Drew Hemment created the Futuresonic International Festival in 1995. As AHRC Research Fellow at University of Salford, he developed Loca, a collaborative arts-based project on mobile media and surveillance. He is also a founder member of PLAN - The Pervasive and Locative Arts Network.
Always On, Always Everywhere
Drew started by telling that, two years ago, he visited the Baja Beach Club, a club that represented the "cutting-edge of locative media." The Barcelona's club was the first in the world to use an RFID implant in place of VIP cards. Punters were invited to have the VIP VeriChip (the same kind of chip injected under the skin of pets) injected under their skin. Just by having your arm scanned, you can be recognised as a VIP, skip the queues at the door and pay for your drinks at the end of the night. That was the theory. When Hemment visited the club he found out that the whole story was more of a publicity stunt. Computers were not set up. It looked like a scam. VeriChip has often been associated with rather spectacular and somewhat dubious ideas such as the proposals to have migrants chipped or to tag the bodies of the victims of the hurricane Katrina.
Drew Hemment managed to interview Conrad Chase, the owner of the club (who later became a star of the Gran Hermano, the Spanish version of Big Brother.) The interview is online (i'm still wondering how he managed not to laugh during the interview). Conrad explains that the injection makes people very unique and positions them as trendsetters: "everyone has piercings and tattoos, not very many people have the VIP chip." Read also the whole story of Drew's visit at the club: Last night an Arphid saved my life.
In some ways, the Baja Beach Club rfid experiment is the cutting edge of Locative Media: it is not happening in a gallery or a consumer electronics fair but in a night club.
According to Drew Hemment, we've arrived at a crucial moment. Locative Media technologies are now breaking out of the hacker gulag. In 2003, the technologies were mostly in the hands of programmers and artists. Some social and art project that were still conceptual a few years ago are now coming into the mainstream. Now the situation is evolving. He gave two examples from the UK: mobile phone operator O2 is now offering Streetmap. What was being discussed and done in small workshop (e.g. PLAN) is now developed on large scale and polished by a major mobile phone operator. The other example is satellite navigation: it was the must have item last christmas. Google Earth is now a concept that most people grasp.
It's important to be able to engage in this and we shouldn't leave the whole development in the sole hands of the people who want to make money out of these technologies.
Hemment then gave the example of a group of German activists: FoeBuD. A MIT study has revealed that the Germans were the most naturally resistant to the massive implementation of RFID.
FoeBuD recently took the industry wrong-footed. The supermarket chain Metro set up the Future Store in Rheinberg to showcase how new technologies can re-shape the "shopping experience." They were offering shoppers cards that looked like normal loyalty cards but contained RFID chips. Without telling the customers about the presence of the chip. FoeBuD found out about it and wrote the supermarket chain who stepped back and added on the card a mention of the presence of the chip inside the card. FoeBuD had taken picture of the card before and after and issued a press release asking if customers could really trust a company that had lied to them. In Germany, there's thus a more mature debate that doesn't exist in other countries.
How can we respond to the technology? By showing different uses of it, by learning its limits and pushing them, by adding to the debate, etc. Being afraid of a technology is probably as bad as not knowing about it. We should try to embed social values into the RFID technology. The technology is still young, which leaves us with a small window of opportunities to get on, influence and propose alternative uses that were not foreseen right from the start. An example of something similar: Acid House: old technology used for something else. If we wait too long, some possibilites will be closed, others will be lost.
During Futuresonic, an international conference will explore the implications of RFID on July 21-22 in Manchester UK.
Matt Adams started by giving a brief history of Blast Theory then explained with more details their latest work: The Day of the Figurines.
In the beginning, Blast Theory was particularly interested in British clubbing culture, they were trying to make out art in clubs in the early '90s. Clubbing at the time wasn't a branded activity like it is now (clubs selling their t-shirts and other "merchandising".) Matt background is in theater and he was interested in how people were staging themselves in clubs. In clubs you have a certain control: you can decide to be and stay a spectator or to be the center of attention, to become part of the show. Clubbing were a very fluid space. THe other main interested was: how do you find and build an audience? how does it form? Visual art is usually shown in galleries, galleries have their audience. Artist have a very personal dialogue with their work and get their audience via the gallery. So matt wanted to find other ways to find new audience.
This reflected also a political interest influenced by the Russian constructivism of the '20s and also by the radical forms of theatre that emerged in the 60s and 70s.
Matt wanted to see how culture could have a transformative role and to make art works which are not narrative. Stories have limits. None of us lives a linear life, our life is more fragmented. Looking for works which would be non-narratives while being also accessible for a broad public, he found out that there was already something out there that had these two qualities: Games!
Games are entertainable, readily understandable, interactive and non-narrative.
In the meantime, he had lost interest in clubs which had lost their fluidity.
Blast Theory's first attempt to use the street and mobile phones was Can You See Me Now?, commissioned in 2001 by the Art Council of England and the BBC. Why using mobile phones? in 1998-1999, the use of mobile phones was rising, they were becoming ubiquitous and thus became a new transformative technology. Internet is not as transformative as mobile phones. A small number of people have internet at home in some countries. Mobile phone is accessible, there's a very low barrier of entry (unlike the walkman which was a status symbol when it was launched). A study in the UK showed that the proportion of homeless people who own a mobile phone is higher than the proportion of people who have a home and a mobile phone. The mobile phone is also the first thing that immigrant buy when they arrive in the UK. The device is unusually well disiminated in our culture.
In 2000 and 2001, location and 3G were coming with all kinds of promises. Blast THeory wanted to come up with uses of these technologies which were not revolving around commerce and marketing (find the nearest McDonald's, etc.)
As Sadie Plant said "The mobile phone has privatized the phone book." It's an act of trust and reciprocity to give your phone number. In 2001, Blast Theory was thus looking for ways to address these factors. Matt Adams said the Can You see me now was rather primitive, it's a chase game in which online players and players in the streets compete against one another. Why such a simple format? Two reasons: the technical challenges were big and it was necessary to make players easily understand what was going on.
The game was developed in collaboration with the researchers of the Mixed Reality Lab in Nottingham.
People found the game very adrenaline-charged, even if they were only playing online. The walkie-talkie audio element made the game very compelling: listening to the player in the street struggling with traffic, snow, breathing heavier because he or she was running up a hill, etc. The audio element made the players feel intimately connected.
Blast Theory had some frustrations about the game: it was a short and specific experience, not intellectually engaging over a long period of time. The group wanted to extend this kind of experience, so they came up with Uncle Roy All Around You. The players are not competing anymore but collaborating to search the city for Uncle Roy. 20 players online and 12 players swapping information. Uncle Roy is always one step ahead and players never find him. They will finally get to his office but will have left already when they arrive there. Blast Theory ask people: if someone you don't know asks for your support, will you offer your help? They took the phone numbers of the people who said "yes" and gave each number to another person, saying that during one year that particular person would be there in case of need. Blast Theory was interested to see what kind of community they would be able to build like that. Two or three years ago people were not sure that it was safe to shop online, there's also still questions about trusting people on the net and in chatrooms. Matt Adams gave the example of suicide chatrooms. He commented in particular the famous example of Japanese chatrooms where depressed people get in touch with each other and arrange to meet and commit suicide together. Paradox: online space is accused of being hooribly corrupted, sick and twisted example of the worst internet can offer. On the other hand, many people around the world feel depressed and find confort in discussing with other people who feel the same and won't jude them.
Back to the mobile phone numbers swapped for Blast Theory's experiment: some people did meet as a result, other never used the number but kept it and felt a connection with the stranger out there who had agreed to be there in case they needed to talk to someone.
There was a frustration with Uncle Roy: developing works on phones is extremely difficult: mobile phones are hostile to people working on then and phone operator do not want you to mess around with the devices either. So for Uncle Roy, Blast Theroy was lending the phones. As they only had a small number of phones, the performace was always on a small scale.
Besides it's difficult to develop something new for every mobile phone that exists. You must make 32 types of the same ringtone to cover the different handsets. So for the Day of the Figurines, Blast theory had to use something that all mobile phones had in common: either the voice or the SMS. They chose the SMS.
Last July they tested the Day of the Figurines in London, at the Laban Center. They improved the game for Barcelona. The next Day of the Figurines performance will be in Berlin in September and it will last 24 days (only 3 days at Sonar.)
Blast Theory's concern is to let people play whenever they want to. They want to look at the culture of SMS: they can be either annoying or a welcome intrusion. FOr the new project, they wanted to keep the balance right. The goal is to have players regard the figurine as part of their life. Another concern was to make it simple, to let any kid break into the game and have fun with it. There's no more rule than necessary. For example, one of the players had decided that his figurine had stolen a BMW.
The game, set in a fictional gloomy town, unfolds over the three days of the Barcelona festival, each day representing an hour in the life of the town that shifts from the mundane to the cataclysmic: Scandinavian metallists play a gig at the Locarno that goes horribly wrong and a gunship of Middle Eastern troops appears on the High Street. How players respond to these events and to each other creates and sustains a community during the course of a single day in the town.
The centrepiece of the game is a 3.5 x 5 meter model town - at the Centre de Cultura Comtemporània de Barcelona - created using pop up metal buildings, overlaid with computer graphics.
Once there, you register, choose your figurine, give it a name, personalize it (kind of shoes it wears, favourite place when it was a kid, name, nickname) and your character is placed into the model town. Mine is a black lady with green boots, she's called Morphine and is in distress. Throughout the day, you get text messages from the game asking where you'd like to go in the town or how the figurine should react to the people it encounters and to some rather unpleasant situations. So far it's really compelling. My poor character started her adventure by being dropped by a truck at the edge of the town. So i made her run to the timber yard, but men in sharp suits are arriving with jerry cans. I decided to look for some timber to use as a weapon, etc.
Your tiny figurine, as well as those of the other players are moved by hand on the model town every hour for the duration of the game.
The game uses emergent behaviour and social dynamics as a means of structuring a live event. It invites players to establish their own codes of behaviour and morality within a parallel world. It plays on the tension between the intimacy and anonymity of text messages, building on previous projects such as Uncle Roy All Around You, I Like Frank and Can You See Me Now?
Just received an SMS that informs me that my figurine could only find a broom. But the shaft breaks and the thick nylon bristles sweep across the side of my face. What should i do?
Blast Theory will be speaking tonight, at 7, at the Art Centre Santa Monica. Just before them, there will be a talk by Jose Luis de Vicente then by Michelle Teran. The full day 24 day version of Day Of The Figurines will be launched in Berlin in Septembre.
As i wrote two months ago, i've been invited to curate the Digital Art a la Carte section for the upcoming Sonar, a festival of advanced music and multimedia art that will take place in June 15-17 in Barcelona. Digital Art a la Carte consists of works that can be shown on a computer screen. This year's theme is Google Earth and Google Maps Hacks.
Selecting the works was harder than i expected. There's plethora of Google Map hacks as the Google Maps Mania blog demonstrates every day but there aren't that many projects that explore the possibilities of Google Maps under an artistic perspective. Not because artists are slow to jump on the bandwagon. They just didn't wait for Google to engineer the tools that would re-invent our experience of topography.
I'm not only referring to the Locative Media trend which emerged over the last half decade but also to works that anticipated, well ahead of their time, what Google Earth would one day be. In 1994 already, ART+COM came up with Terravision, an installation that enabled users to navigate --topographically but also chronologically-- in a 3D model of the globe by moving a tracking device in front of a projection of the Earth.
And as early as in 1987, Michael Naimark's Golden Gate Fly-over allowed users to navigate around the San Francisco Bay Area at fast speeds using images filmed by a gyro-stabilized helicopter camera and satellite navigation.
Back to the selection. The ever astute Oscar Abril Ascaso had already picked up for another Sonar section the well-known Yellow Arrow but also one of my favourite projects ever: Christian Nold's Biomapping which i discovered two years ago at Futuresonic in Manchester. Another bummer was that following my call for projects, many artists sent me a few lines about their projects. Most of them, alas!, were awesome but still in the "in progress" stage.
So what was left that i really liked?
Last project i selected is OGLE by Eyebeam R&D that allows for the capture and re-use of 3D geometry data from 3D graphics applications. I'd like to comment more on it because 1). i think it's a pretty clever application, 2). it's been less blogged around than the projects i mentioned above.
OGLE makes available for re-use the 3D forms we see and interact with in 3D applications: video gamers might like to use it to materialize their favorite characters; animators may wish to reuse environments or objects from other applications or animations which don't provide data-level access; architects could use the application to bring 3D forms into their proposals and renderings; and digital fabrication technologies make it possible to automatically instantiate 3D objects in the real world. I found the 3D buildings OGLE'd from Google Earth very neat.
Let's end with a few projects i like a lot but didn't or couldn't select for some reason:
For his Hello World project, Bernd Hopfengärtner has been cutting a semacode of the size 170 x 170 meters into a wheat field (images).
Finally, a net.art work that isn't based around Google Maps, but merely uses it as an additional tool. Eternal Sunset, by Adriaan Stellingwerff, creates the experience of an eternal sunset throught the use of existing (west-facing) webcams all around the world. As the sunset moves westward, Eternal Sunset continuously tunes into different webcams, chasing the sunset around the globe.
VScratch allows a visual transcription of every elements used for scratch composition. It transposes all sound nuances made by the rotation of the record: the variations of speed, audio spectrum and volume.
UPDATE: thanks to the readers who suggested me a similar work: Jesse Kriss' Visual Scratch is a realtime visualization of scratch DJ performance, built using Processing, Max/MSP, Ms. Pinky, and MaxLink.
The starting point of "Videoboxing" is a collection of sound fragments taken from different moments in a fight between lovers and ex-lovers of cinema and TV. One stage, two boxers, two screens. The screens show images of a man and a woman. Fast and peacefully asleep, each on his and hers own screen. When the boxing match starts, the man and woman come to life on their screens to take it out on each other verbally. As the physical fight progresses on stage, the audience realizes that the boxers are this man and woman on the screens.
With every succesful blow, irritation and tension rises on screen. Every well placed hit decides the intensity of the verbal violence between the two. They argue about anything and anywhere: in bed, on the streets, in a restaurant. Until the inability to communicate leads to the physical and emotional knock-out. Man and woman in a match with no clear winner or loser. Until the next confrontation arises.