Mobility as Freedom in Critical Art and New Media, pt.2 (2006)


images from the work of Francis Alÿs

Coco Fusco observed in a much-discussed article for In These Times:

The news of the Iraq war frequently involves men in uniform pointing to or better yet walking across maps of various Middle Eastern countries—so when I then walk into galleries and cultural conferences in Europe and find more men (without uniforms) playing with maps, I start to wonder about the politics of those representations.

Spatial rhetoric – in the form of networks, maps, and travelling – is certainly as ubiquitous in critical art and new media as it is in the utopian pages of Wired or television’s hawkish espionage dramas. Six years after the Clinton administration eased encryption on GPS signals, location-aware or mobile art forms are in abundance at festivals and exhibitions of contemporary art and new media. Critics have risen to evaluate these forms in light of their commerical and military counterparts, often building on earlier feminist critiques of critical theory’s preoccupation with nomadism and fluidity. However, such examinations have rarely analyzed these projects in light of their frequent equation of mobility with freedom.

“Mobility as freedom–as liberty–lies right at the heart of some of the foundational ideologies of the western world,” writes Tim Cresswell in his recent book, On the Move. As such, mobility is typically framed as biologically essential, and in relation to stasis. Such a frame serves to mask the ways in which mobility is produced in relation to, and at the expense of, others. This paper will outline some of the ways in which critiques of mobile art and new media have approached, but not fully offered, an examination based on mobility. I will then briefly mention some of the helpful questions and methods offered by the growing field of “mobility studies,” and suggest some possible applications in art criticism.

The Spatial Turn as a Turn to Mobility

What Cresswell refers to as a “nomadic metaphysics” in the fascination for movement, mapping and networked space among critical theorists has been slowly growing in influence and prevalence. In the early 1990’s, the militarization of urban space through surveillance and redevelopment drove artists to the walking rhetoric of Michel de Certeau, or biological metaphors of Deleuze and Guattari. Exhibitions and catalogs such as the Whitney Independent Study program’s Power of the City: City of Power returned attention to some of the more spatialized conceptual practices of the 1960’s and 70’s, the street interventions of artists such as Adrian Piper or Vito Acconci. The following decade saw at least five group exhibitions around the world themed around walking, and near a dozen new English-language books on the Situationist International. More recently, MassMoca’s The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere provided an influential first look for many into the work inspired by these tactics; over half the projects on display relied on mobile means through vehicles, temporary architecture, or street actions.

In new media, Mark Tribe adopted the Deleuzian rhizome as the name of an online network for new-media practitioners, an entity that still thrives today under the supervision of New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art. Works in GPS-based or “locative” media have progressed far enough beyond early experiments in “drawing” across the landscape to merit a recent issue of the Leonardo Electronic Almanac, as well as a research group on “Networked Publics” at the Annenberg Center for Communication at University of Southern California. Mobile or street-based projects have been prominent at each of the last two conferences of the International Society for Electronic Arts, and work on shorter-range RFID sensors, increasingly ubiquitous in commerce, has led to dreams of mapping whole other mobilities, an “Internet of Things.”

As artists, architects and new media practitioners responded to the promise of movement and flow in critical theory, curators and art theorists also turned to metaphors of travel and networks. Nicholas Bourriaud’s popular theory of Relational Aesthetics describes art as an encounter, an event along a network of meetings and possible meetings. The relational artist, as a semionaut, “invents trajectories between signs.” (Judith Rodenbeck points out the similarity between Bourriaud’s theory and Umberto Eco’s notion of the contemporary art object as an autonomous “work in motion,” re-constituted and changed through each new encounter or performance.) In One Place After Another, Miwon Kwon describes the “unhinging” or “mobilization” of site-specific artwork over the decades since artists first approached site as a central, immobile component of the artistic experience. She writes that “the operational definition of the site has been transformed from a physical location – grounded, fixed, actual – to a discursive vector – ungrounded, fluid, and virtual.”

These turns toward mobility, or the potential for mobility through networks, are predominantly critical in their language, aspirations, and aims. As Krzysztof Wodiczko wrote in the introduction to a 1998 book of writings about his mobile projects, “the critical vehicle is an ‘ambitious’ and ‘responsible’ medium – a person or piece of equipment – that attempts to convey ideas and emotions in the hope of transporting to each human terrain a vital judgment toward a vital change.”

Criticism of Mobile Forms

Critics of these efforts often share the artists’ desire for progressive political action, but wonder whether a turn towards abstract space and individual movement can produce effective critique. As early as 1993, responding to the original theories that supported much of this work, Janet Wolff recognized the usefulness of fluid or mobile metaphors for destabilizing discourses of power, but expressed concern over the location of mobility as originating from the self, a “dominant centre,” rather than from a specific politicized place in the world. She writes in her essay, “On the Road Again: Metaphors of Travel in Cultural Criticism”:

I think that destabilizing has to be situated, if the critic is not to self-destruct in the process. The problem with terms like ‘nomad’, ‘maps’ and ‘travel’ is that they are not usually located, and hence (and purposely) they suggest ungrounded and unbounded movement – since the whole point is to resist fixed selves/viewers/subjects.

This concern is reflected in Miwon Kwon’s critique of the new “unhinged” site practices, as well. She points to how the destabilization of art-site relationships ends up reinforcing the artist as origin of meaning, an itinerant cultural producer who travels the globe providing official institutional critique. Kwon writes:

It is perhaps too soon and frightening to acknowledge, but the paradigm of nomadic selves and sites may be a glamorization of the trickster ethos that is in fact a reprisal of the ideology of ‘freedom of choice’ – the choice to forget, the choice to reinvent, the choice to fictionalize, the choice to ‘belong’ anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere. This choice, of course, does not belong to everyone equally. The understanding of identity and difference as being culturally constructed should not obscure the fact that the ability to deploy multiple, fluid identities in and of itself is a privilege of mobilization that has a specific relationship to power.

Likewise, Coco Fusco points to how a preoccupation with mapping space often comes at the expense of remembering time – undesirable histories fall away in the service of representing a desirable present.

Critiques of Locative Media have taken other approaches. Brian Holmes, for example, wonders whether agency can ever really be asserted in a space where civilians constantly locate themselves within a matrix determined by military satellites. This ambivalent critique by Holmes of a foundational work in locative media is reflective of the dilemma many critics face:

The most beautiful example to date is Esther Polak’s »RealTime« project, where GPS-equipped pedestrians gradually sketch out the city plan of Amsterdam, as a record of their everyday itineraries. But the work is a fragile gesture, fraught with ambiguity: the individual’s wavering life-line appears at once as testimony of human singularity in time, and proof of infallible performance by the satellite mapping system.

Caren Kaplan and Eyal Weizman voice similar concerns through their separate observations about the role of unbounded mobility in military strategy. In another essay, Kaplan asks the equally important question about what immobilities, in the form of overseas labor, make mobility through media possible.

Throughout these and other criticisms of spatially-preoccupied work in art and new media, we see some common themes. Though not every criticism directly addresses claims to freedom by mobile practice, most point to the problematic ambiguity of movement for its own sake, as demonstrated through the abstract representations of most GPS drawings, or mapped social networks. Also, and importantly, many critics share a concern for how discourses of travel, exchange, and mobility tend to reinforce a stable, autonomous subject. Even Marc Tuters and Kazys Varnelis, who dismiss as nostalgic any concern for Locative Media’s dependence on Cartesian space, admit that “locative media seems fundamentally tied to discourses of representation centered on a human subject, privileging the experience of the human in space (tracing) and time (annotative).”

Mobility Studies

This human subject, and its construction outside of difference, is a fundamental problem for many scholars of mobility. Looking to the work of Iris Marion Young, Tim Cresswell sees examination of relative mobilities as a way of re-thinking some of the fundamental problems of universal rights. Mobility, for Cresswell and others, never originates from within the self, but is granted from outside, exchanged, gifted, or stolen. Mobilities depend on other “moorings” or even immobilities. Likewise, access or rights to mobility should be granted relationally. Mobility does not make one “free” – it makes one differently dependent.

Liberal individualism is grounded on a false basis of bodily equality, which serves as a basis for democratic justice. An alternative way of thinking about mobile bodies is to think of them as moving with the aid of a number of prosthetic devices. For a disabled person this might be a wheelchair or a guide dog, but it might also be a public bus or train for those of us who are not formally or legally disabled. When such devices are taken into account, citizens are no longer just bodies separated from the world but thoroughly social bodies. Citizens become “prosthetic citizens.” Such a citizen – unlike the universal mobile citizen-is a subject whose capacities for mobility depend on the constraints of the public sphere.

Through the recent work of Caren Kaplan, Cresswell, and others associated with the new Centre for Mobilities Research in Lancaster, we see a world not of autonomous points traversing a network, but of densely interdependent bodies based in specific places in a real, historical world. Every mobility comes at the expense of another’s lessened mobility; representations of abstract, universalizing movement serve to obscure the transfer of power. These are extremely helpful points to keep in mind when examining works in art and new media that celebrate or employ mobile forms, especially when they make claims to freedom (as do Tuters and Varnelis, in their comparison of Locative Media to earlier forms of Internet Art.)

What might we learn from close examination of the work of contemporary psychogeographers in light of mobility research? How might we evaluate the goals and actions of a street-based and playful group such as Eyebeam’s Graffiti Research Lab, who aim to “technologically empower individuals to creatively alter and reclaim their surroundings from commercial and corporate culture”? There’s a great deal of work to do, as evidenced by the exhaustive efforts of Cresswell, who spends days or more at a site like Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, studying the deeply embedded characteristics and signs of differently-granted mobilities. We should also not be afraid to critically examine even (and especially) those efforts posed as “play” or “games.” The temporary experience of freedom or autonomy by a game participant, or even a critic, carries its own power as a representation, and borrows independence from elsewhere.


Bourriaud, Nicholas. Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Les Presses du Reel (2002).

Cresswell, Tim. On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Fusco, Coco. “Questioning the Frame,” In These Times (December 16, 2004).

Hannam, Sheller and Urry, ed. Mobilities 1 (2006).

Hollevoet, Cristel and Karen Jones, Timothy Nye. The Power of the City: The City of Power. NY: The Whitney Museum of American Art (1992)

Holmes, Brian. “Drifting through the Grid: Psychogeography and Imperial Infrastructure,” Springerin 3 (2004).

Kaplan, Caren. “Transporting the Subject: Technologies of Mobility and Location in an Era of Globalization,” PMLA 117:1 (January 2002): 32-42.

Kaplan, Caren. “Mobility and War: The Cosmic View of U.S. ‘Air Power,'”Environment and Planning: A 38 (2006): 395–407

Kwon, Miwon. “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” October 80 (Spring 1997): 38-63.

Rodenbeck, Judith. “The Open Work: Participatory Art Since Silence,” lecture, audio online at

Tuters, Marc and Kazys Varnelis. “Beyond Locative Media,”

Weizman, Eyal. “The Art of War,” Frieze 99 (2006)

Wodiczko, Krzystof. Critical Vehicles. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.

Wolff, Janet. “On the Road Again: Metaphors of Travel in Cultural Criticism,” Cultural Studies 7(2) (1993): 224-239