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2003.11.15

Glowlounge: November 2003

by Christina Ray

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Glowlab was recently invited by Creative Time to map Times Square with the artists who created PDPal, a public art project that "encourages individuals to stake a personal claim on urban experience." Through the use of a Palm-OS-based mapping application for PDAs, a website and a paper map, participants in the PDPal project can create and share stories "to mark personal history, respond to the built environment or even imagine the future." The project focuses on New York's Times Square, and specially-designed kiosks are available in the neighborhood to beam the PDPal application into a user's PDA.

On Monday, November 10th, five Glowlab friends met with Creative Time staff and Julian Bleeker, Scott Paterson and Marina Zurkow of the PDPal development team to conduct a one-hour mapping workshop. After a round of introductions and some background on the project, we were given PDPal paper maps and instructed to divide into groups according to our interests. Each group was to spend about 45 minutes making a "map story" according to a narrative theme, covering as much of the Times Square area as possible. Several themes were suggested, and included "map the pathways of humans and machines" and "make an official field guide of Times Square." Part of our mission was "to look at mapping as an opportunity for imaginative personal play in public space, for mischievous incarnations, and even disobedience. Imagine: Times Square is your playground."

I walked with PDPal developer Scott Paterson, Glowlab partner Dave Mandl and a friend, known here only as "A". Our group was interested in the idea of routes -- the etching of personal pathways through the city and the encounters that result from the ebb and flow of human traffic. We decided that the best way to study this idea would be to follow someone in the midst of their own route, be it a daily commute or a leisurely stroll. Without pausing to consider the implications of this somewhat stalker-like approach, we quickly found our first subject and proceeded to follow him until he entered the subway. Our journey continued in this manner as we trailed one person after another, none of whom ever knew what we were up to or even realized we were there. Our subjects included commuters, tourists, local inhabitants and a few others, including one mysterious and elegant gentleman we dubbed "Trench Coat Man."

Along the way we made many discoveries, including the fact that it's difficult to keep up with someone you're following during the evening rush hour; we did a fair amount of running and jaywalking to stay on track. "A" tried to take notes, Scott had his map, and I took (blurry) pictures. In hushed tones we discussed the ethics of following people without their knowledge, but at the same time found that most people seem to be oblivious to others around them in such a dense urban environment. We altered our pace to keep in step with the commuter (sprinting at high-speed in a bright red jacket), the tourists (slower than molasses in January) and the street people (random, yet with some sort of hidden purpose). We learned the best direction to travel to avoid having all of our subjects disappear into the subway, and we sadly waved goodbye to Trench Coat Man as he walked beyond the boundaries of our map. I brought up my favorite short story, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Man of the Crowd", whose main character did just what we were doing except he did it for 24 hours. Coincidentally, we passed ICP (International Center of Photography) where the giant back-lit photographs of Philip-Lorca diCorcia were on display as part of the "Strangers" triennial exhibition; these images were from a series of portraits shot on the streets of New York without the knowledge of the subjects. Finally, out of breath and late, we returned to our meeting point to re-group with the others.

There were three other groups in addition to ours, and during our post-walk gathering each recounted their experiences. The first group mapped Times Square from the perspective of alien anthropologists. Pretending they knew no terrestrial languages, they read the architecture. They found the landscape to be bleak, filled with symbols of authority and punishment. If they had arrived as aliens, they imagined, they might have thought the bars, grills and grids covering the building facades and windows indicated jails or courts. The giant head in a store window could be the Panopticon, and Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum a kind of holding cell or torture chamber. On a more optimistic note, they considered that the various towers of lights and glowing signs could represent luminous transporters they could use to escape this place.

The second group set out to map the ecology and biology of Times Square. They noted that the human life cycle could be represented in terms of entertainment -- from the child's world of Toys 'R' Us and hot dog and ice cream vendors to the adult porn palaces and army recruitment center just blocks away. They pointed out that an entire life could be lived in the neighborhood, with satisfaction (or at least instant gratification) to be found everywhere. This group also compared the various vertical strata of the landscape to the upright human body. In this case, the higher functions of the brain match the upper floors of the office towers, the stomach is equivalent to the street, the digestive tract is the subway and waste is the sewer system. When asked how they navigated the streets, this group said that they wandered more or less aimlessly, but felt visually drawn to certain locations where they stopped to discuss their surroundings.

The last group began their journey by drawing a shape on the map to follow -- the shape of a duck, for reasons still unknown. When this plan was found to be somewhat lacking, they quickly changed course and took a more intellectual approach, studying the symbols of time in Times Square. They located and documented the places where time could be found, from clocks and watches to the voices of strangers of whom they asked the time. They found time on the dashboard clocks of passing cars and in store windows, and noted the timing and pace of the flow of traffic. This group used dice to determine their route.

At the end of the wrap-up, PDPal developer Marina Zurkow mused that each group's experience had a theatrical or cinematic quality to it (which was interesting considering that while we were in the theater district, none of the groups explicitly mentioned this aspect of Times Square). Marina gave each group a movie nickname; my group was compared to "Alphaville", the alien anthropologists were "Star Trek", the biologists were "Soylent Green", and the duck/time group was labeled "experimental art film".

We traded emails, gathered our maps and put on our jackets to head back out into the cold. A small group of us went for a glass of wine at one of the (few?) non-touristy bars in the neighborhood. A discussion about signage in Times Square led to an in-depth debate on the merits of Dunkin' Donuts versus Krispy Kreme and it all went downhill from there...

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