Artist duo Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman, based in Baltimore and Athens, Georgia, respectively, are bringing their Twitter photo project “Geolocation” to Atlanta. Commissioned by Atlanta Celebrates Photography, the public artwork appears on eight billboards, each bearing a tweet text and a photograph of its originating location.
The artists have also created a time-lapse video, their first such venture, of local sites, accompanied by a computer voiceover reading tweets from an eight-hour period. Beginning at dusk each night from October 1 to 18, it will be projected onto the windows of Georgia State University’s Digital Arts Entertainment Lab at One Park Place.
ArtsATL: How did the idea for photographing tweet locations come about?
Marni Shindelman: We’ve been working on this series for about three years. We happened to find tweets that had GPS coordinates in them while we were working on a project translating text messages into semaphore. Since then the technology is a thousand times better. Our work is always about distance and communication.
ArtsATL: Is that because you live in different cities?
Nate Larson: We’ve never lived in the same city. It’s been an interesting conversation in terms of how we make art over distance and how personal relationships are stretched over distance.
ArtsATL: Why did you decide to collaborate?
Larson: Marni’s early work had to do with Internet mythologies, looking at all those chain letter stories floating around the Internet. My early work looked at religious miracles and things people posted online about them. We were both interested in storytelling and the Internet as a vehicle.
ArtsATL: Since the billboards will have only an image and the tweet text, how will viewers know what they’re looking at, or even that it’s art?
Shindelman: We hope press coverage helps with that! There’s only so much text you can put on a billboard that can be read in a short amount of time. We didn’t want it to read as an advertisement. Hopefully we’ve put up enough for people to figure it out.
ArtsATL: Where are the billboards located?
Shindelman: All up and down I-75, I-85 and I-20. The photos and tweets all happened within a mile of the billboards.
ArtsATL: How did you obtain the tweets?
Shindelman: It’s all in the public timeline of Twitter. These are people using GPS; their phones tag their exact locations.
Larson: Everything is located using a cell phone these days. The idea of place is deeply embedded in the culture of cell phones.
ArtsATL: What do you do when you arrive at the sites?
Shindelman: We look at it like an editorial project. Our parameters are to make a photo that somehow interacts with the text. We might photograph where the person is tweeting from or what they might’ve been looking at.
Larson: We start making decisions about how to make it an interesting picture. We could have the best tweet in the world, but if we can’t make a good picture then it usually gets edited out.
ArtsATL: Can you give me an example?
Larson: We’re both trained as photographers, so we’ve internalized a lot of what makes a good picture. It has to have a good composition, a good sense of light and good color relationships. At this point, we’ve shot 300 locations. We can’t shoot any more parking lots. There’s only so many you can do before you go crazy trying to make something different than what you’ve already done.
ArtsATL: What does this project say about communication today?
Shindelman: Some people are shocked that this information is public. There’s no hacking. We just go online and pull it up. There is this invisible noise surrounding us all the time. We call it digital noise. We think of our project as memorializing one small piece of it.
Larson: I’m also interested in the idea of privacy and what people put out there versus what they keep private. When I was a kid, if we traveled, we had somebody pick up our mail and we put the lights on timers. But these days if someone goes out of town, they don’t think twice about posting it on Facebook or Twitter. Our notion of public and private has changed over time.
Personally, I love technology. My nephew is 2½ and not very verbal, but we can get on Skype and pantomime things. On the other hand, I’m connected to 2,200 people on Facebook and I don’t have any idea who a lot of those people are. You can use technology in a very personal way or more broadly. They both have value.
ArtsATL: There’s not a whole lot of privacy anymore. GPS can save people . . . or get them into trouble.
Larson: We shot a photo in Canada at a roadside motel, and the tweet was, “Tell me I’m not making a mistake. Tell me you’re worth the wait.” I pictured a really seedy affair.
ArtsATL: I particularly like the one “Don’t lose somebody you love for somebody you like.”
Shindelman: There’s a lot of that on Twitter, one-liners and bits of advice. Some are really sad; some are political; some are just average. We don’t have any tragically sad images here. In other projects we have tweets like “Amy is dying,” which was shot on the parking deck of a hospital. We had to vet the billboards a little more carefully for language, for anything that seems like an ad and for length, so you can read it as you drive by.
ArtsATL: Were any GPS coordinates right on the highway, as if someone was texting while driving?
Shindelman: We have a lot of those. We pray they’re at traffic stops. For this project, there’s one from the access road or on-ramp by Six Flags. There was no reason for them to have stopped there.
ArtsATL: How do you think Atlantans will respond?
Shindelman: We’d love to connect with some of the Twitterers. The galleries are so removed from the community. I wonder what would happen if someone saw their tweet on a billboard.
Larson: Some of these billboards get 650,000 viewers a week. That changes the understanding of who the audience is.
ArtsATL: Do you tweet?
Shindelman: A little, but I’m more interested in it as a research subject than in participating. In 2010 the Library of Congress began archiving tweets. It’s an interesting record of the times.
The billboards will remain on view through October. Prints related to the billboard project will be on view October 5-18 at Big House Gallery in Castleberry Hill, where the artists will talk about their project October 18 from 6:30 to 8 p.m.