Year: 2004-5

Type: locative art-mapping project.

Alternative title: MILKproject.

Creators: Esther Polak, Ieva Auzina & The Riga Center for New Media Culture.

Availability: website free online here, installation photograph (at the Riga Center for New Media Culture, 2005 here)

Page reference: Karin, E. & Whitehouse-Lewis, A. (2011) MILK. ( last accessed <insert date here>)



[Milk is a] Latvian-Dutch-GPS-mapping-art-landscape-documentary-portrait-project (Source: Riemann 2006, np link).

The MILK project follows the route that milk takes from the udder of the cow in Latvia to the mouth of the consumer in Holland. That route is traced by GPS (Global Positioning System). The MILK project has been visualized by way of an installation and a website. Whoever sees it will from then on realize with every bite he takes that the foodstuffs from which that product is made could come from the most unexpected places in the world and that there in those places, the personal lives of many people are associated with them (Source: Hartholt 2004, np link).

One contemporary locative media art work that has received much attention ... is a mapping project by Esther Polak, Ieva Auzina and the Riga Center for New Media Culture (RIXC) titled ‘MILK. Completed from 2003 through 2005, ‘MILK’ follows the production and distribution of cheese, from Latvian dairy farms to the markets of Utrecht. Following the movements of nine ‘participants’ (selected people involved in the making, moving and consumption of cheese) through the use of GPS devices given to them, ‘MILK’ proposes to give us a glimpse into the social, and spatial, construction of cheese. ... press for the project positions it as a ‘locative art – mapping project, that explores visual and documenting possibilities of GPS technology’ (Source: Griffis 2010, np link).

MILKproject tells the personal life-stories of these very different Europeans, from the Latvian farmer to the Dutch open-air market salesman with his clients, who are all connected by one thing: the milk from a truck of one Latvian milk collector (Source: Polak 2008, np link).

... MILK frames currently shifting EU terrain: from a destitute Latvian corner – Latgale, where the milk is produced as far as Netherlands and other EU countries, where the same milk is being consumed (Source: Anon ndc, np link).

[MILK is a] multimedia installation that imaginatively shows how milk from Latvian cows eventually ends up being sold as Rigamont cheese on a street market in Utrecht. But it’s not so much about the cows and the cheese as the way the persons concerned (the farmer, the truck driver, the consumer) relate to their environment. ... A forty-minute show simultaneously shown on two screens that is exiting, funny and surprising is the result. Visitors can sit on one of the comfortable sofas with flower motif. An LCD screen shows how a little dot draws lines (tracks) through the landscape. These are the tracks of the person that has spent a day wearing a GPS tracking device. Next to it a large projection screen shows portraits of the participants of the project. On an audiotape we can hear how they react to their own tracks. ... The project produces nine personal portraits of people or couples from Latvia, Italy and the Netherlands. In one of the portraits the tracks show how the participant drives a rotunda the wrong way round. Another funny moment is a couple writing down the coordinates of their encounter with a rabbit during a forest walk. In seeing his tracks farmer Janis Simsons is surprised at how fast time passes (Source: Anon nda, np link).

All this data, the GPS tracks, sound and images, was edited for each participant for both the installation set-up and the project website. The edited stills with the corresponding soundtracks are experienced in the installation as a narrative and are played in ‘cartographic’ order from east to west, thus following the path of the milk (Source: Anon 2005, np link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

One of the primary influences in the creation of the project, stated by Esther Polak, was the artists recollection of an earlier documentary project of rural life, poet James Agee and photographer Walker Evans 1941 account of poor farmers in the US South, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Source: Griffis 2010, np link).

Born in the city, I have always been fascinated by rural life. To satisfy my interest, I relied on artworks, films, photographs books and bike trips, instead of personal contact, for I had no family or close friends from rural backgrounds. This was one of the motivations behind the MILKproject: to step over the divide by way of an art project. Ieva Auzina and I followed in detail the lives of Latvian farmers by letting them track the routes of their daily routines via GPS and then talking with them about the visual results (Source: Polak 2005 np link).

When artist Esther Polak and researcher Ieva Auzina discovered that much Latvian milk is transported to the Netherlands, they decided to follow its progress from the cow’s udder to the consumer’s mouth using GPS navigation (Source: Krabbendam 2006, np link).

The MILK project was launched as a small-scale workshop in the summer of 2003 during the ‘locative media’ symposium (organized by RIXC), involving GPS technologies and two Latvian dairy farmers in a small village in south-east Latvia. During 2004 the project was developed as a cross-disciplinary research undertaking both in Latvia and in the Netherlands, involving 9 participants (4 Latvian farmers and 5 Dutch city-dwellers), as well as the whole trade network between them (Source: Anon 2005 np link).

We had this workshop situation concept where everyone that had participated would be gathered (even their families were welcome). It took a whole evening to watch their routes and get them to comment on them. We reported the reactions associating them to their tracks on the basis of a portrait (Source: Polak in Urlberger 2007 np link).

In this project a European dairy transportation was followed from the udder of the (Latvian) cow, to the mouth of the (Dutch) consumer. All people who played a role in this chain received, for a day, a GPS-device that registered their movements. The team developed a lucid visualization-software for these traces, and let the participants react upon them in their own kitchens or living rooms (Source: Polak 2008, np link).

Some participant of the project moves either from pasture to home or from barn to toilet. His/her story on this route is heard and corresponding photographs taken by the artists are projected synchronically (Source: Klavina 2004, np link).

Already during the shooting of material, Jānis Simsons [owner of the farmstead Kundziņi in Vidridži Parish, Limbaži District,] remarked that he would readily attach the small locative media - GPS devices - to each individual cow (Source: Ozolina 2004, np link).

By turning collected GPS data into an on-line atlas of maps, Ieva Auzina and Esther Polak in collaboration with software developer Markus The (NL) and RIXC would like to discover this peculiar milk net, its explicitly local stories and complex euro-global dimensions (Source: Anon ndc, np link).

Using software specially developed for the project, the data was displayed in the form of graphic drawings on contingent geographical maps of the areas the project was based in. These drawings were later projected and discussed with the participants in small, informal workshop situations in their homes (Source: Anon 2005, np link).

One of the most tempting and motivating aspects of MILK for us is to develop a medium where [Latvian] farmers can visualize and comment on their own relation to (usage of) space. Interaction between the hi-tech GPS device and the countryside situation will most likely lead to unique narrative possibilities, which will be completely different from an, for example, direct documentary approach (Source: Anon ndb, np link).

Discussion / Responses

For the most part, we imagine artist as a bearded, rather gloomy man with a scarf around his neck, standing by the easel and painting… An odd person. That’s why people are reserved towards artists. But here – I mean the project Milk – eyes are clear, nothing is concealed, tidied up or retouched, all is as it is in real life – cows, their dung, milk cans that were common in Europe some forty years ago (Source: Ritums in Steimane 2004d, np).

MILK suggests a powerful vision of how locative technologies could allow one to more fully understand how products are commodified and distributed through the actions of global trade, thereby making visible the networked society (Source: Tuters and Varnelis 2006 np link).

MILK does not only tell a story about the lives of people. For a great part it is about representation. What changes for a person when he/she sees his/her own life in terms of a permanent cartography? What changes for a person when he/she realizes that his/her own cartography constantly is added and crossed by routes of other people? (Source: Anon ndb, np link).

The message that Polak wants to give the visitors of the installation is that there is a connection between the por[k] chop they buy in the supermarket and that boring hike through the cornfields. ‘Consumers don’t need to be so passive. They really have a say in what is served on their plates at night.’ For her it’s the fun in knowing. ‘For city people the country has become the décor of bike rides in their spare time. For farmers it’s a place of hard work. You actually ride through someone’s place of work’ (Source: Anon nda, np link).

MILKproject, however is meant to show that you can actually use this modern technology that at first may scare you off. Today’s technology makes it possible to have food from all over the world available and there is no reason why this technology should not tie you closer to the origins of the product. The lack is only there because the ultimate consumer doesn’t ask. There is no reason why you shouldn’t know where in the Philippines that mango comes from – you could for example, install a Webcam etc. (Source: Thiel 2005, np link).

Seeing the installation that resulted, you can feel how it sometimes presents the same thing, but also how sometimes the comments and tracks seem to come from different planets, how single-dimensioned realism is totally disappearing. At the same time, I felt as though I had never experienced anything more realistic, for I not only saw the portraits of these people, but I also saw the limitations of every one of the media we had used (Source: Polak 2005, np link).

The artists’ intervention in the everyday life of these people is so tactful that this reality seems uncontaminated and purely authentic when shown to other people as well: individuals’ stories are open and free, captured situations are natural. The subtle technique of sound recording and photographing has captured the events so serenely that they seem to materialise by a single touch. Not in vain several visitors have perceived the installation as a film (Source: Klavina 2004, np link).

Now that the MILKproject is finished, I can proudly state yes, we managed. We developed a tool that is clever and sensitive, one that is realistic in a double manner, about both its subject and itself. As we hoped and expected, this tool shows the story of landscape, space and people, in a way that would not have possible with another means. This keeps fascinating me, every time I go over it again (Source: Polak 2005 np link).

Conceived in the romantic tradition of landscape art, ... MILKproject is nevertheless something of a riposte to the romantic idyll of nature, augmented as it has become though the locative apparatus (Source: Tuters 2011, p.10).

Bruno Latour suggests that things are a focus for our time, in particular, a focus that demands the attention of the arts: ‘'Things' are controversial assemblages of entangled issues, and not simply objects sitting apart from our political passions. The entanglements of things and politics engage activists, artists, politicians, and intellectuals. To assemble this parliament, rhetoric is not enough and nor is eloquence; it requires the use of all the technologies—especially information technology—and the possibility for the arts to re-present anew what are the common stakes.’ We can get a sense of what Latour means by this by looking at ‘MILK’, a project by Ieva Auzina and Esther Polak exhibited by Latour in his ‘Making Things Public’ exhibit at ZKM that also won the 2005 Golden Nica at Ars Electronica. The work of a group of Latvian locative media artists, MILK is clearly indebted to more traditional aspects of the movement in that it uses GPS trace-routes. But instead of seeking a phenomenological regrounding of the self, the MILK team traced the path of milk from its origins in the udder of a cow in rural Latvia to a cheese vendor in the Netherlands. To be sure, this project is still more suggestive than fully realized: MILK's artists are not terribly interested in Latour's reading and instead see their work more as a form of romantic landscape art. Nevertheless, MILK suggests a powerful vision of how locative technologies could allow one to more fully understand how products are commodified and distributed through the actions of global trade, thereby making visible the networked society. Here Fusco's anti-mapping diatribe runs aground, for when tied to a materialist vision, the recent turn to maps is among the strongest critiques of globalization available to us. Recognizing this, philosopher Alain Badiou referred to the maps of power drawn by artist Mark Lombardi as ‘the creation of a new possibility of art and a new vision of the world’ (Source: Tuters and Varnelis 2006, np link).

To me it was interesting that you kept the visualisation of the routes and tracks that you found very abstract. There is a green grid and the lines which slowly form in time. This all becomes only complete and clear when you include the stories of the participants. Only they know what the point on the map means. I wouldn’t understand it without their help and the photographs. There are also no interviews, so the participants explain themselves their landscapes and their activities (Source: Thiel 2005, np link).

I have learnt the following sentence from the Dutch philosopher Petran Kockelkoren: ‘Technology allows you the possibility to establish a new intimacy with the objects.’ I like this idea and that is what I wanted to achieve with the project – creating a new intimacy with the objects. There is no reason why an immediate experience with technology shouldn’t be possible (Source: Polak in Thiel 2005, np link).

Impacts / Outcomes

Several tens of interested people, including the protagonists – installation stars, watched this performance that lasted about an hour, smiling and commenting upon it (Source: Ozolina 2004, np link).

At first it could seem like we had become test rabbits. But it grew more interesting during the process. Especially the fact that we promote Latvia’s image in the world. And that we, farmers, are interesting for such kind of art (Source: MILK participant Jānis Simsons in Steimane 2004a np link).

Dutch ask for our cheese in the Dutch market! I thought it was not real – these talks about our cheese produced at Limbažu piens and exported abroad. It turned out as true, it is exported and demanded. So we could produce also more milk (Source: MILK participant Zaiga Treimane in Steimane 2004b, np link).

Katvari Parish Chairman Mārtiņš Ritums Treimanis stressed that his aim is to use every chance to popularise his parish and Latvia abroad, and considers this project’s result an interesting research and nice representational material on farmers’ work. Treimanis also said that the outcome is balanced and precisely this kind of art is worth of interest (Source: Steimane 2004c np link).

After doing… MILKproject in Latvia, [Esther Polak] decided she wanted to work with people for whom mobility is an intrinsic part of their daily life. This brought her to Nigeria, where both nomadic cow herders and truck drivers can be found, connected through a mutual involvement in milk transportation (Source: Anon 2010 np link).

That [the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality] policy wants to give artists a place and that it is important for the way we work is evident in the fact that [it] has incorporated Esther and Ieva’s MILK project in the programme for the upcoming conference on Changing Land Use in Europe. This conference will be held here at Kasteel Groeneveld from November 10th to 12th in association with the Dutch Presidency of the EU. At the conference, with a presentation by Esther Polak, the national policymakers for the countrysides of the various member states and the European Commission can acquaint themselves with this way of looking, researching and communications (Source: Hartholt 2004, np link).

References / Further Reading

Anon (nda) Latvian milk takes centre stage at Castle Groeneveld: Multimedia project imaginatively shows how dairy ends up on street market in Utrecht as Rigamont cheese. ( last accessed 24 June 2011)

Anon (ndb) Milk: context. ( last accessed 24 June 2011)

Anon (ndc) ARS Elctronica. ( last accessed 24 June 2011

Anon (2005) Statement of the Interactive Art Jury, Golden Nica. Ars Electronica (  last accessed 24 June 2011)

Anon (2010) About Esther Polak. ( last accessed 27 June 2011)

Buddensieg, A. (2005) Making Things Public. bruno-latour.fl March ( last accessed 27 June 2011)

Fusco, C. (2004) Questioning the frame: thoughts about maps and spatial logic in the global present. In these times December 16 ( last accessed 24 June 2011)

Griffis, R. (2010) For an art against the cartography of everyday life. 19 October ( last accessed 28 June 2011)

Hartholt, J. (2004) Speech at the opening of MILKproject, Groeneveld Castle, Baarn. November ( last accessed 24th June 2011)

Klavina, A. (2004) Where do tractor drivers disappear?, 4 November ( accessed 24th June 2011 last accessed 24 June 2011)

Krabbendam, D. (2006) Milk Project, Esther Polak & Ieva Auzina with RIXC, Riga Centre for New Media Culture. ( last accessed 24 June 2011)

Metz, T. (2005) A landscape hides behind each bite. 22 December ( last accessed 24 June 2011)

Ozolina, A. (2004) Farmers become installation stars. 7 October ( last accessed 24 June 2011)

Polak, E., (2005) MILKproject: sources of Information. ( last accessed 24 June 2011)

Polak, E., (2008) Can you see what I know? Visualization of Interes. ( last accessed 24 June 2011)

Heck, P. (nd) Interview: Esther Polak artist in residence. ( last accessed 28 June 2011)

Urlberger, A. (2007) Esther Polak : Entretien avec Andrea Urlberger. ( last accessed 24 June 2011)

Riemann, D. (2006) Nomadic MILK – a new project by Esther Polak. Media arts education 9 November ( last accessed 28 June 2011)

Schep, T. (2009) Esther Polak’s Nomadic Milk: is GPS-tracking like ‘photography with a very long shuttertime?’, 12 January ( last accessed 27 June 2011)

Steimane, I. (2004a) It would be interesting to see a year’s map. 15-22 December, ( last accessed 24th June)

Steimane, I. (2004b) Our cheese is imported. 15-22 December, ( last accessed 24 June 2011)

Steimane, I. (2004c) Milk route drawn by GPS. 4 October ( last accessed 24 June 20011)

Steimane, I., (2004d) Latvian cow is a travelling drugstore. in Zimprich, I. (ed) Relocated identities part II: relocating products and people. Amsterdam: Public Space With A Roof, no pagination ( last accessed 27 June 2010)

Sumpter, H. (2010) Treasured maps: creative mapmaking is being showcased in two new exhibitions. Time Out 10 June, p.46. ( last accessed 27 June 2011)

Thiel, T. (2005) milk traces becoming readable. ( last accessed 24 June 2011)

Tuters, M. (2011) Forget psychogeography: the object-turn in locative media. Paper presented at the ‘Unstable platforms: the promise and peril of  transition’ conference, MIT, Cambridge MA, 13-15 May ( last accessed 28 June 2011)

Tuters, M. & Varnelis, K. (2006) Beyond locative. 15 June ( last accessed 24 June 2011)

Compiled by Elizabeth Karin & Anna Whitehouse-Lewis, edited by Jack Parkin and Ian Cook (last updated June 2011). Page created for as part of the ‘Anthropologies of global connection’ course, Brown University.