Blue Sky Gallery: Location, location, location

By Graham W. Bell

At long last, a reason for Twitter.

Two shows at Blue Sky right now question the idea of location in a very 21st century context. Where we are, they suggest, is not necessarily where we are. The GPS grid is a hard one to challenge when it comes to pinpointing where your phone is, but does the location of your internet connection establish your own true location? What about cloud interference? What about space debris? What about the fact that we are not actually linked physically to the internet except by our peripherals?

A recent ad for Google Plus touts “just hanging out together” as a reason to be online. Hanging out with your computer and a virtual/video representation of your friends is edging out spending time with other people in the physical world. Identifying where you are and where you’ve been through massive photographic archives and GPS coordinates follows suit.

Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman present what at first seems to be a lot of potentially boring images of nondescript locales. If one simply views one of the pictures without any context, it is no better than a snapshot taken by accident with no subject in mind. However, taken with the line of text below the image, Larson and Shindelman’s pieces question the traditional idea of the photographic subject, and come back to the definition of a noun. Person, place, thing or idea.

Larson and Shindelman use the Twitter Geolocation Service to pinpoint the exact spot in the real world where a particular Tweet was posted. They then travel to that location and take a photo from/of that spot. The virtual space and physical space combine to create a work that exists in both. Using the text of the original Tweet as a subtitle, the artists force the viewer to make sense of the connection, even if one is not at first readily apparent.

Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman, "Looked it Up on YouTube", pigment print, 2010

For example: “We are holy ghosts! And we were sent from above…” is attached to an image of a surveillance camera. This Big Brother meets omniscient god through text/image relationship is, of course, the work of the artists (since they selected what part of the area to photograph). However, these juxtapositions are all found objects, given to the artists by GPS tags. The beauty of the photographic/text process is that one can take such things and instantly transform their meaning, their associations, and their relevance to the viewer.

Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman, "Sex In Front of Your Neighbors", pigment print, 2010

From a purely visual standpoint, the photographs are nice, but (purposefully, I assume) place more emphasis on the idea of random locales than that of setting up a shot that is just so. The Twitter users add meat to their virtual skeleton from a specific point online and a nonspecific point in reality. They are not posting about the place they are walking past, but rather where their mind is, the place they are thinking. In that context, I find Larson and Shindelman’s works well suited to their project. The text/image relationship roams from the more universally relevant (“Fuck. I need to sort my shit out.” paired with a picture of a mail slot covered in peeling tape) to the bizarre (“Just bought the kind of shoes that make you want to have sex in front of your neighbors. #LOVE” paired with a bright cartoon character). If all of the images were directly relatable to their tweets, I think that the project would not work as well, bordering on the cliché. “Oh ho,” you would say, with a knowing smile, “I see what you did there.” Instead, the artists keep you sharp.

Mishka Henner’s No Man’s Land approaches the idea of place from a more social perspective. Employing Google Street View and information from online sex worker forums, the artist presents photo and video of a very human subject in an almost machine-like manner.

Each pigment print comes across at first like a landscape snapshot from the road. Looking closer, the image’s origin becomes clearer as glitches and blurs appear. The privacy algorithms set up to redact faces and license plates combined with the panoramic stitching that makes Street View flow smoothly from place to place make for strange errors. Here a truck is split in half. There a bit of barrier rail is blurred out. In Teverola Caserta, Italy, a woman’s face is hidden by branches, but the algorithm finds something worth censoring near the hem of her skirt.
Mishka Henner, Carretera de Rubí, Terrassa, Spain, from the series “No Man’s Land”, pigment print, 2011

Mishka Henner, Carretera de Rubí, "Terrassa, Spain", from the series “No Man’s Land”, pigment print, 2011

Henner, working with the edges of society in Italy and Spain, “describes himself as an aggregator of sorts, finding the visual means with which to represent a number of cultural and social issues revealed by the technology.” [1] As such, the idea of compiling many different images together, pacing through a visual story of prostitution and proof of living conditions, is a good one, but the photographs leave me wanting to know more.

The video portion of the exhibition is really where these concepts come alive. Each small clip (in a series) allows the viewer to see the stories unfold via Street View, fading into the next scene as the camera advances. Coming up to and passing by the women in the photos, their faces blurred, there is a more personal connection. We all know this happens, but perhaps we try not to know where.

Locating ourselves and others within the context of the web is something we now do without thinking, and so the connection of the individual human consciousness to the group mind of the internet becomes a topic in art. In various manners, artists are exploring just what it means to be privy to every single online thought, image, and idea floating about in cyberspace; what it means to have collective memory, not just individual experience.

Artists like Penelope Umbrico mine sites like Flickr to find common images among disparate users. Cory Arcangel has taken the activity of blog aggregation as his subject in his project Sorry I Haven’t Posted. Finding singularities of sameness within the variety of human experience is a practice that brings us all closer. But what about the individual user? How can we find and assess what being a human in both physical and digital worlds means? How does one self-locate, much less find anyone else?


Nate Larson & Marni Shindelman
“Geolocation: UK”

Mishka Henner
“No Man’s Land”

Blue Sky Gallery
122 NW 8th Avenue
Portland, OR 97209
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday; Noon – 5:00PM
May 3 – June 3, 2012


1. Artist’s Statement

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