Reflections on the First Coordinates

By Andrew J. Corsa (@CynicFromSinope)

I drove to the first set of coordinates, but did not find Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, or Luke Turner. Someone else had beaten me there, so I didn't have the opportunity to take the artists anywhere.

Still, what I found at those coordinates was interesting. This short piece of writing will describe the place that LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner initially invited us to find them, and it will speculate about how that place relates to their vision and work as artists. In particular, this piece of writing will focus on the relation between nature and technology, as it plays out in the artists' project titled, "#TAKEMEANYWHERE." Near the end, this piece will also briefly speculate on why the artists chose coordinates a few hundred feet away from a beautiful chapel: The Chapel on the Rock.

From May 23rd to June 23rd, 2016, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner hitchhiked across the country using the internet. The three collaborators were involved in an art project which @FromALeftWing has called "social media hitch-hiking." During their project, the three artists periodically posted their GPS coordinates and the hashtag #TAKEMEANYWHERE on their twitter page, @thecampaignbook. After they posted the coordinates, they waited at that location for a ride, and whoever first picked them up was allowed to take the three artists wherever he/she wanted. The artists' trip and experiences were determined by those who engaged with the project - particularly those who arrived at the coordinates the fastest.

The project was supported in part by VICE, and the artists' route was often (though not always) tracked in real time on takemeanywhere.vice.com. LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner are making a film about the project that will be displayed at The Finnish Institute in London and The Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art which together commissioned the project. You can read more about this project in an article written by the VICE Staff, here.

At noon on May 23rd, the artists posted the first set of coordinates, 4014'45"N 10532'06"W, which are located in Allenspark, Colorado. Because these were the first coordinates the artists posted, they were completely within the artists' control. We can imagine that the artists chose these coordinates for a reason - because they were meaningfully related to the artists' project as a whole.

According to Wikipedia, Allenspark is a "census-designated place" in the Roosevelt National Forest of the Colorado Rockies, about 15 miles from Estes Park. Allenspark has a population around 500, and stands at an elevation of 8,500 feet, roughly 3,000 feet higher than Denver or Boulder.

At the time that the coordinates were posted online, I was sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Boulder, Colorado. I was half-anticipating that the artists would begin their next project that day, based on a comment LaBeouf had made the day before, during a conversation the three artists participated in at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of the museum's week-long festival titled "MediaLive: Corruption." Within about fifteen minutes of reading the coordinates posted on twitter, I was in my car driving out to the coordinates, which were about an hour's drive northwest of Boulder. If I hadn't gotten lost for about 30 minutes, I might have been the first to reach the artists.

How did I get lost? I was relying on Google Maps on my phone to get me there, and near the end of the drive, Google Maps stopped giving me accurate information about how far away I was. By that point, I had lost all cell reception, and so I couldn't even call anyone for help. Wikipedia reports that in Allenspark "cell-phone coverage is nearly non-existent."

Lost, I stopped and spoke with some hikers, who pointed me in the right direction, and then I subsequently stopped at The Old Gallery in Allenspark, where they kindly let me use their computer and get re-oriented. (Actually, I first stopped at a little store nearby, where I was told they were still using dial-up Internet access.) Eventually, I made my way to the posted coordinates, which were just a couple miles from The Old Gallery. Of course, by the time I arrived, the artists were already gone.

Overall, to get to the coordinates from Boulder, I drove up State Highway 7, which - for a lengthy stretch - stays close to the South Saint Vrain Creek. The road twisted and turned up into the mountain, sticking close to the creek with its frequent whitewater. The creek is at the basin of a small canyon, and the mountains rose up around me, the creek, and the road. The weather was nice, the air getting colder as I rose, and the vegetation was lush.

Before arriving at "downtown" Allenspark, State Highway 7 split away from the Saint Vain Creek. The coordinates, themselves, were actually just a stone's throw from another creek - Cabin's Creek, there labeled on maps as "Hidden Brook." At the location of the coordinates, I could hear the creek, and see snow-capped mountains in the distance. On the road near the coordinates, buildings were few and far between.

Still, the coordinates were just a few hundred feet from a beautiful chapel, called The Chapel on the Rock, which is a tourist landmark in Allenspark. You can see a photo of it (not taken by me) on this page, above and to the left. On a hill near the chapel and the artists' coordinates there is also a striking statue of Jesus, which looked out over the chapel and the artists' coordinates. That statue is visible, just slightly, in the background of the photo on this webpage.

Remarkably, when I arrived at the coordinates, I met up with a friend who had also independently made the drive up the mountain to the artists' coordinates. Before I had left Boulder, I had talked with her, but when we lost cell reception, we each thought we likely wouldn't see each other in the mountains. After finding each other, we both entered the chapel, after first having a discussion with two other travelers who had also driven up the mountain from Boulder to find the artists. The chapel was as beautiful inside as it was outside - composed of solemn rock that seems fitting for a chapel in the Rocky Mountains. A good word for the location - not just the chapel but the surrounding area - is "sublime." After looking at a guest book we found in the chapel, my friend noted that, just that week, people from all around the country had stopped by to appreciate the chapel.

So how do the artists' coordinates and the place they designated relate to the artists' project and vision, overall? I can only speculate. But I can say with some confidence that the coordinates were not randomly chosen. A day before, one of the collaborators, Luke Turner, had remarked at the museum that "setting is everything." And he and Nastja Säde Rönkkö made similar remarks about a different project when I met them at a series of events earlier in the year. In January, I had the opportunity to talk with Rönkkö and Turner (though not about this current project!) at a series of events I helped to organize at Colorado State University-Pueblo, where I am a Visiting Professor of Philosophy. The two artists held a gallery show, gave a talk, held an artists' workshop, and met with classes. In their free time, they drove around back roads in southern Colorado, looking for a location for one of Rönkkö's solo-projects, with which Luke Turner assisted. During their time in Pueblo, the two artists frequently remarked that they were looking for the right sort of setting for the project. They weren't happy with just-anywhere, and searched for quite some time for a good spot. Given the care they put into choosing their location for that project, I have to imagine that coordinates chosen to start their current #TAKEMEANYWHERE project were far from arbitrary, as well.

While they were in Pueblo, they were looking for a location for Rönkkö's solo project which was ALSO titled "Take Me Anywhere." Ultimately, that solo-project was completed in California, rather than Colorado, because they couldn't find a space that suited the project. For that project, Rönkkö was blindfolded as she rode a horse, and she writes that she was "taken wherever the horse wanted to go." This quote and a video of the project are available on her website here. While her project is quite a bit different from the collaborators' current project, there are also clear similarities. In both projects, the artist isn't in control of where she/they end up, and both projects involve trust and personal-connection, either with a horse, or with the strangers who pick them up and take them anywhere. The only thing completely in the artists' control is the starting point, and given how thoughtfully the setting for Rönkkö's solo-project was chosen, I imagine that the setting for the group project was also carefully chosen, as well.

Again, how does the place designated by the coordinates relate to the artists' project and vision? First, I'd like to imagine that the artists deliberately chose a location that didn't have cell reception, and where Internet use was limited. Of course, I can't say this for sure, but it would be interesting if they deliberately chose someplace that was not only out in beautiful nature, but was also so clearly cut off from technology.

The artists' #TAKEMEANYWHERE project was commissioned by the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, in conjunction with its week-long festival titled "MediaLive: Corruption." As the museum describes the festival in their press release, here: "The fourth MediaLive festival includes performances, workshops, and dialogue by visiting international new media artists and experts working at the intersection of the digital with culture. [It] . . . is curated on the theme of corruption, which is explored in this year?s festival from a myriad of angles, from the sociopolitical to the manipulation of data." --- I attended a number of the MediaLive artist events, many of which relied heavily on, and explored the use of, various forms of digital technology. For example, on May 18th, artist Tim Schwartz and the LA Crytoparty Crew led an interactive workshop, making heavy use of the computers of the workshop's audience, giving us a sense of how Edward Snowden made contact, online, with journalist Laura Poitras to share information. We learned about encryption and digital trust. As a second example, on May 21st, Canadian artist Maotik presented a live audio visual performance titled "Omnis," in which digitally generated imagery, wrapping around a stage, was influenced by the audio rhythms to which the audience listened. Maotik's website, here, notes that "The idea is to associate space perception with the notion of time through a myriad of visual variations such as 3D Mesh Morphing, digital textures, and superposition effect."

After experiencing a number of projects like this, it felt quite natural that LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner's project would involve posting coordinates on Twitter, making their project most immediately accessible to those who use social media websites. And yet, it was very striking, quite different, and even a bit surprising that the coordinates they posted would lead me out into the wilderness, up a road leading into the majestic mountains, so far from the city, to a census-designated place where there is no cell reception and where some shopkeepers still use dial-up connections. This experience stood in stark contrast with my experiences of the MediaLive events the previous week. During the discussion the three artists held at the Boulder Museum of Art the day before their project began, one of MediaLive's curators, Maya Livio, suggested that including the collective of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner in the MediaLive Festival might, in some ways, be considered a "corruption" in the festival's line-up of artists. In light of how different it was, to end up in the wilderness, I think I might now better understand Livio's idea.

The Boulder Museum of Contemporary art's website, here, has the following description of the #TAKEMEANYWHERE project: "The American road trip has long been symbolic of a collective yearning to seek out beauty and truth within a corrupt nation. As part of MediaLive 2016?s theme on corruption, #TAKEMEANYWHERE asks, can we find such truths within the corrupted networks of society, and preserve something of the utopian naivety of the Internet age?"

I can see how this question, above, is related to the artists' work. Their project brought me up into the beautiful mountains, to a remarkable place, and away from the city and from technology I take for granted. I previously knew that I take technology for granted, but I wasn't aware of just what that meant, until I was walking around a tiny community in the mountains, looking for someone who could help me find Shia LaBeouf. This quote, above, refers to "utopian naivety." Whether or not utopia can be realized, and whether or not utopian beauty and truth can ever be fully experienced, insofar as we may be enculturated in a way that makes it impossible to ever fully grasp it, I'd like to naively believe that the answer to their question might be "yes."

The language the three artists use to describe their work is similar to the language used by theorists who study metamodernism. This is no surprise, as one of the artists, Luke Turner, is an editor of the online journal Notes on Metamodernism, and Shia LaBeouf initially sought to meet Turner after LaBeouf read and was impressed by Turner's piece, titled the Metamodernist Manifesto. I think that, by reflecting on the nature of metamodernism, we might better understand why the artists chose the initial coordinates they did, and the roles of nature and technology in their work.

Turner was clearly influenced by the work of metamodernism theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, whom Turner discusses in a piece he wrote titled, "Metamodernism: A Brief Introduction," available here. According to Vermeulen and van den Akker, metamodernism is now the dominant structure of feeling in American and European cultures (Notes on Metamodernism, 2). Metamodernism is a sentiment or sensibility, shared by many, that is very hard to pin down, and might best be understood by experiencing metamodernist art (Utopia, Sort of: A Case Study in Metamodernism, 56). Metamodernism "oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naivete and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity" (Notes on Metamodernism, 5-6). Metamodernist artists might be empathetic but they can also be apathetic. They might be hopeful, but there is also melancholy. Still, metamodernism might best be understood as a return to modern ideals such as sincerity, empathy, and hope, even if postmodern irony and apathy are still somewhere in the background. The trope of utopia is visible across metamodernist artists' practices (Utopia, Sort of, 57), but it is counterbalanced and kept in check by irony (ibid., 60-61). Luke Turner writes that metamodernist artists often attempt "to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp" (A Brief Introduction). We might, on some deep level, know that true Utopia cannot be realized, and that we lack the conceptual tools to imagine it (Utopia, Sort of, 65), but we choose to naively pursue it, nonetheless, as if it is possible (Notes on Metamodernism, 5).

I suspect that much of this theory can be recognized in the description of #TAKEMEANYWHERE provided by the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art: "The American road trip has long been symbolic of a collective yearning to seek out beauty and truth within a corrupt nation. As part of MediaLive 2016?s theme on corruption, #TAKEMEANYWHERE asks, can we find such truths within the corrupted networks of society, and preserve something of the utopian naivety of the Internet age?" --- In this quote, it seems possible to recognize the metamodernist effort to return to modern ideals of beauty and truth, and move away from postmodern corruption. And it is possible to recognize, in this quote, the metamodern attitude of informed naivety, and the return of the trope of utopia.

By looking at #TAKEMEANYWHERE through a metamodernist lens, we might also better understand how nature (the coordinates in the beautiful mountains) relates to technology (the tweeted GSP coordinates) in the artists' project #TAKEMEANYWHERE. Metamodernism theorists Vermeulen and van den Akker note that metamodernist art tends not only to oscillate between sincerity and irony and between empathy and apathy, but also to oscillate between "such opposite polls as culture and nature" (Notes on Metamodernism, 11). Vermeulen and van den Akker discuss metamodernist architecture, and write about buildings that negotiate between culture and nature. For example, the Caixa Forum in Madrid appears to be "partly rusting and partly overtaken by vegetation" (Notes on Metamodernism, 11), and the Chinse national stadium in Beijing looks like a forest up close, and a bird's nest from afar. Vermeulen and van den Akker write that these buildings never manage to balance the poles of nature and culture, but rather to oscillate between them. That sounds right. Further, too, #TAKEMEANYWHERE, at least on that first day, seemed to oscillate between nature and culture/technology too. There were the tweeted coordinates, and my use of Google Maps to determine the location, but there was also that magical spot in the mountains, where all of my technology failed me.

Perhaps we can very loosely associate culture and technology with postmodernism and the mountains and nature with modernism. If so, then what was I doing, when I read the tweet on my computer, looked up the coordinates on my phone, drove out into the wilderness where none of these things worked well, and then returned again? Here is a silly image, but it helps me better conceptualize my experiences: I took a voyage from postmodernism to modernism, and back again.

As a final consideration, I'd like to ask why the three artists chose a location a couple hundred feet from a beautiful chapel. Why did they choose a place where a statue of Jesus was looking down on them? I can only speculate, but I do think that the choice of a location near a chapel is relevant to their project. Shia LaBeouf, in his interviews, often talks about religion and God. Both he and his collaborator Luke Turner tend to associate the Simpsons, South Park, and the work of theorist Kenneth Goldsmith with postmodernism (at least loosely speaking). Keeping that in mind, consider the following quotation LaBeouf wrote as part of the three artists' project titled "#INTERVIEW," which is available here:

I am a deeply ironic, cynical person
I was raised on the Simpsons and South Park
its my default setting
which is why "uncreative writing" and Goldsmith felt right
What was missing however was the hopeful
the sublime, the fantasy, god? ? not the hallelujah GOD - but something?.
the GOD is dead shit never sat well with me
I had Hitchens and rational, but...

Arguably, part of what Shia LaBeouf sees as missing from postmodernism (Simpsons, South Park, and Goldsmith) is the figure of God, which he closely associates with the notion of the sublime. And arguably, he sees metamodernist projects, such as #TAKEMEANYWHERE, as including this figure. I should be careful, though. The artists' projects neither insist nor strongly imply that God must necessarily exist, or that God must be anything like what a traditional Christian thinks. Note that, as part #INTERVIEW, LaBeouf also writes:

if so much of what Jesus said was good
& so much of it was absolutly beautiful
what does it matter if he was GOD or not

It's hard for me to sort out exactly how the figure of God actually does figure in the artists' work or in LaBeouf's personal philosophy. But here's my super-rough guess (and please forgive me, Shia, if I'm horribly wrong!): We can loosely associate God with the notions of the sublime and with the trope of utopia. And just like we can naively pursue utopia, believing it to be realizable even if deep down somewhere we know it isn't, we can also act as if God exists, because so much of religion is beautiful and important, even if we are not certain of God's existence or of religion, at all.

This MIGHT be why the artists chose a location so close to a chapel and a statue of Jesus. They might be loosely associating these things with notions of utopia, the sublime, and nature, which are largely absent from postmodernism, but present in some form in metamodernism. It is striking how little a role any religious notions played in the rest of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art's MediaLive events. After all of those other events, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, also participating in the MediaLive festival, brought me, and others, out near a chapel in the wilderness.

I hope the artists had the best time in the world. On Twitter, a few individuals have referred to all the people that have picked the artists up as "#TribeShia." I like this hashtag, and I'd like to believe that I belong to #TribeShia, even if I wasn't one of the ones to pick him, Luke, and Nastja up, and drive them across the country.


If you're curious, I've also written a much more carefully-thought-out piece about the three artists' work, which is available here. If you wanted to see any of my other work, much of it is available here.