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Taking art to a new realm

The nav-doc paints a virtual landscape

Esther Polak and Ivar van Bekkum on Market Street. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Esther Polak and Ivar van Bekkum on Market Street. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)Read more

In a McDonald's on Germantown Avenue, as parents plied small children with Happy Meals and packs of teenagers swaggered in, Dutch artist Ivar van Bekkum went unnoticed as he equipped a volunteer, Richard "Ram" Ramson, with microphones, recorders, a GPS tracker, and an iPod, and sent him to wander the area.

Ramson hesitated, fumbling with the gear before setting off warily.

"It's always this way," van Bekkum said. "People are kind of unsure of what to do."

At times, Van Bekkum is a little unsure himself.

After all, he and his partner, Esther Polak - together known as PolakVanBekkum - are attempting to create an entirely new genre: a navigational documentary, or nav-doc.

They ask subjects such as Ramson to draw a path with their feet and paint a picture with their words. Then they express those routes through Google Earth satellite images and synchronize them with the on-the-ground recordings, with the goal of creating an audible map of the city.

"We try to give this experience of traveling with someone through the streets of Philadelphia, without actually being there and also without actually seeing what's happening," van Bekkum said.

The project, 250 Miles Crossing Philadelphia, will culminate at 2 p.m. Sunday in the launch of an interactive website,, and an artist talk at the Apple Storage building at 52d Street and Baltimore Avenue, where a scrim designed by the artists will be installed.

The six-month, $178,000 endeavor is groundbreaking in that it's the first artist residency to be funded through the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority's 55-year-old Percent for Art program, which has revised its policies to invite conceptual works in addition to the familiar sculptures and statues.

It was commissioned by the University City Science Center, which was required to set aside one percent of building costs for 3701 and 3711 Market Street on former Redevelopment Authority land.

It was, in some ways, a risky selection. Even the artists weren't sure exactly what the project would entail when they began. And once they figured it out, it still wasn't easy to explain. (There's a reason their website has a page entitled, "Huh?")

David Clayton, director of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math initiatives at the Science Center, said it took a lot of people - at the Redevelopment Authority, the center, and their development partner, Wexford Science and Technology - "to be able to trust in an artist and a project in which the outcomes are not highly defined."

But, he added, part of the appeal was that the outcome was unknown. It was, fittingly for the Science Center, a research project.

To that end, PolakVanBekkum developed a rigorous, if abstract, methodology for understanding the city, said Julia Guerrero, who runs the Redevelopment Authority's Percent for Art program.

"While the end result was unclear at the beginning, the process was very defined," she said.

When the artists arrived in the spring, they began roaming the city with a GPS tracker, recording their impressions and soliciting advice on where to go and what to see.

But they found that these suggestions omitted huge swaths of the city, corners in the Northeast or Southwest Philadelphia where no one they met spent time. So they retreated from well-meaning advice and divided the city into a grid - no gerrymandering allowed - and made recordings from each sector.

There's a half-hour track recorded inside the refrigerator at the restaurant Uzbekistan in Northeast Philadelphia, the door opening and closing on the clatter of pots, the chatter of Russian-speaking voices. There's another of a horse from Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club clomping through North Philadelphia. The artists also track a dog's frenetic investigation of a vacant lot, and a front-end loader moving piles of refuse around a dump in Tioga.

Then there are the recorded ramblings of people who agree to wander the city wearing a backpack of recording gear the artists have nicknamed the Beagle - a reference to its microphone "ears" and a nod to the ship that carried Charles Darwin, another avid surveyor of his surroundings.

Each participant's perambulations are guided by a podcast, which asks questions that alternately spur empathy, incite suspicion, and encourage interaction with passersby. Mostly, the podcasts are about registration: producing a narrative that aligns with what the GPS depicts.

The narrative that emerges is subtle, until it's not - as when one of the narrators gets hit by a car.

Contributors such as Ramson, 35, a poet, rapper, and seller of the street newspaper One Step Away, embraced the opportunity.

"I wanted to be a part of it. The main thing is me being me - my personality added onto the whole art project," he said.

Back at their temporary studio, at the Science Center's Department of Making & Doing, the artists worked with developers to create an application that would synchronize audio with images from Google Earth. The result, says van Bekkum, draws on the tradition of landscape painting, but uses the medium of GPS to reimagine it. Like a hyperrealistic landscape painting, 250 Miles also offers the suggestion of documenting reality.

By engaging members of the public, 250 Miles surpassed the scope of the typical Percent for Art project, in which the artist may respond to a building or an architectural element on a facade.

"For this project, we zoomed very far out," Guerrero said. "Instead of responding to the facade they're responding to the city as a whole."

The artists plan to synthesize all that into a single video to screen in April, during Philly Tech Week or the Philadelphia Science Festival. Then they hope to use the process to create nav-docs in other cities. While this project is specific to Philadelphia, there are universal concepts at play.

"The work is about surveillance," van Bekkum said. "If you look around you and start asking questions, everyone just seems to be a human."