Mutable Territories

[Trace of the author's GPS movements over 5 year timespan]


The abstract material characteristics of communications technologies mean that it is both conceptually and practically complex to form adequate perceptual parallels with existing concrete and imaginable concepts of space. Mobile and wireless technologies have specialised infrastructures, and as these technologies emerge in the city, they become overlaid with existing urban configurations. The individual's image of the city, which they use to navigate and orientate themselves within urban space, is no longer confined to physical elements and configurations.

Over a number of years some researchers have approached the problem of the lack of physical presence of mobile and wireless technologies by looking at ways of visualizing these networks; such as the work of Carlo Ratti (Ratti et al. 2005) with real-time mobile phone networks and the Equator Project with the mapping of WiFi nodes and GPS availability (Dix et al. 2005, Oppermann et al. 2006). In addition many WiFi mapping resources have been created as online resources, such as Wigle. These go some way to giving people an understanding of where the spatial presence of wireless and mobile networks overlay the space. But on another level these mappings use false metaphors, and in trying to reduce complexity create instead oversimplified models of how these technologies exist in the physical world.

An alternative approach has been taken by groups such as the Wireless Internet Project, who, rather than study existing patterns, have instead sought to create networks which they can then observe. In 2002 the W.I.P. set up an open wireless network within a public park setting in New York, USA. The Bryant park wireless project provides free, unrestricted broadband internet access to park visitors with the intention of changing public behaviour through the introduction of wireless availability in a park setting. This is demonstrated by the statement of Daniel Biederman, president of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation who explained in a NY Times interview: "We look over their shoulders a lot," Mr. Biederman said. "When I see someone using a laptop and I run up to them and say, `Hi, I'm the guy who runs the park, and I wanted to see what your reaction is to this,' it's almost like parental guidance." (NY Times 24 November 2002).

Artists have also approached the subject, such as the Jen Southern and Jen Hamilton in their work; Running Stitch. In this work visitors to a gallery were invited to journey through the city whilst their movements are tracked via satellite and projected live back to the gallery space (Southern & Hamilton 2008). These individual GPS drawings of visitors' journeys were then stitched onto the evolving 8ft x 8ft tapestry revealing hidden aspects of the city. Michelle Teran approaches another technology in her work; Life: a user's manual. This project is a series of public performances that examines the hidden stories captured by private wireless CCTV streams and how they intersect with the visible and spatial environment. Easily intercepted using a consumer model video scanner, the captured, live images create a sequence of readings and views of the city and its inhabitants which are observed while walking through the streets. These take the form of walks through the city where individuals take different roles in "discovering, gathering, editing together and finally presenting their personal recorded traces of networks that surround citizens or physical spaces in a city" (Chorianopoulos et al.2006).

The key issue with the characteristics of mobile and wireless technologies is that they cannot be imagined or visualized in the visual terms in which we understand the world around us. Thus it is important to find ways of representing the presence of mobile and wireless technologies so that people can use this knowledge to find their way in spatial environments. How can we represent these mutable territories so as to make the city more legible?

Spatial Identity and Image-ability

Our immediate understanding of space is through perceptual experience, and in attempting to make sense of this direct experience we order and categorize our spatial perception. Through this process we endow space with meaning, whose characteristics is understood in terms of distinct places. These settings reside not only in reality but also in abstract mental conceptions, which are a combination of commonly perceived and highly personalised images. These mental images of space enable us to weave together multiple, fragmented experiences into more coherent and manageable concepts, which then guide our subsequent action and perception in space. Lynch established the concept of mental or cognitive maps of urban space (Lynch 1960), and stated that for a city to be more fully experienced the imageability or intelligible elements of the city need to be understood. An imageable place can be defined as one that that can be comprehended over time as a pattern of high continuity with many distinctive parts clearly connected (Downs and Stea, 1974). It incorporates configurations of landmarks, routes, regions, and includes comprehension of distances and directions, linkage, connectivity and scale (Appleyard 1967).