buchster_adrian on Tue, 2 Apr 2002 20:15:02 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] NYTimes.com Article: Drawing (and Doodling) With Countryside as Canvas

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Drawing (and Doodling) With Countryside as Canvas

April 1, 2002 



In his 1939 novel "Goodbye to Berlin," Christopher
Isherwood famously decreed, "I am a camera." By the same
logic, the British artist Jeremy Wood must be a pen.
"That's right," Hugh Pryor, Mr. Wood's collaborator, said,
"and I'm the piece of paper." 

But the two artists are not, as Isherwood would have it,
merely passive recorders of passing scenes. Instead, they
ramble across the English countryside and crisscross
small-town streets to create their art: enormous virtual
drawings of a fish, a boat and other figures that become
visible only when the path of each journey is reproduced
later, at a smaller scale, on the Internet. 

To document their miles-long renderings, these artists use
the Global Positioning System. This network of 24
satellites emits signals that allow anyone's location on
earth to be identified within a few yards. The same
technology is installed in cars to help drivers to avoid
getting lost. 

As if they were skywriting on the ground, the artists trace
a route for, say, a gigantic elephant over the streets of
Brighton. Mr. Pryor described their role as tool as well as
artist. "Using your position, you're the tip of the pen,"
he said. They carry a hand-held receiver that calculates
where they are and limns their movements on its tiny
screen. Mr. Pryor has written a program that converts the
raw logistical data, which can span miles, into a smaller
digital image that can be shown on a screen-size canvas - a
Web site at www.gpsdrawing.com. 

In small but growing numbers, digital artists are making
the Global Positioning System their brush or pencil. Like
traditional artists, each employs this technology for
vastly individual creations. For instance, some Italian
artists are using the system to track their daily
movements, which are posted on maps on their Web site as
part of a project on the perils that electronic data
gathering poses to personal privacy. 

Why the sudden interest in a space-age technology that has
been kicking around for two decades? For one thing, the
government lifted restrictions in 2000 that had prevented
the public from running the system with the same accuracy
as the military. Meanwhile, the receivers have become
smaller, lighter and, most important, cheaper, with some
models selling for less than $200. The system is best known
as a navigational aid for cars and boats, and it is
occasionally used to lead hikers on treasure hunts, a
practice known as "geocaching." 

The Global Positioning System is not strictly considered
part of the Internet, but it is a close cousin. Both are
invisible networks of digital information. The Internet is
everywhere and nowhere at any moment. On the other hand,
the Global Positioning System tells you where you are in
the datasphere. 

Laura Kurgan, a New York artist and architect who made an
artwork based on the positioning system in 1995, said it
appealed to artists because it crossed the boundaries
between the real and virtual. When she carries a receiver,
she said, the system converts her physical location into a
digital map. "It's a very poetic instrument," she said.
"You walk around, and it's not drawing you, it's drawing a
map. So it's an instant translation from one medium into

The virtual drawings of Mr. Wood and Mr. Pryor also have
antecedents in art history. Like the ancient Nazca line
drawings in Peru, the carvings on Stone Mountain in Georgia
or Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty," the British artists
treat the landscape as their canvas. In recognition of
this, last fall they hiked an 8.5-mile path to trace
digitally the shape of the large white horse that was
etched into a chalky hillside 3,000 years ago near their
homes in Oxfordshire. 

Mr. Wood is driven by the same imperative as any
traditional artist of the past. "My work has always been
about drawing," he said, "and this was a logical
progression. I just saw this as an opportunity with this
medium to make drawings that could be of an incredible
scale. Initially it was great fun and semi-serious. But the
more one thought about it, the more there was to it." 

Their first drawing was executed in November 2000. The
pair, who had met in art school, were studying photocopies
of local maps, looking for familiar shapes they could color
with felt-tip markers, a Rorschach sort of exercise with
roadways instead of inkblots. 

Discerning a fish around the village of Wallingford, they
followed the route and used Mr. Wood's hand-held receiver
to map the car journey. Three hours and 67 rain-soaked
miles later, their fish was complete. Pubs tend to be
featured in stories about British artists, so naturally the
pair opted to proceed with the project over jars of bitter
at the King's Arms in Oxford. They also decided to exhibit
their work online. "You can't go around showing everyone
your picture of a fish on a G.P.S. screen," Mr. Pryor said.

Since then, they have made about two dozen drawings,
including a butterfly around Nottingham and the face of a
professor around Oxford. Most routes are marked out in
advance, but they also experiment with free-form drawings,
which are sometimes made by attaching a receiver to a
friendly pet and letting it go. To make the most abstract
drawing, Mr. Wood said, "the tricky thing is to get the
least obedient dog." 

Others, like a San Diego glider pilot, have started to
contribute drawings to the site. Mr. Wood said recognizable
shapes would be harder to create in the United States,
where many towns are laid out in a grid. This may explain
why no one has yet sketched a portrait of David Letterman
or Derek Jeter over Manhattan. 

The two Italian artists behind the 0100101110101101.org Web
site are employing the Global Positioning System to quite
different effect. Since late January, the anonymous duo has
been using the system to track their location. Every time
they make a mobile-phone call, the data is sent to their
computer and their location is updated on a map on the
site. One can see where they live in Barcelona, and that
they visited Germany last week. 

The new project is an extension of their ongoing "Life
Sharing" project, which makes the total contents of their
computer, from software to e-mail messages, available to
all who visit their site. As this online performance
expands to include their exact location, we learn even more
about them, and about how much of people's personal lives
is at risk of exposure as banal tidbits of electronic
information are accrued by others. "We are lab rats for the
information-technology era," the duo's male artist said. 

Other art projects involving the Global Positioning System
are under way. A team in Germany is creating a
computer-based audio book that uses the system to control
what its "readers" hear in headphones as they stroll
Berlin's streets. Depending on where they stand, they may
listen to different characters' voices. In Singapore, the
Tsunamii.net group has been using the system to act as a
remote Internet browser, with Web pages in a museum gallery
changing as a real-world traveler crosses certain points. 

And later this year, Mr. Wood and Mr. Pryor may exhibit
some of their dog-made drawings in a gallery exhibition
called, aptly enough, "Bathos." Acknowledging that some
might question the use of such high-flying technology for
such a barking-mad purpose, Mr. Pryor said, "It's a bit
like using a laser in a top fusion laboratory to cook a
baked bean."


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