On November 4th, 2013, Dr. Andrea Zeffiro presented “Locative Praxis: Transborder Poetics & Locative Media” at the Brakhage Center for the Media Arts at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Zeffiro’s talk focused on mobile ‘artivist’ practices, and specifically on the manner in which artists have adopted mobile communication devices as instruments to facilitate political and cultural dissent. Zeffiro used the occasion of her talk at the BCMA to workshop the idea of ‘locative praxis’. Locative praxis, as she frames it, is a conceptual framework that articulates a politicized dimension of experimental and location-based media production. In her talk, she argues that the dialectic of practice and reflection can further an understanding of the spatial and socio-political dimensions of a space/place, at the intersection of social action and intent. A video of her talk is available here: https://vimeo.com/80934364 and was co-sponsored by the Media Archaeology Lab at CU Boulder. This follow-up interview provides additional context to her project and attempts to contextualize its potential in the current technological landscape.
Mél Hogan: Can you provide some background information about the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT). Who invented it and for what purposes? When and in what context?
Andrea Zeffiro: The TBT is a collaborative project that emerged from the b.a.n.g. lab and the Walkingtools.net Lab, at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, University of California San Diego. The aim of the project is to deposit GPS-enabled disposable phones – these phones are equipped with a GPS application, essentially a digital compass and an interactive map updated in “real time”- along the United States/Mexico border. The purpose of the project is to assist migrants to orient themselves and locate resources, such as water caches and safe locations, while traveling within the border region.
Brett Stalbaum, a founding member of The Walkingtools.net Lab with Cicero Silva of Universidade Federal de São Paulo, and a member of the b.a.n.g. lab, developed the Virtual Hiker program, an algorithm that translates geospatial terrain into a virtual trail or hike. Using GPS satellite signals, the algorithm identifies routes within a block of map data and creates a “bread crumb” trail showing the locations and distances traveled on a map. Intrigued by the capabilities of the Virtual Hiker, members of the b.a.n.g. lab in conjunction with Stalbaum began to explore how such a program might assist migrants crossing border zones.
In 2007, the EDT 2.0 released the first iteration of the Tool, which was initially prototyped on the Motorola i455 phone due to its economical cost — roughly $40 USD — and because its GPS functionality worked independently of a service plan. So long as the GPS function of the phone remains on, the device can maintain constant communication with satellites and therefore, receive directional cues via the user interface.
So, for migrants crossing the U.S./Mexico border, the tool provides support in the form of a navigational aid that supplies directional cues – toward water caches and safe locations – within what is otherwise a barren and harsh landscape. The mapping of water caches and safe zones was completed with the assistance from migrant aid NGOs: Border Angels and Water Station Inc.
The tool however, is not yet widely available –– the original device proved to be unreliable and the team continues to test for inexpensive mobile phones with hackable GPS — the aim is to refine the tool into a distributable prototype that can be circulated by migrant-aid organizations. The website ––walkingtools.net –– which is the site for Brett Stalbaum’s laboratory at UCSD, catalogs the development of the open-source code and offers a free download of the toolkit to encourage its take-up in other border regions around the world.
MH: Can you expand on why TBT and its researchers became aligned with transnational terrorist networks?
AZ: On September 1, 2010, Glenn Beck — on his former Fox News Channel program, The Glenn Beck Show — discussed the TBT, first describing how “employees at the University of California San Diego, are openly, and with the help of your hard earned dollars, aiding illegal aliens with the help of GPS cell phones”, then Beck pressed harder:
There was a time not long ago in this country we walked you through walls of fire to make sure we weren’t funding Hamas or Hezbollah. I have news for you. There are a lot of universities that are as dangerous with the indoctrination of the children as these terror groups are in Iran or North Korea. […] America, while you have been working hard, while you have been busting your butt, while you have thought that we all generally agree on things, we have been setting up reeducation camps. We call them universities.
So, Beck’s implication is that the TBT is akin to groups or nations that have been branded as extremist or terrorist. It’s fear mongering. Thousands of migrants have died from exposure to grueling temperatures or from dehydration while attempting to cross the US/Mexico border. The tool therefore, is aimed at saving lives and through non-violent means.
MH: You said, in your talk, that “what is compelling about the work is the poetics of the project that confront the fallacies of border spaces under global capitalism.” Can you elaborate on the idea of “poetics” and speak to its importance. Following this, how are art and activism connected in this project? What would activism, in this case, look without art, and vice versa?
AZ: I use ‘poetics’ as a way of opening up my analysis of the TBT to include the material and symbolic urgencies, consequences and potentialities of border spaces under global capitalism. The TBT is a cultural expression of border formations and experiences.
And, I’m not just talking about the actual border space/la frontera separating the United States and Mexico, but also the ways in which conceptualizations and perceptions of border spaces inform the ways in which one might come to define and/or reinscribe a set of binaries, like self/other, north/south, legal/illegal, citizen/alien. A project like the TBT challenges conceptions of ‘border spaces’ by pointing out the failures and consequences of these zones.
Border security is also a public performance: so long as the idea of the ‘border’ supersedes knowledge of the real consequences or inadequacies of border management, then the ‘border’ — as a thing, or concept — will continue to serve as a measure of safety and sovereignty. A project like the TBT starts to dissolve the illusion of both safety and sovereignty. One might start to ask: What are the circumstances that generate migrant populations? Why do migrants cross borders illegally? Who has the right to decide when and where one can enter legally? What are the dangers associated with illegal border crossings? For certain bodies, border spaces exist as passageways that separate one territory from another. For other(ed) bodies however, the border is a site of death, or detention, or a passageway where one’s unauthorized or illegal permeation signifies a life of anonymity or secrecy.
As for how the project confronts the fallacies of border spaces under global capitalism, in my talk, I used NAFTA as an example. When the U.S., Canada and Mexico signed the trade agreement in 1994, continental division blurred for trade, but certainly not for bodies. In fact, border control became increasingly more mechanized, and within the last 15 years, authorization to cross a border has come to depend not only on a passport, but the right kind of passport.
To fully understand the TBT, one must engage with the political and historical circumstances embedded in the project. So, as an intervention, the TBT is not simply a critical response to the manifestation of power, but also, a material consequence of it. It came into existence as a reaction to certain realities.
When viewed through the purview of political agency, the TBT is an artivist statement on the part of its developers. For Guisela Latorre, artivist aesthetics constitute “the convergence of creative expression, social activism and self-empowerment.” This definition fits the TBT well because it acknowledges both creative and political agency. The TBT is overtly political, and I think it can be described as a mode of electronic civil disobedience. Steven Wray positions electronic civil disobedience within the tradition of civil disobedience, which is a fundamental component of the American political experience. Wray connects the underpinnings of electronic civil disobedience to the political writings of Marx and Thoreau, as well as twentieth century social movements such as the Civil Rights in the 1960s, radical environmentalism and AIDS activism in the 1980s, and the anti-Gulf War protests in 1990s. The difference with electronic civil disobedience is that it is a brand of civil protest channeled through multiple and hybrid electronic and digital technologies and platforms. For instance, prior to the institution of the b.a.n.g. lab and the Walkingtools.net Lab and development of the TBT, Ricardo Dominguez and Brett Stalbaum, in addition to Stefan Wray and Carmin Karasic, co-founded the Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT) in 1997. One of the earliest acts of electronic civil disobedience orchestrated by the EDT was a virtual sit-in organized in solidarity with the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. In 1998 the EDT released the Zapatista FloodNet – a Java applet that automatically reloads the pages of a target URL and this in turn, can slow a web site or bring it to a halt because of the flooding of requests – and it was launched to interrupt the website of the Mexican government as a means of protesting the oppression of the indigenous people in Chiapas. The EDT subsequently released FloodNet as open source software and the software was used at the height of anti-globalization movement against the WTO, IMF, World Bank, and World Economic Forum websites.
The TBT isn’t ‘artistic’ in any conventional sense, though I do think that its developers employed artistic and/or creative inquiry as a starting point for experimental locative media production. And without the activist impulse – that being, a concern for the dignity and value of migrant lives – the project would be something entirely different. The aim and intent of the project is what attracted me to it as a case study.
MH: What is a symbolic border and how important is it to imagining new spaces, political and physical?
AZ: A symbolic border is a conceptual border. It is the idea of the border. So in terms of border spaces, one’s conceptualization of the border space (i.e. one acts in a certain manner, one needs to have a passport and be prepared to disclose information) is based on one’s understanding of the border (i.e. as an intermediary space that determines who can and cannot enter). More importantly, justifications as to what transpires within border spaces are tied to safety and sovereignty. So people are questioned, detained, denied because they are deemed to be a threat in some capacity. As I mentioned, conceptualizations of border spaces then inform the ways in which one might come to define and/or reinscribe a set of binaries, like self/other, north/south, legal/illegal, citizen/alien.
The TBT puts forth the potential for a differential border space, and by ‘differential border space’, I’m not suggesting that the TBT literally creates a new physical space, rather it points toward the possibility of an alternative to contemporary border spaces. So, it reconceives or preconceives alternative realities for border spaces, as zones privilege bodies (i.e. human lives) over the flow capital and goods (i.e. trade agreements).
MH: Can you make a link from this innovative work to devices and applications, such as Foursquare or Map my Run, or smaller scale projects like Audio Mobile, that use geolocation to track a route? What are the privacy implications? What are the safety implications? Can these be remained/hacked to activist ends?
AZ: The TBT and the applications you mentioned are examples of locative media: a descriptive term that designates the use of an assemblage of mobile and location aware technologies — notably GPS and cellular telephony — in the production of site-specific experiences, performance pieces, interactive art works, and public installations. The term has been used to describe location-based services and commercial applications, which span fleet tracking and in-car navigation, and emergency services, to geotagging content through social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and tracking and mapping applications that you mentioned. Central to the facilitation of both commercial services and applications and locative artistic and cultural works is the Global Positioning System (GPS): a worldwide satellite navigational system that was developed by the United States Department of Defense and maintained by the United States Air Force. Over the course of the last ten years, consumer grade GPS has transitioned from an external specialized device to an embedded (that is, out of site) component within mobile digital technologies, perhaps most strikingly with the seamless integration of GPS into mobile phones.
As you have suggested, there are personal privacy implications associated with mobile and location-based technologies. For instance, when on a network, a phone registers its position with cell towers every few minutes, whether the phone is being used or not. Tracking a cell phone reveals not simply locations, but larger patterns of behaviour of that cell phone user. And this matters because commercial applications and mobile carriers retain data on their users, and law enforcement agencies are able to use this information and have been known to track phones without obtaining a warrant or without probable cause. The NSA scandal of late has further proven how constitutional rights are completely disregarded in regards to digital information.
The TBT demonstrates how locative media – specifically mobile and location-based technologies – might be appropriated within activist formations, as tools not only for interaction, but also reaction, that is, as instruments to facilitate political and cultural activism and dissent. The appropriation of these technologies, and within initiatives invested in political and cultural activism, expands their range of use and adoption. Through a project like the TBT, one might be able to foresee innovative ways of adopting these technologies (i.e. hardware and software), not only in how these devices might be used, but also, and perhaps more importantly, by whom.
MH: How are you situated within this research, as an activist, practitioner, scholar, feminist…
AZ: The TBT first came on my radar in 2006, when I was a researcher on an interdisciplinary and multi-institutional mobile research project in Canada. I was involved in usability field trials, and in-situ prototyping with project engineers and designers, in addition to conducting background research focused on the take-up of mobile digital technologies across numerous cultural formations. There were many different projects and initiatives that I came across, and the TBT was for me, one of the more compelling ones. And it’s important to add such a qualifier because I’ve always been interested in experimental modes of media production that lean towards the political. And though I’ve followed it throughout the years, it’s only within the last few years that I’ve gone back and studied it more formally as a case study toward the refinement of locative praxis: a conceptual framework for understanding the ways in which experimental locative media might engage in political and cultural activism and dissent. So, to answer your question, I suppose I’m formally situated as a scholar, but I think my choices as to my objects of study and my theoretical leanings also speak to my activist and feminist roots, as well as my experiences working with technology in practice.
Originally posted: http://brakhagecenter.com/?p=1043
Andrea Zeffiro is a researcher and writer whose work intersects the cultural politics and practices of emerging technologies, contemporary media histories, feminist media studies, and multidisciplinary research methods. @AndreaZeffiro / andreazeffiro.com
Mél Hogan is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the organizer of the lunchtime series on Media Arts at the BCMA. @mel_hogan / melhogan.com