Geoweb : creating new geographies
Text by Sylvie Parent

The growth of the geographic web, or geoweb, is tied to the development of digital technologies for assisting in cartography and visualizing the Earth.1 This technology, accessible, easy to use and versatile, has facilitated the rise of geographically enhanced resources on the web. The popularity of GPS localization devices and their use in increasingly varied contexts has also contributed to the incorporation of geographical data into the digital universe and to the growth of the geoweb.

The geoweb is a cultural and social phenomenon which has taken shape outside specialized circles. Individuals, once limited to consulting information, are now able to create and make available their own maps, to generate local geographical data, to assimilate them to content of every description and to share them with users everywhere. Once a field of study founded on information from official sources and reserved for specialists, geography has become in a sense a personal matter, a means of expressing one’s individuality.

Composite applications, or “mash-ups” have quickly appeared and grown at a dizzying rate, and are in large part responsible for the quantity and diversity of geographical content on the Web.2 They add geographical data to Web content and organise geographical information by bringing together tools and information from various sources. The effect of the resulting crossovers and superimpositions is to continue to add to the depth of the geoweb.

The growth of the geoweb can also be attributed to the Web 2.0 context. File sharing networks and social networking are revolutionizing the way we use information by promoting the formation of communities around interests enhanced geographically. The convergence of collaborative data in this environment strongly encourages the creation of collective geographies.

Geography on the Web has reached significant proportions because of the technological conditions briefly outlined here. But how to explain the underlying reasons for this phenomenon, the extent of the desire to situate, the mania for locating places? In other words, why has this technology earned such a following and what basic needs does it meet? In the digital world, in which spatial boundaries become blurred, geographical localization is the sign of a physical connection and gives the impression of a degree of command over space. And while it is true that localization expresses little on its own, it nevertheless arouses spatial associations which touch an individual’s very identity. The mere name of a place can call up experiences and places we have encountered or imagined. The desire to locate is tied to our desire to be a part of the world.

Naturally, artists readily used the technology at their disposal to explore the geoweb while bringing a critical perspective to the phenomenon. There are now countless geographically augmented on-line travelogues, fanciful and atypical maps abound, and locative media projects developed collectively using GSP devices and mobile platforms have generated a lot of interest in the new media community over the past few years.3        

This project grew out of the artistic community’s interest in the geoweb. The four works presented here were created over the past year during the artists’ production residencies at Agence TOPO. Grégory Chatonsky’s Circulation, Cheryl Sourkes’ GeoTag, Zahra Poonawala’s Public Address System and Matthew Biederman’s Spectrum Survey form a highly diverse group of works, but their views of the geoweb and their own forays into the field share many similarities.

Cheryl Sourkes’ project draws on the individual’s desire to move about in space: on the appeal of journeys and the far-off. In GeoTag, viewers put to the test the spatial telescoping typical of the web experience—the fact of being located in one place while having access to another place at a remove from it.4 Viewers are invited to take part in a game made up of webcam videos located at various places around the world, thereby undertaking a “journey” in stages composed of distant geographical components. During the game, viewers move the interconnected videos around the screen at will, like postcards. The artificiality of the connections created between these places and the disjointed nature of the experiment become apparent as the game progresses.  

In addition, geographical data related to the viewer’s IP address appear on the left-hand corner of the screen, identifying their location and contributing to their heightened geographical awareness. This awareness continues to grow in the Visitors’ Centre, where web viewers can see the trace their activity has left. By using techniques such as this, the project also enlists voyeurism and exhibitionism, and geographical tools become new means for giving such behaviour free reign.

Matthew Biederman’s Spectrum Survey consists in a series of urban walks which reveal the electromagnetic landscape. Like other locative media projects, this one develops in two stages: collecting data (video recording, GPS reading and a variety of spectrum measurements) and their publication on the Web. Unlike the composite applications which have arisen over the past few years, which join geographical tools and content in the same graphic interface, Spectrum Survey employs a transparent application of the methods and results of its data collection. In the work’s three-part interface, the images are displayed beside each other in a direct and frontal manner. In addition, the data is made available to anyone wishing to use it in a different way, whatever that might be. A critical aspect of the project is its attempt to show and make available the electromagnetic spectrum, for which commercial interests are fiercely competing With this project, Biederman makes clear his commitment to open source tools and the sharing of data.

Measurements of the electromagnetic field are displayed in graphic interfaces which invite the viewer to give some thought to this otherwise imperceptible matter. Viewers can thus consult the synchronized points on the map and/or in the video to examine more precisely the places with irregularities and variations in the electromagnetic field. The project encourages viewers to become aware of the imperceptible world around them. One of its crucial aspects consists in making known and accessible the electromagnetic spectrum at a time when commercial interests are engaged in ferocious battles over it.

The localized content in Zahra Poonawala’s Public Address System is videos of loudspeakers in various parts of the planet. With the help of several participants, Poonawala has built up a collection of these videos to create a database which can be consulted and added to by users. Viewers, using a search engine or schematic map, can select fragments of their selections and connect them together. The universal use of these devices becomes apparent, beyond the cultural differences of the places in which they are found.

We find these loudspeakers perched, fixtures like authoritarian figures, high in the air or attached to urban. Their yawning openings, like huge mouths, deliver messages of public interest to the immediate community. The one-way messages they deliver are most often impersonal. Using the tools for viewing them proposed by the artist, these loudspeakers pass from being a primitive means of communication to sound instruments. They unfold in sequences personalized by the viewer, each clip becoming a segment in a score that the viewer creates and has performed according to his or her own desires.

In Grégory Chatonsky’s Circulation, the geographical tools he uses belong to the underground world of the project and remain invisible in their initial form. Perplexed viewers witness a syncopated dialogue between a man and a woman, not really knowing what means are being used to display this exchange. The videos show the characters expressing themselves in short sentences while a relationship—hesitant and informed by unforeseen events deriving from the Web—is established between them. With this project, Chatonsky makes use of the fluctuating resources of the Internet and transforms them into new forms of narrative, as he has done in several other recent works.5

The mashup designed by Chatonsky is fed by geo-localized RSS feeds on road traffic; the information in these endless streams is paired with their corresponding video fragments. Circulation pushes the use of geographical data to an extreme in the most unexpected settings, to the point of distorting that data completely. By using these devices, the artist has chosen to adopt a shifting source beyond his control, making the unexpected play a part in the narrative.

Today, as localization conquers the Net and on-line content becomes increasingly contextualized, these artistic projects explore the geoweb by providing us with alternative experiences. They bring a critical perspective to the phenomenon by testing our geographical awareness, offering innovative content, scrutinizing the tools that have been developed and encouraging users’ creativity.  

Sylvie Parent, curator of Geoweb    

1 Who today remembers static geographical maps in jpeg format? Geographical information services, like maps, have been available on the Internet for a long time. But it was only with the appearance of Google Maps and Google Earth in 2005, followed by several other such services, that the Internet truly began to provide geographical information and to enable people surfing the web to use it for individual purposes. 

2 For example, the addition of personal photographs taken from the site Flickr on Yahoo Maps. Applications of every description have appeared in such obvious services as real estate and tourism, but also in other activities which are much less obvious places for these applications to appear.

3 See for example the article “Projets photographiques pour le web: reconnaissance des lieux” at

4 The project’s title is a play on words, referring both to the game of tag and to geo-tagging, two quite a propos references with respect to the present project.

5 See for example the exhibition Flussgeist, held at Oboro: