Local motives

Local Motives

It’s not the geography of the place -it’s the interactions that happen in that place. — Gail Ann WiIliams @ the Well [ quoted from her talk at the isite @ love at first website event here in Portland October 14th 2008 ]

What do you call a group of folks interested in place?  A gaggle?  A cluster?  A flock?  Whatever you call it; Portland has it.  Here are a few of the extremely diverse but cartographically inclined folks and organizations that I’ve run across recently:


The Humaninet folks exemplify pragmatic technology needs and concern for human welfare.  They do disaster relief and disaster relief planning.  Their mission is to “help the people who help the people”.  Gregg and his team consolidate and test best practices.  They document and make these practices available to people dealing with crisis such as tsunami, hurricanes and other disruptive events.

Spend some time with these folks and you’ll hear all kinds of war stories, hopefully get to play with satellite telephones and hear pragmatic critical advice on what is really needed (versus what we sometimes think people will need).  They need volunteers and technology and are very open to new contributors. What makes them interesting from a technologists point of view is that they are a good bell-weather for the effectiveness of locative technology.  Finding appropriate mapping solutions that work in the field, under extreme conditions, often on very short time frames is harder than it looks.

Suddenly Project

On the arts side Stephanie Snyder and Matthew Stadler have been doing an ongoing lecture series over at suddenly.org .  In their words “Suddenly is a book, a set of exhibitions, and a series of public events concerning the new shape of cities beginning in Portland, Oregon this fall”.  They’ve invited speakers and artists in to examine our urban landscapes, how we respond to them and what sense of ownership we have or do not have over them.

One of the recent Suddenly evening talks took place in an abandoned parking lot in Beaverton just two weeks ago.  Literally an anti-place – a place where very few would willingly choose to go and spend an evening.  Difficult to find, not registered on google maps, without signs, it was only found by coarse directions and wandering about.  The place was eerie, sad and desolate in some regards.  We claimed it for the night with warm candles and a big table covered in shimmering glasses of wine and drinks and food and good conversation.  Matthew had brought in two speakers – Thomas Sieverts and Aaron Betsky.  The conversation was a reflection on the space we were in: what was the appropriate response to it?  Turn it into housing?  Turn it into a park?  Truly let it go and free it from the strange intersection of laws and ownership that kept it a half place?  For me the event reminded me of how little is unclaimed and yet how little of what we claim do we actually bother to steward.  It reminded me of our own fear of ownership, of taking things that are broken, even if not ours, and reclaiming and rewriting those broken landscapes.  We were rained on, and partially exposed, and yet the inclement weather didn’t keep us from talking about what was meant by these places, how we felt about them.

Laurene Vaughan and Place Making

Hopping over to PNCA there was a talk in September by Dr Laurene Vaughan visiting from RMIT University in Melbourne.  They have a masters program in Melbourne and she showcased some of the work and extended an invitation for students to apply.

There were two aspects of her talk of interest to locative folks.  She uses the phrase ‘place-making’ – a phrase not often heard but one which reminds us how important it is to be aware of the plasticity of our environments; that when we choose to do something somewhere that we start to change that place.  As well she also thinks of herself as a ‘maker’.  She works at avoiding simply talking and tries to engage in doing.

Her particular take was nuanced however – she voiced a particular interest in the ‘epistemology of discovery through making’ and talked about being conscious of the space that you yourself are in when you are creating.  In the way she used ‘place-making’ she also referred to the impact on oneself, and how the place affected the work.  Often we forget the history associated with what we make or covet; the work becomes disconnected from its geographic umbilical.  If there was one phrase that best captured all this it would be ‘material thinking’ – thinking that is not just inside the head but that is with things and with people – that you are holding stuff in your hands and moving it around, talking about it, and trying to make pieces fit.  It all sounds a bit abstruse but in fact it is very similar to the George Lakoff, Marvin Minksy and ’embodied mind’ philosophers; and in fact the same strategy that you see in how people design walking robots these days – the idea of ‘subsumption architectures’ where reasoning and computation use the real world as part of memory rather than trying to pre-plan…

There was also quite a bit of practical discussion about collaboration; how to actually work with other people, how to actually make and measure progress.  We all know this can be hard, and she had experience here.  One maxim was that that in a group setting that if somebody suggested something then they had to carry it out – shifting the burden of responsibility.  Another technique was to do design charettes; intense focused sessions – not entirely dissimilar from what I would call a ‘code sprint’.  Part of this also included best practices that we’d recognize from software programming:  open source design, democratizing design and documenting work as you go to show process.

City Repair Project

The City Repair Project is an “organized group action” that educates and inspires communities and individuals to creatively transform the places where they live.  For example a recent project is to “depave” unnecessary pavement and concrete from urban areas in order to help reduce storm-water run off and habitat restoration.  They’re also involved in creating housing spaces for homeless folks and you’ll often see their tea van at Earth Day and other events around town.

Results Under Action

Portland artists have often cast their gaze on the issue of place itself.  The gaze is not necessarily maudlin or benign or sentimental; it can try to simply observe, to document, to laugh at, or laugh with.  Imagine if you had a giant pen and could write directly on buildings; a kind of huge graffiti.  What would you say?

Justin Gorman’s work reflects on this.  He builds transportable mobile narrative footnotes that are site specific and often large in the sense of being able to reflect on the buildings or structures they comment on and not disappear by comparative volume.  The works are transient in nature but are carefully captured in an ongoing documentation process.  His work was featured at the Time Based Arts Festival earlier in Portland this summer from PICA and he continues to iterate on the ideas at Results Under Action.  One of the things I enjoy most about this work is that it is simply large; there’s something visceral about making work that is big – that takes up space and that requires labor.


I happened to wander past Laughing Horse Books – a progressive, anarchist and gay, lesbian, transgendered friendly space near the Green Dragon Cafe where we have been doing our WhereCamp planning sessions.  It turned out there was an evening meeting of ReCode taking place here and this it turned out was a group looking at civic bylaws and planning in order to try and create more flexibility for home builders.  One of the pressing issues for example is that there are restrictive laws on the use of grey-water.  You can throw a water collection basin on your roof but you are not legally allowed to use that water in your home.  There are a lot of silly laws like this that need to be revised and these folks were closely involved in fighting the good fight.  What did surprise me however was the degree of non-technical inclination here.  One person mentioned how nice it would be if he could bring extra vegetables from his garden to a local market; and in my mind I thought well the obvious answer was to just twitter that you had some extra vegetables and put the burden on somebody else to actually deal with picking them if they wanted them.  It’s exactly this kind of group that I hope has a chance to participate in WhereCamp and find practical ways to leverage the diversity of experience that others have.

Concluding thoughts

I’m sure this is only a tiny tiny sliver of the number and kinds of groups here in Portland.  I didn’t even mention the Systems Studies group at PSU (whom I keep running into) for example.  The fact is that we’re all involved in place in some way.  Locative media is something that we’re all poking at.  Artists and technologists both have a lot to contribute to an understanding of place. This could be an encouragement for each of us to talk about our work, to publish, to get feedback and to be a part of the conversation.  These are also in line with my own hopes for WhereCamp – to continue the discussion of place, both in a pragmatic sense and a spiritual sense.  For the pragmatists, the environmentalists, humanitarians, city-planners, there is value in the artistic critical gaze that provides new insight.