Mobility as Freedom in Critical Art and New Media pt. 1 (2006)

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We drove on, crushing beneath our burning wheels, like shirt-collars under the iron, the watch dogs on the steps of the houses.
F.T.Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto (1909)

All the world is a node, babies.
William Pope L., CEO, The Black Factory (2006)

Throughout modernity, freedom has been associated with movement, and movement with subjecthood; an immobilized person is typically less than a person. This has been as true for art as for commerce, and is increasingly part of new media discourse. Movement is often especially privileged by artists and activists who, aided by spatial theory, frame their practices as re-constituting freedom through movement against a dominant force.

At least one problem with this valorization of mobility is that movement by modernity’s critics is often hard to distinguish from movement by its heroes. How different is Marinetti than the protagonists of The Fast and the Furious, or the heroic off-road traveler of S.U.V. advertisements? Is the Situationist walker so different from the cosmopolitan iPod-wearer of Apple’s television commercials? As cultural critique is easily absorbed into pursuit of capital, at best these similarities present a problem for those who claim to be reclaiming subjecthood through movement. At worst, such uncritical identification of movement with freedom is naive to the potential for abuse.

With so many artists and technologists taking up mobile media forms, it’s time (or perhaps past time) to stop and examine the assumptions at the heart of such work. Movement occurs in physical space, informational space, imaginative space, and increasingly as combinations of these three (Hannam, Sheller and Urry, 2006). We need to encourage a critical discourse about how movement is used, by whom, and to what ends. Thankfully, the social sciences are way ahead of art and new media communities on this. In this paper I will apply some recent scholarship on mobility to a few examples from art and new media. Where art makes claims to freedom, it makes claims to power. In a climate where even work that is explicitly critical of power gets attention by major institutions, it is vital that we analyze these claims closely.

In his essay for the recently debuted journal Mobilities, Peter Adey provides a helpful overview of some different approaches to movement within the social sciences. He summarizes two frequent and unsatisfactory approaches before moving on to introduce what he sees as a more productive set of possibilities.

Sedentarist approaches, according to Adey, lament the role of movement in the production of “non-places” such as roads and airports. They characterize the places where we spend time and create meaning as immobile, and perhaps seek to return a sense of place or even community to “non-places” through slowness or cessation of movement. Others, sometimes in a reactionary move against sedentarism, see in the promise of movement a “nomadic metaphysics.” Adey writes:

In this schema, mobility is constructed as a means to transgress power structures through both material and metaphysical domains. Seen primarily in scholarship influenced by the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1988), though not necessarily in their own work, power structures of domination are given fixed and immobile characteristics, while mobility is attributed with an emancipatory power (Cresswell, 1997).

Contrary to either of these approaches, Adey and others in “mobility studies” work from an assumption of a world in constant flux, in which people, data, things, and power flow through movement from source to source. Perception of stasis, in one of Adey’s most interesting propositions, may simply be the result of representing these exchanges; like a photograph, hegemonies accrue the power of seeming immobility and permanence through still representation of their processes. Importantly, this world of flows and flux is no futurist vision of neutral particulate matter – rather, every systematic mobility requires an infrastructural mooring. Movement for one often requires another to be less mobile.

Behind much of this helpful work on mobility is the writing of Doreen Massey. In her 1994 essay “A Global Sense of Place,” Massey describes a slow zoom from terrestrial orbit, in which more and more geometries of movement fall into view. We advance from the movement of data between satellites to the movement of planes, people and goods between continents, to the movement of funds as a result of these traversals, to the movement of cars within cities, to the movement of a single woman in sub-Saharan Africa, moving water all day on foot. From this beautiful narrative Massey then concludes:

Now I want to make one simple point here, and that is about what one might call the power geometry of it all; the power geometry of time-space compression. For different social groups, and different individuals, are placed in very distinct ways in relation to these flows and interconnections. This point concerns not merely the issue of who moves and who doesn’t, although that is an important element of it; it is also about power in relation to the flows and the movement. Different social groups have distinct relationships to this anyway differentiated mobility: some people are more in charge of it than others; some initiate flows and movement, others don’t; some are more on the receiving-end of it than others; some are effectively imprisoned by it.

Massey’s work, and that of others who have since expanded on her call, is vitally relevant to the practice and critique of art that explores mobility, especially art which claims to reconstitute subjectivity or freedom. She urges us to ask “whether our relative mobility and power over mobility and communication entrenches the spatial imprisonment of other groups.” Her work also invites us to attend to and name the distinct physical, social, economic and informational flows that intertwine to constitute the places where we work and live.

Agency is not here constituted in movement itself, but in the exchange of immobility for mobility, or in the relative motilities (potential for mobility) of different people. This is a world in which movement is a given, not an abstract phenomenon to valorize or eschew. Generalized or decontextualized descriptions of movement are unhelpful, because mobility is not structurally transgressive, liberational or inherently anything. We must look at each manifestation of mobility closely to examine what its unique form produces.

This is an admittedly difficult task when interpreting some of the more complex examples of works by artists who deal in mobility. The Center for Tactical Magic’s Tactical Ice Cream Unit, for example, exists at a unique intersection of mobilities for each site along its national tour. Yet within its stated mission is an ambitious agenda:

The Tactical Ice Cream Unit (TICU) rolls through the city in an act of intervention that replaces cold stares with frosty treats and nourishing knowledge… Although the TICU appears to be a mild-mannered vending vehicle, it harbors a host of high-tech surveillance devices including a 12-camera video surveillance system, acoustic amplifiers, GPS, satellite internet, a media transmission studio capable of disseminating live audio/video, and of course, ice cream. With every free ice cream handed out, the sweet-toothed citizenry also receives printed information developed by local progressive groups. Thus, the TICU serves as a mobile nexus for community activities while providing frosty treats and food-for-thought. [emphasis mine]

Likewise, Nancy Nisbet’s Exchange Project makes broad claims for establishing discourse through mobility:

This project exchanges the studio for the roads, truck stops, border crossings and cities of North America. Through the untidy weaving of politics, surveillance technology and identity construction this performance engages critique. Over time and with the combined effort of exchange participants, resistance, solidarity, and artistic critique emerge. [emphasis mine]

Though the projects make claims to broad, “untidy” manifestations of movement and exchange, application of Massey’s critique would require a much closer view, analyzing each instance of an exchange or movement. Works like these offer varied opportunity for such examination; as a result, we are often left to critique the claims themselves, or perhaps the decision to offer sparse documentation. For example, neither the TICU or Exchange Project’s websites allow for close reading of individual exchanges. Still, when artists make claims to freedom through mobility, we must press on to unravel what networks of movement we can, and discover where power is produced, and for whom. I’ll conclude with an example of such an analysis.

The Graffiti Research Lab’s LED Throwies project seems to celebrate mobility by borrowing from graffiti practice, and exchange through its efforts to “share the knowledge.” Where is power flowing in these particular networks of mobility? What can we examine about this poorly documented project?

  1. The project’s claims: “The goal of the G.R.L. is to technologically empower individuals to creatively alter and reclaim their surroundings from commercial and corporate culture.”
  2. Documented action: in videos offered online, neither the site nor the participants are indicated; the participants seem to be predominantly young white males; some viewers may recognize the anonymous building as in Chelsea, NY, down the street from G.R.L.’s sponsor organization, Eyebeam Atelier; the video soundtrack borrows tender sentiment from a popular Sony television commercial, which borrowed strategies from Fluxus through discarding 250,000 rubber balls down a hill in San Francisco.
  3. Documented reception: 180,000 hits for “LED throwies” on Google, and the project only debuted in February 2006; favorable profile article in the New York Times; a small amount of debate about the project’s environmental impact through blog post comments.

One might then summarize about this project that the initiators at G.R.L. have engaged in the following distinct transfers of mobility:

  1. They were granted physical, spatial, and social mobility by their institutional host and sponsor, Eyebeam Atelier, a high-profile New York research and exhibition lab for work in new media.
  2. They borrow legitimacy and permission from the long-ago coopted field of street art.
  3. They also borrow legitimacy and permission from their privileged status as white males.
  4. They employ this mobility towards claiming portions of space, in at least one case the facade of an unidentified private building, and in another a public sculpture.
  5. We know of the nature of their claim only the stated duration of the batteries in the Throwies. Also, though a claim requires a claimant, we can guess that the claimants are identified only to themselves and to those who view the documentation, and not to other passersby on site. The claim, weak as it is, is also largely symbolic, and not necessarily intended for an audience of casual street viewers.
  6. G.R.L. also sells LED Throwie kits, which probably provide a (very) modest amount of monetary income.
  7. The project’s sponsors earn in return for their provisions association with “street-level” and allegedly anti-institutional action.

Admittedly, even from afar this project bears little promise of any benefit to anyone; an analysis through the lens of mobility studies hardly seems necessary. But as a project, LED Throwies are closely tied with two rising powers in the “mobility economy” of contemporary art and new media: Eyebeam Atelier and Make magazine, which have granted G.R.L. high-profile space, funding, and plenty of publicity.

Poor representation is no excuse – indeed, Adey’s provocative reading of photography as an analog for the perception of stasis/power opens up some interesting possibilities for images as discursive sites of mobility.  But when mobility in the name of freedom is embraced as vaguely as it is by the members of G.R.L., we are left only with a structuralist, essentialist equivocation of mobility with freedom. Their example illustrates how non-specific claims to mobility end up only benefitting the claimant, in a virtually colonialist approach to space.

Footnotes

  1. Thanks to Andrea Phillips for introducing this sometime-Psychogeographer to where such an examination is developing. I look forward to her upcoming book on the problematics of walking in contemporary art.
  2. Adey admits here to relying on the work of geographer Tim Cresswell, who has written extensively on the sedentary/nomadic dichotomy.
  3. Lack of documentation is especially surprising in the case of Nisbet, whose project employs RFID technology to archive all the objects that come and go along her route. Perhaps upon completion, the Exchange Project website will follow the excellent lead of The Black Factory in providing a rich database of individual transactions, donations, and trades.
  4. For more on how “interventionist” tactics sometimes end up in the service of hegemony, see Sarah Kanouse’s article on “activist pranksterism.” (“Cooing over the Golden Phallus” Journal of Aesthetics and Protest v.1 no.2)

Bibliography

Peter Adey, “If Mobility is Everything Then it is Nothing: Towards a Relational Politics of (Im)mobilities,” Mobilities, Vol.1, No.1, March 2006. Routledge, London.

Doreen Massey, “A Global Sense of Place,” from Space, Place and Gender, (Massey ed.). University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Kevin Hannam, Mimi Sheller and John Urry, “Editorial: Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings,” Mobilities, Vol.1, No.1, March 2006. Routledge, London.

Relevant URL’s

The Black Factory – http://www.theblackfactory.com

Grafitti Research Lab – http://graffitiresearchlab.com/

Mobilities journal – http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/17450101.asp

The Exchange Project – http://www.exchangeproject.ca/

Center for Tactical Magic – http://www.tacticalmagic.org/