Locative Literacy

By Saul Albert, 13 July 2004

The new media art world is in a lather about ‘locative media’. Writing in the run-up to this new genre’s big debut at Futuresonic in Manchester earlier this year, Saul Albert keeps his cool

‘Locative media’ is an unstable or ‘test’ category for artwork that utilises media which can express an index of spatial relationships. It is also a test-category for a group of people who have been assembled under the banner of[1] The first large public trial of this test-category will be at the Futuresonic festival in Manchester April 27 – May 8, 2004 []. As usual, its consolidation will involve focusing attention and criticism on the early proponents of the term – the individual artists, technologists and critics who have been using it. At the same time there will be a struggle to wrest some kind of meaning from ‘locative media’ that is not so specifically linked to the group in order for a wider group to then use it to define their own practices, fitting into the category as it gathers institutional credibility and becomes the basis for grants and exhibitions.

The question of whether or not ‘locative media’ becomes an institutional category hangs in the balance. If the group can relinquish ownership of the term while bolstering its critical development, the bid might well succeed. If the process is too messy or the critical discourse too weak, it will go the way of ‘holographic art’. These criticisms are intended to catalyse this process, whichever way the term goes.


Much of the writing and talking about ‘locative media’ in art is redolent of early ’90s uncritical technology evangelism, and the technology-led art that sprang from it. In fact, this seems to be one of the areas where artists can still get away uncriticised for acting as poorly paid advertising executives for the R&D laboratories of technology companies (see any ‘locative media’ work by Blast Theory – But worse, a parallel development of this process has emerged from the technology market slump and the relative lack of venture capital available to technologists. Art-led technology development has seen artists and arts administrators writing funding proposals to art institutions in order to get technology developed. Needless to say the economies of free software production, artistic subjectivity and art-institutional imperatives do not mesh well. The danger is that these art-led technology developments damage themselves technologically by placing artists at the helm, and artistically by turning the artists into PR agents on the one hand, and reputation parasites on the other; sucking up fame value from the successful delivery of the project, and mediating the genuinely fascinating ideas of the technologists to the public and the arts institutions who then credit the artists for them. (This prognosis is based on an uncharitable and widely applicable observation of how Free Software has been used in art practice – my own included).

PYSCHOGEOGRAPHY WITHOUT THE CRITIQUEAlgorithmic psychogeography, the term used by Socialfiction [] to describe their rule-based dérives through the city, is not just a development, but actually a fundamental reversal of the critical use of this Situationist practice. Wandering the city, allowing its flows and vectors to push the walker along and through it reveals, in outline, the spatial imperatives of the urban planners. Imposing an arbitrary rule set on decisions to turn left or right removes the critical/analytical basis for this practice leaving behind a randomly predetermined tour. Not that this is a problem in itself; spaces of intensity and ambiguity are still accessible to ‘dot.walkers’,[2] whichever methodology they use to get there, and the sharp, deadpan humour of socialfiction’s discourse does re-introduce a kind of meta-critique of their practice, but always focused inwards to a critique of the software; the location becomes peripheral.

SITE-SPECIFICITY WITHOUT THE CRITIQUEThe use of media with an indexical relationship to space, often a specific space and set of social relationships, bears comparison to discourses surrounding site-specificity. This term itself, which has been a very successful test-category (now fully institutionalised), has a critical language and context that ‘locative media’ has not yet encountered. This is partly due to the technology-centric trend of many ‘locative media’ projects that has led most critics and pundits to adopt technology-centric media critique when examining them. Site-specificity itself is also in need of a critical revision. Its re-use today is often poorly disguised recuperation and normalisation of highly politicised events and topics as melancholic, aestheticised cultural history. A definition of the term in the Exploding Cinema’s Dictionary of Video Art sums this up neatly:

‘Site Specific: Locations and environments may have some kind of drama or meaning for ordinary people (e.g. a dole office) but this has no significance for the bourgeoisie until interpreted by the heightened sensibilities of the artist.’– from

The same is true of locative media’s relationship to ‘participative’ art, another troublesome art genre that is currently undergoing critical revision. The necessary revision entails an examination of the political economy of exchange in artistic projects that demand the involvement of ‘participants’. This analysis is notably missing from the critical environment surrounding locative media projects such as Esther Polak and Leva Auzina’s MILK project: an ‘artistic mapping’ of the delivery and export routes of several small-scale Latvian milk farms (see: MILK project uses the farmers and their work as subjects, but there does not seem to be any attempt to create a situation where there can be an exchange of ideas and value that becomes meaningful for both artists and ‘participants’.


These criticisms are harsh, but necessary. Locative media is problematic, but by no means useless. The fact remains that the battlegrounds of information politics have shifted from the net – where authority is now comfortably intangible and decentralised – back to physical reality where network-savvy authorities are attempting to consolidate even tighter control over localities and the bodies in them. Without the development of free software, copyleft devices, global networked resistance and open publishing frameworks, resistance on the net really would be futile. Mobile, location-sensitive devices, semantic mapping and data aggregation, biometric surveillance, distrust networks: these tools will be deployed on the street and across the body. By experimenting with these tools and technologies, developing open formats such as RDF, and free software tools for manipulating and exploiting location-based devices and media, or developing low-tech hacks that do the job better than the expensive gadgets, locative media practitioners are keeping the technologies close to the ground, available for hacking, re-wiring and re-deployment in non-authoritarian ways.

On a less technologised level, artwork that operates with locative media is not just about the public communication of this interesting new technological form. Nor is it necessarily austere and overtly political. Locative media art at its best enhances locative literacy. The ability to read, write, communicate is vital for any person needing to act, take power, to have agency. An awareness of how flows and layers of information intersect with and augment a person’s locality, and the ability to intervene on this level is a further extension of this literacy, and of their agency.

So whatever happens to ‘locative media’ as a test-category for art, it is vitally important that these investigations and discourses are taken up and examined, if any kind of resistance to locative mass media is going to be possible ten years from now.


[1] Locative media is not necessarily artwork, and the groups and individuals on are not necessarily artists, but the terminology is being used as a test-category for art[2] The pseudo-programming language produced by to describe and process instructions for walking. See: Albert <saul AT> is a curator bater, faculty member of the University of Openess [] and member of artist’s collective Twenteenth Century []