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.