Tweet Trackers

New exhibit explores what’s public, what’s private and what your GPS coordinates look like

The photo is of an imposing building in Chicago’s financial district, at the corner of Randolph Street and La Salle Boulevard. The building’s corner juts toward the camera like it’s an accusing finger. Below the photo, the text reads, “Well. I just got laid off. Despite the raise, I had a sneaking suspicion there was no money. And yep, I was right. I knew something was off.”

The words are personal, vulnerable, tragic. But the photographer doesn’t know the person, hasn’t met the person—there’s no person in the photo, after all. The words were lifted from Twitter, as was the location, and the photo serves to connect the thought to the place. It’s just one of many photos that make up Geolocation: Tributes to the Data Stream, now showing at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC).

The project is the brainchild of Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman. Larson, 32, who lives in Baltimore and Shindelman, 33, who lives in Rochester, N.Y., read a magazine piece discussing the ways that Twitter and blogging paint a fuller picture of a person’s life. It drove the two to think about social media in a different light, questioning its limits and the limits of its users. They began pouring over Twitter, reading feed after feed. Although they both had had Twitter accounts for some time, this was the first time they really started wondering who was behind those 140 characters.

As they read, they began noting the geolocations of where the Tweets originated. They pasted the GPS coordinates they saw into Google Maps and then looked up the location. As they looked at the street views, they knew they were seeing yet another dimension to the Tweets. A context formed around the flat words.

Larson says it was the first one—the lost-job Tweet—that hooked them. He said it was posted about the time of the banking crisis, when the economy just started tanking. That, of course, is something that most of us read about in the news. He and Shindelman saw it reverberating through Twitter.

“We were really struck that somebody would put a loss of a job out there in this very public forum,” he says. “Heaven forbid if I were to lose my job I would cry it out with a few good friends, rather than post it in this public forum.”

They continued swimming along the data stream, peering into the lives of strangers. The two took more than 120 photographs, keeping the original text, including punctuation, capitalization and spacing intact. Eighteen of those are on display at the CAC, and 40 are published on their website,

Viewing the photos, it’s hard not to feel like some kind of stalker. One shows a view of a house from a sidewalk, and it feels entirely intrusive—you can practically peer through the open curtains on the first floor. “I just put on that location thing for Twitter,” it reads. “I’m not sure how I feel about it though.” Larson says he views the project—and the Tweets—as an expression of changing times. The goal is to make people think about what is public and what is private, and question where the boundaries should lie.

“When you just look at text on the screen it’s really easy to disconnect it from everything else that’s going on around it,” Larson says. “And this just became a way of contextualizing that information as well.” Take the photo of two lonely chairs on a porch, looking out onto a sprawling lawn backed by a thick line of trees. “I don’t plan on getting swine flu vaccine cause its government made and everything government made ain’t good plus I think its killin not helpn.”

Larson says that’s one of his favorites. “I think that reflects the sort of Tea Party mentality that’s sweeping the country.”

Or the eerie shot of a single house with the staccato text “Amy is Dying @ HighlandHospital.” While on the one hand the photos make you want to know more, looking at them also feels as though you’ve overstepped your welcome.

The project is ongoing for Larson and Shindelman, who continue tracking Tweets and locations even when they’re traveling. When they were in Las Vegas for the show’s opening Dec. 6- 7, they were keeping on top of the local Twitterfeed. Knowing that, you might want to check their website and see if you’ve become part of their next exhibition.

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