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(sage) artists create mobile app to explore wilderness in urban spaces

Lauren Blair ’13 displays a route through downtown Rochester mapped with IH+. Photo by J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester

As published by Valerie Alhart in Rochester News, Jan. 23, 2013.

There’s no debating that smartphones have sped up communication. But two professors at the University of Rochester are looking to do the opposite by using mobile technology to slow people down. Their new “Indeterminate Hikes” (IH+) app encourages participants to focus attention on the environment and experience nature in unexpected urban spaces.

“In general, smartphones or mobile phones are task-oriented,” said Cary Peppermint, assistant professor of art at the University of Rochester. “With IH+ all this is disrupted because the phone becomes a tool for imagination, creativity, and exploration.”

Peppermint and Leila Nadir, a writer and lecturer on sustainability, are the co-founders of EcoArtTech, a collaboration that explores technology and environmentally focused work with other artists and organizations. Their work, which uses new media to inspire awareness of nature in everyday life, can currently be found in the collections of the Whitney Museum, Walker Art Center, and New Museum.

“When we talk about sustainability and the environment it is usually about protecting rural spaces,” said Nadir. “With this app, we want to adopt that same mentality but apply it to cities to understand how they evolve.”

According to Peppermint and Nadir, a big part of that process is learning how to slow down. After downloading IH+, users “pioneer” a “hike” by entering a start and end location, similar to finding directions online. But instead of selecting a direct route, Google Maps generates a random path with prompts and activities that encourage users to look for wilderness in urban spaces. “The prompts increase awareness of the environment where you live and also cause social interactions — you’re using the technology to reconnect with space instead of people,” said Peppermint.

Hike participants stop to listen to sounds under ground. Photo by J. Adam Fenster/University of Rochester.

When following the route, users may be asked to take a photograph with their phones at selected points, write a “field note” on their phones, send a text message to someone, or perform a particular task—all in response to their surroundings. “Hikes” are intended to be performed in groups and with one phone, to make the experience socially interactive.

“Wilderness is all around you and the app encourages users to give the same attention to inner city parks and rain gutters that we do to landscapes like canyons and gorges,” said Nadir.

Once a hike is complete, users can download their experience to so others can view the journey. So far, hikes have been pioneered in both the U.S. and Europe. Participants also can choose to pioneer a hike in companion species mode, where scenic vistas are selected by pets for people to enjoy. The app is now available for both iPhone and Android phones.

“People are really excited and inspired by the newness of the experience,” said Peppermint, who believes that good art should interrupt people’s expectations. “We also find that when you bring art, nature, and technology together people are relieved. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”

Peppermint and Nadir began collaborating in 1996 and created EcoArtTech in 2005 as a way to bring together their academic interests and practices through a shared interest in nature and the environment. Their research has received awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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