Floating Points: Locative Media, Perspective, Flight and the International Space Station


Jeremy Hight with Alexander van Dijk


Introduction: History and context of Locative Media works

The primary concern in locative media has been, understandably, location. This has been a great new leap in terms of art, technology, science and narrative. Locative Media Art consists of artworks utilizing locative technology to trigger artworks in a specific physical space.

Locative media art goes back to early experiments such as Telepresent by Steven Wilson in 1997 that was an object equipped with GPS left to be communally interacted with and moved while continually sending images via the Internet.

Another key development was the GPS drawings of Jeremy Wood in 2000 in which he discovered that by tracing his movements as he drove or walked with GPS that he could form shapes formed by the sequence of plotted movements. Other projects worked with Geo-Annotation which placed a comment or reflection on a physical location (similar to what hikers for years would do at posted signs on certain trails). Then came the project 34 North 118 West that was the first locative narrative.

34 North 118 West was a mapping of a four block area of Los Angeles where the primary non-passenger rail yard and related infrastructure at the turn of the last century and the original grand passenger station of Los Angeles (La Grande station) once stood. The majority of the buildings are the same but have changed in usage in time, state of disrepair and who has come to live and work in them in waves of development and housing.

Other buildings were destroyed over the years and only the ghosts of historical information and personal accounts remain. The project created a "narrative archaeology" as the layers in time were to be agitated into being. In one place would be narrativized data from 1936 a few hundred feet from a spot before a building that triggered something from 1910.

Now groups such as the C5 collective are doing work such as the GPS mapping of the entire great wall of china and then placing the coordinates in another location. This type of work creates a layered commentary and plays with form and semiotics as well as referencing the Situationists who developed absurd commentaries like a walk through the streets of Paris following a map of another city.

Perspective and the New Locative Paradigm

The untapped area of great possibility is perspective. The obvious example would be the base semiotics of "seeing New York". The city is iconic, has great architecture, history and mythology, but it also is quite large and with great variance in layout, architecture, and micro communities such as the art district, financial district, parks, boroughs of residence, etc.

(3 different pictures of New York)

If you drove in a cab down Broadway for an hour in a fog and rain is that New York? If you spent 2 days in the outer boroughs and caught an art opening one night is that New York? If you flew across the heart of downtown in a low flying plane is that New York? If you saw it as a grouping of lights at night near a coastline from space or simply as the coordinates and name and all you know and imagine of the city is that New York? Which is most truly "New York" in the most iconic sense? The question is the basic core of semiotic theory. What defines the city? Is it one or the other or all of these things? You can even discuss it in hierarchical terms; How do you weigh specificity versus scope?

Location as Multiple senses of place/distance and viewing

Shifts in perspective allow a prismatic definition of location and forms layers and tension between multiple possible viewpoints. There are a thousand New Yorks and yet still it is New York. This is what projects utilizing elevation and perspective can now work with in ways currently untapped in the field.

The technology exists to alter data on the ground based on individual gestures (turning, direction change, shifts in location) the same is true for above the ground. This allows GPS based data to trigger above locations and at different altitudes. The shifts in scale, in semiotics, in totality and inclusion in the sense of the amount of space accessed at once; these are all factors to be quantified into shifts in sound, scope of data and narrative of data/history and are ultimately as malleable as is one’s gaze and position in a 3 dimensional space.

GPS, The International Space Station and Flight Paths: Gps signal triggered works above the Earth

The International Space Station ISS orbits the Earth in a near-circular orbit at an average altitude between 330 to 400 km. Traveling at a speed of 7.7 km per second, the projection of the orbit onto the Earth’s surface ( i.e. ground track) extends over an area containing 95% of the world’s population, completing one orbit every 90 minutes.

As The Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation of navigation satellites orbits the earth at an altitude of 20000 km, the ISS altitude is concurrent with the higher echelons of the gps signal .

This creates a fascinating possibility for a massive paradigm shift in locative media and in art dealing with space. The number of crossed cities on a flight path and their variations in landscape , history ,layers of identity (architectural , semiotic , ethnographic , historic , economic , political, etc.) creates the possibility of "reading " multiple cities from above. The space between then opens up the pure geography, cartography and landscape of the earth as projects can triggers anywhere outside of cities. These will tell of scientific data, of changes in time, of what is and what was. Essentially any place along the earth beneath a flight path can be a trigger point and is lush with potential.

Variant Altitude: multiple artworks to be created by distance and scope

The specific example of the flight path of the international space station and all other vehicles of flight cross specific cities, landscapes, natural landmarks, waterways. All of these are open for works to trigger signals up to the station as it passes. The earth can be "read" in works in and out of cities and again both on the ground and above.

The potential now exists for works to trigger at many altitudes. The concepts are applicable not only to space stations and shuttles, but most importantly by planes and helicopters as well. Shifts in altitude are also shifts in perspective and scope of what is seen. Artworks may generate different data, narratives , images and sound depending on not only location, but relationship of distance to it. This is an area of massive possibility.

Another amazing area of possibility is of information triggered by flying craft crossing the flight paths of former entities on specific missions/flights. The "ghost" of the trajectory hangs in space as a series of plotted points as well as an event. One can cross the former paths of the Hindenburg, Lindbergh’s historic flight, historic balloon flights, the fall of Skylab, below the trajectory of Apollo etc…

A new sense of Location

Location has long been seen as a specific area, a static point in latitude and longitude and other measure. The meaning essentially is of flat navigation, but navigation is 3 dimensional and can include elevation, topography and pure point of entry. Location is seen as a stationary point, mapped and fixed. But what defines a location, a point? If you have a functional environment, temperature, life form , a functional shape and can be plotted by latitude and longitude and altitude is this not a location?

This is the international space station.

This is a commercial or private plane.

A moving point.

This may seem like quite an extreme paradigm shift, the clichéd wrenching of the gears etc, but location is not simply a point on a map. Topography tells us this, elevation tells us this, the adjustments of maps after extreme earthquakes tells us this. The space station already can be mapped on a free public site by latitude and longitude. Planes and balloons are mapped as well. These moving points not only cross the cities below in a patterned arc thus creating the possibility of triggering artworks from above, but are themselves moving locations.

The key in broadening the consideration of location is that the concept of communication comes in the fore in terms of GPS, signal data, distance and perspective. The astronauts and passengers in planes can trigger artworks on the ground from locations plotted in the GPS grid, but importantly will also be a moving place above, the astronauts living and working in shifts in a floating plotted place and space.

The Experiment"Floating Points" is a locative media experiment for the International Space Station in three sections

1. It aims to investigate the locative narrative of the ISS in relation to the ground and astronauts’ relationships to a temporary place and its created community. The use of GPS at ground level and above will allow a whole new contextualization of position and location. The city is a shifting confluence of shapes, boundaries, landmarks, events in time, people, moments and semiotics. The inclusion of perspective and scale allows a whole new area of locative media to emerge that previously has not been tapped. The levels of data, the scope of information and metaphors, the sense of place and its connectivity within as well as disparate layers in form and in time ; all of these elements will differ depending on point of reference. The works on the ground will be traditional in the field as it so far has established itself, the fascinating new area is in the corresponding works triggered from above. The artist and scientist now have a whole new list of parameters, modes, contexts and shift determination materials to work with.

The types of data, how it is presented, the sense of a sort of typographies of form from above the language of cartography, GPS mapping in coordinates and of scale ) all will allow a new list of metaphors to emerge, of data forms to be utilized previously untouched, and of new layers of how to structure and shift the work formed from the lives of cities in time and the landscape and its processes that would not be possible in the immediacy of single scale formed with land based interaction alone.

2. The astronauts will write about their thoughts at certain points in the mission and at other times of tasks carried out. There already are blogs available during flights but these have been more one way communication and not spatial. In the floating points project, the astronauts will blog and when it is sent it will form an icon on a rotatable 3d globe graphic of the Earth (think: advanced Nasa Worldwind /Google Earth form).

Each entry will be encoded by time and date, but also by GPS coordinates and thus will hang above this graphic earth as an artifact of a moment of coming into being and as an interface between cartography, geography and the inner workings of space flight and the lives of the astronauts while on mission.

People on the ground could potentially even leave notes in orbit, for the ISS to pass through…by a correlation between the ground based 3D earth interface and the GPS based locative media artwork onboard the ISS. This way people leave small notes above their town at the altitude of the ISS…the ISS could pick them up as it flies through them.

In time these graphics will form an interesting pattern of when and where each astronaut completed their thoughts in orbit. And each entry graphic will become a floating point; each will be a floating point of text and thoughts but encoded with latitude and longitude and altitude as though an abstract "location."

3. Located onboard the ISS, a graphic generating program will develop an architectural form based on when each astronaut blogs and the variations in their language and subject matter. The form will build laterally if there is no interaction and comments on each others posts, becoming a solitary spire. When there is interaction the form will continue to grow laterally as a unified structure. A large percentage of work on the ISS is essentially construction. This part of the floating points projects takes that fact and questions what would be the shape of experiential and interpersonal construction while co-habitating in this temporary existence and place? It will be interesting to see how the form shapes in time and if it will at times be more of a rounded, smooth form and at others made of sharp harsh lines and spires in times of stress.

After an astronaut’s mission, which at present time takes 6 months, one will be able to see graphically as which parts of the whole were formed by who and how in a sort of lego way, they commingled structurally and interacted as a model of communication and dialogue in a mission.


The Floating Points experiment and other projects like it will open up a new area of possibility in terms of art as well as a re-contextualization of what is location and how it is to be interpreted. GPS can not only plot points on a flat plane as is the current perceived norm, but can also do so with a sense of depth akin to perspective. Shifts in altitude and distance are to be a component in shifts of not only seeing, but of interpretation.

A location is not simply a spot on the ground affixed with latitude and longitude. The GPS grid is truly a net of plotted points affixed from far above the earth. It is 3 dimensional as are high rise towers and mountains from a flat surface of earthen ground. The inclusion of elevation allows the awareness of a sense of shifts in perspective and perception of a space by how it seen, both with naked eye and the mind’s interpretation of what is experienced and the science of measurement and shifts in data.

We now can "read" the different faces of cities as one pulls farther away or closer in as well as of the landscape. Most importantly, we can do this from above. There are the ghosts of air flights past and their history to cross in the air and cities in shifting forms below to pass at various altitudes as much as there are layers of history in cities and the landscape. A location is malleable as it is seen and experienced as many versions of itself. All plotted points are essentially locations regardless of if they are still or in motion or at sea level, 500 feet or 22,000 feet above. By utilizing these "floating points" informational narrative can become a fluid, ever-shifting entity free from the confines of rigid and fixed location on a surface.



Jeremy Hight (first author) is a Locative Media artist/writer/theorist. He is credited in George Landow's "Hypertext 3.0" as inventing spatial locative narrative in the first locative narrative project "34 north 118 west" (winner of grand jury prize in Art in Motion festival). He developed the initial concept and was writer on the earthquake data edited text and image project "Carrizo Parkfield Diaries (in Whitney Artport). He has published several essays on locative media and new media and an article about his work is coming out soon in Leonardo out of MIT. He teaches visual communication and English at Los Angeles Mission College.

Alexander van Dijk (supporting author) is an aerospace engineer who studied at the Technical University of Delft, the Netherlands. Following his thesis work at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) of the European Space Agency, he has since been actively involved in supporting and facilitating the growing interests of the contemporary art community in space related activities. Being based in Europe, his direct aim over the years has been to establish a cultural agenda for the European Space Agency.











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