What Pokémon Go has in common with Locative Art

Foto: Nils Klinger. Kasseler Kunstverein / Aram Bartholl / CC BY SA 4.0

An enjoyment of discovery and adventure lies in the connection between the real and the fictional. It has the potential both to enrich and change the relationship we have with our living environment. A reflection on Pokémon Go and Jorge Luis Borges.

In William Gibson’s novel Spook Country, Hollis Henry—journalist and former member of the legendary (fictional) band The Curfew—tries to write an article on Locative Art. Spook Country was published in 2007. The same year, Apple presented the first iPhone. It was the first smartphone as we know it today. If you think about it, the smart phone could have come directly from the Starship Enterprise: tricorder and communicator in one, personal assistant, access point to the whole of humanity’s knowledge, and navigation device.

A few other technical developments were needed before the smartphone could function as it does today. One was GPS—the Global Positioning System—that was released to the public in 2000 having been developed by the US Department of Defense since the 1970s. In order for blanket coverage to be achieved, 31 satellites have to orbit around the earth. The last fundamental technical development came with fast mobile data. Only after 3G and LTE did using a telephone out and about become fun.

In 2007, as Gibson was writing his book, there were only the first signs of all this. Here, Holly meets the artist Alberto Corrales who works with virtual reality. He makes art that can be seen on the street, but only with the corresponding hardware. In Spook Country, the devices are still rough-and-ready: virtual reality glasses (soldered together by Alberto himself) that are reminiscent of an Oculus Rift prototype, and a mobile phone with a GPS receiver gaffer taped on. It is only through them that we see the connection between real landscape and virtual art.

Overlapping layers of the present and the past

What the fictional characters in this ten-year-old novel observe is remarkably similar to that experienced by 45 million children and adults around the world in the summer of 2016. Instead of seeing the Pokémon Pikachu, Tabusi, Relaxo (and all the rest of them), Holly sees scenes from Los Angeles’ history. River Phoenix’s death at the Viper Room. Helmut Newton’s car accident. “Holly moved closer to the body. The body wasn’t there. And yet it was. Alberto followed carefully with the laptop, so as not to lose the cable. She had the feeling that he was holding his breath. She held hers too.”

Fictional artist Corrales searches for history throughout the city, creating a secondary layer upon which past scenes could be built. Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, laid a second layer over our cities in exactly the same way. Colourful pocket creatures bounce around on a virtual map containing Pokéstops—like pit stops where players can recharge on fuel (Poké Balls) and food (Potions). Arenas where mini-monsters fight. In the real world—in parks, on squares, at historic sights—people stand alone or in groups and stare at their smartphones. The uninitiated passers-by are unaware that a Level 10 arena exists right here, and currently an almighty battle is raging between an Aquana and a Garados.

In July 2016, Pokémon Go was the most downloaded app in the world. A whole economy emerged almost overnight: Cafés opened near Pokéstops, deploying bait to lure Pokémon and keep customers. Craigslist had car sharing, so that you could travel to far-away places and catch rare Pokémons. Animal shelters urged for help in walking dogs whilst your Poké Eggs were hatching.

Naturally, there was criticism. In the small French town of Bressolles, the mayor called for all Pokémon Go facilities to be removed. He reasoned that Niantic should have officially asked for permission: “Even if their world is only virtual, Niantic uses the entire globe as its playground”. He’s right, of course. But this is exactly what makes the game so attractive. The whole globe as playground. The enjoyment of connecting the fictional with the real. To explore all this on your own.

A new way of reading 
your environment

At the same time, we have the abstraction: the view from above. In his book “The Practice of Everyday Life”, French philosopher Michel de Certeau wrote (in a chapter titled “Walking in the City”) of climbing the World Trade Center:

Like Icarus, who could fly over the water, I can ignore the instruments of Daedelus and the endless labyrinths beneath me. My ascent transforms me into a voyeur. It creates a distance. It transforms the ‘enchanting’ world that obsesses me into words that appear before my eyes. It permits me to read it, to become the all-knowing eye of the sun, looking down like a God.

In 1980, when de Certeau wrote this, there was no Pokémon Go or Google Maps. Virtual Reality was just a thought in Science Fiction writer’s heads. Nevertheless, his book still speaks to me, even today. Today I can read the city without climbing up towers (that have to be built, or were built but disappeared again—as happened, earth-shatteringly, with the World Trade Center in 2001). Digitalization of the earth has raised the readability of the city to a new level.

Google Maps, Google Streetview and Google Earth—Google as a company is at the forefront of this development. Niantic, the company who developed and realized Pokémon Go, is also a spin-off from Google. Niantic boss John Hanke was previously with Keyhole, a company bought up by Google in 2004, which subsequently became Google Earth. As vice-president, Hanke was for a few years responsible for Google’s Geo services (Google Earth, Google Maps, Local, StreetView, SketchUp and Panoramio). Niantic was established in 2010 as a startup within Google, only becoming a separate company in October 2005.

Ingress became the first Niantic game based on Geo data. Pokémon Go shares a large part of the digital infrastructure with this game. Ingress was a success: around 7 million people played it in 2015. Its Wikipedia page states: “Niantic’s systems use high-frequency, real-time based geographic-spatial search queries and indexing technologies to process more than 200 million plays daily, whilst players integrate real and virtual objects in the physical world.”

Loss of mystery, or new perspectives on the well known?

Along with other digital map services, Google Maps has made the physical sphere legible and useable in a new way. I always know where I am, regardless of whether I’ve been there before or not. Competence and knowledge—such as map reading, awareness of compass points, and sense of direction—have suddenly been rendered unnecessary. The blue dot on my smartphone always lets me know where I am. Above the earth, the eyes of global positional system satellites translate my location in a text. Some describe this as a loss of mystery: aimless wanderings, getting lost productively, strolling—the arsenal of Situationist psycho-geography—all this appears to be no longer possible due to digital map services and their offshoots. Here’s where the reality of surveillance comes in: a smartphone in my hand or pocket allows every movement to be tracked.

Despite these real problems, there are also genuine pleasures. In a New York Times essay, writer Amy Butcher describes how Pokémon Go gave her a fresh look at her surroundings, despite an initial scepticism regarding the game’s meaningfulness. Unknown places: the lake around the corner you’d never seen, the mosaic on a façade you’d never noticed, conversations with strangers on fallow land that includes an unseen arena. All these hidden pleasures are on offer.

Perhaps there are new possibilities for artists hidden in the popularization of games. Digital pictures that can only be seen with a smartphone in a particular place, sound art when travelling on the underground, poems scattered around the city. All these ideas and concepts are nothing new. For a while now, artists have worked on so-called Locative Art. Up to now, though, all within a niche market. In his shortest story, On the exactness of science, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges describes a map as large as the world itself. Borges’ cartographers fail—the map breaks, its remains flittering away in the desert. Today we have such a map, and maybe it won’t break. Let’s see what we can do with it.

Valie Djordjevic

Valie Djordjevic

Valie Djordjević is an editor, author and speaker. She is interested in web culture, the social effects of technological innovation, literature and art, as well as gender politics. She is a founding member of iRights.info.
Valie Djordjevic