Esther Polak: Traversing The Route, From MediaMarkt to Cameroom

Published on May 7th, 2009

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Esther Polak works with visualisation of landscape. For her projecy Nomadic-MILK the tracks of nomadic herdsman and regular dairy transports in Nigeria are recorded and visualised. The project makes use of a newly developed GPS-visualisation tool: a small robot draws the tracks directly on the ground in lines of sand. Esther Polak develops projects around the notion of space. By using new technologies like GPS and simple robots she aims to re-orientate and shift perspectives on issues of cultural and technological development.

Traversing the Route: from MediaMarkt to Cameroon. Stephen Kovats and Thomas Munz (eds.) Deep North. Transmediale Parcours2 (Berlin: Revolver), pp. 56-62.

Annet Dekker in conversation with Esther Polak


Esther Polak works with visualisation of landscape. Her AmsterdamREALTIME project (2002) was one of the first large-scale art explorations in GPS (Global Positioning System) mapping.

In 2004-2005 she developed MILKproject. In this project a European dairy transportation was followed from the udder of the (Latvian) cow, to the mouth of the (Dutch) consumer. Polak is currently working on a new GPS project : Nomadic-MILK. For this project the tracks of both nomadic herdsman and regular daily transports in Nigeria are recorded and visualized. The project makes use of a newly developed GPS-visualisation tool: a small robot draws the tracks directly on the ground in lines of sand.

Esther Polak develops projects around the notion of space. By using new technologies like GPS and simple robots she aims to re-orientate and shift perspectives on issues of cultural and technological development.


AD : Nomadism, landscape and nature are all recurring themes in your work. Where does this fascination for the landscape originate?

EP : My fascination for ‘the country’ began when I was growing up in Amsterdam. I think that as a ‘city person’ you always have to create a construct for experiencing the countryside, because it is not your ‘home’. In Amsterdam we lived in a top-floor flat. My mother found city life particularly condemning, and jumped at any opportunity to escape to the country. The flat did have a small balcony where we tried to grow all kinds of plants, but with very mixed results. To escape the city we would rent a house in the country, go on walks and bike rides, and inevitably we had to join the NJN [an association for young people interested in nature and biology]. The aim was to discover nature, and we would work and sleep in a cow shed full of all kinds of apparatus, microscopes, with dead birds hanging on the wall, pieces of wood, leaves and all kinds of other paraphernalia. We felt as if we were working at a cross between a science laboratory and a working farm.


AD :  The experience of doing it yourself is often very hard to recreate. How do you deal with this in your installations? How do you translate that moment of amazement for the audience?

EP : That is a big challenge; I try to make my installations more physical by creating a sculptural, spatial experience. For example, by making a network of sand prints in the space. During one of my presentations I explained very briefly what it was about and then got a robot to spread out the sand, making a drawing. The resulting sand drawing and the way the robot scattered the sand drew an immediate response from the audience: Right away they envisaged how the cows in Cameroon behaved. People then come to me with more detailed questions, but I’m not sure whether to respond, because in doing so I think I’m breaking with that moment of amazement, and the work turns in to an almost anthropological or social research project. I am more interested in the experience than in the idea or the issue of authenticity.

Currently I am trying to present the potential of all the tools I have developed in such a way that this shows the essence of the experience. If I’m working with the robots, showing the very different tracks they make, either with the participants or on my own in the studio, I can sense that experience and fascination very clearly. It’s that experience that I want to get across to the audience. To do so effectively I try out various situations, both inside and outside, in a performance setting or in an installation. I am looking for a form that can communicate the experience without me being there. You could call it a kind of trade moment, work that communicates the essence of what I am doing. I find this way of presenting very useful at the moment. The robot itself is also much more physical than the way I used to work. A robot might seem very practical and considerate, but in fact it is extremely stubborn and often refuses to do what you want. But for me that’s the power of the artistic dynamic. For me it’s a challenge to make the static digital technology more unpredictable and physical.


AD : At the moment you are researching the route of international milk production. Why milk, and how do see its relationship to the landscape?

EP : I find milk a very interesting case because it relates to my own relationship with landscape, the direct environs of Amsterdam: the fields, everything you see from the train window, the way the landscape looks is very much shaped by milk production. I was fascinated by the way that an economic process can leave such a mark on a landscape. This is where the roots of my interest lie, the combination of nomadism, the experience of space and how technology works. I see the way dairy cattle are kept in the Netherlands as technology. So you could say that one fascination flows in to the other.

AD : You studied fine art at The Hague School of Art. How did you make the step from painting to new media?

EP : It was an interesting journey. At the time, I started painting because I had a rather naive love of the landscape. In the Netherlands the landscape has always held a special position in the fine arts due to the long tradition of landscape painting here. At art school a lot of emphasis was placed on the autonomy of the image. The image should speak for itself, and my idea of mediation did not fit in very well with this. At the Rijksakademie [for the Arts, in Amsterdam] I studied in the Graphics/New Media Department. I found it hard to relate to the autonomous ethic of fine art. However, working for a few years as a DTP worker for various newspapers was an eye-opener for me. I discovered that a story’s meaning could change completely depending on the photo you published next to it. Essentially you can use a random picture with any story, as long as the caption is right, but the meaning of the photo and the text will change each time! This fitted well with my idea of transformation, how different technologies can change our experience of the same thing. In retrospect the objective facts and reality that come along with every new invention turn out to be subjective after all. That is what makes working with new technology fundamentally different for me from working with oil paint. I was interested in GPS from the first moment it was introduced to me, because it seemed to be extremely realistic. It told an almost technological truth about an event that had not existed before it was made visible with GPS. This stems from the fascination I have with microscopes and binoculars. Suddenly you experience things on a different scale – what you saw just as a plant suddenly becomes much more, its own biotope – it’s a scale-changing trip, an overpowering machine that makes visible new possibilities and avenues.

AD : In presenting your projects you use a variety of techniques: visualised GPS drawings, sound recordings, video recordings, sometimes photography, even sand drawings. You depict the landscape with different tools, all of which are presented as being equally valuable. Do you see this way of presenting as a new form of landscape art?

EP : Yes, for me it was the solution to how I should deal with the landscape in a contemporary, relevant way. I’ve been looking for a long time for a way of presenting my work, based on my fascination with landscape painting. As well as painting I also looked at land art, in particular the first experiments in the 1970s, and conceptual art in the same period. I was able to use some of the steps they made in my GPS experiments. The technology I use is a way of adapting their ideas in to practical projects. The greatest inspiration for me was Stanley Brown. He asked people to draw where they had walked to get where they were, and people used simple materials like paper and pencil. That is a starting point, a path that has already been laid, on which I can build. The power in Brown’s work lies predominantly in the conceptual step he made, but the technical tools that I can use in turn raise new theoretical, conceptual and artistic issues.

What I also find very important is the interpretation of the landscape. I referred earlier to dairy production in various parts of the Netherlands, and how the means of production have defined the carving up of space. This is often neglected, but it is an economic activity that is reflected in the form. If looking at the landscape and taking a bite of cheese or drinking some milk is directly related to a certain economic structure this offers fascinating possibilities for interpretation and experience. In the US they have a Centre for Land Use Interpretation. The title is a very good summary of what I’m fascinated by: a fascination with land use interpretation.

AD : A lot of artists who work with GPS and location-based technologies are less interested in the technology than in the stories that come about when people have followed a certain route. In your work the interaction between the map visualizations and the participants has often been a point of departure for telling stories – the result is above all a living portrait: of a landscape, of stories and people.

EP : Yes, I have used locative media as an interactive and storytelling tool, although that was not the initial goal. With Amsterdam Real- Time, for example, the main goal was to give people a sense of their own perceptions. We did not want visitors to adopt the ‘surveillance’ perspective or the voyeuristic gaze, we wanted them to try to identify as much as possible with the participants. We used a theatrical method: namely we conveyed participation in the project as a very special, even enviable opportunity. People really got involved and immediately became part of the project – the machine was set in motion. The point of departure was not to emphasize the interaction between people and the traces they leave behind, although we did print out the individual routes and hand them out to each participant as a souvenir. Looking back now, I think it was a rather naive decision: We had absolutely no idea how much impact the print-outs would have on the participants. People pored over their printed-out routes in utter fascination and couldn’t wait to share their stories. The same thing happened in Cameroon, too: people immediately recognised themselves in the sand routes as the robot carried them out. I think it is important to realise, though, that not everyone uses maps or that everyone reads or draws a map in a similar way. I let people look at the patterns they made based purely on memory, based on their own route, not about how people read or use maps. For me it’s all about revisiting spatial experience – as a way of bringing about a new perception. I am interested to hear how people talk about their own route, the terminology they use. The people we spoke to in Cameroon, for example, did not draw maps but explained the route using certain words. But in the end I think the essential thing is to create a certain tension in the visitor faced with the new and the unknown. This moment of tension takes place when I stand on a certain spot with the people who have just followed a route and who see the robot drawing out their route again. The question then is whether this means anything to these people. That moment of excitement and amazement – when people’s way of identifying with their own route changes – is what it’s all about.


AD : Has working with traditional techniques and tools changed the way you work as an artist?

EP :  Working with new media often requires a different approach than the usual visual arts one. You have to juggle so many things at the same time and that makes it almost impossible to work on your own. In the visual arts this is still considered rather strange, although in the performing arts no-one would think of putting on a play all by themselves, with the lighting, direction, staging etc. to deal with. It’s all about teamwork. The visual arts has a strange tradition of the lone artist who has to do everything alone, but I don’t think that works with new media. Working with people from different disciplines is challenging and at the same time inherent in the media itself: knowledge about programming, building robots, handling cameras, storytelling – all of these are specialist fields of knowledge and can’t be found in just one person. For NomadicMILK I set up a team that includes an anthropologist, who was involved primarily in the first stage of the project development, helping me to think about traditional dairy farmers. I also had someone with a technical background. As soon as we had worked out what we wanted to do we involved a number of specialists, for example, to look at the possibilities of using robots. It’s a dynamic way of working through a process, in which you are constantly looking at the developments from different angles. In addition I consulted a number of other people who had a more reflective role in looking at how the project progressed. What I myself am going to learn or look at and which things I might leave to others is also part of making choices, it’s part of the process. In part it depends on the budget: if there is enough money it’s easier to delegate tasks to others.

AD : To what extent do you adapt existing technology? And how do you make knowledge accessible to others?

EP : I’m very much in to adapting existing technology and using it to design specific tools. I deal with specific research questions and these demand specialist solutions. But it has never been my intention to come up with generic applications. Although you do see this happening in the area of consumer technology. All sorts of people are programming small programmes, very generic applications, for GPS and tracking purposes and are making them available to others. But that is a very different field, and if you want to carve out a role for yourself as an artist you have to be ahead of the game. To some extent I am involved in broader applications but without developing social or directly useable applications. My strong point is the conceptual side and that is what I want to share and push forward. To keep developing this knowledge I’ve set up a ‘locative media club’ together with Michiel de Lange. I see that above all as my ‘open source domain’ because that is the knowledge that is most important to me. It’s my field of expertise and I want to see it continue to develop, not only for myself but for others, too. The field I work in is small, but it has a huge social movement behind it and if you want to think about it in an exciting and relevant way you have to set up your own thing. The meetings are a fall-back, a way of keeping up to date and read articles. Before you know it you’ve lost your role at the forefront of things and are spending too much time working on production issues that tend to demand all your attention.

AD : Working with new technologies is still contested in the traditional arts. Do you believe that ‘new media’ have their own status?

EP : The arts have always had an obsession with new technology, and that will never change. I think it’s important that this new art form has a relationship to established art history, but I would not claim that working with oil paint, photography and GPS is all one and the same. Because it is not: Artists have been experimenting with oil paint for centuries; photography has just ceased to be a new technology; and GPS and all sorts of other technology are just on the crest of the wave. For me the essence of a new medium or a new technology is about developing a new way of looking at the world and how you experience it. In ten years’ time I might not be interested in GPS anymore, because a new technology will turn up that deals with mediating information in a different way. More importantly, I believe that working with new media really is different because it comes from the ‘normal’ world and was not specifically developed for artistic production. There’s a big difference between going to an artists’ supply shop and going to an electronics outlet like MediaMarkt to buy your materials. In the artists’ supply shop you are among (amateur) artists, but at MediaMarkt you are surrounded by regular people with all kinds of jobs and interests: You are at the centre of society. If you take the materials and their origin seriously, the work you make will also have a relationship to that society.
It is important to bring new technology art out of its techno-centric isolation: Technology is fascinating but it remains a means rather than an end in itself. I would suggest that we need to look to other art movements, and I personally am influenced by 1970s conceptual art. I sometimes say: ‘Media art is conceptual art put in to practice’. But land art is another reference point for me. Someone recently pointed me towards Surealism as a way to bring more contingency to media art. I would like to look in to these areas. I do this in one way by changing the way I present my work, by letting go of the storytelling element and searching for points of transition where the experience comes about. I found it important to differentiate between myself and a journalist, anthropologist or a scientist. Art has its own field and that is where the power lies. Above all it’s about experiencing space and if you do it right the stories will appear of their own accord. I am interested in the impact of new technology, particularly in terms of how we experience space. The social or political consequences of surveillance technologies (such as GPS), for example, are part of the work, but they’re not my primary interest. As a ‘new media’ artist I try to develop a relationship to the place of technology in society. This involves developing a certain level of engagement, but that doesn’t always entail being critical. It is essential, though, to avoid negating your audience’s critical position. In my work I offer an open approach that gives the audience a great deal of space to draw their own conclusions.

AD : Your work is often cited as exemplary of a politically and socially critical approach. Andreas Broeckmann, for example, posted the following on a locative media mailing list in 2004: ‘I have always understood the term “locative” as pointing in both directions, the potential for enriching the experience of shared physical spaces, but also fostering the possibility to “locate”, i.e. track down anyone wearing such a device. This does turn the “locative media” movement into something of an avant-garde of the “society of control.” I believe that people are aware of the ambivalence, but I am wondering at which level this critical aspect is brought into an arts project.’ He goes on to mention your Milk project as an example: ‘This is not to say that artistic work in this field is impossible. I believe that, for instance the Milk project by Polak/Auzina might be a clever way of approaching the issues by simulating the tracking of trade routes.’ What do you make of this? What do you think about a comment like this that would appear to go beyond your primary goal of portraying how the perception of space changes with new technologies?

EP : It’s true that many people interpret the project this way. That is fine, because it is an important element, but for me it is secondary. This is even more apparent in the NomadicMILK project that I am currently doing in Nigeria. I tell a story about a locally produced product versus global trade, and of course that is politi- cally loaded. But whether global trade systems are good or bad – apart from the issue of whether I can judge those criteria – is some- thing I don’t think you can predict. I find it fundamentally impossible to come to a conclusion on this. I am well aware of the journalistic approach, and I see the importance of explicit opinions, but for me this obscures the advantage – or the open space – that art entails. I believe that an open stance offers much more space for other meanings. For example, my research into the way we ex- perience space opens up other layers. I don’t believe in making moral statements in my work: this suffocates the work and makes it impossible for people to draw their own conclusions.

AD : To what extent have you found that using GPS has changed people’s lives and behaviour?

EP : That’s a very difficult question, particularly because I am right in the thick of it. However, that is what my work is about and much of my old works have become classic examples of this. Personally I think that the widespread use of satellite navigation (SatNav) systems is a good example of how behaviour and expecta- tions are changing. In the past people would call the breakdown services only when their car broke down. But now that finding the way has become such a technically mediated experience due to SatNav, people phone the services when their SatNav breaks down too! They phone up to say: I don’t know where I am or how to get to where I need to go, and they expect the AA to solve their problem, which they experience as a technical problem. That’s a bizarre phe- nomenon, and it shows how it influences your experience of being somewhere. I recently read a newspaper article about someone driving in to a canal because their SatNav had got con- fused. A GPS accident! However, behaviour remains hard to predict. For a while I thought that specialist maps would become very important and I would point to the example of Justus van de Broek’s ‘You Skate’ project. It is a website with all kinds of specialist information and routes for skaters, for example, about the quality of the road surface. I could see the rise of highly adapted platforms for exchange for individual needs that would allow people to exchange information and photos in real time and in an advanced way. But in reality information exchange happens in a much simpler way. You also see that as a professional you can do certain things that are not picked up on in the ‘real’ world or that are not being built by amateurs.

AD : As you said the use of new media has changed the traditional way of working in the arts. You’re an artist who is always looking for new challenges and one of your new steps is to use GPS as an editing tool. What are you aiming for with this project?

EP : It’s not so much that new technology has changed the way I work. It is the decision to work with new technology itself because it changes the way you work. It’s true that I’m always looking for new steps, and some- times these are borne out of limitations. I tend to combine several ways of working, from practical work to theoretical reflection, sometimes touching on production, hands- on work. That’s how I came by transforming GPS data in to visual data. I found it an interesting discovery and it was the starting point for further research. Now we’re developing a tool that makes the raw data that is collected through the GPS as ‘real’ and meaningful (in the experience of both participant and audience) as possible, even to the point that the data can become almost fictional. A GPS editing tool makes the data flexible so that its meaningful forms can be emphasised and composed by chang- ing and manipulating the ‘true’ data itself! The interesting question is how this editing alters the experience and identification.




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