Art is destination for GPS/sound project

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 Esther Polak, with her partner Ivar van Bekkum, records her reactions to the Italian Market. The recordings will be the narration of a movie created in Google Earth. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Esther Polak, with her partner Ivar van Bekkum, records her reactions to the Italian Market. The recordings will be the narration of a movie created in Google Earth. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The newest addition to Philadelphia’s public art collection is neither a sculpture, nor a mural. It’s a website and a film.

The city’s mandatory One Percent for Art program has commissioned a pair of Dutch artists to explore Philadelphia through sound and GPS technology.

The film “Once We Get There” starts with a white screen and a dotted red line in the distance, creeping forward. You hear sound of two women in a car, driving into Philadelphia across the Walt Whitman bridge. You can hear the tires thumping on the highway concrete. They seem to be having a good time.

“I want to do it while we pass Lincoln Financial Center,” says one of them. “An ode to the Eagles.”

She catches herself (“Time to get serious”) and reads a paraphrased excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”

Now I will do nothing but listen.I hear all sounds running together, combined fused or following.Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city. Sounds of the day or night.Now I will do nothing but listen.

Her traveling companion pauses, then adds: “That makes sense for the Eagles.”

While recording their own exchange, the two women also used a GPS device to record their movement in space. What you are seeing while hearing this, is a Google Earth image with an animated line tracking their trajectory. That growing dotted red line becomes a route along I-95.

They are participating in a year-long project by the Dutch art duo Esther Polak and Ivar van Bekkeum, who gave dozens of Philadelphians a sound recorder and a GPS device to explore their city.

When Google Earth’s flattened, low-resolution satellite imagery is put against real field recordings, the pairing creates tension.

“We have a reality within the sound, and an artificial world –a copy of the world,” said van Bekkum. “It’s recognizable – you see trees and cars – but it’s a blurry unrealistic world. You should fill in that gap yourself. You, as an audience, should fill it in.”

The 50-minute film is an edited version of the website 250miles.net, which hosts all the largely raw tracks of people recording themselves talking, or walking their dogs, or flying a propeller plane, while tracking their movements in space.

The $178,000 project was commissioned by the Science Center in West Philadelphia, as part of the One Percent for Art project, which requires new developments on city-owned land to contribute one percent of its construction cost to public art. In the last few years the One Percent program has been re-thinking what can be considered public art, putting resources behind conceptual, temporary and performance projects. This is it’s first artist residency.

“When you see the film, you really get this difference experience of Philadelphia as a landscape,” said Polak. “It’s not totally familiar. That’s what any landscape painter would aim for: a new kind of visualization.”

“There’s a mystery around it,” she added. “It’s not easy to explain.”

“Once We Get There” will have its premiere screening at the Rotunda in West Philadelphia, on Thursday at 6:30. The artists and some of their participating scouts will be available to answer questions.

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