Fallout Shelter. Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War, by David Monteyne, assistant professor in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary.
Publisher University of Minnesota Press writes: In Fallout Shelter, David Monteyne traces the partnership that developed between architects and civil defense authorities during the 1950s and 1960s. Officials in the federal government tasked with protecting American citizens and communities in the event of a nuclear attack relied on architects and urban planners to demonstrate the importance and efficacy of both purpose-built and ad hoc fallout shelters. For architects who participated in this federal effort, their involvement in the national security apparatus granted them expert status in the Cold War. Neither the civil defense bureaucracy nor the architectural profession was monolithic, however, and Monteyne shows that architecture for civil defense was a contested and often inconsistent project, reflecting specific assumptions about race, gender, class, and power.
Despite official rhetoric, civil defense planning in the United States was, ultimately, a failure due to a lack of federal funding, contradictions and ambiguities in fallout shelter design, and growing resistance to its political and cultural implications. Yet the partnership between architecture and civil defense, Monteyne argues, helped guide professional design practice and influenced the perception and use of urban and suburban spaces. One result was a much-maligned bunker architecture, which was not so much a particular style as a philosophy of building and urbanism that shifted focus from nuclear annihilation to urban unrest.
While reading the book, i was reminded of an American TV series from the early 1960s: The Twilight Zone. They called it La Quatrième Dimension where i lived. The episodes were part of a French tv programme from the 1980s that mixed science, scifi and pop culture. The two presenters, the twins Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff, were the coolest guys on this planet. I got a shock about an hour ago when one of the first results of a google search produced this! But i'm digressing. Some of the most memorable episodes of the Twilight Zone featured nuclear shelters, see for example Time Enough at Last and The Shelter. Atomic shelters were very exotic, very American, very eccentric to me. They were also sinister. Because of their design and purpose of course but also because of the era they embody and because of the scenarios built around them by the tv writers.
The episodes of the Twilight Zone are works of fiction but they also echo some of the preoccupations and ethical dilemmas raised by many of the architects whose work is discussed in this book. Fallout Shelter. Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War is first and foremost an architecture book but its content is also pertinent to readers who have a very limited interest in the discipline. The design and politics of fallout shelters spills onto other issues that characterized the early Cold War. From racial questions (the shelters were conceived for white American families living in suburbs and not so much for the people living in multi ethnic inner-cities or for 'marauding Indians') to the reluctance to spend tax money on social welfare. From urban dispersal to the exploration of new modes of urbanism (for example, Camp Century, 'the city under the ice'.)
However, some of the issues raised and solutions brought forward at the time still (unsurprisingly) exert an impact on the world we live in today: the militarization of public edifice and spaces (called in the book 'fortress urbanism'), the propaganda of fear, the top secret bunkers built by the government to protect members of the federal government and of the military reminded me of the 'Blank Spots on the Map', etc.
Here is the rough structure of the book: The first two chapters differentiate the approaches to civil defense taken in the 1950s an 1960s. While the 50s had little understanding of the impact of atomic weapon on the land and advised citizens to build their own shelters, the later decade admitted that little could be done to protect the population from the atomic blast itself and that only the fallout could be addressed which lead to a change of strategy that involved locating existing public buildings that could be used for communal protection. Chapter 3 examines more closely the planning process. Chapter 4 explores how architects approached (or brought a critical light on) the opportunities offered by civil defense work. Chapter 5 and 6 presents a series of architectural competitions, publications and programs launched to convince architects to plan for fallout shelters in new constructions. The last chapter studies in detail the building that inspired the book: the Boston City Hall.
Source image on the homepage: Atomic annihilation.
Artworks installed in public space might get the approval of local governments but that doesn't mean that they will make a good impression on passersby. Or on people genuinely interested in art. Too many public artworks i come across are bland and sad addition to the city or the landscape. I suspect that some of them 'dialogue' with the surrounding space only in the mind of the artists and/or the commissioners.
Fortunately there are exceptions to the rule (and the future might even get rosier.) Take the province of Limburg in Belgium where Z33, the house for contemporary art has launched pit - art in public space. A few years ago, the art space invited established names and young talents to visit several sites in the region, pick up the one they'd like to work with and then submit a project that would engage with the cultural background of the area and entice passers-by to look differently at the surroundings. The result is pit - art in public space.
Badeend (the Rubber Duck) by Florentijn Hofman kicked off Z33's art in public space programme back in 2008. Since then, the duck has been deflated, inflated again, turned into bright shoulder bags and resuscitated on several occasions. In 2011, pit commissions have spread all over the region of Borgloon-Heers and they might venture even further in the coming years.
The programme's most talked about public artwork is the see-through building of steel built by architects duo Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh in the middle of Borgloon's corn and apple fields. The 10 metre high structure has the archetypal shape of the churches found in the region. Because it is both almost transparent and highly visible, the construction provides an opportunity to have another look at the landscape. It also attracted tourists who would otherwise have never thought of visiting the area (some of them even came from Japan after the church had made the cover of an architecture magazine.)
The building is smaller than i had thought but it is just as stunning as on the photos above.
Wesley Meuris's Memento is a sculpture built by the Borgloon cemetery. The steel structure, with its peculiar acoustics and sci-fi whiteness, envelops the visitor while giving them a perspective on the sky and slices of the surrounding landscape.
I think it's the first time i entered a cemetery to see a contemporary art work.
Some of the works remain in place for several years, others can be seen for only a short time. Last Summer, Dré Wapenaar hung four tear-shaped tents on trees. People could book a tree and spend the night up there.
Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata headed a workshop where students in architecture, interior architecture and visual arts designed and built Project Burchtheuvel, a wooden sculpture where people can walk up, observe the landscape and relax. The work also scored brownie points because it almost hid the nearby library, a building which hideousness i'd rather not comment.
Aeneas Wilder built a round construction with a 360º view on the landscape near the Monastery of Colen in Kerniel. Walking around the structure reminds visitors of a meditative promenade in the internal garden of a monastery. Not that everyone uses the space to collect their thoughts. When i visited children were using it to skate and cycle.
And the list goes on...
The artworks are also accompanied by workshops, side activities and public events. The smartest way to see them is to rent a bike and cycle from one to the other.
This post wasn't sponsored in any way by the local tourism office. Maybe next time i'll try and get a gigantic inflatable duck though.
Under Black Carpets, Ilona Gaynor's new project, works with police reconstructions, cinematic culture and with 'Forensic Aesthetics' to design the perfect bank robbery. And i don't know how she did it but she managed to get the FBI New York Dept of Justice and the LAPD Archival Department on board as advisors to her study.
Some legal, political and cultural fields have recently seen a shift from human testimony to material forensics. DNA samples, 3D scans, nano-technology, electro-magnetic microscopes, satellite surveillance and other scientific methods or instruments have started to play a key role in police investigations, political decisions and court room deliberations. Retinal scans, biological remains, landscape topographies and other forensic materials communicate to the judicial system. Just like human witnesses, they come with their own rhetoric of persuasion. Eyal Weizman called it Forensic Aesthetics.
Under Black Carpets is at this stage an early study that will be part of a larger project currently under development. Under Black Carpets presents a meticulous deconstruction of several bank heists simultaneously occurring in downtown Los Angeles, focusing specifically on 5 different banks that centre One Wilshire. The work presents itself as site-specific forensic study. A spatial tool accompanied by a kit of parts, presented as a dense numerical index. Each artifact is individually numbered, assuming the role of the protagonist within the collection and pin-points its own whereabouts on a grid of vertical and horizontal geographical coordinates. The viewer is invited to examine and cross-reference this collection, allowing ones own constructed interpretation of the event as it unfolds from muiltiple, distorted perspectives.
At this point, i needed to pause in my lecture of the description of the project and asked her to tell us more about Under Black Carpets:
Your project is developed in collaboration with the FBI New York Dept of Justice and the LAPD Archival Department. How easy is it to work with them? Who are you working with, i'm not asking for names necessarily, but i'd like to get an idea of the type of person these Department would delegate to work with an artist. Are they scientists working in forensics? Members of their press team?
Firstly, I normally approach my research from a great distance to the subject, but I felt with this particular project, it wasn't going to be quite as effective without actually engaging with the scenarios I wanted to explore.
I wanted to get into the mind-set of what it takes to become a Police officer or 'Cop', so I spent a lot of time at the LAPD Police Academy, watching Police engage in intense training: learning how to drive cars in chase simulations, fire guns and partake in classes reciting American Law and its policies. But furthermore, I spent a lot of time in the Police canteen listening to everyday conversations, which led to me buying a copy of So you want to be a cop: what it takes to serve by Scott Butler and Police bible Pocket Partner by Evers, Miller, Glover and Glover - which is global emergency management manual, carried by United States police officers of all ranks and members of the US government. These books describe in detail precise procedures and policies, coupled with a philosophical mindset of what it takes to serve. I mention this, because it's the dialogue I had within the academy which led to working relationship with the justice department.
I spent sometime with detectives and ex Special Agents in the Bureau's Bank Robbery/Kidnapping/Extortion Dept in New York City, which was actually more of a connection made with my previous work. I attended various meetings and demonstrations with scientists, but not really with biochemists like you would expect in archetypal representations of forensic science, but more with spatial experts and computational homicide scientists. People who examine areas like post-impact ballistics, vessel trajectories and object reassembly.
To put their interest in the project into context If you read any book on heists or homicide published in last 10 years like Where the Money Is: True Tales from the Bank Robbery Capital of the World by Gordon Dillo and William J. Rehder, you will find that every book you come across will have been written by retired FBI agents or an ex-detectives who had worked on the cases cited in the book. The texts are framed (accidentally or not) as a form of nostalgia, not necessarily for documentation or research purposes, but for pleasure. Whilst reading you could even imagine them holding a cup of black filter coffee with a gun lying next to them on their bedside table, they are so personal.
Interestingly enough, they are mostly anecdotal. There are very little facts or figures cited, but more focused on memories and one-liners. As such they are delightful people and splendidly macabre.
I'm curious about the title of the project: why "Under Black Carpets"? It makes me think of something sinister that has to be hidden...
The title is sinister. It refers to the act and image of stealing. In old cartoons such as Tom and Jerry, Tom the cat would enter the room and slip underneath the carpets, as to sneak upon the mouse (Jerry) in doing this, displaying a huge moving bulge (often cat shaped) that would continually hit furniture and objects in the room because he couldn't see where he was going - alerting Jerry the mouse as to his whereabouts, rendering the espionage futile, but hilarious. Law enforcement bodies are often portrayed in crime cinema as clumsy, often with plans turning sour, foiled by seemingly petty rules and orders given by superiors by act of protocol. The protagonist hero is often a rogue cop who dismisses the rules and catches the criminal. The black carpet; refers to the archetypal colours found in banks, federal buildings and financer's offices. It's also meant to indicate a spatial aspect to the project.
Your project deals with the aesthetic dimension of forensics, a science said to have taken over 'the era of the witness' in legal systems. How much faith do you have in forensics now that you've studied it from up close (well, at least closer than most of us)? Is this science as indefectible as tv series would like us to believe?
Forensic science has blurred a previously held distinction: between evidence, when the law speaks of objects, and that of the witness, referring to subjects, forensics has become something in-between. TV dramas such as CSI in the US and Silent Witness in the UK, really are as accurately based on reality as entertainment would permit- they exist in a world of simulations, computer based conjecture and biologically stained rags in test tubes. Forensics however isn't strictly lab based nor does it always deal with bio-chemistry as I've mentioned previously, that's very much not the case, that plays a significantly small role. And it also very much depends on the nature of the crime and where the crime happened. US crime tends to be more exaggerated and extreme, due to the very nature or culture in which people live, especially in Los Angeles. The crime cases publicized, tend to be lot more spectacular then crimes committed in Britain, of course that's stating the obvious, however I honestly believe that it's related to the cinematic culture, of which we just simply don't have the ability, or want to record and transmit news cinematically. Of course why would we?
Michael Mann's film Heat (1995) was a film shot in downtown LA, with the most notably 'realistic' loud gunplay scene in cinematic history to date. It's cold, blunt and incredibly violent. But what's interesting about that scene is that it became the basis and inspiration for a very real event that happened in LA a few years later, an event dubbed The North Hollywood Shootout I watched repeatedly the news footage from the North Hollywood Shootout and Heat and found that in comparison after repeatedly viewing it intensely, I decided that actually Mann's Heat was far more realistic.
I don't believe anything is infallible, people by nature are cunning and will always find a way to subvert and distort the truth. Even scientific evidence takes form, as rhetoric by the very nature in which is it presented, monopolized or industrialized. I'm not saying that forensic science is inaccurate but it's the way in which we construct or curate the evidence is what makes it key. There have been many miscarriages of justice, with many serious crimes going unsolved. A juridical verdict is a legal argument. The end is not normally the 'truth' of 'what happened', but one of convincing conjecture, which makes it's dimension beautifully fascinating and deadly.
With such a shift on the emphasis of forensics referring back to taking over the 'the era of the witness', I think has left the Police putting too much faith in forensic science, particularly in that of biology, so much so that they have begun to ignore human instinct and intuition, because the definition of truth and reality has never been so unclear.
But then again maybe I'm simply too much of a purist fan of film noir and crime literature.
Could you also explain the part played by 'forensic aesthetics' in your project?
'Forensic Aesthetics' a term coined by Dr Eyal Weizman at the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths University. It was an idea that was originally used in an architectural context and was called Forensic Architecture. The idea of using objects to form an argument, as a narration in the absence of actuary evidence is now being openly discussed at various law schools in the US as a mode of future legal practice, which is very exciting! The term is very much at the heart of this project or at least in the research. My project comes into play whereby, I would like to use this theory and expand on the research as a platform to initiate 'it' as a mode of design, by giving it form and materiality. Weizman talks about it the broad context of human rights, of course those are important, but my angle is for pleasure, aesthetic speculation and fantasy. Imagine an architectural model - a designed space accompanied by designed artifacts being wheeled into a courtroom and brought up for questioning almost to fulfill the role of the 'witness' as evidence. Design can become something to examine, question and decipher through legal channels.
It's very interesting to me to relentlessly construct narratives from traces that were left over from a traumatic or chaotic event, even if you are stitching together empty spaces that seem impossible and too abstract. The documentation of everyday detail in the construction of archives of clues and cases creates a great pool for crafting hybrid fictions and competing perceptions - a world of secret lives, lies and stories.
Under Black Carpets presents a meticulous deconstruction of several bank heists simultaneously occurring in downtown Los Angeles, focusing specifically on 5 different banks that centre One Wilshire. What are these banks?
The banks are: Bank of America, Mellon Bank, City National Bank, US Bank and Wells Fargo. These were chosen because of their geographic proximity to One Wilshire and precise distance from the LAPD headquarters in downtown LA. The narrative proceeds, a false plane collision with the 30th floor of One Wilshire, as a ruse. One Wilshire is an infamous centralized carrier hotel. It provides half of the worlds connection to the internet; currently it connects: China, Korea, the USA, east Russia and parts of Europe, directing anything toward One Wilshire would attract much attention. The surrounding street block formation would centralize Police, harboring them in one place due to the precise vertical heights of the buildings and the dense geography of those particular blocks. The visual transparency from the ground is also extremely limited. The architecture is positioned in such a way, that staging particular events or moments could be hidden from view behind protruding floors, light refractions from the mirrored glass and thick palm tree heads. Some of the streets are also impossible for helicopters to circulate and enter, however every flat rooftop has its own helipad by state law in that area.
What will be the purpose of the deconstruction? To design the perfect bank robbery?
Yes. Exactly that. My intention is design the perfect heist. A counter measure to anticipated police reactions based on this research. But not presented as projection like a pre-planned, straight-up plot, but one told through hindsight. Using aesthetics and material form to frame the narrative as an investigation, an archive of evidence for the purpose of constructing, a legal argument.
Finally, what shape does the project take: the project page has models but do you also plan to add 3D renderings? video? essays?
This project is simply a study - a deconstruction for the purpose of seeing something from a birds-eye view (not literally) but a plot device to experiment with. This first part was completed whilst I was the summer research resident at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The final project will take the form of artifacts, large scale engineered mechanical devices, architectural physical studies, speculative tools and materials. There will be films - my aim is to shoot Police reconstructions of what they assumed to have happened. There's a lot to do!
A book or research will also accompany the project, a series of essays and collated documents curated and co-written by Geoff Manaugh (BLDGBLOG) and myself.
The final work will go into an exhibition on display next year at the Lisbon Architecture Triennale, it will be showing in an unused bank vault comprising of 6 rooms in September 2013.
If you think that the ongoing edition of the Manifesta biennale is not enough to lure you to the Limburg region of Belgium, how about an exhibition about the work of 30 artists who are looking for gaps in the ruling systems and structures?
Mind the System, Find the Gap is this year's Summer exhibition at Z33 and the concept of the show has been applied literally to the Z33 space. The artworks occupy every space available: they are in the usual exhibition spaces of course but also in the garden, in the reception area, and inside the little Beguinage houses.
Our society is governed by all sorts of systems and structures. No system, however, whether political, judicial, economical, socio-cultural or spatial, can comprise life in its entirety. Every system has loopholes, leaks and ambiguities.
The exhibition is uplifting and timely. In these moments of social inequality, austerity, cuts in culture budgets, low social mobility, loss of privacy, recession, it is reassuring to discover that the systems that govern our existences have flaws and spaces that we can infiltrate. Even if this form of resistance is often more symbolic than truly power-challenging.
Some of the participating artists merely reveal and document these gaps while others go further and demonstrate how to take advantage of them. The artworks are organized according to themes: political systems, spatial systems and socio-cultural systems with of course much overlap since many of the artworks confront several systems at the same time.
The clearest and probably most amusing introduction to the show has to be Matthieu Laurette's project. For 8 years, the artist ate, shaved, dressed and showered for free thanks to Moneyback Products, a method of shopping that pushed to the extreme the marketing system of the major food corporations which offer their product with a "Satisfied or your money back" or "Money back on first purchase" label. Similarly, Laurette's home was always equipped with brand new electrical goods which he sent back before the end of the guarantee - to replace them with brand new ones.
The strategy requires to be extremely well organised. Because most manufacturers ask you to send back a separate till receipts before they will refund items, you need to pay separately for each product.
Moneyback Products was an art project but also a life style that leaked beyond the walls of art galleries. Laurette became indeed a celebrity in the French media, he was invited to popular talk shows and his project appeared on the cover of mainstream magazines.
In Identity4You, Heath Bunting creates off-the-shelf new legal identities built up from a portfolio of unique legal relationships. The work - a continuation of Identity Bureau and the Status Project - draws on the fact that as a human being one can have several legal identities. These identities are constructed through a network of registrations: loyalty cards, bank accounts, phone cards, bills, government correspondence and other person related data. The vaster the network, the stronger the legal identity. Identity4You demonstrates that an identity depends mainly upon administrative systems, rather than personality or even a physical body.
The animation film What Shall We Do Next is presented as an "archive of gestures to come". The gestures refer to the patents for the invention of new devices taken out from the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) from 2006 to 2011. The functioning of upcoming tablets, smartphones, laptops, game consoles, medical instruments and other devices involves gestures that are defined and copyrighted even though the interface does not yet exist. In the video, the artist appropriates the gestures and separates them from their utilitarian function, letting them float in the air and follow a choreographic abstraction.
The work not only explores how technology shapes our behaviour but also questions the privatization of something as basic as a human gesture.
For her performance Bag Lady, Pilvi Takala spent one week in a shopping mall in Berlin, carrying a lot of cash in a transparent plastic bag. As soon as they spotted the content of her bag, sales personnel, security staff, shop owners as well as fellow customers, looked uncomfortable and unsure how to react. Although she behaved like a normal customer, Takala was both a security threat and a subject of protection. This slight intervention sheds controversial light on the fragility of the social order, where private property in the form of money or product is such a holy cow, that it is under constant intuitive public control.
We're getting used to read about architectural works that engages with the cracks in urban space. But we tend to forget that they come from a long tradition of 'gap exploration.'
In 1973 and 1974, Gordon Matta-Clark purchased, at New York City auctions, fifteen leftover and unwanted properties. Because these properties were too small or too oddly shaped, they were unusable or inaccessible for development. He got each of them for a few dollars.
Matta-Clark documented these urban voids with an archive of deeds, maps, photographs of every inch of his lands, tax receipts, videotapes and other documents. Unfortunately, Matta-Clark died before he could fully realise his plans, and ownership of the properties reverted to the city (the taxes to pay were too expensive.)
Dutch architect Anne Holtrop based the design of the Trail House not on gaps but on unofficial use of land. The building structure follows Elephant Paths, the shortcuts that people adopt and trace when they go through meadows, parks or city squares. Over time, the tracing of the Elephant Paths appears on the ground which reinforced the informal route. The architect simply shaped a house to further recognize its existence. Z33 shows the model and Bas Princen's always impeccable photos.
Tadashi Kawamata's Tokyo Project - New Housing Plan explores the possibility to squeeze the home of city dwellers into the overlooked spaces of the Japanese capital: between the fences of construction sites, behind vending machines or even billboards.
Kawamata actually build the houses, each of which was occupied on rotation over a one-week period by the artist and his associates. The inside of the guerrilla houses was surprisingly comfortable with wall-to-wall carpeting, heaters and CD players powered by electricity lifted from external sources such as the vending machines.
I probably don't understand fully what makes KALENDER a work that looks for 'gaps in the system' but i'm glad i discovered it at Z33.
Between 3 January 2009 and 2 January 2010, Benjamin Verdonck performed more than 150 actions in Antwerp. These actions related to traditional public holidays, the cycle of the seasons, geopolitical shifts and life as it is.
I particularly like the procession of oversized toilet sanitizer, lighter, mobile phone and soda can.
Also in the show:
In 'Based on a Grid', Esther Stocker creates a spatial system from a series of black painted wooden blocks in the entrance hall of the Z33 exhibition building. The visitor is drawn into the installation, as it were, and is challenged by the system, the grid that is there but not immediately visible. For Stocker, the system is implied as much by its gaps as it is by its contours. But do we want to look for the system or are we happy to loose ourselves in the chaos of scattered elements drifting apart?
Founded in 1998, Mejor Vida Corp. (Better Life Corporation) is a political and art organization that attempts to level social inequalities by injecting guerrilla art operations into capitalist structures. Mejor Vida Corp. provides free products and services such as international student ID cards, subway tickets for the Mexico City network, recommendation letters, fake barcode stickers to reduce the prices on goods sold by supermarket chains, etc.
Z33 has youtubed a series of introductions to the show as well as some interviews with artists participating to it. I'd recommend the one with Benjamin Verdonck because his accent is so lovely.
Previously: Mind the System, Find the Sukima (gap).
An exhibition as smartly titled as Mind the System, Find the Gap deserved a short trip on the Eurostar.
That's why on Tuesday, i was once again at Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt to see the work of artists who are 'seeking out the gaps in the system.' I'll come back to it with a detailed review of the exhibition in the next few days. But let's kick of the show with Sebastian Stumpf's photo documentation of his performances in the 'gaps' (in japanese sukima) of Tokyo architecture. The artist is literally filling in the hiatus in the dense architectural structure of the city, squeezing his body in the overlooked spaces between the buildings. The action makes us suddenly aware of this 'urbanism interrupted', and calls our attention to what is in-between, behind, or beyond.
A very Pasta & Vinegar work....
Mind the System, Find the Gap remains open until 30 September 2012 at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.
As i mentioned a few days ago, the Barltett's student show is one of my favourite events of the Summer in London. It is however so overwhelming and turbulent that you need dedication and pure chance to spot the works that might interest you the most.
I'm glad my Bartlett expedition led me to The Theatre of Synthetic Realities.
The project, authored by architectural designer Madhav Kidao, is miles away from what you'd expect from an architecture work. No model, no plan. In fact, it rather looks like an essay made of photos, short videos and texts. Together, they reflect on immoral architecture, unsympathetic machines, reality filtered by artificiality and more generally, our symbiotic relationship to technology. In fact, Kidao likens his project to "an exaggerated caricature of our present and near future relationships to technology as is stands."
What made the project remarkable is its focus on how new technologies prompt new behaviour and new ethical questions and decisions. I realize i might be accused of heresy and crucified in front of the populace for writing this but ethics and social concerns are usually not the nerve centers of architectural exhibitions.
Allow me to do a bit of copy/pasting and let's see each other right after that for an interview with Madhav Kidao.
The Theatre, as illustrated in the film Making Friends and Other Functions, is a vehicle in which to explore the relationship that exists between the designer/creator and his or her repertoire of increasingly intelligent collaborative tools, be these tools to create or tools to think. The machines, under the selective guidance of the designer, construct their own reality based upon the information they extract from their environment and its unwilling occupants. This is ultimately a task with no beginning or end, and fundamentally questionable ethical integrity. As result we are left to question the role of the Architect, both in regard to creative authorship and ethical responsibility.
Hi Madhav! What are the 'Unsecure Webcams' that are mentioned in ACT I - The Observer? What makes them unsecured?
As I'm sure you are aware most live feed web and surveillance cameras can be accessed remotely through the internet. It is possibly one of the Internet's worst kept secrets that by simply googling specific codes for particular camera models, for example "intitle:liveapplet inurl:LvAppl" a list of all the live webcams of that particular make and model is given. Often, however, the owners of the cameras, usually domestic or small businesses, fail to password protect them, this is what makes them unsecured. Therefore in theory anybody is able to view the camera's live stream and with many cameras actually control the pan and tilt of the camera. As long as you have not cracked any passwords, this is entirely legal.
Whilst the feeds are usually pretty innocent, and frankly often mundane, every now and then you come across something that you no doubt shouldn't have done, an insight into a private world completely unconnected to our own other than through technology. It's quite a peculiar relationship that exists between the remote observer and the realities of an unknown space that is unfolding before them. Time is of particular importance as you are viewing in real time a world in which you have no knowledge of its past beyond the moment you logged in, yet our extended embodiment into the animate camera somehow immediately embeds us into this unfamiliar space.
This is not too dissimilar to the tele-assistance relationship between a drone pilot and the drone. Initially we are completely ignorant of where and what it is we are looking at other than what can been interpreted from the point of view of the camera. It's in our nature to be inquisitive, to people watch, and there is some perverse pleasure in trying to comprehend the events unfolding before us. However due to the lack of context more often than not this is simply educated speculation. The more I explored this strange paradigm the more I found myself just making up wholly fictitious scenarios in my head based upon the slightest clues garnered purely from body language, perceived interactions and the environment. The epistemologically variety of this action means that truth soon begins to seem irrelevant compared to the desire to fabricate an alternative reality.
The name of the project, The Theatre of Synthetic Realities, places your work in the realm of fiction. Yet, it was inspired by elements of reality. Could you tell us about the trends, behaviors and technologies that have inspired the project?
It was from this point that the concept of a Theatre of Synthetic Realities emerged, a kind of reinterpretation of Hitchcock's Rear Window for the 21st Century, in which the binoculars are replaced by the the vast interconnected complexity of our computing networks; with each input - be it a camera, a sensor or even another person - acting as a portal into a parallel environment. In much the same way as the binoculars are a prosthesis to extend our vision, the global technological systems that we symbiotically rely upon extend our powers of perception and influence around the world. In Rear Window the architecture of community and society defines the story. I was keen to explore how technology facilitates new forms of social interaction and redefined concepts of neighbourhood and community, and how this in turn redefines our concepts of architecture.
The impact technology has had upon our social systems, access to knowledge and global influence is nothing particularly new, Marshall McLuhan famously introduced the concept of a Global Village and Global Theatre almost 50 years ago. For me what is more interesting is how this has evolved into the relatively more recent concept of the Internet of Things. The trend I believe that we we will see with the Internet of Things is that it is not just objects that can be tagged and categorised but also the spaces they inhabit and the actions and events that they are associated with. In this way spaces, buildings and environments are becoming encompassed in the Internet of Things. This is not limited to architecture though, the social activities, and routines that are contained within that architecture add to the data history of a place, a form of artificial psychogeography. What this means is that in much the same way as we exist in a duality between physical and digital social circles, the spaces that we occupy do too. What we begin to see is a physical environment and the live updating digital representation of that environment. This is facilitated by new advances in sensory and scanning technologies, computer vision and biometric analysis.
I, like many others, was investigating the potential of the XBox Kinect as means of capturing complex real time data. Its capabilities have been widely publicised but in simple the idea that a machine can see in three dimensions and then also recognise human gesture is incredible. It allows any machine created using such technology to become actually embodied in a physical world. It begins to transcend the border between the physical and the digital which is a very powerful concept when thinking about intelligent environments. And as we increase our dependence upon the internet as our primary source of knowledge and interaction, our interpretation of truth becomes more reliant upon the technology that we assign to gather and interpret the real world. So fundamentally we start to view the physical world through the filter and perception of machines, in effect, a synthetic reality.
Could you describe the Vision Machine, the way humans would 'interact' with it and its ultimate purpose?
The idea of the Vision Machine originated from Paul Virilio's book The Vision Machine. In it he discusses the concept of the "automation of perception", predicting a machine that sees for itself not for the benefit of man. This concept coupled with an interest in how artificial intelligence feeds into responsive/adaptive environments intrigued me. The capabilities that a computer has to extract a significant amount of information from a physical location combined with its ability to comparatively analyse that data with the vast amounts of data stored online through a neural network is almost enough to simulate perception. The resources that a computer has immediate accesses to - such as The Internet of Things - and its methods of analysis are completely alien to our own, therefore it could be predicted that its interpretations of the physical world would be alien too. Building upon the idea of how a human would perceive a space as viewed remotely through a webcam, I wanted to create a sensationalised demonstration of how the camera itself could possibly perceive the space it inhabits in relation to its learned perceptual world.
In regard to the Theatre of Synthetic Realities, the Vision Machine is in essence a robotic actor, cameraman and director in one. Whereas in the initial webcam scenario I was in complete control of the camera and was free to make my own conclusions of what I saw, with the Vision Machine at the other end I am relegated to a more collaborative role in which the machine dictates what it is I view however provides information that I would never have ordinarily been able to extract. Working from this principal we could then predict that the collaborative relationship between myself and the semi-autonomous machine could lead to an emergent performance unique to the relationship. The next stage in the Vision Machine was to then suggest that, much like I had done, it too begins to fabricate elements of reality and as such distort the reinterpretation of the digital model of that environment as well as what the viewer believes to be true.
The project has never really been a serious proposition for a machine to be developed. In fact it was supposed to be an exaggerated caricature of our present and near future relationships to technology as is stands. The machine is portrayed as more of a mild irritation that we just coexist with rather than any kind of interactive companion. Its ultimate purpose is as an analogical device to critique and explore our concept of what digital fabrication is or could be. In this project we are fabricating reality and the representation of reality as part of the Internet of Things. It is very much an attempt to question the relationship we have to tools and technology in a world in which we continue to transfer not just physical but increasingly cognitive faculties over to those tools. The is not seen to be necessarily a negative thing but rather an interrogation of the possibilities this presents, especially in regard to new forms of collaboration.
I found 'ACT IV - Making Friends and Other Functions' a bit daunting: here is a machine that observes human beings constantly and then assesses them and assigns them a character. Do you see current technology going in that direction? And what would be the benefit of having such machines around?
One of my aims for the project was to see how technologically advanced I could make it for the least amount of money; so begging, borrowing and hacking spaces, hardware, open source software and code. Then was an attempt to demonstrate how the role of the designer is changing, particularly in the world of open source projects. Practically any designer can now create they're own tools and machines for any job-specific purpose with a relatively low budget, the RepRap being the archetype. As complex and powerful technologies become cheaper and easier to hack, like the Kinect, the designer is gifted with power and responsibility that is free from supervision.
That sense of malaise you have from the idea of camera watching and judging you is in large part due to your loss of control and empathy due to the unpredictable nature of a non-human agent. I think this is an issue that as designers, and particularly architects, we will have to address. As architecture reacts to shifts in social habits I think we will see a lot of unforeseen challenges in regard to what technologies we use and the manner in which we do so.
Fundamentally my project is an immoral one and I think the concept of an immoral architecture is something that will become increasingly prevalent in the future.
The text of your project says that "The Theatre (...) is a vehicle in which to explore the relationship that exists between the designer/creator and his or her repertoire of increasingly intelligent collaborative tools, be these tools to create or tools to think. The machines, under the selective guidance of the designer, construct their own reality based upon the information they extract from their environment and its unwilling occupants. This is ultimately a task with no beginning or end, and fundamentally questionable ethical integrity. As result we are left to question the role of the Architect, both in regard to creative authorship and ethical responsibility." Is ethical responsibility already an issue architects and designers encounter nowadays when working with new technological tools?
Ethical responsibility has always had some part to play in the design process but I think that is slowly coming to the forefront. The explosion of open source has really brought ethics into the design process as it not only transfers power from the institution to the individual but it also provides new forms and channels to disseminate information, this recent article actually being a perfect example.
For me, consciousness and intent are just as important as categorical right and wrong. For exploring emergent technology is just that, emergent, it is unknown. While a particular technology may have positive society changing impact it may well have dire consequences too. I'm not one for speculations upon utopian ideals and believe that we will have to tread and adjust the boundary of what is acceptable to progress civilisation, however whilst the unquestioning embrace and exploration of new technology is exciting we often fail to question its merit beyond novelty. As Joseph Weizenbaum suggested, just because we can do something doesn't mean we ought to. I think we have to take a utilitarian stance and ask ourselves is doing something in a new way beneficial to design and society? And if so is it not to the detriment of others?
Admittedly I think architecture is a bit slow off the mark when it comes to these kinds of issues. This is understandable when you consider the timescale architecture operates on compared to other design fields. However Architects have always been eager to incorporate new design methodologies and the ethics of the technology used will undoubtedly become an issue.
In terms of the Bartlett show, I'm guessing there is a particular reason you have asked this question so I would ask the same of you. The show is always a dazzling array of phenomenal work and the mastery of a variety of mediums used is breathtaking. I do feel the density and complexity of the show does however sometimes make it overwhelming and distracting from the work. Of course as with any degree show the work on display can only ever be a vast reduction of the full scope of the project and as such the viewer is never going to get a comprehensive understanding of that project.
All images Madhav Kidao.