Reporting from The Mobile City Conference: Locative Media as an essential part of the city

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The Dutch Architecture institute (NAi) hosted The Mobile City conference on 27-28th of February, 2008. The day provided both a theoretical and practical context to the multitude of topics applicable to the subject of the “mobile city”. Speakers such as Steve Graham, Tim Creswell, Christian Nold and Malcolm McCullough gave their insightful views on locative media applied to the city. The conference was organised by the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture programme of the University of Groningen (Martijn de Waal) and Playful Identities of the Erasmus Univeristy Rotterdam and the University of Utrecht (Michiel de Lange). All collected coverage is available on the Mobile City website. This post is a convergens of my posts on Virtueel Platform and Masters of Media. Picture below by Nicholas Nova.

The rise of mobile, locative media is clearly evident. The conference description couldn’t be more on the spot: ‘The physical, geographical city with its piazza’s, its neighborhoods and highway interchanges is overlaid with the ‘virtual space’ of electronic communication-, information- and observation-networks of GSM, GPS, CCTV, UMTS, WIFI, RFID, ETC. At the same time, the domain of digital space is increasingly becoming physical, an “internet of things”.’ And the questions posed are highly relevant to the city landscape, changing under the influence of locative media: What are useful concepts to talk about the merging of physical and digital spaces? What does it mean for urban culture, citizenship and identities? And what does it mean for the work of urban professionals (architects, designers, planners), media designers, and academics?

First off, where does it come from? As Malcolm McCullough explains: Architects always interacted with use of media. To exemplify this, he mentions an interesting example of Rome. Houses in ancient Rome were all over the place, as if you could simply put your house next to the people you wanted to speak to. In similar ways, neon signs, or in an earlier stage advertisement posters, change the cityscape. McCullough exemplifies this by showing a famous crossing with and without advertisement. It has become an essential part of the city.

Autopsy on Locative Media with Christian Nold
Christian Nold’s talk on Locative Media Autopsy at the 2008 The Mobile City conference dealt primarily with the question what Locative Media really is. Is it just a techno-fetishistic vision of gadget lovers, or should we perhaps take it more seriously to uncover its hidden uses?

Starting off, Nold talks about an interesting vision: ‘Locative Media is perhaps regarded as a strange other space, which goes beyond the top-down image of the Gods.’ Continuing: ‘I’m curious: Are we comfortable representing our cities like that?’ More specifically, what is represented in technofetishistic visualiations of locative media, and what kind of social relations are generated by this technofestishism?

According to Nold old maps sometimes provide much richer representations of what is going on, exemplary of this is a map Nold shows in which nymfs represent forests. So far, locative media has been predominantly about terms that do not encompass any social community building: gather, share, play, visualise and imagine. Perhaps it is useful to complement these terms with: collaborate, archive, educate, challenge, change behaviour and organise. Of which the latter is perhaps the most important one, with regards to for example smart mobs, Nold: ‘People are doing all sorts of stuff with mobile phones, how does this lead to social interaction?

Oakland Crime Map

Interesting examples of locative media enabling new forms of social relations are the Oakland Crime Spotting map, which reinterprets public data. “Normal” police crime is broken down in terms of different crimes, at different times. There are however, more complicated ways to go through data and make it publically available and usable. As an effect, cops were surprised to see data visualized in new ways, enabling new interpretations of the data. Nold: ‘If this project takes itself seriously and is an intended community project, it can start to go beyond the point of collecting new data. My question is: ‘How much crime is not being reported? Imagine if that could be represented. In order to do this, the extra step of working long-time within an area must be made.’

More examples include the Register your Fruit Tree” and “Fallen Fruit of Silver Lake” maps, which show ways to collect your fruit. Nold: ‘Through these maps you can start to think about social relationships that are caused by these project, and not just about the food. You might actually start talking to people who live in that house.’ Not a map, but very interesting in this aspect is the documentary “The power of community: how Cuba survived peak oil”. This documentary shows essential connections in the time when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost 50% of its oil imports. Because of Cuba’s agro-chemical background, many of the countries resources were rendered useless. The effects were that the average Cuban lost 30 pounds in body weight, but also the design of a community bus, which was a truck turned into a bus by adding a carrier.

Nold emphasizes that it is important to take locative media seriously, instead of being just a nice techno-fetishistic gadget. Nold: ‘Taking pictures with mobile phones is getting more serious.’ A next step in design could be designing for responsive communities and getting involved with people. An example of this from Nold’s work is his wellknown BioMapping project, but also his communal noise mapping project. For this project, Nold handed out decibel meters, which allowed the community to challenge “official” government numbers. The data so far was based on total noise levels and not on specific individual experience. Therefore the project also included adjective ratings such for sound such as: ‘silent, exetermely quiet, bassy, painful, exhausting, threatening, abrupt.’ In another project, the Silvertown affect map, the question is asked: How do you build maps that really get that local discussion going?’ Nold concludes: ‘For the BioMapping project, we turned the lie detector into something else. The context is not “are you lying”, but the physical environment. The context is very important, and for me that is where this new area of contextual media and responsive communities is going.’

Tim Creswell on Politics of Movement (… and Standing Still)
Tim Creswell talks from within a framework of ‘twenty years of thinking about place and mobility.’ His talk at the The Mobile City 2008 conference therefore is less about new technology, but more about political issues and the role power. For this, he outlines three ideas, being the “dromology”, the “social kinetics” and the “kinetic elite”.

The dromology, as discussed by Paul Virilio, is about the power to stop and put into motion, to incarcerate and accelerate objects and people. Social kinetics, mentioned by Norman Bryson, is a field which would chart the history of socially structured movement. The kinetic elite, by Peter Slotendijk, deals with a more or less insulated gorup of people who are able to move around the world at will. Creswell takes up these ideas to think about particularly the politics of moving, and, arguably even more important, the politics of standing still. (Image below by: bgiles1999)

Mobility is experienced differently by many groups. It can be comfortable or free, it can be done by man or woman, by domestic servan or refugee. Creswell takes the example of the Mexican immigrant that is trying to get into the United States. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the world that respects the rich man, the globetrotter, who uses first class cabins and pullman cars.

Consequently, there are certain aspects of mobility. Creswell: ‘It is not just homogenous, but something that has aspects to it to be defined for analytical purposes.’ He defines six aspects. Firstly there is the motive force: Why does a thing move? Creswell: ‘High up, people can choose destinations according to joys they offer, low down people are thrown out of places they would like to stay in.’ Secondly, there is velocity. How fast does a person or thing move? Paul Virilio in this aspect mentioned that the it is the prime engine for historical development. Creswell: The faster we get, the more our freedoms are threatened.Speed doesnt just mean fastness, but also slowness. slowness can be a privelege.’ Thirdly, there is rhythm. With what rhythm does a person or thing move? Rhythm in public space is discussed by Lefebvre. A vivid example of this is gate analysis, for example by individual finger print analysis. Another interesting example of the ministery of silly walks (a reference to the hilarious Monthy Python scene). The mapping of people’s walks, however has been incorporated with cctv, basically to find out who is walking in a funny way.

The fourth is the route, what route does a person or thing take? Creswell mentions Guattari in this aspect. Route is about the channeling of mobility. About producing order and predictability. Highways, highspeed train lines ignore cities in between and routes are turned into dromological space. Fifth: How does it feel? Creswell: ‘Mobility is experienced such as luxury and pampering, think of the economy and business class which gives you more; toilets, internet, movies, etc.’ In earlier ages, walking was for the poor, the criminal, the young and above all the ignorant. Creswell: ‘It was not untill the 19th century that people started to take walking as an end in itself, beyond the confines of the landscaped garden or gallery.’ The sixth aspect of mobility is friction: How does mobility stop? Is stopping a choice, or is it force? New forms are not about the city walls, but about higlhy valued speeds, global interconnections and CCTV. This is also about racial profiling: Blacks are more prone to be stopped by police. And in post 9-11 UK, a man was shot in the head who did not stop in an underground metro station. Creswell: ‘Friction, therefore, is an important component of mobility studies.’

In between all these aspects is the concept of the vagabond: A person with no established home who drifts from place to place without visible or lawful means or support. Creswell takes this back to the origins of the narrative of resistance: In 1599 a Spanish novellist created the picaresque novel which included stories of the vagabond who contradicts with established norms of the homes. A more recent example of the vagabond, Creswell recalls, is the song Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan. An example, also mentioned in Anthony Dunne’s book Hertzian Tales, is that of the homeless vehicle. Creswell: ‘This is an artistic way of bringing to life what would remain invisible. The heroic figure that lives outside of norms and conventions. It is something that challenges expectations within a society.’

Besides theoretical context, practical projects were also featured in between the keynotes. Presentations included some projects on the forefront of locative media, such as data visualisation, wireless connectivity and social uses for RFID. This is an overview of the projects presented.

Esther Polak – NomadicMILK
Well-known for her work on Amsterdam RealTime, Polak presented her work-in-progress project NomadicMILK, in which she follows Fulani cattle herdsmen and dairy truckers in Nigeria. Through a GPS enabled robot, trails are made visible to the local inhabitants. An important aspect of the project is reflecting on the trails with locals and let them see their daily routes in new ways.


James Stewart – Branded Meeting Places
Stewart works at the School of Art Culture and Environment, Edinburgh UK. He presented the “Branded Meeting Places” project, which deals with ‘ubiquitous technologies and the design of places for meaningful human encounter’. Naturally, ‘people are drawn to places that have particular meanings as loci of human encounter. Communications technologies are implicated in this move into the variegated brandscape.’ The Branded Meeting Places team gathers evidence for the assertions about the rise of branded meeting places.

Laurence Claeys & Marc Godon – Smarttouch
What influence does touch have in designing new technologies and moreover, what are the possibilities of touch as an interface? An interesting project and presentation, with a very relevant title: “Let the Homo Ludens conquer the city”.

Thomas Engel – NavBall
For those that attended Picnic ’07, and more specifically Waag Society’s “Come Out And Play” event, NavBall might sound familiar. A soccer-type game that uses GPS technology and mobile media and turns the city into a playground.

Jeroen van Schaik – Urbanism on Track
The Delft University of Technology presented its Urbanism on Track event, which was held January 7th 2007. While urban design and planning focuses strongly on actor-oriented and user-oriented design and planning approaches, technologies that give insight into the behavior of actors and users are rapidly evolving. Especially the use of tracking technologies – of which GPS (Global Positioning System) is best known – is booming in urban research. An important aspect of this is the relation between spatial and time issues. Tracking technologies can offer these possibilities to urban design. A book will be available in May 2008.

Martin Rieser – Mobile Audience
Martin Rieser of De Montfort University talks about the Mobile Audience. This project is about engaging people in new spaces, tales of the uncanny around the city and the “ghostly”; events that are happening simultaneously around the city. The Electric Pavillion website has an innovative database of city maps, poems and more created using mobile technologies.

Electric Pavillion.jpg

CityLive is, partly, about turning Hasselt en Leuven into a wireless city. Besides being an innovative project, an interesting challenge was mentioned: Incompatibility, which is essential in having users interact with the city on a large scale.

V2, Institute for Unstable Media, presented a project by Karen Lancel called the StalkShow. Stalkshow deals with threat of unsafety and isolation. It invites the audience to provide this threat with a personal face and space; to show both its horror and its beauty. A backpack with laptop/touchscreen is carried through public spaces. Being surrounded by the audience you are invited to touch the touchscreen and to navigate through an archive of texts about threat of unsafety and isolation.

Willem Velthoven – Social RFID
Willem Velthoven presented the interesting outcomes of RFID workshops at Picnic ’07. Most importantly, it shows that useful and interesting applications can be created by using rather simple technologies. Think of a tea-cup that Googles your name and displays it as you put in your RFID tag (iTea), or the ability to print a type of business cards which requires both people to meet up at an event (and get a free drink if you go to the bar with them).

mediamatics itea.jpg

Ronald Lenz – Waag Society (Mobile Learning Game Kit)
Lenz presented project of the Waag that incorporate locative media and eduction. Examples of these are Frequency 1550, a city game using locative media that lets school children explore Amsterdam in new ways. The Mobile Learning Game Kit enables teacher themselves to moderate sessions for their schools.


Written by newmw

March 4, 2008 at 4:45 pm

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