in conversation with the artist Esther Polak
The Dutch artist Esther Polak has for some time been working with the visual and documentary possibilities of GPS (Global Positioning System). In one of her recent projects – AmsterdamREALTIME – she recorded the daily routes taken by some of the participants over one week and projected them in real time into the gallery room.
In the exhibition Making Things Public in the ZKM Karlsruhe she introduces her latest work, MILKproject, which she developed together with the Latvian curator Ieva Auzina and the RIXC (Riga Center for New Media Culture) and for which she has just been awarded the Golden Nica at this year’s Ars Electronica Festival. Via GPS the MILKproject tries to capture the movements of milk from the Latvian farmer and milk transport driver to the Latvian cheese manufacturer and finally to the Dutch cheese merchant. The participants who are confronted with their own traces after completing their work give insights into their history and situation. In the end this sketched line Latvia – Holland with all its sections is representative of the many routes that are covered everyday in the international food business – a map that is redrawn every day.
TT: Your work MILKproject is embedded in the exhibition area “New Political Passions”. Which were your primary interests in MILKproject and how do you recognize yourself within this field?
EP: The project developed on the grounds of different concepts and viewpoints. One thought was that whenever you have a plate of food in front of you there is an entire landscape behind every piece of food. If you, for example, buy a cheap piece of pork a whole network of transportation routes can be revealed by this one piece of pork. People are involved and a lot of movements and landscapes can be discovered behind every piece. This is our basic interest, that’s what we want to display. We show the movements, the landscape and the people that represent these foods.
However, this has not all been explicitly expressed in the project, it is rather something which I hope the visitor will discover and develop an interest in the origin of the food.
There is also another idea that can be connected with the project. Nowadays you feel awkward when you don’t know where your foodstuff comes from. There is, for example, an organisation, calling themselves “Slow Food” who organise special dinners with local products. They meet at certain places and eat only products from this area. They use old, traditional cooking methods, ignoring all new technologies and economics. MILKproject, however is meant to show that you can actually use this modern technology that at first may scare you off. Today’s technology makes it possible to have food from all over the world available and there is no reason why this technology should not tie you closer to the origins of the product. The lack is only there because the ultimate consumer doesn’t ask. There is no reason why you shouldn’t know where in the Philippines that mango comes from – you could for example, install a Webcam etc.
TT: So, you’re saying it is not initially negative to import and consume a food product from a far away country? You just want to know the source.
EP: Yes, because knowing where the food comes from heightens the joy of eating it. It’s more fun, you can load up a plate of “travels”. This is why our project is more critical regarding the idea of technology alienating the person from the objects. I have learnt the following sentence from the Dutch philosopher Petran Kockelkoren: “Technology allows you the possibility to establish a new intimacy with the objects.” I like this idea and that is what I wanted to achieve with the project – creating a new intimacy with the objects. There is no reason why an immediate experience with technology shouldn’t be possible.
But there is also an entirely different way of looking at the project. To me fine art is not necessarily related to visuality, but more to the representation of space. I have taken a great interest in the development of perspectives. The possibility of giving the paintings a perspective was a science since the Renaissance, a technology in itself. But if you look at a picture against the background of this technology you will see the world in a different way afterwards. I have discovered the GPS visualisation and was amongst other things interested in how to use this technology in order to give people another sense of space. If you give people the opportunity to visualise their movements this is again a new revolution in dealing with space. Therefore the question: Is this going to create something new?
I first worked with GPS in Amsterdam during the AmsterdamREALTIME project. In his project some people were given a GPS device for a week. After this week they were given a print out of their movements. To many of them this print out had the status of a portrait.
TT: Speaking about GPS, there are many artists who have also worked with this technology. There is, for example, the VOPOS project of 0100101110101101.org. They have more of a critical approach towards the surveillance possibilities of GPS. A new way of playing in the urban space was developed via GPS through the project Can You See Me Now? from the English artist’s group Blast Theory that was introduced during the DEAF03 Festival. Or there is the performer Dan Belasco Rogers who also works with GPS developing his movements through the city into drawings. With all these artistic approaches – what is your personal access to GPS? Some have already been mentioned. Is it the combination of documentary image material and a new visualisation and recording tool that is uppermost in your mind?
EP: During the AmsterdamREALTIME project the people looked at their own print outs and began to tell all sorts of different stories, about their movements around the city but also about their relation to the city in general. On the one hand they described very detailed objects and on the other hand there were also reserved looks.
During this project, however, we weren’t prepared for these reactions; we didn’t have any format with which we could have done anything. We just provided a book in which the users and visitors could write their comments. They didn’t want to write, but they wanted to talk. Later the project was presented in Riga in May 2003. There I met Ieva Auzina who was initially sceptical as she had difficulties with the surveillance aspect – The AmsterdamREALTIME project was actually real time; you could watch the people running their errands around the city. Eventually she became keen about the possibilities and wanted to know what you could do with GPS in rural areas. That’s when we began to test the technology in the countryside, in southern Latvia. Amongst others we gave the GPS device to a milk collection driver and we got really excited about working with him. We realised how many stories there were to find in the countryside and that we could discover them in a different way than if we had just appeared with a microphone, asking: ”What do you think of the changes to Latvia’s countryside over the past 10 years?” “What has changed with the European Community and so forth…?” This way we didn’t ask anything, but simply showed him the lines and joined him a few times. In a way this was the pilot project from which the MILKproject developed.
Additionally there was the information that milk is exported from Latvia throughout Europe that led to the idea of tracking it to Holland. At that point, however, we didn’t have any idea of how to document this. It is generally very interesting to be able to use such a new visualisation tool. AmsterdamREALTIME was able to show the possibilities of this new technology. After that we wanted to go a step further and tell stories; this, at least, was the initial idea with this project.
TT: To me it was interesting that you kept the visualisation of the routes and tracks that you found very abstract. There is a green grid and the lines which slowly form in time. This all becomes only complete and clear when you include the stories of the participants. Only they know what the point on the map means. I wouldn’t understand it without their help and the photographs. There are also no interviews, so the participants explain themselves their landscapes and their activities.
EP: That is exactly what this work wants to achieve. It wants to convey the abstract pictures that become more and more readable.
TT: Something else that you have already mentioned: GPS technology is often used in urban spaces, on roads, in vehicles and your idea of confronting this relatively new technology with agricultural technology and rural areas is a big part of this work’s attraction. Apart from that I noticed that the farmers also showed a great interest in these new possibilities in order, for example – and there is the surveillance aspect again – to control their employees or to see, whether the cow has walked off into the potato field during their absence. My question is how you, apart from your artistic work, value this technology? Is there also a critical view or would you rather emphasize the positive characteristics?
EP: Obviously each technology can be used differently. You also cannot stop the development of technology. The critical side of this project could be, but I want to be very careful here, that the more you show people the aesthetic and fun of such technology the less fearful they become of it and the more they embrace it. This factor is a prerequisite for the examination of such technology. The mobile phone, for example, provides similar options to GPS. Every user can be located but many mobile phone users don’t even know that. With my installation I clarify this, so people understand that they are actually moving as if in a tiny village and they are not invisible as it seems to be the case in a big city. Initially I don’t see a problem with that as long as you realise it.
TT: Maybe people in the countryside know the feeling of being observed better than those in the city?
EP: Yes, maybe technology brings the rural intimacy back into the city…(laughs)