Esther Polak’s Nomadic Milk: Is GPS-tracking like ‘photography with a very long shuttertime?’

A GPS recorder is like a camera in the sky with a very long shutter time. That at least was what Cassion Harrison, the director from Britain from Above claimed at the AnyMedia workshop at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam last November. It’s a metaphor that I’ve been playing with ever since, and especially now that I am in Nigeria collaborating in Esther Polak’s project Nomadic Milk, in which she visualizes the recorded GPS-tracks of a group of nomads with the help of a small ‘sand-spitting’ robot truck.

A photograph to me is innately personal. Photography is, I feel, a very social human affair. When we’re on holiday when we take pictures of landmarks, we always ask someone to step into the frame, to make it more interesting to the folks back home. And even if there is no person in it, the photograph still says a lot about the person that takes the picture. When we ask “what is this in the picture you took”, we ask because we are fishing for the photographer’s reasoning behind taking the photograph. A photograph, in short, invites us to ask about the context of that photograph. A picture is usually a powerful starting point for a conversation, not an endpoint.

GPS tracks are arguably quite similar. They too are a detailed recording of a situation, so just like pictures they should be able to lure us into talking about it’s context, the ‘why’ behind making the track.

And thus we arrive at Esther Polak’s Nomadic Milk project. I am currently travelling through Nigeria with Esther for three weeks, which puts me in a position where I am allowed a close look at the way in which her art takes shape.

Esther records GPS tracks of nomadic people and shows these to them. She does this with a cool little drawing “robot” that draws lines with sand, so that multiple people can view these tracks at the same time, facilitating conversation. It’s this conversation that she’s after. She believes people have an easier time talking about real life if they have an object-to-talk-around. It’s a little like this journey for me: having the excuse of this project really allows me to see the most incredible side of Nigeria. But because I do so in a work context and not in a tourist context I have a way easier time of accepting this, it gives me an excuse to transcend social boundaries. And so do pictures and, in the case of Esther, GPS tracks.

We’re halfway into this trip now, and, fitting my description above, the experience has been surprisingly smooth so far. Just working with the people, ranging from recording their tracks to videotaping their responses when they see them, has been familiar and intimate (although many boundaries, such as language, obviously remain). So far I have ran on dirt roads, radically traversed a village with a herd of cows, and have ridden with a Lagos truck driver in his mack-truck. The longest journey will start Tuesday when we follow another truck driver from Lagos to Abuja, a milk-delivering trip that will take two days. I wonder what we’ll end up talking about with him.

We’re updating a blog and an sms twitterfeed along the way, so feel free to follow the journey on A first installation will be shown at the Transmediale festival in Berlin on the 28th.

Tijmen Schep

Tijmen Schep (1981) is a Dutch theorist on new media and digital culture, focussing on wireless media and public space. This theorizing is brought to life in the foundation which promotes wireless media art by organising wireless festivals and events.

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