Distance Made Good: Installations using GPS to chart local topographies
Hamilton & Southern

Distance Made Good

Old and New Forms Conference: New Forms Festival 2004.

This paper discusses the collaborative installation works of Jen Hamilton (CA) and Jen Southern (UK). For this paper, specific texts by Michel De Certeau are referenced and used to explore the nature of GPS and walking as a process of discovery in its relationship to lived environments.
keywords: GPS, Mediated Movement, Technology and Embodiment, Lived Space, Urban streets, de Certeau.

This paper discusses our collaborative installations, in particular an ongoing series of works called "Distance Made Good." Here, specific texts are referenced as landmarks and are used to explore the nature of GPS and walking as a process of discovery in its relationship to lived environments. In this paper we chart our understanding of GPS technology in applying it to physical navigation of cultural space in cities. It features the GPS as a technology and a device that raises more questions than it answers.

In 2002 we were commissioned to make a work that linked the city of Stratford-upon-Avon with its sister city Stratford, in Ontario, Canada. We travelled to Stratford, Ontario to explore the place and to chart shared ground. We arrived at the beginning of an intense blizzard where we quickly realized that walking around a place with our heads down, eyes scrunched and hands deep in our pockets wasn't letting us see where we were. A 'physical' hindrance brought about by the weather limited our access to the experiencing of place.

When we visited Stratford England a cultural blizzard of sorts limited use. The heritage sites were preserved with such an intensity so as to intellectually "white-out" our sense of being in the place; it was difficult to tell the real from the simulated, or to chart our own course through space according to our own sensibilities without being distracted and influenced by tourist industry fabrications.

After these two preliminary research trips it occurred to us that the global positioning system might provide a means in which to physically navigate between two locations. We saw that it was a technology that offered to tell us where we were - at any given point despite physical or cultural hindrances - and prevent us from becoming lost. It was a way to make a physical tracing of a place and towards making experience tangible.

1.Triangulation As A Third Dimension: The GPS Device
It is useful here to explain briefly how GPS technology works. The GPS gives a singular representation of movement by receiving signals from geo-stationary satellites. This is different from traditional surveying instruments where the Earth's magnetism manipulates navigation instruments at ground level. In GPS technology the horizontal and planar relationship to the Earth is converted to a zenith - nadir relation, or highest point in the sky, to the lowest. Space is hierarchically reordered and one's position in navigating space isn't related exclusively to the ground. It is now also related to the sky.

From point to point, as the walker moves through space, the GPS device plots, making movement into a tracing or line drawing. As with the symbolic order of a map - read as it is from above as though looking down at the ground - the line drawings made with the GPS are 'read' as evocations of a sequence in space traversed through time, like a snail leaving a slime trail as it moves along, only in this case the slime trail is made from received satellite signals. Tracks become represented later after GPS coordinates are downloaded and interpreted by GPS software and displayed on a monitor.

In our work the GPS lines form the basis from which installations are made. Spatially investigated distant and twinned locations are compared to each other through individual date and location specific journeys. Local residents participate at this stage through direct collaboration, sharing with us, the regular routes they take on a daily basis. These shared experiences along with the purposeful routes we take generate the GPS lines, from which we make a third space later in installation.

With the GPS, space is interpreted according to drawn trajectories. This results in an abstracted construction of space. Space is thus mobilized and made into a ridged and Cartesian representation. With the sensibility of a place is suppressed sets of coordinates reduce the traversed space into an abstraction such that it seems hardly possible that the lines were made through the messy, earth bound dragging of one foot in front of another. Part of our investigation is to ask how we might reveal the walking - as grubby and ambiguous as it is - in the space traversed using such a uniform, and unambiguous technology of the GPS.

The satellite bird's eye view symbolized in the GPS line totalizes space taken from the actions of the walker. And so unlike the map, the GPS generates a representation of traversed space through actions taken at ground level. For us, this relationship and disparity between the detail of the walk and the whole of it in representation is important. The combined way in which the lines are generated - from above and from below - is a perplexing quality that is specific to GPS technology. The walk taken by a person through space is what generates the lines and makes the represented GPS lines seemingly more poignant and subjective than if they were simply charted out on a map, as space is rendered in what seems to be a far more direct and personal way. For us, an intriguing condition of this representation is the meagerness of the drawn line.
What is particular about these lines is that they only partially refer to the flavour and ambience of the experience of walking. Thus translated the enchanted world is forgotten and misunderstood despite the fact that to make a walk one really does move through space. We half expect a representation of walks to tell us something about where we've been, that in them they would carry the quality or have memory of what we did there. Walking is physical after all, kinesthetic and perhaps similar to the way dogs relate physically to a space they are in by rubbing their whole bodies in the dirt. The GPS device and lines exact an unambiguous, straight and narrow, technological representation of space. On the GPS screen are lines of routes taken, translated as liquid crystal strands. These linear pronunciations made by the device very quickly reduce movement in space into an abstraction. For us, our project then is to reinvest the GPS traces (as a form of represented space) with a remembering and an understanding, to bend the technology in order to capture the movement in space as an "enunciation."

Michel de Certeau calls walking an "act of enunciation" (de Certeau, 1989,97). "The walker's body follows the thicks and thins of an urban text" and writes space without being able to read it. The written text of the city for de Certeau is the "grammar" of the sidewalks and curbs. Its "legible order" found in signs posted in the streets is its infrastructure. Yet walking in the city has its own set of practices regardless of the rules or impositions put upon it by infrastructure. The walker enunciates space by moving through it in self determined ways. With this kind of reinterpretation of the urban planned code, the "desire paths" made by the walker who individuates space by walking where she wants to makes ambiguous the "legible" order given to the cities by city planners. Walks are creative and represent personal paths. The legible technology or order of the city becomes interesting with the people moving through it in specific ways, along their interconnected routes.

Even though the global positioning system's unambiguous code reduces walked paths to a set of coordinates, we can take these lined traces and begin to build a rigorous portrait of a place determined as it is by people walking through it. And like the walker who traverses through the city and enunciates space in a personal way, we interrogate the GPS technological representation of space in order to make ambiguous the 'legible' order of the technology.

The invisibility of the "city" - how it is used, its spatial nature, captured in movement - suggests that the GPS device can be used to reveal. But it only reveals in the way it is used on the ground, by the people who move through space. For de Certeau, the city is invisibly "enunciated" by bodies walking, like thoughts in the mind unspoken, or the gapped and fragmented space between "two lover's held in an embrace" (de Certeau, 1989:93). When we attempt to illuminate the space of a city, according to those that travel in and through it, we take the GPS device to the street level and walk with it as an agent that invisibly "writes" the city we cannot see. In the installation we re-represent the drawn lines that are texts of the city taken from the GPS of the space we travelled, and work to conjure the 'ground' level, "enchanting world", and thus reconfigure GPS representations. We envision a way in which to repair the 'gap' between represented space and the physical reality of walked space, to reconcile between the actual space walked and the meaning of spatial practices, towards the depiction or uncovering of a narrative, or a way in which to make the city visible.

2. The City Invisibly Enunciated
"Distance made good" is a navigation term meaning distance from your last position to your present position. In making the preliminary GPS line trajectories for "Distance Made Good" the artworks, we walked along a planned route, on the same day, in two separate cities sharing the same name. The way points along each route were chosen in advance, according to how we thought each city was represented through tourist landmarks. The mirrored way-pointed sites served to "twin" the two separate locations (both have a River Avon (including resident swans), a Shakespeare theatre; a public gallery (coincidentally sharing the same name); a train station and a foundational museum). The practice of naming a place after a "home land" town, as Stratford Ontario is named after Stratford-upon-Avon, suggests that the new place will in someway reflect, or even be like the home, original town. But here, it becomes confusing which place "in essence" is the original. This confusion is particularly pronounced because Stratford-upon-Avon relies economically on its 'birthplace' status through the re-creation and simulation of specific sites. Tourism in Stratford Canada is based in a much more straightforward way, on Shakespeare's plays, and any simulation there, in terms of tourist value happens principally through the act of naming. The waypoints we used in our route for the installation and in its research, represent loose concepts of what these two cities are for the tourist, and reveal a set of symbolic values shared by both locations. Combining the paths taken in the two cities together, the representation in a gallery creates a third space as an "interstitial hybrid" and uses metaphors that encompass the potential of "twinning," and the differentiation of the "tourist" spectacles.

The GPS lines are put into installations using tactile materials: rope, netting, cord, and sand bags. Our use of netting and lace in the installations - both time intensive physical handiwork in themselves - is important to the focus on the concepts surrounding the physicality of being space. In bringing both sites together at once, the installation shakes the viewer into a conscious identification of their own bodies in space. The physical arrangement in the installation reflects the main organizing principles from which the work is generated - namely mapping and the sensibility of actually walking through a space that has been realized using GPS to gather information. By manifesting the events of "walking" in a decorative format using "lace work," we re-familiarize the gallery space for those who participate with it, in a tangible way, towards the reinvention of the Stratford sites as more than their simulated identities.

Distance Made Good: Field Study done in 2003 uses GPS to trace a link between two other namesake locations: the municipality of Sherwood, Saskatchewan, Canada, and Sherwood Forest, UK - a tourist destination and home of the legendary outlaw 'Robin Hood'. Each site has been reinvented for recreation and mapped out for either a game of golf (as in, the Sherwood Forest Golf Course in Saskatchewan) or orienteering (as in Sherwood Forest orienteering course, in England). We again navigated these two "heterotopian" spaces on the same day, each with GPS devices in hand. And the work done in installation revealed the spectacle of myth making and flat representations of space as found in mapping as being slim and deficient portraits.

3. Creating the Social through Movement
We could perhaps characterize contemporary life by an individuals access to travel. There are diverse reasons for travel; for pleasure, for work, or out of necessity. This travel may be localized to one town, ranging across the country, or traversing the globe. The range and ease of travel between and within locations can be linked to social and cultural factors such as affluence, spare time, accessibility of transport, familiarity with geography, nationality, language, age and gender. This influences the way space is represented and thought about and the way it is actually experienced and moved through physically by the social, historical, and spatial constraints that punctuate its negotiation.

The "Distance Made Good" projects we have worked on have always used a GPS device in the research. We interrogate the technological limitations of the GPS representation of locale or 'place'. We enhance and manipulate its output through work done in installation. The concept that movement through space creates social realities is a main interest and thematic direction of "Distance Made Good" and the orientation point from which we discuss space, movement and technology. The concept that somehow movement through space creates the social is investigated by fashioning an active, living space in the installation. Travelled enunciations that are represented in the space of the gallery are changed into the third space where the interaction between two places happens. The manifesting of walking in a format that uses lace for instance, re-familiarizes the gallery space for those who participate with it, in a tangible way. The work invests the sites as being places more than their simulated identities.


De Certeau, M., 1989, The Practice of Everyday Life , University of California Press, Berkley.
Virilio, P., 1991, The Lost Dimension, Semiotexte, New York.

Jen Hamilton is an artist based in Saskatchewan, Canada. Her studio research investigates the connections and conflicts between sets of relations and kinaesthetic experience to question borders of knowledge and expand on the concept of the spatial imagination. The work proposes how something might work or what something is through a presentation of effects. Final pieces are dependent on narrative, evocations, and metaphor. She has exhibited in Canada and the UK.

Jen Southern is an artist based in Huddersfield, UK. Her process based collaborative practice investigates everyday journeys between virtual and physical spaces, which are navigated through socially embedded technologies such as video games and mobile phones. She is a senior lecturer at the University of Huddersfield. Selected Exhibitions: (UK) The Gallery, Stratford-upon-Avon; Yorkshire Sculpture Park; The Photographers Gallery, London; (International) Kunstraum Innsbruck, Austria; Arte Alameda, Mexico City; NPC, Bulgaria; DEAF, Rotterdam, Netherlands.


Beside Ourselves, Sometimes by Kris Cohen

Walk by Annie Gerin

Satellites by Derek Hales

Distance Made Good by Annabel Longbourne

Memory Maps by Emma Posey

Distance Made Good: Installations using GPS to chart local topographies by Hamilton & Southern

Unfeasible Symmetry by Hamilton & Southern

Copyright Hamilton, Southern & St Amand 2008.
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