Chapter 9: Paths of Movement: Negotiating Spatial Narratives Through GPS Tracking

by Lone Koefoed Hansen

Chapter Abstract:

As GPS technologies are embedded into mobile devices—and thus everyday life—it has become common to track the location and trajectories of humans as well as objects. While knowing where people and things actually are and have actually been can be interesting, by also engaging with the lives and (hi)stories of both “nomad” and location, factual data is transformed into narrative potential. When location data is layered with everyday life, spatial narratives emerge. This chapter analyzes the artistic practice of Dutch media artist Esther Polak, who demonstrates how location data can be brought to life as narrative material and as a storytelling tool. With her GPS receiver, Polak experiments with ways of accessing and discussing the many (spatial) narratives that humans, animals, machines, and goods (e.g. dairy products) create in their everyday trajectories. Through an analysis of Polak’s works, and with theoretical reference to Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and French theorist Michel de Certeau, this chapter discusses how mobile media seem to facilitate an informed (re)engagement with space and the spatial narratives that unfold when people and objects disclose the personal, national, and global stories that are expressed through their paths of movement.


Hands-On Exploration:

This performative exercise takes place during class.

The purposes are, amongst others:

  • to discuss what mapping represents on an individual and then collective scale. 
  • to be able to discuss the difficulty in translating an everyday route as experienced on the ground to a representation that we associate with the accuracy and ‘objective’ measurings from technologically mediated forms of mappings, for instance by help of the GPS.
  • to make participants able to discuss why their perception of the space might be different than what other participants believe.
  • to make participants able to discuss how the space they travel through is always mediated and ‘narrated’ by different kinds of representations, be they official maps, GPS trackings, verbal descriptions and mental pictures.

What you need:

  • an outdoor space big enough to fit everyone and on which you are able to and allowed to draw and can do so without being run over by cars
  • chalk (if the ground is dry)
  • heavily colored water (if snow). I recommend adding browning sauce or dark soy sauce to water bottles, each participant can use their own and just add color.

With the teacher in the middle, participants form a large circle. All participants carry either a piece of chalk or a bottle of colored water.

Teacher draws a circle or square around him/her, making this represent the spot where we are.

Participants are asked to position themselves in the circle according to the direction where they came from to get here.

Participants are asked to close their eyes for 30 seconds and concentrate on the route that was taken to arrive here.

Participants are asked to step back as much as is needed to make the scale to the circle be fitting. Problems concerning the scale should be solved by mutual agreement without the teacher interfering.

Participants are then asked to draw their trip from starting point to the teacher’s circle or square. Participants can either be asked to refrain from talking while drawing or they can be asked to talk if they need to, as long as they refrain from negotiating the position of particular spots that several participants might pass en route.

The result will be a fairly messy and crowded drawing that in a way represents the area between the homes of all participants and the place where teaching takes place.

This space is similar to the space that Esther Polak explores in her Nomadic MILK project where she investigates the individual stories made when different types of people move through the same land.

While still in the collective drawing, the teacher should start discussing what this drawing represents. I normally start by asking participants to go to the place on their line that represents a particular landmark. I repeat this a few times, looking for a number of examples where several participants have passed this landmark but where there is very little consistency in the position of this landmark in the drawing. By asking participants to go to the point on the drawing where this landmark is, the many versions of “here it is” will make it clear that mapping and representations of space depends on the individual interpretation (and thus story) that lies in the chalked line — for someone who takes the bus, distances and the landscape features will mean something else than for the person walking, driving in a car or biking. The goal is to make participants realize these differences (which they have rarely thought about this concretely before) and use this realization to discuss mapping practices like the ones by Polak or, for that matter, sports applications like RunKeeper that keep track of you pr GPS and where you need to consult several representations of the run in order to understand the topography of the land and by inference then also the ways that this topography influences your running.

*Note: this assignment is inspired by the projects done by Esther Polak.