Topographic Landform Interpretation Experiment,
A geo-referenced walking work at Racetrack Playa
May 15th, 2K4

 

Keywords: landform interpretation, navigation, locative media, database, walking art, cognitive maps, global positioning system, geographic information systems, art

 

Navigational inquiry++

The history of navigation is addressed across many disciplines. Interestingly, the history of land navigation is barely existent in almost any literature, no doubt because it represents a fundamental pre-historic aspect of nominal hominid experience; predating the particular hominid Homo sapiens. Although there are many resources on orienteering and land navigation ("how to"), very few of these engage in historical or genealogical analysis. The history of navigation as a technology generally seems to 'begin' in the literature with the citation of celestial navigation techniques (and the development of related technologies, often in reference to sea navigation), which were developed over time to traverse larger distances than the domains typically wandered by small scale, non-industrial (hunter-gatherer), pedestrian cultures; although there is, quite interestingly, no shortage of navigational literature on small scale, non-industrial seagoing cultures. The history of navigation somehow connotes voyages of exploration, dislocation, or endeavors involving significant distance; not quotidian walks to the water hole or shorter overland journeys between patches of resource in the landscape.

 

Navigation over smaller distances, the matter of how humans navigate in the landscape using tactical landmarks and other opportunistic features for orientation (foliage change, animal trails, geology, human markings such as cairns, shelters, rock art, etc.) via the use of concepts such as mental maps or "cognitive maps"[1], has been a matter of research explored a to a great degree in archeology, anthropology, cognitive science, and psychology. Presently, navigation is mediated by maps as well as wireless technology such as GPS, location aware mobile phones, and wireless networks that deliver traditional internet connections. Somewhere in the interstice between innate navigation, the history and techniques of applied land navigation, the history of navigation technology utilized for long distance travel, and contemporary networked navigation should lie a theory that somehow encompasses both voyages of exploration requiring well developed cultural technologies for wayfinding over long distances (long paths) and the types of cognitive and cultural processes that let one move in a motivated manner toward a food cache when hungry, or in a more contemporary sense, toward an entertainment station when bored, or through the lobby, up the correct escalator, and down the correct corridor for the next meeting (short paths).

 

Terminology and background

In an attempt to lay some groundwork for some such theory, I speculate that there is something to be learned from the study landform interpretation, which I view as the analysis of the meaning of land formations relative to human bipedal navigation, because it collapses all of the above concerns (from bio-innate navigation to wireless) into a single, potentially comprehensive unit of study. I propose that this is a more expansive notion than "terrain association"[2] as a component of orienteering practice, because it is free to draw from numerous interdisciplinary approaches, while maintaining an analysis that unites what C5 has recently identified theoretically as the coextensive nature of the long path and the short path.[3] This leaves space for the proposition that there exist other ways of interpreting landforms (particularly computationally mediated methods) that are perhaps even visible and learnable by soldiers or hikers. It supposes not only an experimental field comparing database techniques for landform interpretation against typical landform interpretation utilized in terrain association and land navigation, but more generally a potential framework in which to test some more abstract theoretical constructs related to the interoperation of people and computation (via communications networks) in the landscape.

 

"Landform Interpretation" was also chosen as the term for this experiment because it is the closest match to the specifics of the experimental interdisciplinary domain which simultaneously allows for the scope of the inquiry to expand in the direction of our primary discipline area: art. Another possibility was "Landscape characterization" which refers to a sub discipline of environmental science relating to monitoring conditions and documenting landscape dynamics, utilizing remote sensing and pursuing identification and quantification of ecosystem stressors through the use of geographic information systems and statistical analysis. Yet another, "Landform characterization" is closely related to "Landscape characterization", yet it is specific to geology. Both "landscape characterization" and "landform characterization" are bounded somewhat narrowly by well developed scientific disciplines. "Landscape interpretation" by contrast often implies historical and cultural analysis in the framing of, or scholarship regarding, the meaning of place. "Landform interpretation" is somewhat more satisfactory than the previous, because it is specifically drawn from the science of geography, which has always been a discipline with broad interdisciplinary applications and influences. Thus this particular experiment as a walking artwork infused by interdisciplinary influences is best characterized as landform interpretation as I have defined it. Landform interpretation as an area of study also has more freedom to draw eclectically from an interdisciplinary pool of research including quotidian/pedestrian/urban/suburban navigation as well as sport/trekking land navigation in non-urban, non-suburban, non-developed 'natural' or 'wild' environments. General disciplines which seem to contribute well developed research into related questions of human bi-pedal navigation in culturally mediated and/or 'wild' environments are psychology, geography (particularly GIS), archeology, architecture, military studies, and art. As an art experiment, this project is particularly interested in the potential overlap between eclectic, interdisciplinary sources and the tradition of walking works as practiced by artists such as Hamish Fulton, Richard Long, Dominique Mazeaud, and Teri Rueb.

 

Landform abstractions utilized in land navigation

Perhaps the most basic of contemporary resources on land navigation that imply both strategic (long) and tactical (short) modes of pedestrian land navigation combined with a coextensive set of abstractions and techniques for applying those abstractions to orienteering practice are to be found in military training documentation. Two typical documents that present interpretive abstractions of landforms for use in land navigation are the U.S. Navy's Seabee Combat Handbook Volume 1 (chapter 5 - Land Navigation)[5] and the U.S. Department of the Army's, Map Reading and Land Navigation[6] manual. The schema for landform recognition I utilized in the walking experiment at Racetrack Playa is taken from the latter. Interestingly, this training text encourages trainees to think of the landforms in terms of very general statistical characterizations. For example, "A hill is an area of high ground... the ground slopes down in all directions", while "A ridge is a sloping line of high ground... you will normally have low ground in three directions and high ground in one direction..." This implies that landforms are recognized based in part on simple conceptual relations of high to low ground. Refer to Table 1 for the complete list of landform abstractions and a breakdown their high ground to low ground characteristics.

 


Table 1 - Landform abstractions useful in land navigation, utilized by the U.S. Army in training recruits.

Character-ization

High/

Low

Illustration

Definition

Hill

0/4

 

"A hill is an area of high ground. From a hilltop, the ground slopes down in all directions."

Ridge

1/3

"A ridge is a sloping line of high ground. If you are standing on the centerline of a ridge, you will normally have low ground in three directions and high ground in one direction..."

 

Spur

1/3

"A spur is a short, continuous sloping line of higher ground, normally jutting out from the side of a ridge. A spur is often formed by two rough parallel streams, which cut draws down the side of a ridge. The ground sloped down in three directions and up in one direction."

 

Cliff

1/3

"A cliff is a vertical or near vertical feature; it is an abrupt change of the land. When a slope is so steep that the contour lines converge into one 'carrying' contour of contours, this last contour line has tick marks pointing toward low ground."

 

Saddle

2/2

"A saddle is a dip or low point between two areas of higher ground. A saddle is not necessarily the lower ground between two hilltops; it may be simply a dip or break along a level ridge crest. If you are in a saddle, there is high ground in two opposite directions and lower ground in the other two directions."

Draw

3/1

"A draw is a less developed stream course than a valley. In a draw, there is essentially no level ground and, therefore, little or no maneuver room within its confines. If you are standing in a draw, the ground slopes upward in three directions and downward in the other direction. A draw could be considered as the initial formation of a valley."

Valley

3/1

"A valley is a stretched-out groove in the land, usually formed by streams or rivers. A valley begins with high ground on three sides, and usually has a course of running water through it. If standing in a valley, three directions offer high ground, while the fourth direction offers low ground."

Depres-

sion

4/0

"A depression is a low point in the ground or a sinkhole. It could be

described as an area of low ground surrounded by higher ground in all directions, or simply a hole in the ground."

 

These abstractions, which are used in combination with navigation techniques and technologies such as the magnetic compass, topographic maps (which are forms of analog computers)[7], and the more recently the global positioning system (GPS), have presumably emerged through some genealogical development process in the spaces between practical experience with effective military land navigation (throughout a long history), and the need to introduce new recruits to effective land navigation skills on an ongoing basis. Interestingly, the abstractions (not limited to but including cartography) and techniques (methods for bringing such abstractions into coordination with practical and effective motion in the landscape), serve not only military strategic planning and tactical implementation, but are also widely employed in military logistics. Logistics are arguably the most important, influential, yet least romantic area of endeavor in contemporary military science. Much as database is the foundation of new media, feeding its every pixel, logistics are the foundation of military effectiveness, literally feeding its troops and machinery. Nevertheless, war narratives have tended toward and tend to the tactical and strategic situations and implications, just as much of new media has focused on user interface and the societal implications of new technology. Database and supply-chain management simply are not as sexy as interfaces where one might witness motion, sound, and action. But they are the positions from which the formal aspects of both multimedia and the war machine are projected.

 

The performance

The walk was performed on an expedition with my students to Racetrack Playa, an alluvial clay filled depression measuring some 5 Kilometers south to north and over 2 Kilometers west to east in places. The notion behind the larger performance was to develop a distributed interpretation of place through the lens of contemporary art practice, and informed by ideas about socially distributed computation and cognition.[8] My interpretive experiment was to utilize GPS and a magnetic compass to identify landforms in centrifugal orientation to the playa, in order to experience the landforms personally, identify more complex configurations of landform, and to characterize and process the data collected into images utilizing the C5 Landscape database. This later activity was intended to further software development by adding useful features to the software, and to test some assumptions regarding a certain attribute (more on this later) generated and stored in the database. The process was as follows: As I circumnavigated the edges of the playa, I looked for good examples of the landforms identified in Map Reading and Land Navigation, also occasionally noting landforms that did not easily fit the model. When I had identified a landform, I would perform the following:

 

  • Take a photograph with the landform roughly centered in the picture
  • Take a GPS waypoint[9]
  • Record the azimuth to the landform from the waypoint using a magnetic compass
  • Take various notes about the site, including image number, waypoint number, landform, etc. (See Figure 2)

 

Upon my return, (utilizing the C5 Landscape Database and the GD library, and some custom code for this project to overlay track log and waypoint data, and to project lines of direction), I processed the data collected and produced the following image (Figure 1) which superimposes the GPS track log of my walk, (yellow), the waypoints (red) and the azimuths (projected in green) from each waypoint in the direction of the landform. Because I followed botanical edge of the racetrack, note that my track is circumscribed by the actual edge of playa (where the elevation changes.) The remaining figures in the paper are the photographs showing the visible landscape in the direction of the azimuth readings taken at the various waypoints. The figure captions show the waypoint number, UTM coordinates of the waypoint from where the photo was taken, the azimuth reading, the landform, and a brief notes taken on site.


Figure 1 - Image generated from digital elevation model data (utilizing the C5 Landscape Database and the GD library, and some custom code), superimposing the GPS track log of my walk (in yellow, ~ 12.5 Kilometers), over the 3707 foot surface of the playa (blue), with the waypoints (red) and azimuths (projected in green) taken at those waypoints with a magnetic compass. The remaining figures in the paper are photographs showing the visible landscape in the direction of the azimuth readings taken at the various waypoints. The figure captions show the waypoint number, UTM coordinates of the waypoint from where the photo was taken, the azimuth reading, the landform, and a brief notes taken on site.


Figure 2 -              2             11, 449043, 4060915           255         draw       Hanging draw with alluvial fan

 

Figure 3 -              3             11, 449064, 4060614           245         draw       Similar to waypoint 2, small alluvial fan

 

Figure 4 -              4             11, 449036, 4059149           243         hill          on the ridgeline

 

Figure 5 - two hill, same image
4             11, 449036, 4059149           307         hill          on the ridgeline (left)
4             11, 449036, 4059149           315         hill          on the ridgeline (right)

 

 

Figure 6 -              5             11, 449429, 4057697           190         valley

 

Figure 7 -              6             11, 449909, 4057405           168         hill

 

Figure 8 -              6             11, 449909, 405740             591         hill

 

Figure 9 -              7             11, 450224, 4057386           85           cliff

 

 

Figure 10 -            8             11, 450458, 4057520           166         saddle

 

Figure 11 -            9             11, 451000, 4057897           146         ?            
complex of hill, saddle(s), draws, and maybe a canyon above a small alluvial fan

 

Figure 12 -            10           11, 451385, 4058417                          113         ridgeline

 

Figure 13 -            10           11, 451385, 4058417           8             ridge
Targeted small highpoint on ridge in center of the picture

 

Figure 14 -            11           11, 450727, 4059316           5             hill          Larger Mountain behind it

 

Figure 15 -            12           11, 450304, 4060039           10           hill          Larger Mountain behind it

 

Figure 16 -            12           11, 450304, 4060039           33           hill

 

Figure 17 -            13           11, 450575, 4060982           30           hill          Small, orange hill

 

 

Figure 18 -            14           11, 450095, 4061741           341         hill          small, distant

 

 

Figure 19 -            14           11, 450095, 4061741           298         hill

 


As an Art Experiment

 

As mentioned earlier, I see this work as operative in the general category of walking art works. Much as artists such as Long and Fulton take pictures on their journeys, so have I, including one produced from a database and software that I have been developing for C5. This image, (Figure 1), characterizes the entire performance and provides an object of comparison between the photographs. An important difference from the work of Long and Fulton is of course is that these photos and the image produced are geo referenced. But I draw much inspiration from these artists, particularly the work of Long, who has this to say about his practice:

 

“My art isn’t about urban culture... in a way I didn’t give these issues any thought. You know, it seemed a right and natural thing to do, particularly to go to places like Exmoor and Dartmoor, which are really abstract, empty. The fact that they’re just rolling moorland, that they’re almost plateau-like, was very useful, especially for the early works. I was very conscious, then, that it gave me the opportunity to make a type of art by walking in a completely new and original way, particularly those early, formal, ritualized walks: walking in straight lines or perfect circles, measuring time.” [10]

 

Though I draw inspiration from this, I want to point out that the formal and ritualized aspect of my walk is different; focused purely on data collection, and the analysis of landforms. I also draw inspiration from other walking traditions. Teri Rueb's work was among the first work I became aware of to utilize dynamic geo referencing in her practice; I believe the work "Trace" (1997) to be an important early GPS work in the walking art mode. And for Dominique Mazeaud, I picked up two items of trash to dispose of that I discovered along my trek, one of them a ribbon tied to an escaped party balloon that eventually fell to Earth on the eastern side of the Racetrack.

 

While on the issue of art, I'd like to take a moment to comment on the recent development of the meme "locative media" that has become popular in the new media art critical context over the course of 2003 and 2004. While it is nice to see a number of developments over the past 10 years (GPS art, PDA art, software art, mobile art, wireless art, net art) converge somewhat into a single meme that in some way encapsulates the trajectory (in computing arts) from screen to hand to body to bodies situated geographically, the meme (just as any) also presents the simultaneous and unavoidable narrowing of the range of practice. As I mentioned earlier, geography is one of the most naturally interdisciplinary of scientific endeavors; just as what is nominally called art practice (especially in the computing in the arts discipline area) is also massively interdisciplinary. It would be a shame to see a term like "locative media" cause practice to devolve critically into a narrow range of practice, especially before Geographic Information System (GIS) art is taken up and explored more thoroughly. Another point worth making is that the history of navigation has spawned numerous technologies that which deserve analysis alongside the new meme. Are inventions like Mercator projections, the astrolabe, quadrant, sextant and magnetic compass "locative media"? It may be complained that these technologies do not report the location of the back to a panoptic surveillance context or distributed, collaborative network, but actually they were almost always implemented alongside systems of logging and position fixing (though most rigorously in military contexts of course), that enforced exactly such a regulatory gaze. Certainly truckers in the United States who are required to log the number of miles and hours they have driven will understand clearly that a roadmap and a paper log can function as locative media.

 

Experimental Objective

 

The Landform Interpretation Experiment at Racetrack Playa was also intended to collect data and perform analysis in order to test some suppositions regarding the utility of "topographic_descriptor" attribute of the UTM_POINT_STATS table, which is part of the C5 Landscape database. Specifically the experiment tests how the C5 Landscape Database functions as an alternative to models commonly utilized for landform recognition common in orienteering and wayfinding, particularly as utilized by the military. The attribute is a TINYINT (a byte) where the bits represent the elevation trend in the cardinal and primary intercardinal directions. (See table 2.) It is intended to be useful in landform interpretation for the purposes of land navigation, and also in pattern matching algorithms intended to determine landscape similarity across wide expanses. This test goes exclusively to the former, however. The individual bits taken as a whole represent the center point of a one kilometer square area. Based on that point, the bits are set to one if the elevation in the direction represented by the bit is higher than the point represented by the record, and zero if is less than or equal to the point represented by the record. This provides a simple, storage efficient characterization of the surrounding landscape. One of the main suppositions regarding this element is that it would bear some relationship to topographic landform characterizations utilized in way finding, though it is unclear whether it does so by itself, or in some combination with other attributes (such as percentile, standard deviation, or contiguous modality percentage), or at all. The experiment is a way of exploring what correlations may exist between these and traditional landform characterizations.

 

Figure 20 - SQL for UTM_POINT_STATS table - the assumption is highlighted in yellow


 

 

The topographic descriptor for the area surrounding each point is presented is presented in Table 2 below. The sample size is not however sufficient to answer the above questions, but notably even for a small sample, it does not indicate any strong correlations even after rotating the bits in an attempt to match terrains. This does not indicate likely usefulness in landform interpretation unless perhaps used in conjunction with other metrics. While the assumptions regarding the utility of the topographic descriptor in the above SQL are likely incorrect, its utility as a pattern match for similar general topography (regardless of the landform abstractions specified in Map Reading and Land Navigation) requires further experimentation in the form of further walking work.

 

Table 2 - Data collected during walking work, racetrack playa, May 15th 2K4.

Way

point

Image

number

Zone

Easting

Northing

Azimuth

Landform

Topo
decrip

tor

Notes

2

1

11

449043

4060915

255

draw

1

1

0

1

 

0

1

0

0

Hanging draw with alluvial fan

3

2

11

449064

4060614

245

 

draw

1

0

0

1

 

0

1

0

0

Similar to 2, small alluvial fan

4

3

11

449036

4059149

243

hill

1

0

0

1

 

0

1

1

0

on the ridgeline

4

4

11

449036

4059149

307

hill

1

0

0

1

 

0

1

1

0

on the ridgeline (two hills in same photo)

4

4

11

449036

4059149

315

hill

1

0

0

1

 

0

1

1

0

on the ridgeline (two hills in same photo)

5

5

11

449429

4057697

190

valley

1

0

0

1

 

0

1

1

1

 

6

6

11

449909

4057405

168

hill

0

0

0

1

 

1

1

1

1

 

6

7

11

449909

4057405

91

hill

0

0

0

1

 

1

1

1

1

 

7

8

11

450224

4057386

85

cliff

0

0

0

1

 

1

1

1

1

 

8

9

11

450458

4057520

166

saddle

0

0

0

0

 

1

1

1

1

 

9

10

11

451000

4057897

146

?

0

0

1

0

 

1

1

1

1

complex of hill, saddle(s), draws, and maybe a canyon above a small alluvial fan

10

11

11

451385

4058417

113

ridgeline

0

1

1

0

 

1

0

1

1

 

10

12

11

451385

4058417

8

ridge

0

1

1

0

 

1

0

1

1

Targeted small highpoint atop

11

13

11

450727

4059316

5

hill

0

1

1

0

 

1

0

0

0

Larger Mountain behind it

12

14

11

450304

4060039

10

hill

0

0

1

0

 

1

0

0

1

Larger Mountain behind it

12

15

11

450304

4060039

33

hill

0

0

1

0

 

1

0

0

1

 

13

16

11

450575

4060982

30

hill

0

1

1

0

 

1

0

1

1

Small, orange hill

14

17

11

450095

4061741

341

hill

1

1

1

1

 

1

0

0

1

small, distant

14

18

11

450095

4061741

298

hill

1

1

1

1

 

1

0

0

1

 

 

Notes:

 

[1] Kaplan, Steven, "Cognitive Maps in Perception and Thought", published in Image and Environment, cognitive mapping and spatial behavior, Roger M. Downs and David Stea, editors, Aldine Publishing Company, Chicago IL, 1973, ISBN 0-202-10058-8

 

[2] U.S. Department of the Army, MAP READING AND LAND NAVIGATION, FM 3-25.26 (FM 21-26)

http://155.217.58.58/cgi-bin/atdl.dll/fm/3-25.26/cover.pdf

Chapter 11, Terrain Association:

http://155.217.58.58/cgi-bin/atdl.dll/fm/3-25.26/ch11.pdf

 

[3] These notions are theory-in-progress, at this time still internal to C5.

 

[4] I am involved with C5 (www.c5corp.com) as collaborator on GIS, database and large scale installation and walking works, as well as theory. I also work with Paula Poole in conceptually related but really quite different works that produce conceptual paintings and digital prints. (www.paintersflat.net).

 

[5] U.S. Navy, SEABEE COMBAT HANDBOOK, VOLUME 01, NAVEDTRA No: 14234 CENTRAL EDITION 1993

http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/policy/navy/nrtc/14234_fm.pdf

http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/policy/navy/nrtc/14234_ch5.pdf

 

[6] ibid.

Chapter 10, Elevation and Relief:

http://155.217.58.58/cgi-bin/atdl.dll/fm/3-25.26/ch10.pdf

 

[7] Hutchins, Edwin, Cognition in the Wild, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1995. ISBN: 0262082314. "[o]n some types of nautical charts it is easy to measure the direction (course) and the distance between any two locations represented on the chart." (54) See also pages 61-62.

 

[8] Please refer to http://www.racetrackplaya.net (cached copy) for more information on the class project.

 

[9] Waypoint 001 in my Garmin Vista GPS was already used, so the auto numbering started from 002.

 

[10] Interview with Richard Long, from Artists, Land Nature, Mel Gooding and William Furlong, 2002 Cameron Books, Harry N. Abrams Inc., NY. NY.

 
Appendix:
Track log from 5/15/2K4
Waypoints from 5/15/2K4
Data collected
Report on rhizome.org

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