Pokémon Go and the Art of Roaming

“How, in what kind of painted space, do you let yourself roam?”

In “Other Criteria” (1972), Leo Steinberg rejects Clement Greenberg’s position that Old Master painting employs illusionistic space (“content”) through which the body could hypothetically “roam,” whereas the opticality and flatness (“formal self-consciousness”) of modernist painting lend only the eye such ambulatory capabilities. “Greenberg can imagine himself trudging through a Rembrandtesque gloom,” Steinberg writes, “but he cannot conceive journeying through an Olitski.” Greenberg posits a mind-body(-artwork) relationship that Steinberg, champion of the new viewing public, sees as outmoded. By 1972, after all, man had walked on the moon. “Do we need to be reminded,” Steinberg asks accordingly, “that in an age of space travel a pictorial semblance of open void is just as inviting to imaginary penetration as the pictorial semblance of a receding landscape was formerly to a man on foot?” 1 Why cling to traditional conceptions of space when the modern world very palpably offers new spaces (outer space) through which to roam? But forty-odd years later, confronted daily with new visual “spaces,” we still find it difficult to imagine a physical journey—to imagine ourselves roaming—through spaces that lack the signs and structures of a “trudge-able” landscape.

When we peer into the infinitude of, say, our smartphones, we’re often met with a timeline: “time,” “line.” Even if Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have recently let algorithms unsettle the temporal linearity of the timeline, it’s still a rigidly-organized linear space—“flat,” perhaps, in the Greenbergian sense—through which one can hardly conceive of “trudging” or “roaming.” In a 2014 interview with Frieze, the artist Daniel Pflumm, known for his early adoption of web-based art, noted that “the ‘Venice’ aspect of the Internet has yet to be fully developed. For me, the great thing about Venice is its chaotic quality. You let yourself drift, and confusing paths lead you to endless treasures. Without a map or GPS, of course.” 2 Because of their carefully-planned grids, cities like New York or Chicago are easily navigable: a quick Google search maps a linear path anyone could follow. In older cities like Venice or Istanbul, however, tourists complain about always getting lost. Rather than rational plans, these cities follow physical or psychological—some might say “natural”—models. Although the cities are confusing, then, they’re also liberating in many ways; landscape historian J.B. Jackson approvingly referred to Istanbul in particular as “a city where urban life has created its own forms, and not the other way around.”3

The Internet’s mapping imperative extends beyond Google Maps, though, into the day-to-day “navigation” of any given app or website. “On the Internet,” Pflumm continued, “you’re always being pushed around. Herded for clicks. To find real treasures online, you need to know their location.” You need to click the right link, type the right words into a search bar. You can’t wander; you can’t “roam.”  Accordingly, Pflumm’s websites lack the directions most other sites offer. Each page is littered with signs, logos, bits of text: some are links, some aren’t, and those that are give no guidance as to where they lead. Visitors are plunged into an unplanned roam through the world wide web. “In the old days,” Pflumm mentioned, setting up a historical precedent, “there was something called Situationism.” In the 1960s, the Situationists used roaming as a means of upsetting the urban built environment, bringing out what Pflumm might call a city’s “Venice” aspect. Their concept of the dérive—a spontaneous roam (or “drift”) through an urban landscape—resisted the political, economic, and ideological structures of contemporary society by resisting its physical structures (architecture, city-plan), which are imposed on landscapes in an effort to make them navigable, conceivable, commercial. In addition to the tightly-planned urban organization of Paris, consider the highway grid that cleanly checkerboards the hitherto “un-roamable” American frontier, helping the landscape “make sense.”

For Greenberg, Rembrandt’s illusionistic landscapes are in effect gridded, mapped: they possess the content and depth of “real” landscapes, which allows us to navigate them. Olitski’s un-demarcated canvases, on the other hand, are the wild west—so vast, so directionless, we simply can’t conceive of journeying through them. The dérive, for its part, offered indirect opposition to Greenberg’s rational approach by subverting the map itself. Indeed, dérives were represented by cut-up (detourned) maps. These were flat images imagining “journeys” for the body and mind: a new cartography drawn by human experience rather than political-economic (dis)agreements. By roaming, we privilege subjective experience and resist stable structures, from maps (on a visual level) to governments (on a more symbolic level). Nevertheless, like Greenberg, we still fear un-mapped “space.” Even digital “space” (if such a thing can be said to exist) often comes with recognizable signposts of physical “space”—with familiar depth and direction. Do we need to be reminded that in a digital age a pictorial semblance of an open void, etc. etc. etc.? By dismantling real-world relationships between mind, body, space, and movement, might we make new discoveries, forge new identities?


Jules Olitski. "Patutsky in Paradise." 1966. Collection of Art Gallery of Ontario, purchase, 1982. Image: © Jules Olitski Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

Jules Olitski. “Patutsky in Paradise.” 1966. Collection of Art Gallery of Ontario, purchase, 1982. Image: © Jules Olitski Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

Artists working in what we might call digital “space” betray a complicated relationship to roaming. Many video games allow us to journey through an Olitski, so to speak, providing us with bodies to roam through environments untethered to reality. Nonetheless, games often render digital space—Steinberg’s “open void”—under the strictures of real space. They come replete with landscapes, maps, plenty of “trudging.” Even if games take advantage of the irreality of digital space in many ways, they nonetheless aim to make sense spatially in the way that a Rembrandt makes sense to Greenberg. One such game is the wildly popular augmented-reality smartphone game Pokémon Go, in which players accomplish tasks familiar to anyone who has played a Pokémon game on Game Boy in the last umpteen years. You walk around, catch Pokémon, train those Pokémon, battle other Pokémon, earn badges at gyms. The principle update in Pokémon Go has to do with the “walk around” part: rather than control a tiny avatar’s movements with a D-pad while you sit in your bedroom, you have to physically walk around in order to advance your place in the game.

Moving beyond the strictures of a typical RPG, Pokémon Go appears to enable the physicality that Greenberg saw in Rembrandt’s painting within a digital space. When you begin walking, your phone activates its camera, showing you a slightly-mediated version of what’s actually in front of you. As you wander through streets, parks, and sidewalks, staring at your device, digitally-rendered Pokémon pop up as though they were “really” there sitting on a park bench, hiding in a storefront, wading in a puddle. Here, the “flat” space of the smartphone when it’s logged into social media apps becomes more multi-dimensional: a “trudge-able,” “roam-able” landscape appears in your hand, smoothly integrated into the physical landscape with which you’re familiar. Many contemporary theorists, notably Bruno Latour, have promoted a similar idea—often called interobjectivity—as a means of examining the relationships between nonhuman physical things; to simplify, this way of thinking allows us to ultimately consider ourselves as objects floating around amidst a network of interconnected digital and material entities. Pokémon Go emboldens our innate senses of interobjectivity, making the system of objects that surrounds us acutely visible, palpable even.

Niantic, Inc. Pokémon Go. 2016. Screenshot by the author.

Niantic, Inc. Pokémon Go. 2016. Screenshot by the author.

So palpable that, in the last couple weeks, I’ve seen literally countless people roaming the streets of New York, phone in hand, trying to “catch” Pokémon (not to mention the hoards that have descended upon hotspots like Central Park). Such a widespread alteration of behavior and a mass wandering through the urban landscape might seemingly please the Situationists. But Pokémon Go doesn’t quite unlock the digital space’s “Venice” aspect; it may even subtly reinforce the hierarchical structures the Situationists hoped to dismantle. The game’s map is a pared-down, brightly-colored (almost Olitski-esque) analogon of your city’s real-life map, subtly indulging our orienteering impulses, as it were. Even though physical structures are absent or abstracted, it’s difficult to wholly ignore the borders that, according to Barlow, should no longer exist in cyberspace. It’s difficult, too, to consider this mass urban wandering to represent a new type of dérive, given that Pokémon Go is both thematically (capturing and bargaining Pokémon) and practically (Nintendo) beholden to capitalist, even colonialist enterprise—spectacular.

Alternately, Pokémon Go exposes a weakness in the Situationist platform, namely that the dérive is a privilege. Sure enough, Pokémon Go’s colorful map imposes the general linear outline of the real-life map while willfully ignoring its socio-political make-up. In the “reality” of Pokémon Go, neighborhoods and businesses lose their culture, their character, whether they’re safe for certain groups of people or not. It has been noted that, for instance, black men—who had no place among the predominantly-white Situationists—feel they can’t play the game, for if they “roam” through the urban landscape they’ll simultaneously look suspicious and also not be aware of racially-contingent everyday dangers. Because the “augmented reality” of Pokémon Go offers such an incredibly convincing veneer of reality—via the map and the camera usage—players risk blind conflation (going so far as to, in one case, walk off a cliff in search of Pokémon).

To double back again, though, how often does a digital space make manifest the real dangers of real space? Where we often ignore surveillance in “flat” social media apps and websites, Pokémon Go has drawn plenty of skepticism already for its possible surveillance tactics, suggested by the game’s integration with Google but even more so by its interaction with “real” space and bodies. Indeed, aided by its acute presentation of interobjectivity, the game draws out a legible analogy between physical and digital surveillance. After all, Pokémon Go It’s easier to recognize policing in and around Pokémon Go than in and around not only Google and Facebook but also, say, Angry Birds. If Pokémon Go calls attention to these socio-political issues in the negative—not through properties of the game but consequences thereof—how might a digital space positively prompt awareness both spatial and social?


Amnesia Scanner and Sam Rolfes. "AS Chingy (screenshot)." 2016. Screenshot by the author.

Amnesia Scanner and Sam Rolfes. “AS Chingy (screenshot).” 2016. Screenshot by the author.

Would a digital space more devoid of traditional demarcations be able to satisfy the ideals of the “roam” while fostering a better sensitivity to the homogeneity and peril of the urban landscape? Might they foster a clearer subjectivity? Electronic music artists such as Amnesia Scanner, Arca, and Holly Herndon have in the past few years teamed with computer artists to render audio-visual, digital “spaces” that, even if not always interactive (and interobjective) in the way that Pokémon Go is, make a convincing case for “roamable” spaces that can positively unsettle the structures of everyday society. For example, Sam Rolfes’s video for “AS Chingy” (2016) by Amnesia Scanner opens with a transparent still image—a surface, damaged but painterly, like an Alberto Burri—blurring mysterious moving forms that lurk in the background. The surface quickly dissipates, letting us “enter” some sort of “landscape” containing flickering walls of light, industrial scaffolding, cascades of digitally-rendered hail. The way the images shift (bobbing, jilting) suggests that we’re looking through someone’s eyes; indeed, the video recalls first-person shooter games and movies like Harcore Henry or Enter the Void (which shares a purple-and-neon color scheme with “AS Chingy”).

These first-person environments prompt out-of-body experiences, a thematic approach bolstered symbolically in Hardcore Henry by cyborgism and in Enter the Void by drug use. Detaching mind and body, these games and movies take on a dérive-like quality as well: the character (who, we insinuate, becomes the viewer) wanders through the environment aimlessly. In each above instance, however, the character is also tied to a narrative, to a map; there are objectives, directions, a “here” and a “there.” But “AS Chingy” separates itself from many first-person experiences via its truly “open void.” There’s no narrative, no key, and the landscape eschews visual boundaries: the character (you) seems to keep looking “up,” but ultimately no structures allow for a definitive “up” (or “down,” et al.). At one point in “AS Chingy,” though, it becomes clear that the environment isn’t totally without referent—it obliquely depicts a nightclub. Rather than allow us to “map” the space rationally, though, this elucidation bears closer resemblance to a dérive map, as though Rolfes is offering a psychogeographical rendering of a nightclub instead of an analogous “landscape,” all soundtracked by what one might consider detourned club music. (Amnesia Scanner’s brand of techno is decidedly non-linear, after all: it refutes the genre’s traditional metric grid.) The cyborgs we eventually encounter while roaming might reify contemporary alienation from our rational human bodies, but they also serve as visual guides, helping us imagine the body—any body—in new, dedifferentiated space (something Greenberg could’ve used, perhaps).

Niantic, Inc. Pokémon Go. 2016. Screenshot by the author.

Niantic, Inc. Pokémon Go. 2016. Screenshot by the author.

Facing what Daniel Pflumm (a one-time Berlin techno scene stalwart himself) might call a “Venice”—whether Oregon in the 1800s, abstract painting in the 1950s, cyberspace in the 1990s—we orienteer. When that impulse is blocked, we reject the “Venice”; we might think that “there’s no there there,” as Gertrude Stein said—there’s no “space” at all. Indeed, as Pflumm pointed out, even the new frontier of the internet has in effect been mapped, much like the American west. Roughly half the world’s population has drifted through the digital “space” that the internet opens up, and navigates it with ease. Works by Pflumm, Rolfes, and Amnesia Scanner offer ways of seeing these “spaces” anew. They push us to disavow our conceptions of “space”—to not only imagine our ability to trudge through an open void, but to accept the open void as iconographic reality. Alfred Korzybski said, “The map is not the territory”; where Pokémon Go foregrounds the “map,” these artists aim to investigate the “territory.”

But are there even any freely “roamable” spaces? Steinberg mentioned “space travel,” but decades later, only around five hundred humans have journeyed through the “open void” that lies outside earth’s atmosphere. Might outer space still represent “the final frontier”? Alas, popular culture implies “no.” Elon Musk and Richard Branson are channeling 19th-century railroad moguls in their pushes out of the atmosphere; recent space-set movies tend to bolster these entrepreneurial endeavors, offering images of a “void” only waiting to be colonized. Hollywood’s vision of space follows the frontiering mindset: characters often seek or create extraterrestrial analogues to earth. In The Martian, Matt Damon maps and eco-colonizes Mars en route to finding a pathway home. Gravity builds its tension precisely on being lost, on George Clooney floating away, literally untethered, from the map-bearing ship; the movie ends with a new beginning, as Sandra Bullock looks out onto a new, conquerable frontier. The plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens revolves around the search for a map.

Can we not roam in outer space? Holly Herndon traverses what appears to be Mars in her video for “Morning Sun” (2015, directed by John Merizalde and Mat Dryhurst). Rather than reaching for a map, however, Herndon embraces the territory. She treats the land materially—caressing native rocks, lying in the sand, tracing a path without beginning or end. Over time, though, her situation takes a turn for the worse. Herndon looks tired, lost; a sandstorm approaches. Blurring the distinction between ground and sky, the storm turns the planet into a virtual space through which she moves confusedly, drifting. Fortunately, she’s rewarded for her roam, and finds an opening to a cave. Without knowing what type of space she’s entering, she ducks inside.

Holly Herndon, John Merizalde, and Mat Dryhurst. "Morning Sun (screenshot)." 2015. Screenshot by the author.

Holly Herndon, John Merizalde, and Mat Dryhurst. “Morning Sun (screenshot).” 2015. Screenshot by the author.

The video ends with a quote from John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996): “May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.” In cyberspace, Barlow sees a space we can enter; furthermore, he sees a type of “Venice”—a space that offers new, natural systems of organization. “Cyberspace does not lie within your borders,” he writes. “Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.” Later, furthermore: “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.” That many of the above artists work within the techno milieu makes sense: dance music often provides open spaces for marginalized people.

As Barlow writes, cyberspace is actually more natural—perhaps more “real”—than, say, Olitski’s painted space. But Pflumm points to its cyberspace’s tendency towards constructedness nevertheless, and Pokémon Go proves that a more seamless integration with reality can be dangerous for many reasons. Steinberg’s initial question provides a mindset for measuring the excitement of roaming through new types of spaces (the identity creation, protest, reconfigured sociality) against the physical and ideological dangers thereof. The question contains within it a call for continual self-reflection: How, in what kind of painted space, do you let yourself roam?” Pokémon Go; Daniel Pflumm; Sam Rolfes and Amnesia Scanner; and Holly Herndon, John Merizalde, and Mat Dryhurst create new types of spaces in which we can comfortably imagine ourselves roaming. It’s important, however, in every case, both to keep asking “how” and to embrace our spatially-contingent agency (“let yourself”) in order to understand how this new frontier liberates and manipulates our identities as we move deeper and deeper into it.

  1.  Steinberg, Leo. “Other Criteria.” In Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, 71. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  2.  Kedves, Jan and Dominik Müller. “Don’t Believe the Hype.” In Frieze, April 24, 2014. https://frieze.com/article/dont-believe-hype
  3. Jackson, John Brinckerhoff. “Southeast to Turkey.” In Landscape in Sight: Looking at America, ed. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, 290. New Haven: Yale UP, 1997.

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