Cartographic Postings: GPS, Photography, and Landscape

By Albers, Kate Palmers | Afterimage, March-April 2010 | Go to article overview

Cartographic Postings: GPS, Photography, and Landscape


Albers, Kate Palmers, Afterimage


The past several years have seen an extraordinary rise, in civilian access to personal locational technologies from on-board GPS-enabled communication systems in cars to the widespread use of GPS on personal mobile phones. Whether at home or while traveling, individuals have the ability to pinpoint their location with a remarkable degree of accuracy and, in conjunction with mapping software built into phones and cars, can identify not only location but determine direction. Whether on foot, in a car, 100 miles or 25 yards from a destination, one can easily follow, in nearly real time, a route suggested for optimum travel conditions.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As newly accessible technologies such as GPS, Google maps, and iPhone apps permeate everyday life, artists are using the technology and the concepts behind it to inspire their creative endeavors. These new technologies have certainly contributed to the current deluge of mapping projects and publications in artistic, theoretical, and literary realms. For example, the inclusion of GPS coordinates in artistic projects can signal an engagement. with the very fundamental questions of what it means to locate oneself in the landscape, and in particular, to locate oneself with an do these coordinates actually tell us? Does 36[degrees]48.229'N, 118[degrees]11.620'W, or the even simpler 42[degrees]30N, mean something to us?

Those particular coordinates happen to be from Los Angeles-based Andrew Freeman's "(Manzanar) Architecture Double" series (2005) and photographer Frank Gohlke's collaboration with the poet Herbert Gottfried, "A Line on the Land: 42.30 North and the Massachusetts Landscape" (2002-present). (1) Freeman and Gohlke, working photographically, each incorporated either a full coordinate of latitude and longitude (Freeman) or an indication of latitude alone (Gohlke) in his working process as well as in the textual framing of the image. They reference GPS differently but both toward an end that evokes an intersection of precision with uncertainty, eliciting an unsettling combination of the purposeful and the arbitrary.

Global Positioning System (GPS) technology was developed as a military navigational system but has been available to civilians for almost a decade. On May 2, 2000, the Clinton White House announced it. would disable the selective availability restriction to civilian GPS units. The restriction had inserted timing errors into non-military transmissions, thereby reducing accuracy as a deterrent to potential enemy threats, but also affected coordinate readings available to civilians. (2) The scientific and commercial benefits and applications of this switch have been tremendous. We are all well aware of some of the commercial civilian applications: GPS technology is integrated into commercial airplanes, private cars, and mobile phones, which reduces the need for even a separate hand-held GPS device. Less well-known applications include measuring seismic activity near fault lines, conducting geologic surveying, and locating mobile phones for emergency services.

With roots in radio navigational technologies of the 1940s, GPS became fully operational in 1995 and involves the continuous global orbit of twenty-four active satellites and four "spares." The program, run by the United States Air Force, has monitoring stations in Hawaii, the Kwajalein Atoll in the west central Pacific Ocean, Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, the island Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean, Cape Canaveral, Florida, and a Master Control station at Schriever Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Depending on where it is in its 12-hour orbit, each satellite may be closer or farther from a particular user. For example, each time an iPhone user, a driver with an in-car GPS system, a UPS delivery truck, or a geocacher (3) asks for a location, the device "locates itself" by finding and measuring the distance and location of four different satellites, and calculating the amount of time it takes for each satellite signal--radio waves traveling at the speed of light--to reach the receiver. …

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