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Art Dirt Redux: Interview with Luka Frelih Transcript


Art Dirt Redux Interview with Luka Frelih Transcript
December 21, 2005

Art Dirt Redux mp3

Frida V. project web site

GH Hovagimyan: I'm here with Luka Frelih and you're from Ljubliana, Slovenia. You're here doing a residency at THE THING working on your Frida V. project.

Luka Frelih: Yes, at the AT&T "Death Star" building here in New York.

GH: I went over there to look at your work and essentially what you're doing is a bicycle-rigged thing that's got a wireless WIFI kind of rig on it, a bicycle that has on the back of it a...

LF: A computer with a wireless card and a little web cam. The purpose of all this gear is it's a "mapping bicycle". There's a GPS, too. That's an important part so while you ride around on this bicycle the computer knows where you are, logs your position and also listens for wireless networks around and if it finds one that's open it tests for the Internet. Once it finds you're online it says "GREAT" and marks a green spot in the database. Also because there's a web cam the driver can record little clips of the ride, or the scenery or whatever is going on there. You could do podcasts ...

GH: You could do a live webcast.

LF: It's not live, it gets recorded and once you're online it syncs the thing with the server.

GH: Basically it looks like you have a little computer, did you build it yourself?

LF: The case I built myself because I couldn't find one small enough to fit on the back of a bicycle. It works on a standard 12 volt alarm batteries.

GH: What's the operating system?

LF: Linux.

GH: That's the way it's going because essentially you have all these little boxes that are like primitive computers that work for certain amounts of functions.

LF: You could say it's a kind of "mapping appliance" but for me it means there's basically more freedom in terms of programming it and less work because I can use the stuff that's already out there and freely combine, mash together, just for scanning and for choosing the open networks. I've recently found a great tool that was made for all these academic roaming networks of wireless access points on campuses. I only use a little of the functionality of that software but it's ideal for the purpose I have. I didn't have to write that myself, for instance. It's very easy to automate the scriptings, and things happen when I press a little button on the control panel, which looks like a little crane control box but the point was I didn't want to put a screen in front of the guy on the bike. I didn't want to have a keyboard because the basic job or task of the person is driving and I don't want to distract them with even a map like in a GPS navigation system. The purpose is that you drive around, you look around and experience the space like a normal bike ride but meanwhile the computer is taking in all the invisible aspects of this same space. When you come back it adds to the database and eventually a map forms. For now it's mostly Manhattan but I hope to do Brooklyn.

GH: New Jersey.

LF: Well, it depends who will come to see it because I want people to contact me and say "I want to ride around my neighborhood." I don't just want to do downtown.

GH: So you want people to contact you by your email, which is...

LF: luka(at)

I don't want to be the only one who rides. The best part of this project is actually riding the bike.

GH: But it has to be in places that actually have hot spots.

LF: Or just where people live. People turn their ADSL on and don't secure it and unknowingly broadcast the Internet and provide access to their neighbors.

GH: So you’re saying someone in suburban New Jersey is better?

LF: Better than these offices that have things locked down and security because they don't want you to get in their files.

GH: It's more casual.

LF: A virtual neighborhood.

GH: Let me get this straight. You ride around on a bicycle, you have web cam on the front, a computer on the back and an antenna that senses if there's a WIFI network.

LF: Yes.

GH: If you find a WIFI network then...

LF: An orange light lights up and you have to stop because the range of this network is not so big and then you wait. If there is Internet access it turns green and if there isn't it goes red and you ride on.

GH: That's on the control panel?

LF: Yes. That's how you know.

GH: If you find a place that's green then you say, "Hey, this is good".

LF: Yes. You take a photo or wait a bit and let the computer upload its finding to the net so that next time you're in this neighborhood you can sit on the bench there and enjoy the outdoors and surf, or listen to podcasts ... well, that you can do on a portable play but let's say listen to net radio. Or check your email. Or chat. Whatever people do these days that requires a live link.

GH: But there's something else happening. You're saying there's a GPS map and there's a photograph of the place from the point of view of the bicycle.

LF: Yes.

GH: That goes into a database and the GPS will give you an exact location, the photograph will give you what it looks like and you can take more than one photograph, you can move the bike around.

LF: Sure. You can take videos or you can record sound.

GH: So, you said there's two different thing happening. In Europe you're not allowed to make a database of maps?

LF: Basically, in the US maps that are produced with public money have to be put in the public domain. You have something called Tiger, which covers all the streets, a base map of all the objects and you can download that as a database, reuse it, make your own maps with whatever kind of content.

In Europe there's nothing like that. The government finances these geo-companies to make maps because every government needs maps if nothing else for the military and for maps of all the conduits in a city. They have great geographic information systems. But they don't release any of that under a license that would allow you to make your own map and put it out on the Internet and say "OK, this is a map of ice cream parlors I like" and has the streets so you can actually find these ice cream parlors.

So, they're forcing us to make maps from scratch. Richard Stallman's open source movement twenty-five years ago was forced, well not forced ... he said "I want free software" so he started from the beginning by creating this compiler, whatever, so I propose we start making our own maps and releasing them under a free license.

It all adds up. You make a map of your part of town -- it doesn't have to be GPS or hi-tech -- you can do this in a drawing program. Eventually put them together and it becomes like a WIKI, like Wikipedia is doing for encyclopedias. We could take ownership of the maps. Maps are one kind of database but there are many kinds of databases. Copyright laws strongly protects anyone who takes a database and improves it. They end up owning the final product.

GH: Owns the whole final product?

LF: Yes, can close it down or charge for access.

GH: This I don't understand. If there's a public database ...

LF: Yes, if I take this Tiger map and fix some errors or put my own layer on top I can release the whole thing in a license that is much more restrictive.

GH: The other issue I think it very interesting is the notion of a "net consciousness" ... you were talking about wikipedia, which if everyone is connected to the net in some way that they basically can contribute to it.

LF: Yes, everyone can contribute and if enough people contribute then if everyone contributes a little bit then the whole pile of stuff becomes huge, much more than any single organization can achieve.

GH: The interesting issue is that you basically deal with what you're interested in -- your home, street, whatever.

LF: Yes, that's why I want people to say "I live here and I'm interested in what's going on here, what's open in my neighborhood?"

GH: You can present that and say "this is my neighborhood" but when you do that in mass media or whatever it's stupid because it is just my neighborhood, it's unrelated to anything. But if you put it with whole bunch of other people ...

LF: Then you get the whole map because my neighborhood overlaps with my neighbor's neighborhood. Obviously not everyone has access to the Internet but in this part of the world almost everyone has some kind of access and there are many ways of contributing something, creating your own media. Like we're doing this podcast or you edit a wikipedia on something you feel passionate about.

Or in the case of maps you ask why is this map better than the professional map? Because the professional map is scrubbed of anything that isn't of universal importance. All the interesting details are lost and only the public things -- you get churches or city hall is marked but not that there is this nice little cafe or here is a really good place to sit in the afternoon and listen to birds. It's all possible to put on a map.

GH: It becomes the total projection of humanity, like human consciousness.

LF: Well, the map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal! Even with errors, any map has errors. Most commercial maps have intentional errors for the purpose of identifying copyright infringement. If you steal a map they will say this little street here doesn't exist, why is it on your map? Is it because you copied our map?

Let's say something really changes, that there's a big skyscraper that falls down and the map has to be updated. In some cases it will be updated in others it's not such a big deal. It might never be updated. If we let people add to the map we don't have to rely on someone who is paid to do it, who constantly looks for what has changed.

GH: It's not just this net consciousness happening, there's art, you're making art, correct?

LF: Yes, it's an art project. Why? Because I'm an artist, that's how I can do this project. I can get a bit of money for it through this and I'm not immediately asked how I'm going to sell it, how am I going to make a profit.

GH: Except if you were in America, that's the first thing they'd ask you.

LF: Even with art?

GH: Absolutely. That's the first thing they ask you when you're an artist.

LF: Really? Well, I don't come from America. I'm just here for a few days; please guys excuse me I don't know how things go here ...

GH: American artists are totally jealous. We look at the Europeans who can make art and not worry about how to make money with it. Damn...

LF: You have to worry about how to get by without money but that's a different problem.

GH: It's the same thing here in America. Anyway, art projects now are always about somehow changing viewers or users ...

LF: I call my work a participatory research project.

GH: So the viewer/user by paying attention to their environment, making a map, whatever they're doing they begin to have awarenesses similar to experiences in art but you don't know what a person experiences when they look at a movie.

LF: Yes.

GH: We're getting to the end of our time here...

LF: We don't want to make it too long because then no one will want to listen to it.

GH: I'd like to thank you and I'll leave all the information on the web site for people to contact you.

LF: Yes, please. I'm here in New York until January 10 and anyone interested wants to come by the 32 Ave. of the Americas or if you want me to come with the bike to your neighborhood or basically take part in this project please contact me. That's why I'm here, so this project gets out. So thanks for listening and hope to see you.

GH: See you later.