Location in art and technology: places and/or spaces [Paralelo: Unfolding Narratives in Art, Technology & Environment]

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En Marzo de 2009 se celebró en Sao Paulo el workshop Paralelo (más información acerca del evento en su wiki; (live)streams of the panels) donde se exploraron los ámbitos artístico, tecnológico y ambiental y sus interrelaciones. Karla Brunet (del grupo Ecoarte de la Universidade Federal da Bahia, Salvador, Brasil) participó en el evento con un análisis del papel del lugar y el espacio en el arte y la tecnología. Karla y yo preparamos posteriormente un texto sobre este tema para la publicación resultado de un "call for papers" realizado por el equipo editorial a los participantes en el workshop. En este libro aparecen contribuciones de diversos autores sobre el evento y sobre otros temas y contextos relacionados con las relaciones entre arte, tecnología y medio ambiente. La edición es bilingüe en inglés y portugués. El capítulo puede consultarse aquí (pdf; aquí en mayor resolución) y el libro está disponible como descarga por capítulos en Virtueel Platform, para consulta online y descarga en Issuu, y en impresión bajo demanda y descarga en Lulu. A continuación dejo el texto de nuestro capítulo en su versión en inglés.

Brunet, Karla & Juan Freire (2010). Location in art and technology: places and/or spaces. En, Paralelo: Unfolding Narratives in Art, Technology & Environment / Paralelo – Narrativas em Percurso: sobre Arte, Tecnología e Meio-Ambiente. Eds. Gisela Domschke, Bronac Ferran, Roberta Mahfuz, Annette Wolfsberger. Ed. Virtueel Platform, pp. 104-121. ISBN 9108052789490

This paper proposes an initial discussion on location in art and technology. The subject came out on an Open Space Session at Paralelo. Technology & Environment: A meting point for artists, designers & researchers [1].

Despite the increasing interest, and hype, for locative works in art and the development of several location-based projects with new media, the significance of location is quite variable. Only in some cases artists and developers have reflected about the meaning and importance of location in their work.

The explicit inclusion of location in a process should mean that the space and/or place, the specific site where the project is developed (including its environmental, social and/or cultural characteristics), are of prime importance for the work. However, the selection of location is often more a matter of opportunity (related to festivals, availability of funding…) and it is not based in an in depth knowledge of the local space, and its associated culture and relevant problems and conflicts.

In other cases, projects are designed for a given cultural context (mainly European or North American, where the concentration of artists, festivals and funding is higher) and, after their success; they are transplanted to other cultural contexts (i.e., developing countries) sometimes without adaptation. But, conflicts or problems shift in relevance from place to place and artists might not have the adequate background (cultural, environmental, linguistic…) to work in the new places. These problems of translocation provoke that projects with a deep meaning and implications in the Western context loose their interest, in some cases, the aesthetical one, in other geographic and cultural spaces.

Accordingly, projects of artists working with location could generate expectative about its social impact, for instance, giving visibility to a conflict or empowering the local community. For this reason, here we will focus especially in media art that have a determined concern on its location.

1. Place/Space

In the present text, location-based projects are understood as centered on places, and not only on spaces. Place is a more complex concept than space and incorporates all the social, cultural and functional meanings, and working with places (not only spaces), artistic processes could embrace political and social aspects.

In this sense, we follow the proposals of some authors that have highlighted the difference from place to space. In 1977, the Chinese-American geographer Yi-fu Tuan, in his book “Space and place: the perspective of experience” proposes the notion of place and space as inter-related. Space could be understood as the bottom layer composed mostly of environmental and topographical features. Place is constructed by new social and cultural layers developed over space, and dependent to some extent of the characteristics of the space. For Tuan (2001: 66), the “space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.” The space is abstract and when it is experienced in many extents (personal, social, cultural and physical) turn out to be the place.

Steve Harrison and Paul Dourish (1996) continue to develop the idea of places as spaces expanded by human meanings and uses:

Physically, a place is a space which is invested with understandings of behavioural appropriateness, cultural expectations, and so forth. We are located in “space”, but we act in “place”. Furthermore, “places” are spaces that are valued. The distinction is rather like that between a “house” and a “home”; a house might keep out the wind and the rain, but a home is where we live.

However, the idea of space as a basic source for place should be extended to take into account that also space is modified by the human elements associated with the concept of place. In this way, a broader and contemporary notion of space could be obtained, as the Brazilian geographer Milton Santos (1988) proposed: “O espaço seria um conjunto de objetos e de relações que se realizam sobre estes objetos; não entre estes especificamente, mas para as quais eles servem de intermediários. Os objetos ajudam a concretizar uma série de relações. O espaço é o resultado da ação dos homens sobre o próprio espaço, intermediados pelos objetos naturais e artificiais.” [2] (Santos 1988: 25)

In 1996, Milton Santos (2006) wrote “A Natureza do Espaço” (The Nature of Space), where he presented the technology and the technical object as part of the construction of this space and its history. For the author (1995), technology is totally interrelated to the social and its interference on territory, space and place. “Nothing is purely social, but it is also equally technical. In short, everything is hybrid, is mixed.” (Santos 1995) This interrelation of technology and space is commonly seen on location-based artwork. Artists use technology to constructs new spaces or to understand the existing ones.

It is also important to highlight Henri Lefebvre’s notions of a social space and the production of spatial relations. In “The production of space”, Lefebvre (1991) proposes a triad to explain how space is produced:

1. Spatial practice, which embraces production and reproduction, and the particular locations and spatial sets characteristic of each social formation. Spatial practice ensures continuity and some degree of cohesion. In terms of social space, and of each member of a given society’s relationship to that space, this cohesion implies a guaranteed level of competence and a specific level of performance.

2. Representations of space, which are tied to the relations of production and to the ‘order’ which those relations impose, and hence to knowledge, to signs, to codes, and to ‘frontal’ relations.

3. Representational spaces, embodying complex symbolisms, sometimes coded, sometimes not, linked to the clandestine or underground side of social life, as also to art (which may come eventually to be defined less as a code of space than as a code of representational spaces).
(Lefebvre 1991: 33)

Having Lefebvre’s view, art works with the symbolisms of the representation of space. However, artists developing location-based projects have to be aware and understand the spatial practices and representations of space to be able to produce symbolisms meaningful for a specific place.

Moving from the distinction of space and place (place constructed over space) to the networked space (interacting objects and relations) makes the awareness of place and space necessary. Actually, there would be not isolated spaces (without history and human intervention) differentiated from the components usually associated with places. Artists working with location should not forget they are dealing with a social space, a space juxtaposed by layers of culture, geography, social conditions, political opinion, technology, representations and symbolisms.

2. Location choices

An Open Space Session was held in Paralelo having some questions regarding location and art. How artists choose the location for their artwork? How location is employed on their projects? Is location important to their artwork? In which location they usually develop art? Is location the main theme of the artwork? Is there an interaction with the community in the location chosen? Which is the relevance of location (environmental conditions, social patterns, conflicts and culture particularities)?

In “Land and Environmental Art”, Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis (2005) propose five ways that artists work with land and environment, that is what they call the 5 “i”:

  • Integration is when the artwork uses nature to produce different landscapes, as creating sculptures with stones or leaving traces of human interference. An example of that is “Amarillo Ramp” by Robert Smithson
  • Interruption is when the artwork uses external materials to produce inquietude and questioning. An example of this kind of artwork is the “Running Fence” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
  • Involvement is when the artist works in a direct relationship with the earth; usually they are performances of the artist juxtaposed to the environment. As, for example, the work by Ana Mendieta Birth that demonstrates the physical contact of her body with the earth.
  • Implementation is when the artist explores the natures, its ecosystem and its relations to the human being. The artworks are generally sculptures, installations or performances. An example of it is “7000 Oaks” by Joseph Beuys.
  • Imagining is when the artwork uses the environment as a metaphor, as symbols of society and its influence. An example for it is “The California Map Project” by John Baldessari.

This classification was thought to analyze the artwork by land and environmental artists, specially the ones done in the 70s and 80s. Nowadays, in studying location-based artwork and its extensive use of technology, we can borrow Kastner and Wallis “i” and apply their categorization to many of the projects. However, some projects wouldn’t fit in any of those proposed forms, it is necessary the creation of others “i”.

During the Paralelo event, Tapio Mäkelä, presented a work in which location is a starting point to the art project. In concept:islands [3] researchers and media artists get together on a residency program to come up with discussion, ideas, experimentations having the main theme the island and its environment. Here, this Baltic island is part of the cultural landscape of the artist, as also a summer vacation place for Scandinavians. In his statement, Mäkelä presented the concern of the ecological degradation of the islands surroundings and proposition of working with the place in a conscious way.

A more recent project by Tapio Mäkelä and other artists and researchers that it is also centered on location is Ecolocated [4], an installation on Catalyst Arts gallery presenting the monitoring of the sea around Belfast. Location is the main subject because the variability in the ecology of a coastal zone around Belfast is used to understand the dependencies between humans and the ecosystem, the environmental impacts we cause in this highly used space and, finally, the perception and feelings of the local population about its surrounding environment.

Actually, Ecolocated starts using methods close to the science of ecology, both regarding perception instruments and the approach (using spatial variations to understand connections among people and ecosystems) but expands science and art to understand the complexities, objective and subjective, of the relationships between people and places in the coastal space. The Ecolocated installation could fit in the category “imagining” proposed by Kastner and Wallis since the aesthetical experience of the artwork suggests a metaphor for the location.

Another Finish artist concerned with location is Timo Jokela. In his work, the artist (Coutts and Jokela 2008) strengths the notions of working in a place and getting to know it and feeling affection for it. His references are Yi-Fu Tuan’s (1990) topophilia concept, the love for a place, and Edward Relph’s (1976) studies on the relationship of a person and a place. For the artist, the previous experience in a given place before developing the artwork is very important; it is the time when he can feel the location, its landscape, community and culture.

The importance of the relationship with community and its landscape is also emphasized by Giles Lane from Proboscis [5]. Snout, a project by Proboscis, explores the “relationships between the body, community and the environment” (http://socialtapestries.net/snout/). In the project, characters with carnival costumes and wearing sensors for environmental monitoring, especially pollution, go around town collecting data which is presented in maps that question the environmental quality of the urban habitat and instigate the community to a participation. The carnival character performance on the streets is an example of the “Interruption” proposed by Kastner and Wallis while the final map could be “Imagining”.

The commitment with the community is seen in many of Proboscis’ work. Giles Lane commented [6] that in Urban Tapestries [7], when constructing the maps they have learned with the community what kind of technology was better suitable to them. The first version of the project used high technology that, at a given time, was not comfortable to the participants. Therefore, the solution was to go back in terms of means and simplify the tools, having the same sort of results but with simpler/easier devices.

3. Festivals and Art Location

It is known that art festivals are creating new forms of working with space. Festival organizers frequently have a great interest in the development of works involving the local places and people, looking for more social and cultural impact or to adapt to the interests of the politicians and institutions funding these events. Frequently, artists are invited to participate of a festival and the location is given to them, or imposed to them, it is not a chosen choice of a place to develop their artwork. In this sense, a key part of the artistic process, the location choice, is in charge of organizers and curators. This situation raises many questions on how this location is worked. Are festival locations suitable to artworks that were done in other places?

Festivals create de facto a new form of working with location: the imposed location. In the new locations proposed by festivals, artists many times don’t have a good knowledge of the culture, specially the language. And when working with the community of that location, problems of miscommunication, misunderstanding and misconception could arise. In order to soften this sort of problems, artists usually work in collaboration with local artists or producers.

In any case, the imposed location raises some challenges to artists that should make an additional effort to learn basic aspects of the place and adapt their approach and processes. When this challenge is ignored, location-based projects could become disconnected from place and probably could be irrelevant in respect to its potential social and political impact.

Esther Polak, after creating her MILKproject [8] in Europe, has developed a part of NomadicMILK [9] cow tracking in Mato Grosso, Brazil. MILKproject, the original European version of Polak practice, can be a canonical example of art involving location and technology and with a clear social and political impact. However, NomadicMILK, a new project directly related with the European work, is developed on a new context, where local culture, community conflicts and interests and “milk industry” are completely different. In this sense, expected results of social and political interest in Europe are not necessarily relevant. Also, a totally new location for the project implies cultural and language particularities that could restrict the ability to develop the artwork for artists of European origin without an understanding and learning of these peculiarities.

All the above problems are evident in the development of the Brazilian project due to its detachment because it was done in a “proposed” (“imposed”) location. It is not observed an involvement with the place and caring with the particularities of the communities and “milk industry” as seen in the European version and other projects of the artist.

However, when only physical space is relevant, translocations could be made without important adaptations. An example of this kind of projects developed in one location and later applied to other is Can you see me now [10]. This game, created by Blast Theory, was initially produced to be played in Europe (the first versions were in Sheffield and Rotterdam), and in 2008 a version was played in Belo Horizonte (Brazil). In the Brazilian version, at Arte.mov Festival [11], the players could include only a small part of the community, the ones that could fluently speak English since communication was mandatory during the play. In order to soften that problem, the game producers chose some runners that could be fluent on both languages (Portuguese and English) and would be able to communicate with the Blast Theory team and the Brazilian online players. Projects as Can you see me now does not require much involvement with the community, during the running the players hardly ever interact with the city citizens, so this transposition from one place to another is not so disturbing. They use the city as a physical space for their project, not as a place where they have some sort of commitment.

This concern with the location on art projects imposed by festivals doesn’t happen only with projects that migrate from one country to another. In places as Brazil, where there are large geographical extensions and cultural differences, a project created to a specific location could be very hard to work the same way on another. For example, the project Mapeando Lençóis [12], done during Submidialogia#3 in Lençóis, BA, would be very hard to be recreated in Belém, the city of Submidialogia#4, one of capitals of Amazon Forest. Even though the language would not be a problem, the cultural differences in the northern regions, their understating of place, mapping, and geographical space is very different from other regions of Brazil. A careful study of their cultural expression and traditions would be necessary before the developing of the mapping project there. Since this is an example of a project that demands a great involvement of the community, the appreciation and understanding of the local culture is essential.

The art project The Dark Forest [13] developed in conjunction by MobileFest (Brazil) and the English group Active Ingredient [14] explores the man’s intervention on forests. The project involves parallel work with school children in both countries (Brazil and England) in order to do a comparison of data visualizations and forest types between the Mata Atlântica forest in Brazil and the Sherwood in England. This part of the project shows its concerns with the preservation of the forests by working with the communities and getting them involved and influencing on their education and consciousness.

Another part of The Dark Forest is the The BR163 Expedition [15], an interactive documentary done with mobile technology in order to visualize the impact of the construction of BR 163, a federal road that will link the city of Cuiabá-MT, in the center region of Brazil, to Santarém-PA, in the northern region of the country, in Amazon forest. Documentation as such, working in conflict area, demands a lot of involvement of the artists in researching the situation, knowing its cultural background, geography, ecology, social condition, history… This type of road construction crossing the Amazon forest has historically generated many disagreements: from the construction of the BR-230 Transamazônica [16] road to the controversies exposed by the environmentalist and activist Chico Mendes during the construction of the part of BR-364 that links Porto Velho to Rio Branco [17]. In this kind of locations and communities, characterized by the many interests and historical facts involved, artists should be aware of their impact and political position. Many choices can rise up during the process of this kind of projects: Should artists interfere? Is the interference the role of the artists? How artists work with the community involved in the conflict? Is possible for the artist to keep apolitical during the process? Should the artists be political in this kind of situations?

4. Some Considerations

The questions posed before are crucial for artists creating projects based on location. The complete understanding of the location to be worked on, including its layers of culture, social conditions, education, religion… and their interactions, is important to the development of the project. Any artwork, especially those involved with location and places, includes an implicit or explicit political meaning. It is hard to say that a work is apolitical; in fact, trying to state that is already a form of being political. In this sense, discussions about the existence or not of a political intention or implications are worthless here. Instead, more attention should be paid to identify the political consequences of the projects and to incorporate the artists’ interests in the processes. However, when politics becomes a relevant part of the artwork, projects could incorporate a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach both in methods and objectives.

An example of methodology could be the experimental geography that is becoming, in the last years, a growing field where collaboration among disciplines, people with different backgrounds, and the mix of art, science, technology and activism is working critically to create new understandings of space and new tools to empower local communities. The starting interest of these projects is the practice and in an inductive way the experimentation with (and creation of) spaces allows to theorize about the meaning of location. Nato Thompson (2008), the curator of an art exhibition called Experimental Geography, considers these kind of work as poetic, didactic, geologic and urban, and being most of all, empirical. In words of Trevor Plagen, who has coined the term:

The task of experimental geography, then, is to seize the opportunities that present themselves in the spatial practices of culture. To move beyond critical reflection, critique alone, and political “attitudes,” into the realm of practice. To experience with creating new spaces, new ways of being. (Paglen 2008)

Maps are key elements mediating the analysis, interpretation and creation of space, especially the interaction between territories and people. A large part of the works of experimental geography involves some form of cartography. Tactical cartographies are a methodology or an orientation for working with location on conflict areas proposed by the Institute for Applied Autonomy (2008). As they explain:

Extending these notions to spatial representation, then, we claim that "tactical cartography" refers to the creation, distribution, and use of spatial data to intervene in systems of control affecting spatial meaning and practice. Simply put, tactical cartographies aren't just about politics and power; they are political machines that work on power relations. (Mogel and Bhagat 2008: 30)

Experimental geography makes clear that maps are personal and subjective representations of spaces promoting a change in perspective. Therefore, maps shift from an objective product of the “cartographic science” to an interface for representing personal or collective views of places. Taking into account this alternative meaning, maps and the mapping practices become key tools of artists working with location. Besides that, new mapping technologies lower the barriers to entry (both in terms of cost and expertise) and are opening new opportunities for collaborative work.

The basic working hypothesis of experimental geography relates directly to the ideas of space proposed by Milton Santos (1988) because people and territory interact, as also stated by Thompson (2008) and it is grounded in the work of Henri Lefebvre (1991) and Guy Débord (1955). This approach to location is directly significant to artists allowing them to develop other forms of dealing with their artwork.

5. References

Coutts, Glen and Timo Jokela. 2008. Art, community and environment. Bristol, UK; Chicago, USA: Intellect Books.

Debord, Guy. 1955. Introduction to a critique of urban geography. Les Lèvres Nues #6, Nothingness.org. Accessed 2008. Available from:


Harrison, Steve and Paul Dourish. 1996. Re-place-ing space: The roles of place and space in collaborative systems. CSCW’96. Accessed 2008. Available from:


Kastner, Jeffrey and Brian Wallis. 2005. Land and environmental art. Themes and movements. London; New York: Phaidon Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The production of space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Mogel, Lize and Alexis Bhagat, eds. 2008. An atlas of radical cartography. Los Angeles, CA: Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press.

Paglen, Trevor. 2008. Experimental geography: From cultural production to the production of space. In Experimental geography, ed. Nato Thompson. New York: Melville House; Independent Curators International.

Relph, Edward. 1976. Place and placeness. London: Pion.

Santos, Milton. 1995. The environment issue: The challenges involved with building a interdisciplinary persperctive. Interfacehs. Accessed 2009. Available from:


Santos, Milton. 1988. Metamorfoses do espaço habitado: Fundamentos teóricos e metodológicos da geografia. São Paulo: Hucitec.

Santos, Milton. 2006. A natureza do espaço: Técnica e tempo, razão e emoção. São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo.

Thompson, Nato, ed. 2008. Experimental geography. New York: Melville House; Independent Curators International.

Tuan, Yi-fu. 2001. Space and place: The perspective of experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1990. Topophilia: A study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. New York: Columbia University Press.

[1] Paralelo URL: http://paralelo.wikidot.com/

[2] Our translation: “The space would be a set of objects and relations that develop over the objects; not specifically among them, but to the ones they serve as intermediates. The objectives help to concretize a set o relations. The space is the result of human action on the space itself, intermediated by natural and artificial objects.”

[3] Project call URL: http://polarcircuit.info/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1&Itemid=1

[4] Project URL: http://marin.cc/ecolocated_littoral_lives

[5] Giles Lane made a statement on that on a lecture he gave at IHAC/UFBA-Brazil, in March 2009.

[6] Giles Lane lecture at IHAC/UFBA-Brazil, in March 2009.

[7] Project URL: http://urbantapestries.net/

[8] Project URL: http://milkproject.net/

[9] Project URL: http://www.nomadicmilk.net/

[10] Project URL: http://www.canyouseemenow.co.uk/

[11] Festival URL: http://www.artemov.net/

[12] Project URL: http://lencois.art.br/

[13] Project URL: http://www.thedarkforest.tv/

[14] Group URL: http://www.i-am-ai.net/

[15] The BR163 Expedition URL: http://www.thedarkforest.tv/?page_id=27

[16] This is one of the most controversial roads in Brazil, where the transit is interrupted during the rain season (October – March) and the deforesting is an eminent problem generated by its construction.

[17] Nowadays it is still debated the effect of this road in the Amazon forest and its inhabitants. See article “Asfaltamento do trecho final da BR-364: a hora da verdade para a biodiversidade do Alto Juruá”


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