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2005 11 11
Ghosts of Geography and the Montreal Wireless
by tobias c. van Veen

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Montréal, your drunken streets, wandering in snowbound tracks, wrapped erotic before the chill, coming late and half-naked, blistering in heat...

That’s what I should be writing, or the ghost of Leonard Cohen, before he went Buddhist & clean, spouting epiphanies into the cheap streets of the late-night... but now the kids are into technology they tell me, and get off on USB hubs plugged into orifices of data. And given that this is a design blog of sorts, and into things of the tech-savvy sort, grant me the bytes to talk a bit about a wireless art project I recently curated in the city called SonicScene. It’s to be found on the local Île-sans-Fil network (ISF). ISF is a non-profit, community run and open source collective that sets up free wireless hotspots throughout the city of Montréal in partnership with businesses and locations (like cafes, other NPOs, libraries and the like) [see also previous post]. Modelled after groups in NYC, Sonoma County and elsewhere they’ve taken it a bit further and rewritten the opensource NoCat server software, which creates a localized network among wireless hotspots, into something called WiFiDog.

One major accomplishment is that WiFiDog runs on a normal, at-home style internet router you can buy off-the-shelf – it doesn’t require a full computer server. Second, it offers a fairly sophisticated level of localized networking by including locative functionality (tieing each hotspot to a specific geography / unique identifier, and thus splash page, specific content designated solely for that hotspot or region, etc.). At each free wireless hotspot, when you pop open your web browser there is a localized login page complete with location-specific content as well as (in this case) Montréal-wide content.

Which may or may not be confusing in this description but is actually quite simple – it brings the Net back down to Earth, so to speak.

And which provides the perfect interface for localized art – art that develops ties to a specific locale, either in its production (the recording of sound or video, say, from the surrounds) or in its intent, impression, expression or other technique. Localized technology especially lends itself, in a myriad of ways that are both correlative to but also in contradiction with, the 1950s and 1960s approach to psychogeography developed by the Situationist International (SI) (see Data Footprints / Empreintes Sonores).

The art itself, from a curatorial and artistic standpoint, offers varied approaches to its historical inheritance to psychogeography, a lineage often claimed by the artists themselves, and not without attendant charges of avoiding the socio-political analyses and practices of the SI that abhor the seductions of spectacle – notably technology. The curatorial hypothesis of the project was to explore exactly this region of how artists who consider themselves practicing variants of psychogeography (or even as psychogeographers) do so in the 21C. Under these conditions locative technology offers a way to address the condition of the connected, the online (the “virtual” in the popular sense) within the matrix of spectacle (and thus artistic détournement). This is an inclusion that simply wasn’t possible during the heyday of Debord, the SI, COBRA et al. and which speaks to not only a virtual condition “in general” but of the Net’s virtuality insofar as it “grounds itself” in locative and increasingly embedded technospheres. Whether this remains exclusive from or applicable to Debord’s analysis of spectacle – in itself a détournement of Marx and Lukács among others – remains to be seen and can only be charted in its actual complexity by mapping the interaction between virtual netspace and the world as it exists in 2005, a cartographic intervention increasingly interwoven through and through by, in Debord’s terms, the machinations of a society of spectacle where, and we must put it all in brackets, “even” the “real” is “produced” as “media.” Perhaps, truly, even claiming that artistic production is more highly implicated now than the ‘60s is already rejecting Debord’s radical negation of the artistic project as-such, and insofar as I was interested in seeking artists who might go so far as to negate their practice in favour of the political force of psychogeography, I have yet to find anyone committed to such a level (or, to détourn-ing détournement as a suitable response – the dialectic en proces). Rather, or at least prima facie, psychogeography in the 21C remains a set of practices to be explored under a rubric of art that sees only minor border skirmishes within its discipline rather than the kind of overarching if not atom-bomb like critique launched by Debord with his black-out of cinema, initiated by the inflammatory showing of Howlings for de Sade at Cannes in 1952, prefaced by his claim that “There's no film. Cinema is dead. There can't be film any more. If you want, let's have a discussion.”

To that end there is still much to experience with SonicScene which is available across 20 odd hotspots (give or take) in Montréal (see map). Michelle Teran works with surveillance cameras that broadcast or report home via wireless CCTV (Closed-Circuit TeleVision), capturing images and sounds from these cameras to produce videos “grounded” to the locale, and thereby opening questions of the significance of surveillance when so much of it remains so empty, a recording of absence, if not the city’s “eyes of loneliness.” Kate Armstrong’s deployment of a linguistic system that recombines poetic fragments based on one’s login history to various hotspots follows from the work of Conceptual artists of the 1960s investigating the properties of language (“Art as Idea as Idea”), while materializing digitally processed thought into individualized “experiences” of poetic recombination that raises nagging questions concerning the agency of poetic thought when order (from the random, although limited set) can be digitally derived. Michelle Kasprzak’s as-yet unfinished work of locative foley (the recreation of a specific locale’s sonic atmosphere using cinema and radio foley techniques) injects a humourous recreation of the banality of much of the cityscape (traffic, coffee-cup chatter, etc.). My own work, as a sound interventionist, coordinating maps between Taiwan and Montréal with artist ssiess (based in Taiwan at the time), produces a reworking of the COBRA/Situationist maxim to walk one city with the map of the other. This experimental, as in hypothetical or situation-based art opened rewarding synchronicities and disjunctions between maps and territories, leading to a remixing of the two cities into surrealist and sonic topographies accompianed by taxonomies of images. In turn the dual cityscape is relayered in the imaginary and experienced through the in-between netherworld of the “virtual” hotspot, neither properly in Montréal – whisked away by sound and image to a “correlative” locale in Taiwan – nor in Taiwan either, where ssiess utilized a Montréal map to “find” locations in Taiwan (often by asking locals, who were not surprised at the map’s apparent “’inaccuracies” to Taiwan’s sprawling megacity).

All of these artistic concepts and deployments operate well at the cusp of such art, although whether they approach the experiential wandering grasped by the young Leonard Cohen, who passed from tekhne to theos and on into nothingness, also remains to be mapped – or perhaps not mapped at all. Terra Incognita.

tobias c. van Veen is Concept Engineer at the Society for Arts and Technology (SAT) in Montréal and doctoral candidate in Philosophy and Communication Studies, McGill University. He is also a practitioner of the technology arts and a turntablist.
[email this story] Posted by Sophie Le Phat Ho on 11/11 at 04:37 PM

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