Location, location, location

11 February 2013 | Articles, Non-fiction

Before GPS: compass and and gimbal, 1570. Picture: Wikimedia

Before GPS: compass and and gimbal, 1570. Picture: Wikimedia

Art that requires navigation systems? Whatever next. In his column poet and writer Teemu Manninen wonders whether literature can function as ‘locative’. How to blend technology and art? Perhaps literature too might expand from the printed word

What if the Romantic poet John Keats had never published his poetry in print – if his works had been distributed only in manuscript form and read only by his friends and acquaintances? Had that been the case, the only way of hearing his poetry would have been at the salons and informal clubs that took place in literary people’s homes, at coffee houses, or other meeting places.

Keats might not even have, most likely, been in attendance himself, but maybe someone had a copy of a copy of a fragment of a poem that they might read to the gathered intellectuals and gentlefolk. You would have to have known the right people, have to have been at the right place at the right time to hear ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ read for the first and perhaps for the last time ever.

Or, what if Joyce had never intended for Ulysses to be published for the great reading public at all? What if, instead, he had left copies of each chapter around Dublin in the places where those chapters take place; what if, page by page, he had distributed his work in the actual locations of the events as they happened in his imagination?

Such things happen. In his novel Spook Country (2007), William Gibson gave us a portrait of an emerging field of art: locative art, meant for consumption in a specific place, at the same time virtual and real, bound to defined coordinates on the global positioning satellite navigation system or GPS.

This kind of art would be able to be seen only with devices able to ‘see’ the virtual hiding within or behind real space. For instance, in Gibson’s novel, an artist makes digital sculptures of film stars’ corpses to be displayed in the places where they died (like River Phoenix outside the Viper Lounge) via special glasses that allow viewers to see them.

Since then, locative art has moved from being a subject of speculative fiction to an emerging, innovative avenue of exploration.

Locative media that encompasses and interconnects such fields as design, communication and navigation technology, digital and media art, sculpture, artificial intelligence and all kinds of other science-fictional and desperately cool things.

But most of these locative media – and therefore locative art – seem to have something to do with images and sound: they are mostly audiovisual, at most a platform for text-based communication. I find myself thinking, what would locative literature be like?

We think of literature tied to the written and printed word, to the page or at most to the screen, but more and more people listen to audiobooks these days, and text-to-speech technology is available and is used constantly in business and for other purposes.

There are projects which seem to lead the way, such as Hackney Hear, an application for your smartphone which lets you listen to different stories and conversations based on your GPS location around the London Fields area, or Dublin Literary Walking Tour, which guides you around Dublin based on famous events in literature. A similar product, Sonic Maps, makes it possible to build your own version of this kind of locative storytelling by allowing users to place audio files in GPS locations for anyone to listen.

The problem with these examples, however, is that they are tied to commercial devices or commercial uses. One would have to own a smartphone in order to enjoy these artworks the way they are supposed to be experienced.

Some artists or designers interested in location offer alternative approaches by simply using location as a theme or a method in a more conceptual piece of work, meant to open up new kinds of ways of thinking about and generating meanings. One is James Bridle’s experiment A Ship Adrift, where he sent a virtual drone flyer on a journey following winds wherever they might take it. The ‘drone’ would then gather location-based data from the areas it passed over in order to generate texts from them, a kind of log-book written by a lonely robot that doesn’t know where it is.

‘Is it literature, though’, I hear an average reader asking, and well, probably to them, no it isn’t. What would be? I suspect that locative literature, if such a thing will ever exist, will have to be something more than a kind of radio broadcast tied to a spot of dirt, or an interactive map of Dublin that lets you find the pub where Leopold Bloom had a pint.

It will also have to be less conceptual and more (let’s say) spiritual – a kind of incarnation of genius loci, or a translation of place into text – but in doing so, it will also have to deal with the fact that the space in which literature resides is not the real world, and has never been: literature lives in the mind as much as it does on the page.

To overcome this insistent fact, I believe locative literature ought to be something which would return either materially, digitally or in whatever newfangled technological way to how the poetry of Keats would have lived if it had never been published: to be heard or read only at the right place and at the right time. A kind of samizdat literature of the future perhaps?

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