The Existentialism of GPS

Satellite-based art projects have a way of revealing the inherent slipperiness of the physical world.

Andy Clark / Reuters / The Atlantic

As part of an installation at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture in 1994, architect and geographer Laura Kurgan explored how unsettlingly imprecise precision mapping can really be.

Kurgan’s show, called “You Are Here: Information Drift,” included a technically simple but provocative premise, which was to map the apparent wandering of a GPS receiver she had temporarily mounted to the gallery’s roof. “A GPS receiver located, for the duration, on Storefront’s roof transmits uncorrected real-time position readings to a computer in the gallery,” Kurgan’s accompanying text explained.

This real-time tracking of the receiver’s location did not, in fact, reveal its position in the city with pinpoint precision, corresponding to the gallery’s legally recognized location. On the contrary, when seen through the lens of GPS reception, the gallery was not really there—or, rather, it was never where her equipment thought it should be.

Uncannily, that supposedly fixed point on a New York City rooftop was almost constantly on the move: roaming in every direction of the compass at all times of day, as if the gallery itself had somehow slipped its moorings to wander free as a ship on the city’s streets. This was the information drift referred to by her title transformed into literal geographic drift as the receiver struggled to rectify the seemingly contradictory signals from GPS satellites that reached it there in New York City as if at the bottom of a canyon.

Kurgan instead found herself looking at data that implied odd, overlapping, often oblong bulges, detours, and trails created by positions that did not physically exist. She used the title “You Are Here” with a great deal of technical irony: in a sense, it was exactly where you were not. What’s more, because of the tiny scale of the gallery itself, “much of the building disappears within [the GPS receiver’s] margin of error,” Kurgan added. For the GPS device, it was as if it was not a building but a glitch.

In a sense, Kurgan had discovered a kind of ghost architecture, a parallel city made from moving buildings and spectral property lines: turn on the receiver and these other structures mysteriously appear, like jagged envelopes of space sliding on their own around Manhattan. Turn the receiver off, and the city freezes back in place.

Today, of course, we have all become digital geographers, carrying error-prone satellite-based mapping devices along with us everyday. Whether it’s because we’re unable to lock down an exact position somewhere in an over-built urban environment or because we’re outside the city entirely, on a country road or mountain trail, the knowledge that we are not where our maps say we are is now part of the background noise of daily life.

In the 22 years since Kurgan’s pioneering work, the list of GPS-themed art has grown substantially, and it only continues to expand. While documenting a recent such project called “Satellite Lamps,” for example, a small team of collaborators, including Einar Sneve Martinussen, Jørn Knutsen, and Timo Arnall, described an interesting geographic effect first pointed out to them by British artist James Bridle.

Bridle, they wrote, “told us about an odd thing he had observed about location services on his iPhone. Namely, that if you leave a running app such as Nike+ or Runkeeper on your bedside table while you sleep at night, you will wake up to see that the app reports that you ran a significant distance, without doing anything.”

This GPS-ghosted movement made it appear as if the owner had been out wandering the city in a series of staggered star-like routes, even as Bridle himself remained perfectly still in his London flat. The group referred to this as “Night Runner.” Think of it as psychogeography re-invented in the age of FitBit.

“This, we speculated, is due to the way in which these apps are recording the GPS inaccuracies and counting these as actual, physical movements,” they continued. “In reality, these odd asymmetrical star-shaped tracks offer a map of the shifts of the phone attempting to locate itself.” It is not you, then, but a mathematical error, a phantom version of yourself wandering in the blind spots of military satellites.

The peculiar existential thrill of watching a “phone attempting to locate itself” suggests that there is much more going on than we might expect when a simple piece of navigational equipment attempts—and fails—to guide us from one point to another. Indeed, what’s so interesting about these and other GPS-themed artworks is that they reveal a world of constant slippage and unpredictable drift moving beneath the surface of things, an impossibility of locating anything with genuine certainty.

If even something as stationary as an art gallery in Manhattan can appear to slide back and around again through the surrounding neighborhood, then, in a very real sense, the entire world is also always night-running, departing from its apparent fixedness without ever appearing to move. Your smartphone was in a different neighborhood last night, perhaps even stumbling through someone’s home or slipping across state borders.

This geographic existentialism, wherein even our instruments are lost, is just one intriguing side effect of relying on contemporary satellite technology for a sense of real-time location. Although ever-more intense levels of precision are on their way—particularly with the launch of what Lockheed Martin calls GPS III—even these future machines will reveal shortcomings and blind spots. Stationary points will still wander, in other words, and that’s before we look at the possibility of outright system failure.

Just as it has now become possible to know exactly where we stand in the world, with more definition than ever before, these new forms of error make that place much stranger than we could perhaps once have believed.

Here is a place that moves just as we attempt to step on it, fleeing from precision as if unwilling—or unable—to be mapped.