Week 5: Mapping the past with GPS

The Global Positioning System is relatively new technology that the US government developed for many purposes and is available for commercial use worldwide. To name a few uses of GPS, it has helped society with navigation, mapping, meteorology, and military intelligence. Although GPS has been used within the modern times, it is unusual for it’s mapping capabilities to be used as a medium to tell the story of the past. In “34 North 118 West“,  artists Jeff Knowlton, Naomi Spellman, and Jeremy Hight incorporates GPS technology with history.


The technology used for this project utilizes a tablet PC with a GPS card and headphones. The history that unfolds is that of the Freight Depot of downtown Los Angeles during the Industrial Age. As the viewer walks around with the GPS tablet, sounds are generated from the tablet through the headphones. This is the storytelling of the spirits, voices, and sounds that once populated the busy downtown area. GPS tracks the location of the user and shows the movement through an old map of downtown Los Angeles displayed on the tablet.  There is a different story told by different commentators as a the user passes through an intersection or the middle of the block. IM03

Knowlton, Spellman, and Hight used the setting of downtown Los Angeles’s Freight Depot because most of the buildings that were build during its industrial age still stands today. From my own experience of traversing through downtown Los Angeles, there are still old factory buildings, train depots, and warehouses that still stand to this day. Although they have survived for more than a century, these buildings have been re-purposed as housing complexes or private business firms. There are some that are abandoned and is waiting to be bought or demolished for new development on the property. Some of these properties take decades to be bought since the land in downtown Los Angeles is expensive and it is difficult to access these areas from the traditional flow of human activity. Knowltn, Spellman, and Hight used this area because once the “narratives” play out, the viewer can use their imagination of how it was like in the past with some of the past still standing in front of them.

The interactivity of a location-based media such as GPS paves a new way of artistic creativity. This raises the issue of how ways of life disappears over time, but the structures that we as humans create to improve our lives can stand the test of time. As newer generations take over society, we see old, abandoned spaces as “wastelands” or “ghost towns”. For the most part, we forget about the art of the small human interactions that occurred in the area as the hands of time continue to circle the clock. As a result, human history of a specific place is only remembered for a quick glance.

(Source: http://www.34n118w.net/)

– Oneil Leif Parrilla


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