When documentary space becomes a whole city

22 Dec

Most people would agree with the idea that digital media has totally changed the way we produce, distribute and view documentaries. It is easy to see how digital cameras, digital edit suites and online distribution have become the norm in the documentary world, it is harder to see how much new media has infiltrating the whole concept behind what John Grierson has called “the creative treatment of actuality”. Could interactive media create a new breed: the interactive documentary? If documentary has adapted from film to video technology it would be reasonable to accept that it is now adapting to interactive technology. Web-documentaries such as Prison Valley (2010)[i]Highrise (2011)[ii], and Bréves de Trottoirs (2011)[iii], are here to prove that the web is not only streaming linear documentaries, but that its interactive affordances can be fully used by new media authors. The novelty, though, is that new media is not only screen based. Mobile phones, satellite navigators, bar-coding and sensors, and so many others, are all part of the extended family of digital devises that are invading our daily life and that could potentially be used in interactive documentaries.

The divulgation of GPS[iv] enabled devices in the late 1990s has permitted the emergence of so called locative art projects such as  Can You See me Now (2001)[v]Amsterdam Real Time (2002)[vi]The Milk Project (2004)[vii]Bio Mapping (2004)[viii] and Urban Tapestries[ix](2004) where artists have used GPS enabled devices to play games in mixed reality, design real time maps of people’s movements or position memories in space.  Blast Theory, UK’s leading pervasive media artist group, has used locative media to document cities such as London, Athens, Bristol, Budapest, Sydney, Adelaide and Liverpool in a project called Rider Spoke[x].

I argue in this article that Rider Spoke is not just a locative art piece and that it can be seen as an interactive locative documentary – because it uses digital media and interactivity to document people’s perceptions of their own city. I will give a brief description of the project and explain why, to my eyes, Rider Spoke manages to make documentary space a lived experience – where the user can explore, feel and embody the space that is documented. I will also show how the user can help create such space, making it a multi-layered and collaborative space.

 Rider Spoke

Rider Spoke is a locative work that was first designed to be experienced in London in October 2007. In Rider Spoke the participants are invited to go to the Barbican, a cultural centre in London, with their own bicycle[xi]. They can also hire a bicycle at the venue itself. A handheld computer (Nokia N800) is mounted on the handlebar of the bicycle. This mini computer has GPS capabilities, an earplug and a microphone incorporated into it.

Fig. 1 – Rider Spoke’s Nokia N800 mounted on a bicycle[xii]

The participant sets off into the streets of London listening to the audio commands of the device. The device asks the participant to find a spot in the city, to stop there and to answer to a specific question by recording the answer into the microphone. The questions can be anything from “Find somewhere you like, then give yourself a name and describe yourself” to “Find a quiet place and tell me who or what makes it all right for you” or “Imagine holding the hand of someone. Find a place and tell me how it felt”.

Fig. 2 – Rider Spoke’s hiding message[xiii]

The answers are then stored with their GPS co-ordinates so that they can be retrieved by any other participant that stops in a nearby location. The work is designed in such a way that questions become more and more personal during the experience. This has the effect of changing the mood of the participant from a ludic bicycle ride into  a personal introspection of one’s relationship with the city. The relation public/private is at the heart of the work. As Blast Theory explains in its website the work is about exploring ‘how games and new communication technologies are creating new hybrid social spaces in which the private and the public are intertwined’[xv].

Fig. 3 – Example of Rider Spoke’s questions[xiv]

The whole experience lasts around one hour during which the participant has the time to “plant”[xvii] at least five answers into her chosen locations, and to listen to many other people’s personal recordings. Rider Spoke happens in real time (while one cycles) and is a completely private experience (one is alone while cycling).  The audio files that are stored into a server are only accessible by people that are going through the same experience, but at a different time. No website gives remote access to the data that has been stored. Contrary to Christian Nold’s Greenwich Emotional Map (2006)[xviii], no graphical representation is made out of Rider Spoke.  Once the bicycle is given back, this unique way to document the relationship people have with their own city stays in the realm of personal memories.

Fig. 4 – Rider Spoke’s bicycle rider[xvi]

The use of space in Rider Spoke

The space in which participants discover Rider Spoke is not just a city: it is a space that has been enhanced by digital technology. Like in most locative narratives the users effectively move through an augmented space that theorist De Sousa e Silva has called a ‘hybrid space’[xix]. This space is a connected area, where mobile phones and web enabled zones allow people to mix physical and remote contexts to create a new hybrid reality. Anybody having observed someone speaking on the phone, in a bus, will have noticed how private and public contexts can mix creating a new space of ear dropping passengers. In Rider Spoke the city keeps its buildings, its streets and its people, but the GPS connection adds a layer of digital content to it. A square that has been selected by other user-participants will have digital comments that will change the perception of the square itself for the new participant. In the same way in which a street will “feel” different if a walker is listening to classical music, or to rap, on a MP3 player, the city that Rider Spoke presents is layered by a multitude of voice-overs that make it richer and diverse.

Each place the rider goes becomes richer, but it also becomes a ‘space of enunciation’ – as says philosopher Michel de Certeau (de Certeau 1984, 98) [xx]where the pedestrian/cyclist speech act organizes a ensemble of possibilities and creates relations between objects, positions and time. By cycling, listening to other’s comments, and recording her own thought, Rider Spoke’s participant transforms a place into a meaningful space [xxi]By cycling the participant appropriates her space, makes geographical and emotional connections and positions herself in a city that she sees differently. The strength of Rider Spoke is to use simple questions to add a key to such space. Because the participant is now cycling with a quest (“Find a window and imagine what is behind”, “Find a place where you feel good” etc…) spatial stories are being constructed. If ‘walking is a space of enunciation’ (de Certeau  1984, 98), cycling too can be so. In Rider Spoke the participant goes from the ‘pedestrian speech act’ of walking (de Certeau 1984, 97) -here the rider’s act of cycling – to the speech act of recording her thoughts. There is an unfolding pattern that has been carefully designed: you first feel, and therefore embody space, you get affected by it, and then you rationalise your experience by speaking about it (wile recording). The journey is tending towards self-awareness and introspection. Speaking at DocFest 2009’s conference Matt Adams (Rider Spoke’s co-author) insisted in this notion of appropriation of space: ‘Rider Spoke uses intimacy of personal communication devices to give each particular place used in the work a meaning’ (Adams 2009, 2)[xxii]. Meaning is the result of embodied experience (Dourish 2001)[xxiii]. Practiced, embodied spaces become places(following de Certeau’s and Dourish’s distinction), but they also become shared places. By allowing other people to listen to one’s comment space becomes inhabited by other people’s contributions, it grows into shared place, the result of multiple point of views.


Rider Spoke is not what would normally be called a documentary: it contains no video, no linear narrative, no authorial point of view and no distribution channel. But I argue in this article that Rider Spoke shows us the potential that digital interactive media have in documenting reality. How can interactive documentary differ from linear media when documenting reality? For me one of the major contributions of locative media is the shift from authorial space to physical space. A locative narrative is not to be listened, it is to be experienced. This goes beyond the active/passive debate, as it is a different way to conceive what mediation can offer. In the case of locative projects mediation is about adding layers to the felt perception of reality.

Rider Spoke is a particularly good example of what locative documentaries could become in the future: by mixing the participative logic of the web with the GPS affordances of mobile phones, it allows a new logic to emerge. A logic where the user is both follower of a narrative (through the questions that are given) and co-creator of a world (through the recording of her answers). A logic also where the participant acquires a voice: the cyclist’s choice is an utterance where she defines herself and re-negotiates the space around her. The participant also acquires responsibility: each personal comment is to be made public to other users and it therefore forges a new point of view within a multi-layered reality.

Finally, a particularity of Rider Spoke is that, although participative, its performative and locative nature do not allow it to last for a long time. Its life span is fixed to a couple of weeks by Blast Theory. The success of the work is therefore not measured by a longer life, but by the quantity and quality of its recordings. Those recordings will never be graspable as a whole by anybody, since the database is only accessible by its users during their ride. The world that Rider Spoke portrays is never to be totally experienced by the individual. Each person will see a part of it and will participate in making it a richer, or a poorer, place. Only Blast Theory, as a God like figure, could potentially listen to every single message left in the database but, yet again, those messages would have no meaning if not situated in the spot that inspired them, and if not listened after having embodied the city through a bicycle ride. Rider Spoke reminds us both of our embodied human condition and of our uniqueness: our journey seems to belong only to ourselves. In it, and through it, we are responsible for our own contribution to what, together, we can call “our world”.


(this article was first published in 2011)

[i] Prison Valley (David Dufresne and Philippe Brault, 2010). Viewable athttp://prisonvalley.arte.tv/?lang=en. Accessed 7.02.11.

[ii] Highrise (Katerina Cisek, 2011). Viewable at http://highrise.nfb.ca/. Accessed 7.02.11.

[iii] Bréves de Trottoirs (Olivier Lambert and Thomas Salva, 2011). Viewable at http://paris-ile-de-france.france3.fr/brevesdetrottoirs/. Accessed 7.02.11.

[iv] GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It is a navigational system involving at least three satellites and computers that can determine the latitude and longitude of a receiver on Earth. Since the 1990’s mobile phones can be GPS enabled, meaning that their position can be calculated and used for commercial or other applications (like Geotagging -applying location coordinates to digital objects such as photographs and other documents for purposes such as creating map overlays- or GPS Tours – the location determines what content to display, for instance, information about an approaching point of interest).

[v] Can You See me Now (Blast Theory, 2001). Documentation available athttp://www.blasttheory.co.uk/bt/work_cysmn.html. Accessed 7.02.11.

[vi] Amsterdam Real Time (Waag Society, 2002). Documentation available athttp://www.waag.org/project/realtime. Accessed 7.02.11.

[vii] The Milk Project (MILKproject, 2004). Documentation available athttp://milkproject.net/en/index.html. Accessed 7.02.11.

[viii] Bio Mapping (Christian Nold, 2004). Documenation available at http://biomapping.net/. Accessed 7.02.11.

[ix] Urban Tapestries (Proboscis, 2004-2008). Documentation available athttp://urbantapestries.net/weblog/. Accessed 7.02.11.

[x] Rider Spoke London (Blast Theory, 2007). Documentation available athttp://www.blasttheory.co.uk/bt/work_rider_spoke.html. Accessed 6.02.11.

[xi] A video documenting the opening of Rider Spoke at the Barbican can be seen athttp://vimeo.com/2275985. Accessed 1.02.11.

[xiv] Photo by Sandra Gaudenzi.

[xv] From Blast Theory’s website. Availablehttp://www.blasttheory.co.uk/bt/work_rider_spoke.html. Accessed 6.02.11.

[xvi] Source: http://www.realtimearts.net/article/83/8880. Accessed 02.02.11.

[xvii] In the sense of recording a message that is attached to a particular location.

[xviii] Greenwich Emotional Map (Christian Nold, 2006). Documentation available athttp://www.emotionmap.net/. Accessed 7.02.11.

[xix] For writer de Sousa e Silva ‘hybrid spaces are mobile spaces, created by the constant movement of users who carry portable devices continuously connected to the Internet and to other users’ (2006, 262). Hybrid spaces are different from what has been termed mixed reality, augmented reality, augmented virtuality, or virtual reality, because they are about connectiveness more than 3D worlds. ‘The possibility of an “always-on” connection when one moves through a city transforms our experience of space by enfolding remote contexts inside the present context’ (de Sousa e Silva, 2006, 262).

From de Souza e Silva, Adriana. 2006. “From Cyber to Hybrid: Mobile Technologies as Interfaces of Hybrid Spaces”. Space and Culture 9: 261. Available at

http://sac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/9/3/261.  Accessed 1.02.11.

[xx] De Certeau, Michel.1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press.

[xxi] In The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau makes the distinction between a place and a space. A space, he says, ‘exists when one takes into consideration vectors and direction, velocities ad time variables’ (1984:117). In other words, ‘a space is a practiced place’ (ibidem). In Where the Action Is interaction theorist Paul Dourish applies such distinction to Human Computer Interaction seeing place as  an ‘occupied space’ (2001:89) where behaviour is not only dependent on physical properties but also on social norms. To design for place rather than space then means ‘to turn our attention away from the structure of the space and towards the activities that take place there’ (2001:90). It also means to keep in mind that ‘an idea of place is relative to a particular community of practice’ (italic in original) (ibidem). Applied to Experiential documentaries this makes us realise that the potential of locative documentaries is in re-defining space and make it personal and situated for, and by, each user/participant.

From: De Certeau, Michel.1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press and Daurish, Paul. 2001. Where the Action is: the Foundations of Embodies Interaction. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[xxii] Adams, Matt. 2008. Last modifiedhttp://www.blasttheory.co.uk/bt/work_rider_spoke.html. Accessed 7.02.11.

[xxiii] Daurish, Paul. 2001. Where the Action is: the Foundations of Embodies Interaction. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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