Monday, November 13, 2006 

the end

Well, it is my last evening here in Berlin and I’m sitting in a sketchy Internet cafe a couple blocks from our apartments. I absolutely cannot believe that this program is over. Yet I still have a whole month before I go back home, and I think it’s actually going to be weird being in cities and not having to worry about classes and projects and all that stuff. Overall, I’m very happy with how this program went. I had never made new media before, and I actually didn’t really know what new media was, but here I am, nine weeks later, with a term full of experiences abroad. The only physical evidence I have to show for it is a folder of photos, this blog, and a pretty awesome Google Earth map showing my perceptions of some of my favorite places. If somebody had told me at the beginning of September that I will have not only spent hundreds of hours on a project, but enjoyed making it and felt proud of my piece, I think I would have been a bit surprised. I don’t consider myself to be much of an artist or a programmer, but it turns out you don’t really have to be either to make art. You just need an idea and the motivation to carry it out to the best of your ability. And that’s what I did.

This weekend, I got to do a bit of the more tourist-y Berlin stuff because Joe and I wanted to go collect some footage to work into our project later. We went back to the Holocaust Memorial, and then we waited in long lines to go to the top of the Reichstag and the big tower at Alexanderplatz that must have a name, but I don’t know what it is. Both of them had amazing views of the city, and of course, I took a ton of pictures. At right, looking east from the Reichstag. There’s little droplets of water on it because it started to rain, and it was so windy up there that it made me feel like I was snowboarding. Yes, that’s an odd association, but that’s what came to mind at the time. Below is a shot I took from the dome on top of the Reichstag, and I like it because the sun is peeking through the clouds in a really interesting way, and then up in the clouds you can see reflections of the mirrors in the dome behind me.

The tower in Alexanderplatz was slightly less impressive because it felt so dark and enclosed. However, I could see so much of the city from there, and it really made me feel small seeing how much I was surrounded by. I only traversed a tiny part of that during my two weeks here. Up in the tower, they have those big binocular-like machines, so we picked our favorite area of the city and forked out 1 euro to see it in a bit more detail. I think I managed to find our apartment building with it, which was pretty neat. Below is a photo I took through it of wind turbines way out on the horizon. The city seemed to just end out there and blend in with the fog, but there were these turbines cranking away.

This might be my last post for a while because I’m not really sure what my Internet situation will be like for the next month. Tomorrow morning, it’s off to Prague, and then on Friday down to Vienna. Then we’re going to Copenhagen to visit some Carleton friends and apparently I’ve been assigned to cook the Thanksgiving turkey. That should be interesting.

Sunday, November 12, 2006 


Okay, so I am really excited about this.

It might not actually be brilliant, because it was late last night when we came up with it, but I think it's a pretty interesting way of setting up our website and presenting the project. We were trying to write a short overview of the project to put on the very front page of the website, as kind of a way to capture the attention of people, and provide information for those who don't want to read all of our more detailed stuff. I was having a hard time explaining to Joe what I envisioned for this text, and halfway through writing it, it hit me: it was an ABSTRACT!!! And with all of my science/social science background, that idea is way exciting, because that implies that it's introducing some sort of research. That got us to thinking, hey, maybe our project is research, and we really think that it is. It's research into the idea of using traditional mapping platforms (ie Google Earth) as an artistic platform, and our writing thus far about the project has even been pretty close to fitting into the frame I would use for a typical psych research paper. So, I think we're going to set up the website under that framework, presenting our project as an artistic form of research. It still needs some tweaking, but it's seeming like it will fit fairly well into that format. The evolution of mapping essay I posted is the "background" of the project. The project itself is the "results" section. The thing we were working on last night is definitely the "abstract," although it is not quite polished yet, and we are going to be writing a "discussion" that brings together our feelings on the project itself and its place in the larger scope of things. The last part of a research paper, and probably my favorite to write because of how simple it is, is the "methods" section. And voila, our art is a form of research! So, here is the most recent section we have completed. For the rest of them (and the polished product), you will just have to wait for the website. I'm not entirely sure when that will be up, because we want it to look good, but a link will definitely end up here when it is ready.

During the nine weeks we spent studying in New York, London, Amsterdam, and Berlin, we selected places that stood out as being notable in our experience of each city as a whole. For each of these places, we built a 3-D model in Google SketchUp that portrays the place, either in an architecturally accurate manner, or a more artistic one. We then created a project in the place, using various digital mediums and software. These media projects were intended to capture the place as we experienced it, creating a snapshot as a record for others to view and understand the elements of place that most stood out to us. The models were imported into Google Earth, and we placed links on them that led to the media projects hosted online. By combining these individual places into one single map, our entire journey is chronicled and archived, and our experience of place can be followed by anybody who is interested.

Saturday, November 11, 2006 

the long-awaited project

Well, I've been talking about it all term. This project has consumed so much of my time, although it's been really fun to work on, and it has finally reached the state (and the point of the term) when it is ready to be unveilled. As I mentioned in my last post, this will all eventually be on a website, but for now, here it is...

The links should all download as .kmz files, which can be opened in Google Earth, which is available for free on Mac, PC, and Linux. Make sure the terrain is turned on (in the check boxes at the bottom), or the models might be floating far above a flat earth. As a mini-explanation of their creation, the models were all built (by me!) in Google SketchUp, a very simple free program that I have been learning how to use this term. The projects the models link to were all created by Joe and I, using digital media and various computer programs to edit and put it together. They will all eventually have some sort of accompanying text explaining why we chose to represent them in the way we did, but for now, here are the files, in approximate order of creation:

New York City:


El Puerto

Bronx Zoo

NYC Subway



The Eagle and Child

Buckingham Palace

Millennium Bridge





Haarlem Windmill

Apple Inn Hotel

Grocery Store

(including links "circling the Waag" from projects done by whole class)

Friday, November 10, 2006 

evolution of mapping

Well, things here are winding down. There is so much I want to see in Berlin, but not enough time to do all that and finish up work. Things are finally coming together though, and Joe and I are getting close to having some sort of presentation ready for the project we have been working on all term (and will continue to work on after this trip is over). We are in the process of setting up a website to house the project, and the other night we were writing some content for that page. The little background paragraph we were working on introduced some cool ideas, and the next thing we knew, we had a mini-essay on the history of mapping. It sets the stage for our project, introducing the concepts that really are the foundation of this sort of mapping exploration. So, for anybody who is interested, here it is, in its current form:

The Evolution of Maps as a Means of Representing Space

Maps, as a tool used in representing place, have been evolving throughout history according to a pattern reflecting both their purposes and the technologies that constrain them. The evolution of maps to this point can be characterized as a continuing process of more accurately representing physical places and their relationships in a way that precisely mirrors their visual appearance. With the digital age, technology has rapidly pushed visual precision to new levels, to the extent that it is appearing that accuracy, at least as perceived through the sense of sight, is beginning to approach its limits. As the traditional mapping sensibility is exhausted, the desire for accurate portrayal of place will naturally extend to the other senses, which can convey place in ways that the sense of sight has never been able to. Sound, emotions, feelings, and a myriad of other forms of perception will be incorporated into maps of the future through artistic means to better embody the places we encounter. As technology makes it increasingly feasible, the desire for “true” portrayals of space will lead people to art because art has, and always will be, the most appropriate means of expressing how something is in all its complexity.

The history of maps is a narrative that is intimately linked to mankind’s ability to gather and disseminate information. In the past, people relied on word-of-mouth stories of far-off places. As the knowledge base expanded and humans developed needs that required finding specific locations that involved complex directions, it became necessary to record one’s conception of space in a more permanent, visually-depictive manner. This is where mapping emerged as a key element of culture. Originally hand-drawn, and more recently, thanks to modern-day technology, cheaply mass-printed, maps made accessible a representation of the world in a portable form.

In this age of computers, information about place has made the jump to the Internet, and mapping has followed as well. Now, huge archives of maps may be accessed, searched, and manipulated from the convenience of a comfy armchair, at no cost to the user. Through online interfaces, such as Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, and Mapquest, a user need only type in departure and destination points, and a map appears with a colored line tracing the path between the locations. Places are connected in a web more tightly than ever, and mapping seems to have reached a new level of accessibility.

In the ever-expanding Internet full of cutthroat competitors, digital mapmakers needed to find a new direction in which to improve, and accuracy became a focus. In 2005, Google released a new mapping platform, Google Earth. This program goes beyond providing a digital version of paper maps by showing the globe as a fabric of full-color satellite images. Users can see the whole world, zooming in on areas of interest, rotating the terrain, and seeing in surprising detail the homes, cars, people, and trees on streets they have previously known only as names on a map.

Google went a step further in visually representing objects in space with the introduction of SketchUp – 3-D model-making software that allows users to build and import buildings into Google Earth – a step that puts mapmaking, or at least a facet of it, into the hands of the map user. With its photo-accurate, satellite capabilities and its robust communal network, Google Earth has become today’s most digitally advanced, public map. While there still is room for improvement in the area of magnification, the threshold of true, visual representations of physical space now appears to be within reach: a 3-D, perhaps live, Google Earth with a finer zoom.

Even if one were to follow the platform’s precision-progression along its seemingly asymptotic advance to infinity, Google Earth would still never be able to adequately represent real places because it can only do so through one sense: the sense of sight. There would still be room for mapping to grow, even in the face of visually-depictive perfection, because the world we live in is experienced through all the senses, not just sight.

Emotion. Sound. Feeling. All of these will be incorporated into maps of the future as people endeavor to better encapsulate the complexity of place. It seems only natural that art will be the form of expressing place in all its intricacies because the reality of a place is far too complex and subjective for anything but art to be able to adequately describe it. We are keenly aware of the fact that our experiences and perceptions are subjective, that they are unique and personally meaningful expressions of reality. Thus, if people desire to accurately represent their significant places in a map context for other people to experience and view in relationship to the surrounding geography, the Google Earth of tomorrow will be the avenue of creative self-expression by which they can best do so. This is the focus of our project: we are exploring the possibilities of the Google Earth medium as an artistic platform for representing place.

Monday, November 06, 2006 

urban screens, left and right

Our first two organized talks here in Berlin were on a very similar topic: the new urban screens that are springing up in cities all over the world. And, well, I'm not too sure yet what to think of them, but I have some ideas. Before I get into all of that, I'll give a quick overview of our speakers and their talks that prompted my thinking.

The first speaker was really impressive, probably because he is actually involved in conceptualizing and designing projects for the urban landscape, a few of which have been big urban screens. Jan Elder of realities:united talked us through some of the projects he and his brother have orchestrated, and they are really amazing. Their most famous is probably the BIX skin they put on the Kunsthaus Graz, a large center built in Austria as part of some European fair thing (please excuse my ignorance and lack of time to look this all up, I'm sure it's on the website above). It's made up of all these flourescent tubes, so it's way bigger and way cheaper than any super high-tech LED screen could be. And the best part is that it just plays artistic pieces, instead of being full of commercial advertising. The other really neat piece he described to us doesn't actually exist yet, but it involves really tall metal poles that can sway in the wind, as a result of some amazing design. Seriously, how cool is that?

Our second speaker, Mirjam Struppek, has done an incredible amount of research and documentation of urban screens. She shared with us a bunch of projects, many of them interactive, that have taken place over the past few years. She called to our attention the different uses for urban screens, whether they be commercial, artistic, informative, or some combination. They are becoming a common element of the city landscape, but we need to also look at how city culture is shaping and being shaped by these screens.

As commercial screens and advertisements, the things drive me crazy. They make a place feel so impersonal, and they draw attention away from the architecture and other things I actually want to be seeing. I don't like that advertisements are invading so many parts of daily life, and I feel like there need to be places to get away from them. However, I don't mind billboards as much. It's just something about the LED screen, the color, and the motion that draws my attention, as advertisers want, and presents me with advertising I'd rather avoid. Then there is this gray area of screens that were built not necessarily to sell advertising space, but just to make the building famous by being big and flashy. For example, the SPOTS facade realities:united built on an office building on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin was created because the building wanted to draw attention to itself and sell its unused office space. It has succeeded, because most people who travel through the area now notice this huge display of flashing flourescent lights. So, although it plays patterns and artistic pieces instead of advertising, it is still a form of advertising, as any urban screen will almost inevitably be. Then we come to the screens that are art for art's sake, or interactive projects designed to provide people with information or entertainment. Those might have some merit, and they are interesting ways of capturing the attention of people and making them think about things they never may have before. But, the things just bother me because of how flashy they are. They demand attention, and I don't like being told in such a blatant way what elements around me should be looked at.

On Saturday we went on a bus tour of Berlin, or at least the most historically significant parts of it. I won't go into too much detail, but I will say that it was a pretty eye-opening experience to see and hear about what Berlin was like in such recent history. As part of the tour, we stopped by the new Holocaust Memorial, opened in 2005 as a "monument to the murdered Jews of Europe." It is a sprawling area of large gray concrete slabs arranged in a grid. The idea, as it was described to us, is that as you wander the rows, people pass in and out of your vision, but you never really know if and when you will see them again. Pretty powerful stuff. I think the part that hit me hardest was that as I was coming out of it, I came across trees planted where concrete slabs should have been. It was like they were the ones who survived, surrounded on all sides by the graves and monuments of their loved ones. It is really a beautifully designed piece of architecture.

Friday, November 03, 2006 

the last leg

Well, I'm in Berlin now. And I love this place. Seriously. I just feel so comfortable here. I haven't even seen that much of the city yet, but there's just a feel to it. And I like that everything is so efficient here. Getting out of the airport was the easiest experience of my life, with the baggage carousel right when we stepped into the terminal and no passport control in the 20 meters between there and the front door. Doing laundry today was also lovely, probably because I didn't even have to do it. I took it down to the office at the apartments this morning, gave them 3 euros, and it magically appeared in my apartment, clean and folded, when I got back this afternoon. Basically, I just really like this place. I'm seriously considering taking a term of German back at Carleton so I could come back here eventually and really get a feel for the country.

The only downside is the lack of internet in our housing, and the classroom where I can get free wireless isn't open on the weekend, so this is my last chance to get online before Monday! So, I just wanted to do a quick "hello, I love this place" post before I disappear for a few more days. More to come next week...

Monday, October 30, 2006 

when in amsterdam...

Do as the Dutch do! Which, contrary to popular opinion, does not include smoking pot or hiring prostitutes (the Dutch claim those are just tourist activities). While on my mis-steps walk (see last post), I had hoped to see the city as the Dutch do, but I fear that most of my subjects were tourists, which makes sense because they were on foot in that part of the city. The logical solution: either get out of that part of the city (or even the whole city) or get off my feet. In the past couple days, I have done both, and I think I've gotten a much better feel for the larger area and culture.

Yesterday, Joe and I decided to spend our afternoon venturing out to Haarlem, a smaller city a very short train ride from Amsterdam. It is beautifully old and quaint, and the center of the city (the Grote Markt) almost feels like a step back in time. In fact, it looks very similar now to how it did in a painting done in 1696. We didn't go into many places, unless you count walking through the old city gate, which is now a bike path through what appears to be a castle standing next to a busy road, but instead spent our time just exploring the area. Architecturally, it looked similar to central Amsterdam, but with fewer canals and many fewer people. It was beautiful, and it looked like such a simple life. The big canal was dotted with old houseboats, and of course there was the stereotypical Dutch windmill. I wish we could have gotten out to see the countryside, but the city proved to be just as peaceful in the right parts. It was almost deserted, and so quiet, and just absolutely beautiful. Amsterdam is almost always bustling in the downtown areas, and it's full of shops and bikes and hustle. In Haarlem, things just felt much more leisurely. The lone bikers moved along at their own pace, and people seemed to just scatter when dusk fell. Interestingly enough, it is the source of the name of Harlem in New York, although having been in both places, they couldn't be much more different. Maybe they were back when the Dutch founded New Amsterdam in Manhattan. History is interesting. But anyway, I think my trip to Haarlem made me appreciate the Netherlands as a whole (even though I didn't get that far out into the rest of the country), and not just Amsterdam.

Then, this morning we decided to try to find a good Dutch breakfast to start our day. After wandering the streets for a while, we concluded that the Dutch must not really eat breakfast, because the only open places we could find served overpriced English breakfast. We decided to try to find a cafe some friends had mentioned that was famous for its Dutch apple pie. When we arrived at Winkel, not only was it open for breakfast, but it had a line out the door. To our great delight, they did serve apple pie, and in fact, it was all they served at that time of day, besides coffee and orange juice. Two bites in, we realized that all the other cafes in the city weren't open yet because they would have no chance to compete with Winkel. We're going back for lunch tomorrow. Eating all this good food has been inspiring me to learn how to cook these sorts of things, and now I am determined to make a good Dutch apple pie.

After our Dutch breakfast (okay, so I don't really know if it was a Dutch breakfast, but it was the breakfast place with the most Dutch people of all the ones we saw), we met up with many of the other Roadtrippers for a yellow bike tour of Amsterdam. No, these are not Carleton yellow bikes that might fall apart at any moment and don't have brakes or handlebars, but rather bikes that can be rented for tours of the city. The tour itself wasn't particularly useful, considering we've been exploring the city for nearly two weeks now, but riding on a bike was just great! Amsterdam on a bike is so much better than any other way you could think to see it. It's almost like the city was built for bikes. Cars and trams are too enclosed, and walking is too slow. On a bike, you can glide up and down the old streets with ease, quickly getting lost in the maze of canals. On that tour, I suddenly understood why so many people in this city ride bikes. I really wish I had been riding a bike during my whole stay here. But, alas, there is only one day left, and it is going to be a busy one. Berlin, here I come!