Amsterdam RealTime Project

With the idea of performativity and subjectivity in mind, I chose to critique the maps from Amsterdam Real Time Project (ARTP). ARTP was a project developed by Waag Society and the artist Esther Polak between October and December of 2002. Waag is a middle ground organization that works both with grassroots initiatives and institutional partners across Europe. They focus on technologies as instruments for social change, and, as they describe themselves, operate at the intersection of “science, technology and the arts”. In this project, real-time data was collected from Amsterdam residents who volunteered to carry with them a portable device developed by Waag Society and equipped with GPS.

The data collected was displayed as white lines against a black background with no indication of the city boundaries or build environment — no city grid, no streets, no housing blocks. The real-time location data provided by GPS created a map that consisted exclusively of the movement of its participants. Yellow and red spots show routes or places which were visited more often. Blurry lines seem to indicate less visited routes, but could also indicate imperfection in the accuracy of their GPS system.

 

 

Through the performances of its own residents and the aid of new geospatial technologies a new map of Amsterdam could, then, come to life. The map itself was an ongoing experiment that changed according to each of the participants’ urban experiences. It was part of the exhibition Maps of Amsterdam 1866-2000, held at the Amsterdam City Archive. The Amsterdam RealTime Website still runs the visualization and hosts an archived website with the project’s information. While the maps available on the website have no legends, at the exhibition visitors could find an archive of each subject’s trace. Information included age, means of transportation, profession, and reflections on the project. The way the project is presented in the website makes it less self evident, I suppose, than it would have been to see it in a gallery.

Within a context where GPS is trivial as once it was to make a regular phone call, the ARTP maps can be taken for granted. However, these maps were produced in 2002, when GPS technology had recently become smaller and cheaper, private companies had just begun producing personal GPS products, and smartphones were nowhere close to being widespread consumer goods like they are today. As geospatial technologies were spreading in usage, and debate of their ethical and practical influence in both research and politics was gaining strength, ARTP had the intention of using GPS to “examine the mobile behavior of city users” (ARTP website).

ARTP is one of the projects that illustrates Mei-Po Kwan’s argument on how geospatial technologies can be used to call into question the objectivity of mapping practices. In her reading, GPS maps can combine the “objective and omniscient discourse of cartography with the subjective, grounded experience of the user” (2007, p.26). This point is particularly interesting if we consider that, despite having a specific geographic/spatial area, ARTP deliberately chooses to display the data against a black, empty background. While using GPS as mediator, their choice to obliterate the conventional map standards emphasizes the interest in utilizing technology for the portrayal of subjective trajectories. As Kwan points out, “through creating personalized maps of the city with the performances of their own bodies (recorded and visualized as GPS tracks), the project participants (who were all volunteers) were the authors (subjects) of these plots and at the same time were being portrayed in these maps” (2007, p.26).

Designed for the exhibition, these maps had Amsterdam residents as their main audience. They intended to show a map of Amsterdam that reflected new technologies, but also merged the gap between these technologies and people’s embodied experiences. Not only that, it seemed to allow the audience to visualize the differences between the various “cities” experienced by its many residents. As they explain, “when the different types of users draw their lines, it becomes clear to the viewer just how individual the map of Amsterdam can be” (website). More than a call for subjectivity, and for the performative aspect of socially constructed urban spaces, I assume (given Waag’s motto of using technology as instruments for social change) that these maps had the implicit intention of generating some sort of debate about social and spatial inequalities.

There are some things that interest me in the ARTP, and this week’s readings in particular. The first of them is that of a map’s performative nature, that is, the fact that it comes into being through the enactment/motion of its participants. That aligns with the idea already discussed in previous weeks that maps, and mapping strategies, have an inherently subjective character. Finally, within the dialectics of sociospatial relations these mapping strategies remind us that bodily and kinesthetic dynamics can serve as important strategies for the promotion of critical thinking (Parvanien, 2010), and potentially redefining sociospatial conditions.

As technologies evolve, the intersection between new geospatial technologies and redefinition of socialspatial conditions also touch upon very controversial areas. The ARTP experiment can be seen as some sort of prelude to the “surveillance society” we experience today. GPS is part of our daily lives, and in ways more sophisticated (and invasive) than designed by Waag in the 2000’s. With that in mind, I decided to re-do — in a way — the ARTP experiment using current tracking systems.

Earlier this semester my brother, who lives in Brazil, tried to convince me to install an app called “Life 360”. The app allows you to “view your family members on a map, communicate with them, and receive alerts when your loved ones arrive at home, school or work” (website). The app not only shows your current location in real time, it also registers the routes, addresses, and places you and those in your “circle” have been to in the past month. Very creepy, if you ask me, but also the perfect source of data for my prototype, since my whole family lives in the same city: Curitiba, Brazil.

So I installed the app — but only for academic purposes, of course. I picked a date — November 14th — and gathered the maps of the routes of my parents and both my brothers.

Without the possibility of showing the map creation in real time, I wanted to try and somehow convey the idea of motion. I also wanted to incorporate the viewer’s perspective — it seemed to fit within the new context of evolving technologies, with Google Street View and other navigation technologies. So I combined the routes of Curitiba with a sequence of pictures I took during a train ride between Jaipur and Delhi, India, in the Summer of 2017. The different sizes of each layer represents motion, as the train approached stations and urban areas.

When combining these two maps from two distinct geographical areas I also had in mind psychogeographical experiments. One of the most famous psychogeographical experiments is the one of navigating one city using a different city’s map. Given psychogeography’s influence on the study of the effects of geographical environment on emotions and behavior of individuals, my combination of two maps from Global South geographies seemed like an interesting way of promoting their encounter. Finally, the man entering the picture is supposed to reference the characters portrayed in the borders of old maps (like the ones in Carte de Tendre), the ones who invite you into the maps. As if inviting you to go on a journey, the man also intends to remind us of the performative and subjective character of mapping practices.

References:

Mei-Po Kwan, “Affecting Geospatial Technologies: Toward a Feminist Politics of Emotion,” The Professional Geographer 59:1 (2007): 22-34.

Jaana Parviainen, “Choreographing Resistances: Spatial-Kinaesthetic Intelligence and Bodily Knowledge as Political Tools in Activist Work,” Mobilities Journal Vol. 5 No. 3, 1 September 2010.

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