Summer is back in London and dozens of bees have now settled in the middle of Spitalfields. Real bees passersby don't try to wave away. They are dead and hang on fishing lines as if they were caught in mid flight inside a giant glass case, surrounded on all sides by office blocks.
The work is called BEE BOX and was created by artist Anne Brodie to remind us of the overlooked disappearance of the pollinators. Bees, like us, form communities of workers capable of generating intelligent social interactions.
"There is also a very strong and perhaps more obvious analogy between both human and bee society's, particularly in the heart of the working city," the artist told me. "Both are fragile systems capable of working harmoniously and productively, but what happens when the balance becomes unstable? It seemed particularly poignant the week before beebox was installed, London had to deal with some of the worst riots in recent history."
BEE BOX was curated by Howard Boland and Laura Cinti of C-LAB with the support of the European Public Art Centre, a collaboration between European organisations to exhibit in public space works that explore relations between art, science and society art-science artworks. The work will remain on view on the square until November 1 and will be recreated in Helsinki in October, using Finnish bees.
More images in the flickr set: European Public Art Centre: in London with C-LAB and Spitalfields - Anne Brodie's Bee Box 2011.
Last week, i was telling you about Le Cadavre Exquis, an interactive installation commissioned Making Future Work. This Nottingham-based initiative that called for artists, designers and organisations based in East Midlands to submit proposals that would respond to four distinct areas of practice: Co creation / Online Space, Pervasive Gaming / Urban Screens, Re-imaging Redundant Systems and Live Cinema / 3D.
The Urban Immune System Research, one of the 4 winning projects, investigates parallel futures in the emergence of the 'smart-city'. During their research, the Institute has produced a series of speculative prototypes that combine digital technology and biometrics: one of the devices 'functions as a social sixth sense', a second one is a backpack mounted with 4 megaphones that shouts out geo-located tweets as you walk around, a third one attempts to make its wearer get a sense of what might it feel like to walk through a 'data cloud' or a 'data meadow'.
The devices are the starting point of a series of user tests, performative research and public engagement events that seek to provoke debate and facilitate wider public discussion around potential urban futures, and our role in shaping them.
Just a few words of introduction about The Institute for Boundary Interactions before i proceed with our interview. IBI is a group of artists, designers, architects, technologists and creative producers conduct practice-based research into the complex relationships between people, places and recent developments in the field of science, technology and culture.
The name of your project is quite intriguing. Why did you call it Urban Immune System Research? How does the immune system of a city compare to the human body immune system, for example? What are the differences and similarities?
The Urban Immune System Research [UISR] project was the culmination of a two day event we ran in December 2010 as part of our LAB commission for Sideshow2010. We set out to discuss the relationship between notions of 'intelligent' systems, and principles of ecology. A whole raft of interesting and thought provoking ideas emerged but after some discussion they coalesced into the UISR project.
We found the immune system a fascinating and intriguing departure point because it demonstrates complex self-organising properties, but what's interesting about this to us is how this kind of system is understood outside of scientific circles, in the everyday and within the context of the city. There is a general understanding of these kinds of systems, but we discovered an absence in the general lexicon of everyday terms with which to describe the kind of phenomena we explored in that workshop. So in part the name of the project is to ask questions about perceptions of intelligence and explore that gap between the science and the experience.
The interest in looking at urban space as an organism developed from thinking about this relationship between ecologies and intelligent systems. We looked at how these systems scale up, inspired by Geoffery West's research into the similarities and differences between mammalian and urban scaling. So despite their very clear differences urban ecologies correlate strongly to biological systems and although made of different components behave in similar ways.
This research quickly grew into a fascination by what happens at that juncture where human technology meets ecology, how personal electronic devices, micro-biology and nano-technology effect us at the macro level. We were interested in how this will manifest macroscopically, or ecolologically if you will, and how this in turn will affect us individually as constituent parts of that urban ecology. Asking what form an Urban Immune System might take, and the devices we have developed under this title thus far are the first steps in our efforts to understand these ideas and their implications.
The devices all look to find alternative ways of connecting the individual directly to their ecology (the urban organism) and feel their place within it. These technologies operate to mediate our relationship to, and navigation through physical, social and virtual space. This process of upgrading could be seen as the momentum leading us towards transhumanism, an imagined yet possible future where the augmented body replaces natural selection as an evolutionary process in turn effecting the development of our 'ecological' surroundings.
This notion of transhumanism is another aspect that we we're very interested to explore within this project as it has a lot of synergy with the notion of the urban organism. From one perspective we are looking at the inorganic environment as an organic organism, and from another we look at the organic organism as a component within an inorganic machine.
With The Sticky Data device you were asking "What might it feel like to walk through a 'data cloud' or a 'data meadow'?" Did you find an answer to the question while you were testing the device? Is the experience of knowing how much data our body goes through every single second a stimulating one? or is it rather stressing? worrying? overwhelming? Does it influence the way you navigate a city afterwards? Would you for example avoid a quiet street because you've discovered that it might looks like a pleasant street empty of cars and passersby but with a data traffic that you find too intense?
The most stimulating thing about being able to sense geo-located data is the thought that you are physically feeling traces of people's experiences in the same place where they happened. We think this gives an extra sense of connection to a place, even if only for a moment.
It's difficult to say exactly what that should feel like, we're still playing with different haptic sensations, but the device certainly challenged our assumptions about certain areas. For example, in one test we found a really high density of data outside a bus depot, whereas across the street near a stadium, a seemingly much more social and 'eventful' place, there was comparatively little. So you definitely get a sense that the topography of a city's data layer can be quite different to that of its architectural space, but also an alternative sense of a places social makeup. So, finding themselves in a less sociable environment, did the inhabitants of the bus depot turn to more digital forms of social interaction, while the stadium offered enough 'face to face' social encounters that digital interaction was unnecessary?
The hope is definitely to ask people to question their relationship with space by providing a very different experience of navigating a city - the technologies that we use everyday are creating this digital topography, so how does this affect the urban organism and our interactions within it?
At the end of your description of the Sticky Data project, you explain that "As the user moves on, data seeds will be copied and dropped in new locations spreading them throughout the city or collected and cataloged by the device." Why did you feel the need to add this 'manipulation' of the data? Is it not going to make the 'datascape' too confusing?
This was an idea that came from discussions around the notion of the Urban Immune System. We talked about the idea that perhaps urban space already has an immune system of sorts that operates to keep the city within normative parameters. We discussed this redistribution as something that might function like an immunisation to bolster this existing immune system by disrupting it with non-normative behaviour to see how it responded.
We were interested in devices that have parasitic (viral) properties or where the owner could engage in the production of data and urban data configuration using the traces that others leave behind just through wearing the device and walking. We leave behind traces of our electronic identities almost daily and it's something that we are not really aware of.
Also, if data is part of our physical world then it in some way degrades or gets pasted over like the posters in a metro station over time, the datascape is constantly shifting. We were going to be selective over how what qualities of data we were looking for, so older data might not be as 'memetically healthy' and so may not spread as far or at all. We were interested in being deliberately disruptive to see what might happen if we push messages into and across territories. So the Sticky Data project could sift through what is there in electronic space to find data that might benefit the wearer or be most disruptive.
One of the objectives of UISR is to explore new ways to 'sense the social characteristics of a city as you would temperature, or air quality.' Do you have a better idea of Nottingham (or any other city where you have experimented with the devices) after having tested your prototypes through its streets? Do you see the city with another eye?
The devices have opened up new ways of experiencing the city, so we're pleased about that. When testing the Sticky Data device we discovered huge amounts of twitter data in surprising places - like the bus depot on an unremarkable street that we mentioned before. So the device certainly challenges your perceptions of the social makeup of your environment and certain expectations or pre-judgments you may have made. Of course it also has the ability to re-enforce some prejudices too. However, not knowing what the messages are it leaves you to read into their presence from what is physically around you, building the virtual narrative into the physical narrative of your surroundings.
In the tests we have carried out we have felt some interesting things that have challenged and re-enforced our assumptions of particular locations. However no one of us has tested the device thoroughly across the city yet as we are still fine tuning it and have remained largely within familiar areas. Personally I am looking forward to taking the device somewhere totally unfamiliar and finding out what a city you've never visited before feels like. If you have no pre-suppositions about a particular street does the device make it easier to walk down or give you spidey-sense tingle that there will be something unpleasant around the corner? We just don't know yet.
Could you describe The LOST (Local Only Shared Telemetry) device? How does it work?
The idea with the LOST device is for it to function as a social sixth sense. It's a wireless device, kept in close contact with the body that stores its owners profile. It simply transmits and receives this profile data over relatively small distances. When it finds a similar signal to its own the device communicates this to the owner by changing its temperature.
We wondered how a system that is similar to that of ants leaving pheromone trails might work in the social context of a city. In antithesis to the omniscient Internet this device doesn't use any kind of infrastructure as it communicates only locally, so the user has to physically travel to find new data rather than just clicking hyperlinks. The sensory feedback the wearer receives is specific only to the time and place in which they find themselves.
It's a thought experiment thinking that if everyone in an urban space wore such a device you would develop a very granular sense of the social make up of your very local vicinity with the cumulative heating, cooling effect of everyone else's device surrounding you. In such a way you could get a very clear feeling about whether a particular area is sympathetic to you as an individual or not. Kind of like blind man's buff, but instead of other players saying warmer or colder you simply feel it directly.
As with the sticky data device, having no lingual or visual output, it interfaces at a somatic level - we're interested in what happens when social data is perceived physiologically rather than visually. By integrating these digital sensory devices into our normal bodily senses we can start to understand the possible positive and negative implications not just of existing systems but also our rapid progress towards transhumanism.
The notion of being a trans-human is very exciting but until technologies are developed we can never really know what the implications of them will be. Devices like the LOST device allow ways of imagining how technological and biological integration might operate and in turn perhaps begin to understand their consequences individually and socially.
I'm afraid i forgot the name of the device you used for the public performance on the day of Making Future Collaboration Work. Beyond the fun and spectacular side of the performance, what are you trying to achieve with this piece?
That was the Town Crier. It's a backpack mounted with 4 megaphones that shouts out geo-located tweets as you walk around. The other two devices we made offer very subtle, private interactions, so we wanted to try something a little more confrontational.
The idea was to use the disparity between what can often be intended as very private or relatively anonymous reflections, and the openness of physical spaces that they are associated with. Shouting out these bits of text wrenches them, quite forcibly, back into public view. On the other hand though, the electronic voice puts all these statements on an even plane, and democratizes them giving a sense of the voice belonging to the place rather than any individual. These statements are at different times nonsensical, funny, or timely and touching, but they all add to the texture of a place, offering a glimpse of the collective memory embedded within it.
Are you still working on the project? Do you plan to push the prototypes any further? Add new ones?
We see this as a long term research project so we are definitely still working on not only testing and improving current devices, but also using this process to develop our understanding of the data city, the technologically augmented human, and the ecology that they create.
We're currently developing the town crier into some kind of performance work and playing with the Google Navigation voice more as a means of exploring the way in which the network operates as a continuous landmark in our landscape.
The Sticky Data and LOST device projects are still very much a works in progress. With Sticky Data we are going to continue experimenting with the way that the data is sensed or output. The immediate question we want to address is the character of the sensation in relation to the density of data being sensed. Similarly, what types of data are being sensed, and what are the most appropriate modes of sensation for these different bits of data? With the LOST stone, we are going to play with what information is used to form the user profile to find which provide most effective functionality.
Once we've worked out the technical challenges with both of these devices we want to produce enough of them for each of us to wear and live with them for a significant period of time. Perhaps with the LOST device also using willing volunteers to test them to increase the area density.
We'd like to know what it would feel like if I put on a sticky data sleeve at the same time you put on your watch in the morning and wore it wherever you go for a month. Is it an irritation, will you get muscle spasms, or forget you've got it on most of the time and only notice more drastic or uncharacteristic changes?
After this we hope to have a better idea of how we can develop the project further, fine tuning these devices and perhaps developing new ones. To put it in techno-garb, perhaps create the Urban Immune System 1.0 rather than its current beta version.
It is perhaps worth making clear that the focus will remain on provoking speculation on what the possible social implications of developing this sort of technology might be, rather than trying to create a cure for urban illness. Technology is exciting and interesting, however the implications of innovations are rarely visible until you have the grace of hindsight. One can only speculate how developments might or might not change the world, but that process of speculation is really interesting and tells us something about our current understanding of our society and technological culture.
Previously: Le Cadavre Exquis.
Sorry for being so silent over the past few days. A combination of medicine-proof flu and weak wifi at the hotel have thrown me into the arms of Jo Nesbo again and i've only emerged from this lethargy now. So here's a last and light post about the ongoing London Street Photography Festival where i discovered Anahita Avalos's tableaux of everyday life in Villahermosa, Mexico.
More of her images on flickr.
Anahita Avalos's work can be viewed until June 22 at Photofusion in Brixton, as part of the show On Street Photography: A Woman's Perspective but her photos have also been selected for the festival award along with the following talents:
Told you that was a light post. I'll do better tomorrow when i finally know how inspector Harry Hole catches the serial killer who marks his victims with the 'devil's star.'
Previously: Vivian Maier at the German Gymnasium.
Back from a quick visit to the Royal College of Art Summer Show in London. I stayed 3 hours there and only managed to speak to 5 students, that's how ridiculously inefficient i am.
Because they spend most of their time in an artificially lit environment, city dwellers have long stopped paying attention to those natural night lights coming from billions of light years away: the stars.
With his project Urban Stargazing, Oscar Lhermitte attempts to have us raise our head again up to the stars in the city sky by adding new constellations that narrate contemporary myths about London. Twelve groups of stars have been designed and installed guerrilla-style at different locations in the city. They can only be observed by the naked eye at night time and from the ground they look so uncannily like the old constellations that you might never notice that any change has occurred. Each of these new constellations have a story that is directly relevant to the Londoner.
Take the V2 for example. This constellation refers to the bombing of London during the Second World War. During 'the Blitz', V-2 rockets were hitting London over a period of several months, destroying over a million of houses and killing around 20,000 civilians. Bethnal Green tube station was used as an air-raid shelter but on 3rd March 1943, after a false alert, 172 people died of suffocation while rushing into the shelter. The V2 constellation now shines above Bethnal Green.
Lhermitte told me the fascinating story behind the Mosquito constellation. It has recently been discovered that the London underground houses its own peculiar species of mosquito. Apparently, they mutated from the bird-biting form that colonised the underground when it was built in the last century to a variety that nips rats, mice and maintenance workers. Underground mosquitoes are reluctant to mate with their outdoor cousins, indicating that they have become a separate species -- a process that normally takes thousands of years rather than decades. These underground mosquitoes naturally deserved to get their own constellation.
Each constellation is a triangulated structure made out of clear ø 0.6mm nylon line, ø 0.2mm polyethylene braid, ø 0.75mm fibre optic and a solar powered LED. During the day, the battery is being recharged by the solar panel and the circuit switches ON the LED when it is dark enough to observe stars.
Check out the google maps that points to each constellation with their corresponding coordinates.
Publisher Taschen says: Made in collaboration with featured artists, Trespass examines the rise and global reach of graffiti and urban art, tracing key figures, events and movements of self-expression in the city's social space, and the history of urban reclamation, protest, and illicit performance. The first book to present the full historical sweep, global reach and technical developments of the street art movement, Trespass features key works by 150 artists, and connects four generations of visionary outlaws including Jean Tinguely, Spencer Tunick, Keith Haring, Os Gemeos, Jenny Holzer, Barry McGee, Gordon Matta-Clark, Shepard Fairey, Blu, Billboard Liberation Front, Guerrilla Girls and Banksy, among others. It also includes dozens of previously unpublished photographs of long-lost works and legendary, ephemeral urban artworks.
Trespass is not simply a street art book. Even if it were, it wouldn't be any street art book. This one comes with the Wooster Collective seal of approval. Marc and Sara Schiller have contributed an essay to the book. So did Banksy. And culture critic and curator Carlo McCormick.
Trespass features graffiti of course but also other types of urban reclamation, such as protest interventions in public space and illicit performances. These grassroots, creative actions might be uninvited and illegal (the book ends with a small chapter on graffiti and law in the USA) but that doesn't prevent nowadays' advertisers and corporations from trying to track, exploit, and copy them.
The most fascinating quality of the book is that it brings what we would lazily describe as 'street art' into historical context, affiliating today's most iconic clandestine artists with performers and activists from the '70s and the '80s.
More importantly, the works inside the book invite us to see our urban environment with new eyes and reassess our relationship with it. But i'm sure you've heard that one before so i'll end with a few interventions i've discovered in the book:
Father Anthony Joseph (aka Joey Skaggs) peddling the Portofess, a confessional booth mounted on the back of a tricycle. "If people can confess on Oprah, Phil and Geraldo, I don't see why they can't confess right here on Eighth Avenue," he declared on his way to the site of the Democratic National Convention in New York City during July of 1992.
John Fekner's stenciled spray painted messages on Charlotte Street in the South Bronx became a background where politicians, activists and leaders liked to be portrayed. Presidential Candidate Ronald Reagan chose to stand in front of Broken Promises on August 5, 1980 at the People's Convention.
On a wall built by Israel to segregate Palestinians:
Shannon Spanhake distributed a community garden inhabiting inside the potholes around Tijuana. She planted flowers and vegetables and added a note inviting inhabitants to take care of and use the garden as their own.
Un incidente in gondola was not a performance, but an orchestrated accident. After special preparations by Hans Winkler, who sits on it, the gondola did sink in a canal. The project addresses a City flooded with tourism and struggling to preserve its sinking beauty.
Publisher Gestalten says: This book is a striking collection of the personal, often playful and thought-provoking installations in urban environments that use and react to walls, traffic signs, trees, ads, and any and all elements of the modern city. It is the first book to document these very current art projects - as well as their interplay with fine art, architecture, performance, installation, activism and urbanism - in a comprehensive way. This perceptive work brings art to the masses and helps us to rediscover our every day surroundings. It challenges us to question if the cities we have are the cities we need while adding a touch of magic to mundane places and situations.
The book shows the growing connections and interplay of this scene with art, architecture, performance, and installation. Propagators of urban intervention surprise and provoke with work in cities including New York and London, but also in countries such as China, Columbia, and Turkey. Everywhere the work appears it turns public spaces into individual experiences.
Urban Interventions might be surprising, fun and delightful but it does not stop at the anecdotal and amusing. The book puts urban creative experiments into the wider and rather distressing context of worldwide urbanization. As it's been repeated again and again, 30 years ago, 4 out of every 10 people were living in cities. Since 2008, more than half of the world's population lives in towns and cities. By 2050 seven out of 10 people will be city-dwellers. Fortunately, artists, designers and activists are bringing cities back to a more human scale by adopting an anti-authoritarian approach and using the city as their playground and canvas. Their subversive, humorous approach reminds us that the city shouldn't be left solely into the hands of leaders, urban policymakers and architects.
Curator, writer and artist Lukas Feiress wrote one of the introductory texts for the book. In the other essay, Alain Bieber reminds us of how much these artists owe -knowingly or not- the European avant-garde movements and concepts. The situationists of course but also Fluxus, the Dadaists and found art. Bieber happens to write one my favourite art blogs, rebel:art. Yes, it's in german. I don't understand half of it either but the photos and the links remain priceless.
The book presents 200 works. You'll find works by The Yes Men, Hehe and Mark Jenkins along with interventions by many street artists, activists and performers you might never have heard of. Some are thought-provoking, others are simply charming. Many are both. I had a hard time selecting the ones to highlight in this post but do i like my job when it gets so challenging. I'll follow the chapters of the book:
The first theme explored is Urban Canvas which defines the artistic interventions that transform and subvert any of the existing structures, settings and visual codes that define the urban territory.
Three ellipses for three locks at Cardiff Bay Barrage:
Community-driven art interventions in Vila Cruzeiro, a favela in Rio, Brazil:
The second chapter, Localized, presents a selection of works that closely reflect and comment the spaces with which they are engaging.
Photographer Frédéric Lebain took pictures at various locations throughout New York city and printed the images in large poster format. A few days later, he went back to that exact same location to capture a larger framed shot in which he superposed the poster of his first visit to the area.
Third chapter, Attachments, showcases parasitic adds-on and extensions to the cityscape.
The artists presented in the fourth chapter of the book, Public Privacy, attempt to customize the city to their own needs in order to blur the line between the public and the private sphere.
Matthias Wermke & Mischa Leinkauf's video Zwischenzeit document their exploration of the inner workings of the Berlin subway system on a homemade, collapsible and portable draisine that they drive through the Berlin U-bahn at night.
Located on a Berlin waste land turned into a sculpture park, Etienne Boulanger built a one room 2 star hotel between billboards. Euro 20 for a night costs, closed in 2008.
Chapter 5, Activated, is even more scenical, performative, interactive and theatrical.The response of the audience takes center stage.
Kamila Szejnoch's simple swing gives a new life and meaning to the bronze 'Berling Army Soldier' in Warsaw, a memorial erected for communist propaganda.
Valentin Beinroth and Florian Jenett left some 50 replicas of handguns in the streets of Frankfurt, Germany. The guns were made from tinted frozen water, making them look real on first sight. The performance was stopped by the police.
Chapter 6, Advertised, is all about billboards and other forms of urban advertising. Most are highly critical, some of these actions and subversions however were actually orchestrated by advertisers themselves.
Battle of...Stars look like everyone: Mr Talion vs Epoxy. Rules: time, 2 hours; subject, "stars look like everyone"; insert a super star in a mainstream store on Alexanderplatz in Berlin.
Spot Herr de Niro among the staff mugshots (also available in Brad Pitt version):
Toronto street artist Posterchild made my day when he gave those bronze lions fastfood fries and soft drinks to snack on.
Finally Natural Ways tries to bring nature on city's public square and back alleys.
Neozoon, the kings of furcoat recycling.
Views inside the book:
Related stories: Temporal : The Art of Stephan Doitschinoff, São Paulo: Survival, Alarm Dance, Interview with the Bijari group, REACTIVATE!! Part 2, Instant urbanism, Urban Interface berlin (part 1), Varini's installation in Berlin, Wooster Collective's talk at Conflux, etc.