Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tracking with Other(s). Practising Ecological Thought in Times of the Internet of Things.

The text is an edited transcript of the presentation I gave at the Conditions of Mediation ICA preconference at Birkbeck Institute this June. The essay, as it is presented here, more or less recounts the current state of things in my doctoral research. The piece about the performative exercises I am developing now has been left out, as it does not fit the format. Sooner or later, it will appear in a different form.

Can ecological thought be mediated via mapping, or some other way of producing/processing/presenting spatiotemporal data? or, can this way of representation be a means of relating with others, humans and nonhumans?

Since “ecological thought” has a variety of readings, I would like to note that I assume it as epistemological paradigm, a world-view of thinking subjects, or us humans, in terms of relationships with the others. Thus, as Timothy Morton puts it, “ecological thought” means the participation in the “mesh”, or the “web of life”, as Fritjof Capra calls it. Or, in the language of deep ecology, Arne Naess in his Ecology, community and lifestyle, defines ecological thinking in these terms:
(1) A human being is not a thing in the environment, but a juncture in a relational system without determined boundaries in time and space.
(2) The relational system connects humans, as organic systems, with animals, plants, and ecosystems conventionally said to be within or outside the human organism.
(3) Our statements concerning things and qualities, fractions and wholes cannot be made more precise without a transition to field and relational thinking.” (1)

In terms of the engagement of man with the environment, there are three practices I would like to look into closer:
1) mapping;
2) tracking-against;
3) tracking-with.

1) Mapping, essentially, is a mathematical function which translates a point from one system into a point in another system, following a determinate mathematical procedure, a projection or an algorithm. As Tim Ingold explains in his The Perception of the Environment (2), using maps or navigating means “establishing correspondences” between the where the traveller is now, and where he or she supposedly on a chart “is”, thus we experience the environment through a relationship between us and our hypothetical presence on the map.

Epistemologically speaking, both landscaping and mapping, in their modern iterations, are practices which instate and perform the separation between the subject and the object, the observer and the observed, mind and body, but also between culture and nature.
Apart from the social implications, this operation, as William Leiss explains (3), closely mirrors Adorno and Horkheimer's view expressed [in The Dialectics of Enlightenment] about the humankind's quest for domination over nature, which is based on “the principle of the uniformity of nature, and the inherent technological applicability of its findings, the reduction of nature to pure 'stuff'”.

In map-making, the Ancient Greek's concept of physis, or nature, understood as process, is “paralysed”, to use Franco Farinelli's term, and thus it is subject to “domination” by man. To this paralysing tendency, or “cartographic dictate”, certain schools of geography, notably the German Erdkunde of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter, responded with an epistemological paradigm of direct experience or traversing the space, especially landscape. Along this strand, in the 20th century, further developments, such as Situationists “pyschogeography”, Kevin Lynch's “mental maps”, de Certeau's spatial practices, Lefebvre's spatial trialectics, Fredric Jameson's “cognitive mapping” have all looked at how to “move” the subject out of the cartographic paralysis.

Some of these conceptual lines flow into contemporary geographies of practice, geographies focussed on physical engagement with space, movement, process. One of these schools, going under an umbrella term “non-representational geographies”, puts emphasis on the phenomenological concept of “embodiment” or “enactment” of space. This approach bears strong resonances with Arne Naess’s call to experience the environment by “doing something in it, by living, meditating and acting”. (4)

This performativity through/of time and space correlates intimately with the concept of wayfinding, a procedure very diverse from navigation. Wayfinding, in Tim Ingold's reading, means knowing “as we go, not before we go” (5), and thus the crossing of landscape becomes a performative gesture, an “inscriptive practice” (6). Literally, a practice of inscribing first the ground, and thus tracing a map.

2) Tracking partially replicates the process of mapping, but opens it to temporal flow. The contemporary analogue of tracking would be “personal mapping” via our smartphones, where the relationship between the user's position and his/her location on the map is updated over time. But, even if, apparently, the relation between the map and the ground has never been closer, we still “dwell in a permanent out-of-body experience, displaced from our own locations, seeing ourselves as moving dots or pins on a map”, as Kazys Varnelis and Leah Meisterlin claim (7).

Thus, even in dynamic mapping or tracking, there is a separation or reification accomplished through the translation of movement onto a fixed grid of a map, a chart, a graph, or simply a spreadsheet. The result is that, yes, there is movement, but “against” an inert background.

But, as Timothy Morton reminds us: In ecological thought, “[t]here is no static background” (8).

How to make this background move or act together with the foreground?
Contrasting the social constructivism of human geographies, and drawing mainly on Bruno Latour's actor-network theory, non-representational theories revolutionise the notion of geographic subject and interpret space through networks of “mediation” between human and nonhuman actors. By doing this, they clearly reconnect with “ecological thought”.

Thus, instead of the antiqued modern duality between man and his ambience, we now find ourselves in the position of nodes within much broader networks of diverse actors or actants, social, biological and technological ones, including hybrids (Sarah Whatmore), Donna Harraway's cyborgs or Bruno Latour's aggregates. All these different actants are not acting within some predetermined spatiotemporal framework, instead it is them who/which enact and produce multiple frameworks, or timespaces, and are produced by them, (9). This framework, we may call it a landscape, a cityscape, countryside, or else.

Now, how can these networks of actants be perceived and experienced, engaged with?

Mitch Rose and John Wylie lay out a following definition of landscape, which, in my view, can be applied to the spatiotemporal ecological experience in general:
Landscape is tension. […] An admirable picture and an uncomfortable bed, something distant and intimate all at once, powerful image and patchy matter... […] Central to this is the tension of presence/absence, and of performing, creating, and perceiving presence.” (10)

The term “performance” used here is understood as a process of “actualising” presence, as Richard Schechner explains in his Performance Theory (11). Socially speaking, performing can be understood as an iterative practice of the creation of identity through a “stylized repetition of everyday acts”, quoting from Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (12). Performance is a practice, or an exercise, which is not opposed or excludes representation, but makes of representation an act in itself.(13)

3) Tracking-with. This type of engagement with the environment means a continual establishing of relations, of correspondences, or presences, between us and the others. I would call that process 'relational tracking'. It is not any more a 'tracking-against' (a grid/background) but 'tracking-with' (the other/another subject). The diversity between me and “the other” and others calls for multiple frames of reference, and multiple ways of tracing.

Thus, wherein in mapping the goal is that of making a map “one size fits all”, thus fixing us and others against a pre-determined grid, “relational tracking” would be a practice of enacting relationships, one by one. The grid is dissolved into multiple lines of outreach and contact between the subjects, lines which come into being only through performing “with” or “along” them, by perpetual tracing and re-tracing them.

Let us see look at some ways of “performing, creating, and perceiving presence” through time and space, the practices of “tracking-with”. I will indistinctly analyse performative and conceptual practices from the visual arts and new media or design practices. The interest is in what they do, not so much in how they do, so what is generally called medium is not central. But, what will emerge from this lining-up of diverse practices will actually be a way of mediating.

Of telling title, in Following Piece (1969), Vito Acconci's performative action, accomplished over a course of one month, the artist followed one randomly chosen unknown person on Manhattan until he or she entered a private location. This is a very practical example of shaping our everyday life “with” someone else's. It is a process of getting out on the street, and acting, overlapping part of our life trajectory with someone else's.

This practice of “following” has been brought on another level by GPS tracking, and, in fact, Tuters and Varnelis call this practice exactly “tracing” of the action of a subject in the world. (14) Esther Polak, one of the pioneers of locative media with her and Waag Society's Amsterdam Realtime (2002), in which a group of participants engaged in tracing Amsterdam for two weeks, used GPS tracking as way of networking among subjects.

In Polack's later MILKproject, via a series of GPS devices the daily movements of a chain of persons, all engaged in the production and distribution of milk, were followed and traced from Latvia to Netherlands. In this case, milk is the mediator across great distances.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles's project Touch Sanitation Peformance, is another way of tracking-with. Ukeles, from July 1979 to June 1980, visited every of the 8,500 so called “sanmen”, shaking the hand of each of them and saying: “thank you for keeping New York City alive”. Afterwards, Ukeles engaged in Follow in Your Footsteps, where she, working 8 and 16-hour shifts, followed sanitation workers on their routes in every district throughout the city. Lastly, in this series of different tracings of NYC's sanitary system, she produced a film Waste Flow Video, which followed the waste from people's houses to the waste dump. (15)

Some aspects of these tracings can today be implemented on as a quotidian practice with the help of GPS. In the well-known MIT's SENSEable City Lab's Trash Track, the pieces of garbage are “tracked” all over the States. Importantly, the piece still requires movements from trackers, they have to go to the meeting place, engage in planting a GSM tag in their piece of garbage, then dispose of it, and afterwards follow its track in real-time.

Duration Piece #5 Douglas Huebler, is another type of tracking exercise, in which he follows the call of birds in Central Park, NYC. Artist's statement or instructions or programme, is fundamental to understand the work, which, visually speaking, takes form of 10 photographs, in which there is little trace of birds. Since there is no fixed link to this piece on-line, I am quoting fully:
During a ten minute period of time on March 17, 1969 ten photographs were made, each documenting the location in Central Park where an individually distinguishable bird call was heard. Each photograph was made with the camera pointed in the direction of the sound. That direction was walked toward by the auditor until the instant that the next call was heard, at which time the next photograph was made and the next direction taken.”
This might be an ephemeral exercise, but, very importantly, it can be performed every day, with or without the camera, with binoculars, or just by listening.

Or it can be a part of a wider 'sensing' (or auditing) strategy, on a national level, like in NestBox Challenge, an initiative of British Trust for Ornithology. This institute created this crowd-sourced campaign where people having gardens are invited to track the number of eggs that birds nest, in order to create a bigger picture of the lives of bird species across the UK. On the website, one can find a Google Map with colourful pins indicating the sightings or trackings. But, what lies behind and what makes this graphics is a series of encounters over time, and humans and birds intertwine their lives closer.

Other beings, which do not move, have to be tracked through practices of attending to, or observing, or waiting. One of the good mediums to track in this way might be time-lapse photography, such as in another Douglas Houbler's Duration Piece, number #11. In this work, Houbler apparentyl simply photographed a bush covered in snow at 15-minute intervals. One might observe the melting of the snow, or the change in the shadows, but the artist's intent does not have much to do with the pictoriality of the view. It is the process, the artist's being “with” the bush for three hours. (or has he been making breaks?)

This is not so very different from a very recent, sensor-powered project, in which plants engage in phone calls with us. Here we have a Sonic Magic Pink New Guinea Impatiens with a particular type of leaf. Botanicalls is a project by Rob Faludi, Kate Hartman, and Kati London, in which plants, armed with a simple sensory kit, call you, or tweet you, when they are “thirsty”, or otherwise, they receive calls in which they can inform you about their status.

Through sensory technology, distances can be expanded and more complex tracking can be made. In Active Ingredient's project AConversation Between Trees, undertook between 2009 and 2011, environmental data was gathered via sensors simultaneously in the forest of Mata Atlantica in Amazonia and in Sherwood Forest in England. As the title of the project states, the idea was to put, first of all, trees in conversation and then the visitors of the forest in the UK in conversation with trees, as they could use an app to track the data, or visit the exhibition where they could observe live updates.

Other entities, even inanimate ones, can be tracked. They might require even longer-term observation, sometimes in extreme conditions. Extreme Ice Survey, project started by James Balog in 2007, is an ongoing long-term project of tracking the state of glaciers through time-lapse photography. As the web-site states, at this moment “28 cameras are deployed at 13 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, the Nepalese Himalaya, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains”. They take photos every half hour, year-long during daytime, and what we get are these astounding landscapes.
Once again, what is a necessary precondition for these images to exist is the physical movement and hardships that Balog and his team perform in order to install cameras and to keep them going, and, of course, the struggle of the cameras to remain operative in such harsh conditions. The story of this joint effort of humans and technology is brilliantly narrated in the documentary film about the project called Chasing Ice.

On the other side of the scale, even infinitesimally small entities, such as carbon monoxide, can come into being in front our eyes through citizen-deployed networks of atmospheric monitoring. These practices are growing each day, one of the precursors was Eric Paulos's Participatory Urbanism, implemented in Accra, Ghana over two weeks in 2007, by installing sensor kits on taxi cabs. Even this project creates a map, but it is a quotidian practice of tracking-with the sensors that makes the map.

Thus, what emerges from these projects and many others is that the almost imperceptible movements of our waste, urban trees, distant trees in jungle, even glaciers, molecules of carbon monoxide or other particles in the air, all these different actors become “represented”, literally they become present (to us). Specifically, with technologies of “ubiquitous computing” we can extend spaces and times of tracking. In this, it is important not to forget that tracking-with” is, first of all, a drawing or bringing together, a gathering, of diverse actors, us and the others. Otherwise, these are all just phone calls without an interlocutor.

As an attempt to define closer in what a practice of tracking would consist, I would outline two essential features.
1) “Tracking with” someone/something is a process of learning about she or he or it. Gregory Bateson in his Mind and Nature, when speaking about cross-species interaction, which takes the form of “play”, for example, between a dog and a gibbon or a man and a dolphin, explains that, “Dog is still unchanged dog, and gibbon is still a gibbon”. But, something does happen, “there has been an evolution of fitting together”. Now, what we have is “thus a larger entity, call it A plus B, and that larger entity, in play, is achieving a process which I suggest that the correct name is practice. […] The interaction makes information about parts of A available to parts of B and vice versa. There has been a change in boundaries.” (16)

What takes shape through “tracking-with” are not lines on a graph to be promptly translated into “action” of some sort, but what “emerges” is, first and foremost, a context for the relationship. This context change the tracker's boundaries, step by step, from, for example, onlyme” towards “me and the New Guinea on the windowsill”, then “me and the New Guinea on the windowsill and the robin on the birch in the garden”, and so on, and so on. Ecologically speaking, this practice is an expansion of our egos to “identify with greater wholes, [partaking] in the creation and maintenance of the whole” (17). But, considering the overall complexity of ecologies, it is never possible to embrace “the whole”, nevertheless, as Naess further states, “one may make a model of parts of it” (18).

2) Having in mind this, how can this “practice” of learning or relating take place?
Relational tracking would be based on moulding our spaces and times to the others, or “folding” them with the spaces and times of the others. What I am speaking about here is a primordial practice of life. A mother “tracks with” her child and moulds her rhythms of sleep to the child's, a peasant “tracks” his/her crops and changes her/his complete life activity according to it, a cyclist “tracks” every day the state of his bicycle (whether it runs smoothly, creaks, etc.), footbal fan “tracks” his favourite club, citizens “track” the workings of state parliament, and so on, and so on.
So, we all are already very much used to “tracking with” many entities around us, be them humans, animals (mostly our pets), institutions, or others. But, the gamma of subjects is often very limited, especially in our Western contemporary societies. Clearly, it is not so narrow in terms of degree, but in terms of kind of beings that we track with. We could take into consideration other more or less distant neighbours, they might be a birch across the street, a zebra on that corner, a waste bin, a lamp-post, a pigeon, an iceberg, and many many others. This simply because we already do engage every single day with many of them, but we do not necessarily “track with” them (expect when they fail or break, and thus leap out of their general backgroundeness, as Martin Heidegger taught us long ago). Whether we are conscious of it or not, when we open a water tap in our kitchen we do bring many distant entities together, they all act together with us (or, in the usual situation, they are merely made to work for us).

The questions are many. That means, how can we “distribute” and give care to different beings and things over our day? In what ways can we gather with them? What means of translation can we use to create contexts of relation? How would this activity transform our everyday life?
Many of these issues can be confronted only through practice. That is why we can devise even simple exercises, to be implemented on everyday level. As simple as possible but meaningful exercises, since we are all new to “ecological” thinking, at least us, moderns or never-have-been-moderns or post-moderns of the West.

Tracking-with is just partially about creating most efficient feedback loops between data gathering, data processing, data visualisation etc. In my view, tracking is, first of all, an act or a gesture of relating-with-the-other, of being present-with-the-other, and, ultimately, becoming-the-other which is also called empathy or, “confluence”. This level of deep engagement is achieved through a learning, a daily exercise, which by definition is repetitive, iterative, maybe slightly ritual, sometimes monotonous, but which, over larger spatiotemporal scales, makes difference and new contexts for relationships, for adapting, for fitting together.
This is very different from merely teaching the others through “dressage” or programming so they conform to our notions of citizenry or agency. Even without co-opting them in our economies of efficiency, it does not mean much to “map” a tree on our block, or give it a “voice” through sensing, and then forget about it, looking at it from afar as a neat spot on the map or as a timeline. These lines and dots on our graphs and timelines become rich in significance when they mark encounters, a touch, close or remote ones, then they open up and call for new encounters to come.

Thought and practised in this way, techno-ecologies of “sentient” things, or the 'internet of things', can provide “the ground-zero moment for DIY citizenship” (18) in the ecological “mesh”, which embraces and produces the city and brings it together with the wider landscape. In this sense, city, nature, landscape, are not mere concepts or shapes on visualisations but living and acting “collectives of humans and non-humans”, or, simply put, ecologies.

(1) Naess, A. (1989). Ecology, Community and Lifestyle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 79.
(2) Ingold, T. (2000) The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London, New York: Routledge.
(3) Leiss, W. The Domination of Nature. In Merchant, C. (ed). (1994) Ecology. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities, Press.
(4) Naess, ibid., 63.
(5) Ingold, ibid., 231.
(6) Ingold, ibid., 231.
(7) Varnelis, K., and Meisterlin, L. (2008) The invisible city: Design in the age of intelligent maps. Adobe Design Center. 15 July 2008. http://solutionpartners.adobe.com/designcenter/thinktank/tt_varnelis.html
(8) Morton, T. (2010) The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 61.
(9) May, J. and Thrift, N. (2001) Timespace: Geographies of Temporality. London, New York: Routledge, 1-46.
(10) Rose, M. and Wylie, J. (2006) Animating landscape. In Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 24 (4), 475-79.
(11) Schechner, R. (1988) Performance Theory. New York: Routledge.
(12) Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
(13) Dewsbury, J.D.; Harrison, P.; Rose, M. and Wylie, J. (2002) Enacting geographies. Geoforum 33, 437-440.
(14) Tuters, Tuters, M., & Varnelis, K. (2006) Beyond locative media: Giving shape to the internet of things. Leonardo, 39(4), 357-363.
(15) Thompson, N. (2012) Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991 – 2011. New York, NY: Creative Time; Cambridge, MA; London: MIT Press, 233-34.
(16) Bateson, G. (1979) Mind and Nature: a necessary unity. London: Fontana, 138.
(17) Naess, ibid., 173.
(18) Naess, ibid., 195.
(19) Latour, B. (1999) Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA;
London: Harvard University Press.
(20) Smith, G.J. (2011) Mediated Cityscapes: DIY Cartography [Theory]. Creative Applications Network. http://www.creativeapplications.net/theory/mediated-cityscapes-03-diy-cartography-theory/