about Location Unknown

an updated introduction by Nikki Hafter, February 2022

This digital, interactive installation was first conceived in April 2020, a time when billions of people were (re)negotiating ways to experience things together whilst spatially and even temporally distanced by the first lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic. I was approaching the culmination of a Masters in Inclusive Arts Practice at the University of Brighton, and was producing artworks that responded to a pre-pandemic research project in which I’d explored how collective food making could support conversation for people with impaired communication. Instead of the MA graduate show in the Brighton campus (that my fellow students and I had long imagined) we were suddenly rethinking our work for exhibition online.

Although as an artist I had previously only made interactive and collaborative work to be experienced physically, my creative practice was informed by concurrent work as a Real World Game Developer - which had given me insight into how even basic digital technology could support collective experiences in the physical world. In fact, just weeks before the pandemic I had created an interactive text in Twine as a direct response to research that had grappled with how problematic textual language could be as a conversation tool for people with a communication disability. I had envisaged a physical object-table housing this artwork and others for exhibition; evolution into a digital version was an almost natural step.

In my food-making research workshops, it had emerged that ‘misuse’ of language that indicated the function, appearance, sensory effect of, or an item similar or opposite to the object described was more than sufficient for communication - and that these ideas could just as easily be communicated via images, sounds, gesture and stand-in objects, independently or in conjunction. The slippery nature of language continued to preoccupy me as the world moved online, and I came to understand that linguistic description must predominantly substitute for sensory and emotional experience in digital spaces. This focussed my thinking onto digital accessibility as I developed Location Unknown.

The title of the installation came from Rebecca Solnit’s discussion of ‘terra incognita’ (land unknown) in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I consumed as an audiobook whilst physically walking hundreds of miles during lockdown. Where was this in-between space in which so many of us congregated via remote communication tools, and to what extent could interaction (reciprocal communication) take place there?

As we edge towards a post-pandemic world in 2022, remote-working and -socialising persists for many, meaning communication continues to take place in hybrid digital and real-world spaces. Drawing on game design, storytelling, cooking, 3D photography apps and podcasting, Location Unknown and the artworks within it are enduringly relevant as an invitation to think critically about how we collectively interact with digital media and with each other online, now and in the future.

Location Unknown was made possible with the support of Matt Mewett, Filip Hnízdo, Will Drew, Sophie Meekings, Will Renel, Jayne Lloyd, Jo Offer, Lucy Mytton, Megan Pickering, Catriona Shepperd, Emma Snowdon, Sophie Bishop, David Pitt, Zinzi Mangera-Lakew, Nicola Richardson, Janet Richardson, Mike Bissett, Ethan Culican, Archie Salandin, Charlotte Rice, Phoebe Lydbrook, Nog Hafter, Ken Smith, Floss Hafter, Lottie Davies, Calina de la Mare, Geneva Rosett-Hafter, Eleanor Crosswell, Victoria Blunt, Jack Gunner and Hannah Brown.