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The Content of Cities
Dietmar Offenhuber’s Wegzeit is an experiment in mapping relative distances. Taking Los Angeles as its subject, it claims to transform the absolute space of the city by offering a variety of approaches for visualizing the interconnections between space, time, frequency and density. The project consists of six 3-D mapping paradigms, each integrating a different variable into the constant of Los Angeles’ spatial coordinates. Taken together, they offer a range of possibilities for visualizing the everyday navigation of city space.
The strength of the project rests in its innovative approach to data visualization. Rendering the city as a dataset confronted with various algorithmic interferences, Wegzeit illustrates just how important visualization and interaction are for the comprehension of information. Datasets are never stable, whether it’s an archive of images, a database of personal information, or a city. Through its perspectival 3-D modeling, Wegzeit successfully places the user within datasets of urban information, ultimately suggesting that coordinates can never be measured in absolutes, but only by their relative proximity to users.
While Wegzeit extends the geometric permutations of space in general, it begs questions about space in specific. How is Los Angeles’ urban specificity represented? There are a few remarks in the overview about the city’s regular grid layout and how people tend to measure distances in time traveled. But there is no mention of ethnic or racial permutations or how gender and sexuality affect urban mobility. There is also no mention of history, and how tradition and mythology can be organizing factors in how people navigate the city. This leads to the question as to whether or not Wegzeit would benefit from some engagement with the volumes of recent work on the history and place of Los Angeles. The fear is that without referencing this work, the project might be reduced to a simplistic postmodern model of Los Angeles wherein urban space is a pastiche of empty signifiers that represents everyplace and no place, but never represents place.
As a work of scholarship, Wegzeit would benefit from some engagement with the volumes of recent work on the history and place of Los Angeles. Without this it threatens to retreat to the postmodern musings of Jameson or Baudrillard wherein Los Angeles is just a pastiche of empty urban signifiers that represents everyplace and no place, but never represents place. As I see it, this is easily remedied. Extending the description at the front of each map would help add necessary context. And perhaps reworking the overview to include a mention of the neglected fourth dimension would provide a helpful counterpoint to the ahistorical visualizations. Lastly, it would add to the authority of the work to include some recent scholarly sources in the reference section.
But is the absence of specificity intentional so that we might re-focus our attention on the unseen geometric patterns that affect every experience of urban space? Does Wegzeit suggest that race, class, gender and history are in fact of a secondary order in urban formations, while geometric patterns and speed function as a primary mediator? This Deleuzian model of space might well prove productive, as we will certainly be confronted in the immediate future with countless computerized renditions of urban space. Instead of rejecting them as lacking in content, Wegzeit might point to a need to redefine what we mean by content.
- Eric Gordon, Emerson College, Boston, MA, 09.14.2005
I agree with Eric Gordon--things like race, gender, and class do play an important part in how Los Angeles is traveled. To this, I would add that we need to be mindful of *how* Los Angeles is traveled. While I know the familiar stereotype of Los Angeles is to portray it as the land of the car, many people in this city must depend on alternative means of transportation--I think here especially of walking, riding mass transit, and bicycling. If we are too car-centric, we forget that for certain groups and in certain parts of the city, factored into "drive time" are things like transfer time and walk time. One's map/perception of Los Angeles changes greatly when one does not have a car of one's own: it becomes bus lines, subway transfer points, and the blocks walked between drop-off and pick-up. While this project does an excellent job of interrogating how we map Los Angeles, I believe that it must be careful not to efface certain groups or ignore their alternative notions of place, space, and travel in its re-mapping.
- Chera Kee, University of Southern California, 12.06.2005
Dietmar Offenhuber’s project Wegzeit applies a creative approach in mapping the visual representations of our everyday spaces in the city of Los Angeles. When we think about mobility, we often tend to confine our understanding and discussion around portability, pervasiveness, and ubiquity. But the creative visualizations in Wegzeit explore the notions of space and its relationship to us, for instance, the 3D network diagram of Glendale intersection, which is creatively represented by what Offenhuber refers to as “rubberhands” that allow us to investigate the temporal distance. Additionally, it has an interactive dimension as users can select different camera angles and data models. I really enjoyed the “video traces” where we get to see an exposed film roll that depicts residences near Valencia, where houses are juxtaposed in perfect spatiality, thus allowing us to have a greater sense of fixed temporal distance. I think the project is successful in using visualizations to depict subjective spaces—the spaces of our everyday lives and experiences—and using his architectural background to approach the notion of “relative space” in a non-traditional method. Moreover, as addressed in the forum, we also have to think about the issue of accessibility becoming important in relation to mobility.
- Min Han, University of Southern California, 12.07.2005
Wegzeit reminds me of a famous L.A. “truism” best encapsulated in the 1995 film Clueless. Cher calls her father to tell him that she is on her way home and he demands that she get back in twenty mintues but she protests claiming it will take longer. His reply is “Everywhere in L.A takes twenty minutes.” For most of its denizens, L.A. is a city dominated by car travel. When giving directions, distance takes a back seat to duration and inevitably the ephemeral “twenty minutes” marker arises. Dietmar Offenhuber has figured out a way to bring geography to bear on such space-altering effects as density and velocity. I think Wegzeit is truly fascinating because it conceptualizes and realizes alternate ways to “map” the city. As someone who has lived around downtown but commuted to Santa Monica, I can personally attest to the relevance of Offenhuber’s rush hour slope. In addition, the video traces images from Stevenson Ranch are downright creepy. The suburban sprawl is menacing in its uniformity. Way descriptions is my favorite section of Wegzeit. Offenhuber’s dynamic, directional map recalls Piet Mondrian and is an exhilarating mix of visual and textual elements. The words pop off the screen and allow the viewer to think about the project aurally. Way descriptions is the most artistic piece in Vectors Issue 2!
While issues of race and class are not overtly addressed by Wegzeit, I do think they are hidden within the project. The velocity zones section asks the viewer to think about how a space changes when you are not traversing it at the “correct” velocity. This is something that could be extrapolated to the whole project. What if you do not have access to a car? How does this change your experience of the city’s topography? In addition, the area based parameters considers densities of various neighborhoods. How does Inglewood compare to Malibu? Wegzeit may not provide the answers but it creates a space where viewers can ask themselves the questions.
- ghia godfree, Los Angeles, CA, 12.08.2005
The Los Angeles streets, highway ramps, and traffic patterns in Dietmar Offenhuber’s Wegzeit project provide a number of insights into the navigation of urban space, but perhaps its most philanthropic service is the perspective it grants to so many L.A. drivers who suffer the road rage this space elicits every weekday. The morphing avenues and shifting grids belie a city of uncertain boundaries, and an urban milieu where perspective is absolutely necessary in considering all movement. This idea of perspective is directly engaged through the manipulation of data in the six interactive projects which all center on relative space. Collectively they challenge Michel de Certeau’s distinction between place and space, by problematizing the “properness” and specificity of place, through processes of decentering, marginalization, and mutation.
As a recent transplant to the Los Angeles area, I cannot help but think particularly about downtown Los Angeles when I navigate this project, though it is a relatively small part of the whole. Abandoning the traditional grid system of a typical city, Los Angeles incorporates a third dimension of downtown, height, where roads are not just vertical and horizontal, but above and below. This area is baffling to an unfamiliar driver in much the same way Offenhuber’s spaces slip out of control at the slightest move of one’s mouse; indeed the video trace of intersections between Rte. 134 and Rte. 2 resembles a portion of a DNA helix more than a conduit by which one commutes to work. There is also a sly humor within the code where undefined blocks between named streets are visualized by an amorphous blue, not dissimilar from the swimming pool and all the Californian connotations this image raises.
Ultimately the questions Offenhuber raises about spatial relativity remain exactly that; the database can only quantify the spaces in terms that are ephemeral and dependent on more factors than x-,y-, and z- axes can measure. The mobility of the space mirrors the mobility of everything in and around it.
- David Lerner, Univeristy of Southern California, 12.08.2005
The question of practical applicability immediately comes to mind when experiencing the three-dimensional rendition of distance according to a time-space quantifier. This project finds its inspiration through the assertion that distance is now quantified by the time that it takes to traverse it, yet leaves the thread of applicable information hanging by limiting the scope of its data. The issue of the time-space distance is completely elusive and can only be measured by approximates and averages, which fluctuate for any number of reasons given the instability of metropolitan vehicular activity. Therefore, Dietmar Offenhuber’s project, whilst achieving its intention of geometrically presenting the non-geographic elements of relative distance that affect the commuter, lacks a more direct sociological goal of presenting a solution (or at least the variables needed to point towards one) to the often unpredictable and certainly increasing problems of traffic during the average week in Los Angeles. The issue of distance measured by time is rendered much less useful if that period of time is not then compared to previous periods of comparable time (for instance, how has distance changed between 5-6pm between 2000 & 2005?). The geometric mapping of this data requires some form of referent against which it can be compared if it is to offer practical information about the distances that it seeks to elucidate via a time-space approach.
This is not to say that the scope of this project needs to fulfill any form of public service, although the MTA could probably learn a few things by analyzing this approach. By rendering a physical space into a subjective spectacle, that is determined by the speed with which a traveler may navigate it, elicits the conception of distance as one that foregrounds the individual as an active participant in its visual absorption and interpretation. Distance is not merely quantifiable by how long it may objectively take to traverse it – it is a measurement that will create completely heterogeneous experiences in each and every traveler, as the physical distance will not be experienced under the same objective circumstances. It therefore illuminates us to the subjectivity with which we experience the world around us, placing the idiosyncratic human experience back into the formulation of empirical data.
- Alessandro Ago, University of Southern California, 12.08.2005
Los Angeles, being a city both obsessed and strangled by transportation issues, is the ideal site for the dynamic visual representations and alternate “mapping” generated by the Wegzeit project. What immediately come to mind are the potential practical applications for Offenhuber’s graphical intersections of time, space, density and velocity. No doubt, the project offers a new, interesting spatial perspective for the drivers who must navigate and negotiate Southern California’s congested roadways. But could the visualization of relative space—particularly, velocity zones—also be expanded and used to fashion an interactive tool or resource for drivers?
I also agree with previous commenters—race, class and gender should also be integrated into this research, just as these factors influence the transportation landscape of Los Angeles. A classist, car-centric approach runs the danger of ignoring significant groups who use utilize alternate means of transportation on a daily basis (crazy, I know). While perhaps these modes are not as easily mapped, it would be valuable to keep them in mind for further research along similar lines, particularly as policymakers and urban planners continually study and examine practical ways to undo the often stifling consequences of a autombile-dominated urban existence.
- Philip Yu, USC, 12.09.2005