A Global Positioning System


Year: 2006

Type: digitally generated animation and catalogue.

Artist: Melanie Jackson.

Availability: catalogue (download: here), stills & video (10 minutes, watch here).

Page reference: Cook, I. (2011) A global positioning system. followthethings.com (www.followthethings.com/aglobalpositioningsystem.shtml last accessed <insert date here>)

Lego re-creation

A Global Positioning System



A Global Positioning System is a new, web-like film in which the British artist [Melanie Jackson] deconstructs a GPS system and traces each component back to its country of origin (Source: Anon 2007, np).

Melanie Jackson’s film, A Global Positioning System, is a real eye-opener that reveals the environmental destruction and criminally cheap labour that go into making our everyday gadgets (Source: Powell 2008, np).

Wittily political, and rendered in a light, naive cartoon style … Melanie Jackson’s A Global Positioning System … opens with a man ordering a GPS unit from a gadget magazine, then tracks the product from assembly line to delivery by courier (Source: Mottram 2007, np link).

This animation refers to the schemas of material flow analysis as used in the fields of design and technology to trace the intellectual development, mineral sources and working processes involved in the manufacture of a consumer product. The analysis is visual - unlike the textual investigations carried out in these other fields. It explores Marxist notions of alienation, while acknowledging the fascination, desire and phenomenal global industrial infrastructure implicated in an everyday piece of technology. Thousands of lives are implicated in a product designed to locate a single individual (Source: Anon 2009, np link).

A Global Positioning System 2006 deconstructs a hand held GPS unit, attempting to trace each component back to its source. By animating the routes and methods of production, Jackson reveals an incredible journey from the rubber trees of Sri Lanka to the tin mines of the Congo, on to the production lines of China and finally to the palm of your hand. This voyage reveals reveals the complex web of locations, processes, materials and labour that go into the production of this hi-tech consumer product, uncovering the paradox of the expansive infrastructure needed to produce a device used to locate just one person in the world. For the creation of this work Melanie Jackson had the opportunity to travel to China and spend time in an electronics factory, seeing first hand how the GPS units are manufactured (Source: Anon 2006a, np link).

A Global Positioning System, an animation that explores what goes into satnavs, the list of materials, the countries that are involved, and the work required to produce a gadget to help individual drivers find their way. By doing this we are drawn into the socio-economics of globalisation, eg the miners in Africa, the factory workers in China and finally the person ordering the gadget on the phone (a similar gadget) (Source: Wood 2006, np link).

The film and accompanying poster produce a complex map of locations, processes, materials and labour, all brought together in a hi-tech consumer product, designed to locate the position of an individual in the world (Source: Anon 2006b, np link).

Inspiration / process / technique / methodology

The predominance of contemporary panoptic society, with means of controlling borders and people in an uneven way results that paradoxically commodities circulate much more easily than people that are kept in place through tight border regimes. This vision of technology is one [of] the driving forces behind the animation work A Global Positioning System (2006) by American, London-based artist Melanie Jackson (Source: Roush nd, np link).

In her exhibition at Arnolfini, Melanie Jackson explores how ideas, people, products and raw materials circulate in our increasingly mobile world. She is inspired by news stories, that describe inventive means of getting by, of survival beyond the odds: and uses a combination of animation, drawing, sculpture, film, video and printed matter. How can we make sense of all the places we read about but probably will never get to, and what are the networks that have linked us together? (Source: Anon 2006c, np link).

The animated film charts the journey across the globe of the GPS unit, as a reverse journey from a promotional brochure selling the benefits of the handheld GPS to an urban western audience to the varied components of its production. Breaking down the GPS manufacturing workflow is made out of two movements: on one hand panning across the world, from the global centres of consumption into the factories in China and further afield into the mines of Congo or the rubber trees in Sri Lanka; and on the other hand, a zooming in process, going from the macro-scale of the global economy into the most intimate gestures of manual production and the microscopic components of the gps unit. Melanie presents this journey as a way of depicting the material process of production and challenges the disjunction that capitalism operates between things and their image. From images of miners working in the sandpits of Congo, she uses drawing as away to develop connections with the more abstract level of high tech glossy consumer technology. As the voice over narrates: this GPS contains materials that come from the following places: Guinea, China…India…Germany, England, Zambia…Brazil, Australia, Turkey, Nigeria, Spain, …Mexico, Chile, Philippines, USA, Argentina, Portugal, Japan, Korea…South Africa…Angola, Democratic Republic Of Congo, Namibia, Venezuela… (Source: Roush nd, np link).

I wanted to unpack an object that seemed to embody a paradox of our time – that it takes an infrastructure of thousands to create a device to help locate an individual. I wanted to comprehend the transformation of matter through these techniques and processes. The complexity of the internal architectures is beyond the scope of any individual to create, time would not allow it. I wanted to unfold the relations between people unknown to each other but linked by a material and economic chain. Drawing seemed the most appropriate means to behold and speculate this accruing information that took a year to assimilate and animation the most appropriate means to articulate this process of links, discontinuities, invisible flows, stops and starts (Source: Jackson in globalart 2011, np link).

I am interested in what happens in documentary filmmaking when the lens is replaced by drawing. The ‘work’ of the film, the succession of mark making is evident, in the same way that the work involved in the manufacture of the product is made visible. We are always aware that it is an individual register that is bearing witness (of other individuals). Drawing admits that it is illusory, subjective and selective – yet it still holds the ability to tell a true story (Source: Jackson 2007, np link).

I spent a week with the manager of an electronics factory exploring the industrial mechanism involved in creating a Global Positioning System, which revealed giddy statistics in terms of the scale of the industrial infrastructure in place to produce and support this device. It takes in the region of 2kg of raw materials and over 300 chemical processes to make its 2g micro-processor alone. Thousands of lives will have been touched in the production of a single device. I also continue to explore animation as documentary, or its ability to act as a gauge of ‘real events’ through narrative and other strategies such as outsourcing animation sequences in China and beyond. A Global Positioning System project entails the visual mapping of mineral and human resources implicated in the manufacture of a hand-held Global Positioning System device. It witnesses the status of various forms of labour: from the extraction of mineral resources to the presentation of telesales, from mines to satellites. The project explores this paradox: that so many subjectivities, manufacturing processes and working lives are implicated in a device designed to locate the position of a single individual. Filming began in China where the devices are manufactured, and extended to a ‘remote’ visiting process by asking academics, scientists, artists and industrial workers internationally to email me with texts and images of the sites that contribute to the resources that feed into a finished industrial product. Mineral resources from every continent are used in such a piece of technology, and thousands of industrial processes. There is a sense of the GPS being a ‘clean’ piece of technology – though certain mineral components are dug by hand from makeshift mines. The work registers a contrast between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ industries and processes we associate with them. The finished work takes the form a single screen 5 minute animation underscored with electronic music, and a paper foldout map of the genealogy of the process. Through the use of animation we are conscious that we are bearing witness – but through a human, individual register, rather than a optical device. The animation uses cutting edge technologies, but links to an ancient, haptic process. The work uses a combination of drawing from memory, conjecture and photographic sources. In places images are composed using only drawing and in others photographs are referenced, layered behind the image and worked onto to make them move and draw them into narrative moving sequence. The work is redolent of a public information film through the use of graphics and diagrammatic over still and moving image sequences as part of the narrative explication of this journey (source: Jackson 2006, p.116).


… an extraordinary film in which artist Melanie Jackson diligently aspires to trace every component of a global positioning system back to its original source. Her pedantry takes her to the rubber trees of Sri Lanka, the tin mines of the Congo and the production lines of China. As a study of the free market economy, it’s quite mind boggling (Source: Clark & Lack 2006, np link).

I’m nodding my head saying, yes, yes isn’t it awful and Jackson is right alongside me saying yes, yes I know and suddenly I realise the bone sticking in my throat is the nagging feeling that I am not made to feel uncomfortable enough, this is a nice presentation of a nasty situation. The deconstruction of the “system” is an interesting and fascinating project, but that is just the problem. I find myself full of new facts and information and strangely detached by the systematic nature of her inquiry. ... According to Marx the alienation of the worker is a result of their separation from the end product. I wonder if Jackson’s systematic project was intended as a mirror of the systematic way the working individuals are treated? The comparison has been made between the way Jackson works, using painstaking animation or construction techniques, and the monotonous repetitive working actions of her subjects. Placing Jackson in relation to her subjects in this way is too much of a leap for me. Can you say that animating film footage to your own specification and design in a studio environment is akin assembling microchips and soldering each tiny piece together in a factory? Crucially, as an artist, you are not alienated from your production you are highly invested in it and you and your interests largely drive it. Once it goes out into the world you encounter all sorts of problematic market related issues but the actual work is the fun bit, fine it is a drag sometimes but it’s not a sweatshop. Does the operation of aesthetics get in the way of the reportage? ... China and all things related are definitely the “it” kid of current contemporary art circles. I started off thinking Jackson’s GPS proposition was an interesting and guileful approach, in many ways I still do but, it’ doesn’t make me think any deeper about issues of global economics it just underlines it with a funky colour and then allows you to move on (Source: Tullock & McCalden 2007, np link).

The postmodern propositions that explanatory 'master narratives' are obsolete and that reality cannot be grasped from a single viewpoint have had several decades to lose whatever shock-value they once possessed. But Jackson’s animation A Global Positioning System invites reflection on another vantage point that has gone, this time a technological one. A Global Positioning System originated from the concept of mapping the totality of technologies and sites of production represented by a GPS device. However the range of components that constitute this apparatus turns out to be so complex and diverse that no single individual can have a comprehensive overview. The map is impossible. One assumes this must also be true of many other mass-produced devices on the market. It’s a less grandiose, but somehow more insidious, disappearance than the philosophical disintegration announced by postmodern theory. In Jackson’s video, we briefly meet the boss of a Chinese factory that assembles GPS systems. Seated in his smart black leather chair, he shows us the integrated circuit that he identifies as the “heart” of GPS technology: a cluster of millions of transistors, “like a whole city of skyscrapers”. On the soundtrack, we hear the voice of the director of a GPS factory in Guangzhou recorded by the artist on location whilst researching the work in 2005. In the finished work, the character’s facial image and mouth movements don’t lip-synch neatly with the recorded voice. Via Jackson’s animation technique, the tiny marks and lines that form his mouth shatter and regroup, solidify and liquefy. Albeit fleeting, the effect of the disconnection is subtle but decisive: something is not quite right, yet exactly right in its elusiveness. This man seems friendly and trustworthy and what he’s saying is perfectly reasonable. But connections are now visibly unhitched. The facts are dispersed and decentralised and can only be grasped collectively. This seems a cause for both optimism and anxiety. Technological production hinges on the sharing of practical expertise across collaborative networks. But part of the network may fail, or be destroyed, or opt to withhold its knowledge. What then?… (Source: Withers nd, np link).


Anon (2006a) Exhibition with global reach. Press release, 9 November 2006 (http://www.melaniejackson.net/projects/gps/press.php last accessed 15 February 2011)

Anon (2006b) Introduction to the exhibition: Road Angel. Bristol: Arnolfini Gallery, 8 December 2006 – 28 January 2007 (http://www.melaniejackson.net/press_essays/roadangel.html last accessed 15 February 2011)

Anon (2006c) Melanie Jackson: Road Angel. kunstaspekte (http://www.kunstaspekte.de/index.php?tid=26896&action=termin last accessed 15 February 2011)

Anon (2007) Five best exhibitions. The Independent (Extra) 10 January.

Anon (2009) A global positioning system. UAL research online 27 November (http://ualresearchonline.arts.ac.uk/1833/ last accessed 15 February 2011)

Clark, R. & Lack, J. (2006) Preview. The Guardian (UK) 9 December (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2006/dec/09/previews.theguide5 last accessed 15 February 2011)

globalart (2011) "Invisible Flows, Stops and Starts" – A Note on GPS by Melanie Jackson. The Global Contemporary
Art Worlds After 1989.
21 September (http://www.global-contemporary.de/en/world-time-the-world-as-transit-zone/179-invisible-flows-stops-and-starts-melanie-jacksons-global-positioning-system- last accessed 9 July 2014)

Jackson, M. (2006) Melanie Jackson. in Kirby, S. (ed) Artists Links. Shanghai: British Council & London: Arts Council (http://www.melaniejackson.net/press_essays/ARTIST_LINKS_2002-2006-2.pdf last accessed 15 February 2011).

Jackson, M. (2007) Jerwood Drawing Prize. Wimbledon: Wimbledon College of Art (http://www.wimbledon.arts.ac.uk/jerwood.htm last accessed 14 September 2008)

Mottram, J. (2007) Blurring the lines and always moving. The Herald 25 August (http://www.melaniejackson.net/publications/reviews/blurring-the-lines-and-always-moving-the-herald/ last accessed 15 February 2011)

Powell, M. (2008) The finer things in life. Metro (UK) 19 July.

Roush, P. (nd) Theory. Spaces, visibilities and transcultural flows. blogs.nyu.edu (http://blogs.nyu.edu/projects/materialworld/2008/08/local_worlds_spaces_visibiliti.html  last accessed 15 February 2011)

Tulloch, S. & McCalden, J. (2007) Are you watching comfortably? InPrint Online (http://inprintonline.blogspot.com/ last accessed 15 February 2011)

Withers, R. (nd) Melanie Jackson: a storyteller's map. rachelwithers.com (http://www.rachelwithers.com/melanie-jackson-a-storytellers-map/ last accessed 9 July 2014)

Wood, T. (2006) Road Angel – Melanie Jackson. Artists Talking, December (http://www.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/article/368837 last accessed 15 February 2011)

Related resources

Melanie Jackson Made in China (film, essays, press: webpage).

Compiled by Ian Cook (last updated July 2014). Legoing by Ian Cook. Background photo modified under Creative Commons license from here.

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