fused to it in a locative work or works that tell of the injustice in detail. The other part is that the protest can now also be fused to the location by a locative work or works, so important protests will still exist and be active over time, also not to be forgotten.

The saying went: “The revolution will be televised.” … Now it is to be: “The revolution is information and voice.”

Looking at the past, dissent practices often have been assimilated by structures of power. How do you think would it be possible to avoid being integrated or ideologized?

One of the key things is that this is not tied to a manifesto, a specific doctrine, something tied to a certain ideology to be spun back negatively, but is a way to connect key things that already exist (dissenting voices, fast technology, alternate media and dissemination networks, Locative Media). The range of protests and scope is vast and all could benefit, as could the thousands and millions who feel powerless against a climate of information control and the problems with negative spin of traditional protest and its semiotics (fictionalized, non-immediate response, easy to counteract by ignoring, misinformation, counter spin etc.)

This is kind of like the implementation of eating with a fork, in the sense that it is a purely utilitarian basis of a concept yet also has vast implications and new speed and effectiveness. The alternate dissemination of information has long existed, but more unfortunately as a forced ‘preaching to the choir’ while now it is so easy to connect information to vast numbers of people with technology and new senses of community and communication. The use of locative technology will allow a way of purely documenting facts that would otherwise be ignored, lost in time as the public sees news in such shards that have a shorter and shorter life span before dropping off the radar. In America it is increasingly more like we must mourn the days when investigative journalism was commonplace and part of the pop culture/daily vocabulary (Watergate today would surely be a fraction of the story it was and thus would not have the same meaning and import as a crime).

The overall concept of what you described seems like the continuation of some paths in late 1990s art discourse—the concepts of site specificity and the discussion about interventionistic practices in art. Both seem to be merged and somehow taken further here. How important is theory in your work?

Very important. The lineage goes back to Land Art, Happenings, Installation Art, site-specific theory and the older desire for art to be able to be out of the gallery system and its semi-feudalistic semiotic (blank walls in a space for viewing something chosen as of a specific value and culture and thus different than something outside this space and of the day to day—the same issue with a text being ‘published’ as opposed to a pile of potential and paper). I was incredibly honored when a panel in Leonardo recently selected my essay Narrative Archaeology (3) as one of the four primary texts in Locative Media alongside the Land Artist Robert Smithson. He was a huge influence on me since I was a teen in both his works and his amazing connected theory and discourse.

I originally studied independently to be a research meteorologist and do field research, develop models of hypothetical weather events and try to get a better understanding of things like sprites and jets (huge bursts of plasmic electricity into the outer atmosphere from the tops of thunderstorms … amazing). Over my younger years I studied writing, painting, Concept Art, critical theory and philosophy and on my own always messed with things like mathematics as a kid (computational symmetry in number strings and contradictions), etymology, graphic design and typography and ways that language functions just like meteorology as a complex system (full of flux, interconnection, decay, shifts and a beautiful complexity). It isn’t as scattershot as it may sound, as all of the things have always seemed simply shadings of the same thing. I think it is really unfortunate that art and science are taught as such different disciplines. This is not true. A poem is like a chemistry lab: you have a comparison or experiment, you make a hypothesis, you ask and answer questions in sequence that branch out to greater complexity and then you pull it back into a conclusion.

A former professor at Cal Arts said I “juggle spheres”. It is an apt analogy. The curiosity ties to research and pondering to process, to experimentation to ideas and discovery, to hypothesis, to work given form, interactivity and use of technology and playing with flux and cohesion. When I need a break I compose electronic music or work with concepts and form and experiment with sound art but with a different use of critical theory than the other work. It works just fine. People always say that one needs to just do one thing and do it well (if I had a dollar for every time I was told that …). This is fine for some, but how can you work in hybrid forms? How can you connect dots if you only do one thing?

Narrative Archaeology came out of an epiphany and works alone as an essay, but it was also simply documenting all that was so exciting that went into my work on 34 North 118 West. Academic speech is just a gear shift in language as is poetry, prose and speech on a phone; the great thing is that work can incorporate these things and address ideas and concepts, yet not in a way that is the hammer on the head, condescending or adrift without the concept at the ready. Not that I have never done anything that unintentionally drifted into that realm for some … that is why I love the ‘death of the author’ concept and that the viewer is the ultimate author as they experience a work on their terms, expectations, mood, temperament and interpretation of symbol and inference at the time of interaction.

What is your personal experience with the work you are doing—how are people reacting to it?

In regard to Locative Dissent my experience is that it varies. Some people are so embittered and beaten down by the way things are that they greet it with skeptical interest and a sort of “sounds nice but nothing positive can happen anymore.” To them it is too much a flesh world/real world version of Orwell now. Many others have reacted like I did when I began putting these things together. They see it as logical, simple and yet complex and potentially far-reaching, like the fork comparison I made.

I have lectured about my other locative work at MIT and other universities and it is studied in courses at universities but that was about a new form of spatial interaction, artwork and narrative possibility and a way to inform and agitate history that must not be lost and other information of spaces. My work with my project for the International Space Station and seeing the great potential of shifts in perspective in locative reading of spaces has had a pretty good reaction, as it questions the field and a deeper possible way of informing and interpreting a space.

The general reaction to locative dissent has been more immediate and visceral. This is exactly how it feels to me so that is really heartening in these times. The best reaction is the most common one so far which is: “Of course, why the hell don’t we do this?” That is the thing about it, it is nothing radical in its components being something so new, it is of them being used together and not as something isolated. The radical part is the idea of it all together and what it can do, and unfortunately that it is dissent in a time that is Orwellian more than any time in recent memory and the idea that it could be a blueprint of something.

You refer to forms and methods of alternative culture in what you said above. Do you think it is possible to influence the broader public with those practices in paranoid times like ours?

Yes. One can only hope. It is something so radical but something so simple. The brutal fact is that the traditional protest is increasingly problematized by the fact that it can be downplayed, ignored, spun as a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals who are disorganized and from some alternate world of patchouli and images of 1968. The thing is that we as a culture are so ignorant of many massive potentials of technology and the increasing speed and interconnection of our world. The speed of instant messaging, of news feeds, the grass roots dissemination of blogs, the potential for spatial data and amazing amount of mobile information and communication in many forms on cell phones, the immediate dissemination of information to mass numbers on the Internet, the alternate communities forged online; these are all huge leaps but are mostly used as entertainment and convenience. The 34 North 118 West project was profiled in an article in Wired. Did it get picked up from the article in the Los Angeles Times? The description in the Washington Post? Nope. The interviewer found it on a blog, and this is three to four years ago and well before blogs were perused on CNN and acknowledged as a news medium. That really is what it is about. A magazine distributed to millions and at newsstands all over the place picking up something from a small blog in the early days of blogs.

Thank you very much for the interview!

(1) Jeremy Hight, Floating Points—Locative Media, Perspective, Flight and the International Space Station, http://www.fylkingen.se/hz/n8/hight.html.
(2) Jeremy Hight, Locative Dissent, 2006, http://www.sarai.net/publications/readers/06-turbulence/06-turbulence.
(3) Jeremy Hight, Narrative Archaeology: Reading the Landscape, http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/mit4/papers/hight.pdf



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