Julie Myers

To Travel Somewhere

Book

Book
ISBN: 978-1-85924-2995
168 x 240 mm portrait
48 colour pages with 40 pages of illustration
Series and Publication Editor: Dr Nicky Coutts

To Travel Somewhere is an alternative portrait of a city, a personalised map revealing individual realities. It is a map of a city that can be shared laterally through downloads, allowing one to explore a city through the memories of others.

The book is a document of a project created during an artists placement at Adobe/Macromedia in San Francisco. It explores ways in which mobile technology intersects with social experience.

The book contains varied and thought provoking essays by Banny Banerjee, Associate Professor at the department of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford Univeristy, freelance writer and art critic Rebecca Geldhard, Timo Tuomi, Head of Research at the Museum of Finnish Architecture and Adjunct Professor in Art History at the University of Helsinki, with a foreword by Gordon Knox (Director of Global Initiatives at Stanford University)


Foreword

Gordon Knox

To Travel Somewhere is an alternative portrait of a city, a personalised map revealing individual realities. It is a map of a city that can be shared laterally through downloads, allowing one to explore a city through the memories of others.

By using an instrument of personal communication – the mobile phone – to collect and assemble the components of the map, the artist has captured a ‘truer’ more accurate picture of the streets and the interactions that transpire in cities. Through the cartography possible on the web, the immediate content captured by the mobile device is plotted with GPS coordinates, providing a precise location for that imprecise memory.

The process is straightforward: ask a stranger to direct the artist to their favorite place in the city, record with the mobile phone each turn of direction or corner, use the turns/corners as the coordinates for the GPS maps. Once at the destination, wait there until a new person appears and provides a new destination. Typically each journey took a full day to complete and included public transportation or walking. Getting lost was an integral part of the process.

The first city captured this way was San Francisco. Seven journeys were made, seven destinations, seven people’s favorite places with the stories that explained them. The web-page and map that grew out of these journeys attracted interest from another corporation interested in mobile technology. Nokia Corporation and the City of Helsinki invited Julie to develop a portrait of their city and at about the same time Cambridge, England, also with a deep interest in mobile technology, agreed to ‘sit’ for Julie’s portrait.

Discoveries made by the artist include the fact that colors, shapes and landmarks represent the cities for the inhabitants more than do the street names and addresses. Understandings that emerge tell us that stories link place to people, that encountering a city through the netted narratives of the inhabitants shows us that an urban center is a collective of people not places. We are nodes in communication not points in space.

The collection of institutions that made this project possible is itself animated by a combination of individuals, an overlapping of personal networks: Michelle Mann and Winston Wang of Adobe, Bronac Ferran and Dawn Giles of the Arts Council England, Chris Rogers of the Junction and myself from Montalvo. To Travel Somewhere tracks, maps and traces interconnections, tickles out intimate personal narratives of individual city-dwellers and weaves them into a collective fabric that provides a snapshot of a city. A city, indeed all of life, is a network of exchanges, a flow of information through the capillaries of connections. We are suspended in a fluid of ideas, memories and understandings; the concentrated hum of that liquid is what a city is. To Travel Somewhere delivers a momentary cross section through this constantly morphing reality.

Digital technology has changed the pace, expanded the base and exploded the local, but it has not reformulated core reality. We have always been, as all organic life is, simply the sum of information flow. Be it biological, chemical, historical or exploratory, life as we know it is nothing more than a gloriously complex network for the exchange of information. The open flow of ideas is knowledge and the stabilising Chronos of memory transforms this knowledge to wisdom. The compilation of generational generosity fills libraries; stories and understandings link us to the past, to each other and set us up to move forward.

The heightened pace and expanded breadth of connectivity made possible by digital technology accelerates and widens the flow of information, expanding our cerebral/global capacities. The artist’s critical location is at the junction of what we know and what we could know, and by engaging new technologies (of any era) the artist explores and advances the long conversation. Adobe’s technology and Julie Myers’ inquiry come together in three cities to remind us of the irreducible continuity of our ideas, memories and interconnectedness, and that this persistent ‘humanness’ is now growing laterally at warp-speed via new systems.


Variable lines: the peripatetic practice of Julie Myers

Rebecca Geldard

Since the early nineties, Julie Myers has been using the Web as a platform for her multimedia exploration into the functions of particular spaces and human relationships to them: whether the gallery, the domestic interior, or the urban landscape. Using time-based devices she reveals how social encounters, recollections of places and the identities we construct for ourselves (and assume for others) alter as a result of being technologically mediated. The participatory nature of these projects and variable means of presentation bring in to question the issue of authorship – the artist as facilitator of ideas as opposed to maker of things.

Arriving as a stranger in three cities, San Francisco, Cambridge and Helsinki – all associated with technological invention, Myers approaches arbritary members of the public in each location and asks them to direct her to their favourite local place and advise her on what to do when she gets there. This is repeated seven times in each of the cities with the entire process recorded on a mobile phone. After fulfilling each set of instructions, she must then find another willing subject in the immediate area to facilitate her discovery of somewhere new. The journey is the most important aspect of work – in fact, the arrival points at the destinations are actually rather anticlimactic – correlating the participants’ accounts with Myers’ recorded evidence of their (and her own) interpretation of what French scholar Michel de Certeau calls the “panoply of codes” that form the story of getting from one place to another.

Myers has downloaded the data from her phone and loosely edited it into a series of static images and Quick Time movies. They have been shown in various configurations in the context of gallery and teaching projects, but exist as a complete record, along with many other of her projects, on her website. It’s very simply configured – an ever-expanding mosaic of click-open images for every participant accompanied by a short film – comprising real-time footage, static imagery and audio overlaid. There are also maps situating each location in the geographical scheme of things. As a multidimensional experience it prompts associations with other forms of artistic production and communication. Portrait shots of people in the throws of imparting quotidian information bring to mind the everyday photography of Martin Parr; street scenes overlaid with human audio stories about the places depicted become virtual postcards with something unexpectedly profound written on the back.

There is something of the tourist and the flâneur about Myers’ role within these handheld, stop-start journeys, through very different urban landscapes. Though she is operating under instruction, there are points on each route when one can divine a sense of becoming momentarily lost in the beauty of a vista or less obvious urban details – the privilege of the ambler or foreign visitor. These narratives may speak of the compulsion to locate oneself in both the real and the virtual world, but equally the accidental moments that occur on the passage between obvious everyday markers. For every navigational reference in the footage to a global retail outlet there is a local autobiographical snippet regarding life’s simple pleasures: the Cambridge man’s memories of taking his five-year old daughter for hot chocolate in a particular coffee shop, for example, or the blonde girl in Helsinki who likes nothing more than to “go to the stables (at some unpronounceable place) and smell the horses”. While, as a viewer, one is never exactly released from the notion of the map, neither could this be described as a guidebook tour.

In ‘Spatial Stories’, a chapter of de Certeau’s seminal 1984 book The Practice of Everyday Life, he says, Every story is a travel story, a spatial practice. For this reason, spatial practices concern every day tactics, are part of them, from the alphabet of spatial indication (‘it’s to the right’, ‘taken left’). And it’s precisely these kind of perfunctory exchanges that Myers is interested in. The journey, as both mode of operation and recurring intellectual thematic, appears key. One might describe Myers, for want of a less Zeitgeisty word, as a contemporary psychogeographer. A role that by default connects her to several complex theories on the politics of space, such as Situationist philosopher Guy Debord’s concept of the dérive, or aimless walk; the separate, but inextricably bound, notions of chance and the game as explored in Dadaist experiments and modern literature.

Contemporary artists and writers continue to find new relevance in such ideas. Specific comparisons might be drawn, for example, between the work of Myers and Paul Auster’s writings on the contemporary American metropolis; or the walking-based practices of Canadian artist Janet Cardiff and emerging British figures Simon Pope and Lucy Harrison – all of whom in subtly different ways challenge the perceived rationality upon which public spaces are built and thereby negotiated. But where Cardiff has blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction in the construction of audio guides, Pope has re-framed the act of walking around a city as a psychological experiment and Harrison has recontextualised outmoded guidebook information in her exploration of language as a political tool – Myers is consistently drawn to public opinion as the basis for projects that approach site-specificity within a technological context.

In a world where people arguably spend more time monitoring their virtual than physical lives Myers’ latest project, To Travel Somewhere, tinkles distantly like the bell on the collar of a cat headed home. For, though currently bobbing in a sea of user-generated content online, her low-key ramble around unfamiliar cities, as directed by the whims of random strangers, is critically pertinent to its day. Myers, navigating the city via other peoples’ memories, becomes a narrative conduit between the public and the municipal spaces they inhabit. And, as such, affords a theoretical space for the viewer within which to observe the contemporary sense of dislocation experienced as a result of recording oneself in, rather than being of, any given moment. From an art-historical perspective To Travel Somewhere might be described as a series of video performances or a multimedia installation. Given that the project can co-exist in many forms – as a cluster of memories in the minds of those involved, an online resource, a gallery installation or lecture presentation – it is difficult to define only as an artwork and to determine at what point in the process it might become such. Is it at the moment of exchange between the artist and the public, the point of arrival at each particular destination or delivery of the experiences back into the public sphere as authored data ?

Myers’ low-fi Google Earth construction (not just of the GPS maps she incorporates, but of the project as a metaphorical whole), may emulate certain technological processes and the workings of the mind, but the way in which she zooms in and out of intellectual territories and definitions is also what transforms this YouTube-style material into art. Inevitably, one’s preconceptions about the information presented and its means of presentation are agitated during assimilation: correlating the multiple perspectives within each narrative, the human stories that describe each city, the locations as part of a wider cultural landscape and all components in the context of a single project. To the audience, the participatory project as an art concept appears contradictorily risky and, at points, responsibility free – like taking off on a plane; experiencing the thrill of the risk of being projected through the air in a metal container all the while knowing that short of executing some kind of radical and dangerous act there is little that can be done to affect the outcome of the experience. Myers, as the eyes and post-production editor of this project, certainly shapes one’s experience of it. However, her ‘just enough’ approach to technology as an ideological tool and discreet on-camera presence means that the viewer is able to experience both sides of each social encounter and observe the subtle sets of circumstances that determine the information revealed.


Adobe Arts Council England British Council City Of Helsinki Cultural Office Montalvo Arts Center