Only in L.A.: parking lot as art exhibit

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Thirty-four north, 118 west. Those are my longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates as I tromp through a muddy, graffiti-laden parking lot the size of a football field in the industrial zone of downtown Los Angeles.

I'm here to investigate the swords-to-plowshares work of three artists who are using military GPS technology to create a new kind of art form - the urban story space.

The creators have dug through the histories of old downtown sites, such as a tire manufacturing plant and an old train station, to find out about the people who actually worked there.

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Visitors to the site are given headphones, a handheld global positioning system (GPS) device, and a tablet PC with special software to help guide them around the industrial landscape, which was a vital area during the early to mid-20th century.

The equipment works much like the headphones with wands that museums supply visitors for tours, but here, the GPS shows people the "hot spots" of information on a digital map. When visitors stand near a hot spot, the software triggers a story about that site.

Instead of hearing facts and figures about early trains, for instance, you hear from a "Harvey girl," named after the waitresses in restaurants in old train stations; she tells about waitressing to harried commuters. When you walk to another location, bagpipe music streams into your ears as you pass the spot where early street musicians would have entertained on the busy walkways.

The effect is more poetic, say the artists, because you're looking at a bleak modern landscape and learning about the life that used to inhabit it.

"We wanted to get away from the notion of untouchable art on a gallery wall," says Jeff Knowlton, one of the creators of the exhibit and also a teacher at the Art Institute of Los Angeles.

"We wanted to get at the kind of cultural information that makes a cityscape come alive," adds Mr. Knowlton, who calls the experience an "emotional archaeology."

Game for an alternative history of the city, I strap into headphones and cradle the Compaq tablet PC that will send these accounts from a century ago into my headphones. I pick up the heart of the project, the GPS device, the technology used in some cars as well as the smart bombs in the current war with Iraq. In fact, the military maintains all GPS satellites.

As I wander around this half-mile- square area of wasteland, I'm guided by the bouncing dot displayed on the tablet. (It's more than a little disconcerting that the dot, which represents me, has a crosshair target on top of it.)

Pink squares on the map represent the "sites" that have stories behind them. Each time I move into close proximity to one of these spots, either a story or sound effects stream into my headphones.

Think of yourself as the mouse "and the cityscape is your giant desktop," says Knowlton, the most technically minded of the artist trio. "You click on whatever you want and get your information."

So as I stand over the abandoned train tracks, I hear from the man whose job it was to clean up after people who jumped in front of speeding trains. When I walk to another location, I hear a tire factory worker describe how rubber bits rained on the streets of L.A. after a huge fire.

"We see this as a sort of narrative archaeology," says Jeremy Hight, a poet who wrote the stories in the program.

All of these stories and sounds are the forgotten moments in L.A.'s history and make up what the artists call the city's "real history."

"We wanted to look at the earlier versions of technology that transfer data," Mr. Hight says. "The train, the ship, the telegraph - all these gave information about faraway places. Today, we have this," he adds, holding the glowing GPS unit.

Of course, the project is much more than just data transfer.

"The idea was to take the chaos of information that surrounds us and organize it into something meaningful," adds Hight.

The project, "34 North, 118 West," as it is called, is privately funded by the artists themselves. But Knowlton says the software that they created can be applied in other ways. He has already booked a conference to discuss using this technology to help the blind navigate cities.

"There are so many uses for this kind of technology," Knowlton says.

As he talks, I hear a sound in the headphones. It is an old train leaving the station for the day.

For more information on this exhibit, go to www.34n118w.net. For interactive game reviews, go to www.csmonitor.com/newmedia

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