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You are here. But where is that?

Sophea Lerner

Sophea Lerner is an Australian artist who lectures in media and sonic arts at the Centre for Music and Technology, Sibelius Academy, Finland. She is working on where are we eating?, a translocal sonic feast for ISEA 2004.

The Mobile Connections conference and exhibition at Futuresonic04 in Manchester brought together diverse creative and critical approaches to working with mobile media technologies. The event was also an opportunity to reflect on the way sound artists have dealt with location-specific experiences and the bearing these may have on current location-aware practices.

As devices become smaller and various wireless networks become more widespread, how does our ability to take our media with us affect the way we communicate and experience our surroundings? How do phones, handheld computers, GSM cell spaces and wireless internet nodes describe and define our movements in physical and data space? What are the personal cartographies, chorographies and choreographies of moving in and between street and media spaces? Where are we when we are on the phone, the radio, the internet and the bus?

Several works at Futuresonic employed GPS (Global Position System) technology, which uses signals from a network of satellites around the earth to deliver accurate positioning data via a device you can put in your car or hold in your hand. This technology is becoming cheaper. A couple of years ago the military scramble that made it less accurate for civilians was removed. Not surprisingly, it has fallen into the hands of artists, some of whom use it in works exploring interactions between mediated and direct experiences of time, place and motion. The work of Teri Rueb is one example.

By itself a GPS coordinate doesn’t tell you anything about how to get from one place to another. If the data has any significance it is in clarifying an existing relationship between the map and the territory. If it is to be interesting, then perhaps there must also be a relationship between the cartographic and what Gregory Ulmer calls the chorographic: the layering of meanings from places onto maps.

(area)code by Jen Southern used a simple SMS interface to exchange historical and personal data about specific sites in phone cell spaces around the city, building a layer of shared knowledge over the functionality of the city street plan. Other projects at Futuresonic simply allowed audiences to identify their own position on a map to indicate where they were in the work.

There are material constraints in working with mobile technologies, for example the models of consumption imposed by proprietorial wireless and GSM networks. Many practitioners are involved in encouraging different ways of working within these networks, or are setting up alternative environments within areas of the electromagnetic spectrum legislated for public use. Phonebook.com encourages people to become producers of mobile media by commissioning miniature literature and teaching people how to make their own ringtones and operator logos.

In Take2030’s performance Richair2030, renegade rollergirls surf the city connecting found wireless bandwidth into larger networks using homemade lunchbox computers. They present a cute invitation to think about who might control internet connectivity in a not too distant future “after the net.”

The collaborative DIY enterprise of community wireless networks has a more immediate practical application in the work of Free To Air and Consume, London-based wireless network projects who gave workshops at Futuresonic. An important feature of these networks is that the communities who use them are also responsible for maintaining them. Their viability depends on communication within a human network and on practical relationships of trust.

The question of trust is also explored in Uncle Roy All Around by Blast Theory, where the audience is invited to participate in a game on the streets of Manchester. Clutching handheld computers with a map of the game area, participants are sent out to find Uncle Roy. Help is provided in the form of instructions from Uncle Roy and guidance from online players offering advice that may or may not be spurious. The trail eventually leads into a flat, in which players are asked to complete a number of tasks. They then get into a car waiting outside with a stranger, who asks players to enter into a year-long relationship of mutual help and trust with one of the online participants, shifting and questioning the temporary suspension of values that can accompany game play.

This exploration of the provenance of information and the basis of social trust in remote interactions represents a much more interesting premise for participation than Blast Theory’s earlier project Can you see me now?, a hide and seek in which the performers ran around the streets catching online players. But the theatrical manner in which the question of trust was introduced and the fact that I received no follow-up made the commitment less tangible.

The sonic components of the conference and exhibition sat slightly awkwardly alongside the other elements of Futuresonic. The tentative juxtaposition of elements underlined the importance of bringing different perspectives together in the same context. For people working with sound, location recording has always been intimately tied to experiencing particular points in space and time as uniquely meaningful. Generically machine-readable coordinates such as GPS data or GSM cell IDs don’t carry meaningful information about places in and of themselves; they are only of interest if used in concert with other techniques and processes of making meaning.

Max Eastley’s narrative of travelling to the Arctic to record the bearded seal was a far cry from the abstract act of attaching sounds to map coordinates. The recordings were exquisite and moving documents of an extremely rare experience of place. Knowing the actual coordinates of the sites where the recordings were made would not, in this context, add any meaning to the sounds beyond the significance conveyed by his story.

Stepping back out of the gallery into the street, Akitsugu Maebayashi’s Sonic Interface was a superbly crafted composition of shifting temporal processes that reconstructed the sonic environment in real time. In doing so, the work completely shifted the participant’s perceptual relationship to their surrounds.

Wearing enclosed headphones and accompanied by a festival staff member to stop you walking under a truck, you move through the streets at your own pace for 15 minutes, along any path you choose. At first the sounds around you become detached from their origins, arriving several seconds late. Then sounds begin to layer and hang around you as aggregates of experience. Finally the sonic surrounds begin to utterly fragment into a mosaic of sound. By taking the separation between sound and its recording into such an extreme “almost” relationship with the direct sonic experience of place, this work underlines how meaning is made in the process of mediating our temporal experiences in situ.

Some of the questions that arose from engaging with these technologies at Futuresonic have been raised before, during the rise of the internet in the 1990s. How do we coordinate our experiences of layered virtual and actual realities? Who do we trust? Who has access to these spaces? As we move onto the streets with our gadgets and take our virtual selves for a walk, we encounter the performative, social, embodied aspects of interactions in a physical context to a greater degree than ever before.


Futuresonic Manchester, UK, April 27-May 8, www.futuresonic.com

Sophea Lerner is an Australian artist who lectures in media and sonic arts at the Centre for Music and Technology, Sibelius Academy, Finland. She is working on where are we eating?, a translocal sonic feast for ISEA 2004.

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 35

© Sophea Lerner; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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