Interactive show at Creative Alliance investigates our relationship to maps, space, and each other.

Locale Unlimited

By Jeremy Stern and Adam Franchino

At the Creative Alliance at the Patterson through Feb. 22.

The smartphone app suggests two routes to get from my apartment to the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, where I'm going to see Jeremy Stern and Adam Franchino's collaborative installation, Locale Unlimited. One suggested route involving I-83 is about 5.1 miles long and is estimated to take about 18 minutes. The other involves Orleans Street, is about 5.4 miles long, and is estimated to take about 23 minutes. Each route is highlighted on the digital map by color-coded lines. I am the constantly blinking blue dot.

Upon arrival, I discover that Stern, the C. Grimaldis Gallery's associate director and an interdisciplinary artist who has creatively explored landscapes and maps, and Franchino, a Gallery Four co-curator/artist-in-residence and an electronics whiz, have turned the main first-floor gallery space into something out of a stark sci-fi movie. On this sunny Saturday afternoon, the room is bathed in near-glaucoma-exam darkness. Arranged throughout the gallery are 10 white rectangular posts of various heights, from about 2 feet to roughly 4 feet. Some of them contain noise and vibration sensors; other sensors are mounted in the ceiling. Hanging from the ceiling are four large black paper panels. They're secured to wooden supports that suspend the paper like large area rugs floating above the ceiling. Cut into the paper is an array of lettering, some actual words and names, what look like Greek letters, and designs that could be astrological charts or notes being used to work through a complicated differential equation problem. Mounted on the ceiling behind the paper are LED lights, whose intensity is modulated by information detected by the myriad sensors in the gallery.

The Kerplunk! family art workshop is underway in the Creative Alliance's entry foyer, with tables extending all the way into the gallery's leading edge, where kids and their parents make things. Kids running to and from the restrooms cut through the gallery space and cause a series of lights to flicker. A man stomping his feet on the ground causes a different set of lights to increase in intensity. Different sounds echoing through the space seem to produce subtle twinkling.

This is my experience of Locale Unlimited on this specific day, during this specific time, with this specific set of people interacting, knowingly or not, with the piece. Other experiences will be different-given the time of day (or night) visited, what's going on in the gallery space, how many other people are moving around, etc. Visually, the piece may initially underwhelm: twilight-dark room, an oblique series of white objects, cutout black paper floating like flying carpets above the room, groups of flickering lights. So what?

Don't rush to dismiss an installation that's not constantly begging for attention. It's interactive, but it's interactive in a way that isn't solely dependent on what you do. That's a minor observation to recognize when experiencing the piece, but it's an observation that ripples into fascinating pools of consideration: We expect digital interaction to be one-to-one. I ask a map how to get from point A to some point B, it shows me in relation to where I am right now.

Web mapping-such as OpenStreetMap, Google Maps, MapQuest, etc.-has radically changed how we think about and use maps, though it's less than two decades old on the consumer-user end. Mapmaking used to be the province of institutes, government agencies, or private companies; global positioning system (GPS) was primarily a military technology until the release of the U.S. Global Positioning System Policy in 1996, which hoped to encourage "acceptance and integration of GPS into peaceful civil, commercial and scientific applications worldwide" and "private sector investment in and use of U.S. GPS technologies and services," among other things. Assisted GPS for mobile phones was successfully tested in 2004, spawned in part by the Federal Communications Commission's calls for wireless Enhanced 911 guidelines, which coordinates responses to callers' locations.

As an idea, GPS technology isn't radically different from the celestial navigation humans have used for a very long time: Fixed points in space, such as stars in the night sky, are used to locate the user and, thus, plot a course. Contemporary mapping technology merely uses much better technology and computations to pinpoint a precise position on the planet.

That technology has powered the flurry of map-thinking in recent years. By incorporating a wide variety of data sets and geographic information systems, we can create different kinds of maps as tools: maps that show where, say, homicides take place in a city over a given year, or maps that illustrate the digital divide, or show what parts of a city are food deserts. Maps have become horizontally adaptable tools.

Locale Unlimited makes you wonder if we lost something-philosophically, intellectually, psychologically-in the process that streamlined map information for the individual user. The experience of the installation is rather listless if you're by yourself, but when it's occupied by other people, it comes to life, both visually and socially, in unexpected ways. And that's such a nearly inconsequential realization, it borders on the trite. But pay attention to how you behave with the piece in the presence of other people: Your senses become calibrated less to seeing what your movements and behaviors do than picking up on and noticing what's going on around you. And sometimes, the piece becomes most rewarding when you stop, stand still, and watch.

That observation tiptoes dangerously close to the granola, but in the context of the Locale Unlimited, it becomes quietly poignant. As we've become more and more able to determine exactly where we are, perhaps we're forgetting to consider where we stand in relation to each other. Yes, we can easily find ourselves and determine how to get to where we want to be simply by consulting an app. But while we're all looking down at those portable electronic tools, we're no longer looking up and out.

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