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Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014. Antenna pointing at the Embassy of the U.S.

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Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014. Pariser Platz

Berlin-based artists Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud have installed WLAN / WiFi mesh network with can antennas on the roofs of the Academy of Arts and the Swiss Embassy, both located in the heart of "NSA's Secret Spy Hub" in the city. The network is at the disposal of passersby who would like to communicate anonymously and even send messages to operatives of the NSA and GCHQ intelligence who might lurk inside the nearby British Embassy and Embassy of the United States.

The installation is a direct reference to Edward Snowden's revelations that the U.S.' NSA, the UK's GCHQ and other key partners were operating a network of electronic spy posts hidden within the fabric of diplomatic buildings around the world.

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Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014

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Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014

Wachter and Jud's DIY can antennas don't hide themselves. They stand in plain sight between the camouflaged US and British listening posts and their network stretches over the administrative district of Berlin.

At the point at which the interception of Angela Merkel's cell phone occurred, the open network of anonymous communication options now unfolds as a legal and legitimate response to rigid restrictions on our freedoms and hidden, secret surveillance.

Messages can be sent to the intelligence agencies on the frequencies that are intercepted by the NSA and GCHQ. These personal messages include activist and political contributions, ironic disclosure of embarrassing intimacy, and calls for resistance. Many appeals are aimed directly at the surveillance operatives asking them to switch sides and become whistleblowers.

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Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014. Antenna, Reichstag Gate

Mathias Jud was kind enough to answer my questions about the installation:

Hi Mathias! How did you get the authorizations to install the antennas? By the way, did you ask for authorisations?

Short:
Yes, all the antennas are authorised! They wouldn't be up there for more than 5 minutes otherwise.

The whole region is under special protection as it is next to the Parliament and the German Federal Chancellery. Surveillance, Police and Security are omnipresent. During our build up of the antenna tower a special Police helicopter with a pivoting surveillance cam was circling above us.

Long answer:
As we are both Swiss, we have been asked about a year ago by the Swiss embassy to present our work at the embassy. The Swiss embassy in Berlin is located right next to the German Federal Chancellery. Most probably they had something like a slide show in mind. However, we gratefully accepted the invitation and presented the concept of "Can you hear me?" to the embassy.

We also asked the Academy of Arts that is located next to the US embassy at the Brandenburg Gate. (The Academy of Arts is not an university, but an international 'master' academy of artists that was funded by a former Prussian king, and an art museum and collection.) Klaus Staeck, the President of the Academy and himself an active political graphic designer was very fond of the idea and promoted it together with Birgit Hein, the chief of the section Visual Arts.

In the last year we spent a lot of time discussing this project to be able to realise it. It is completely legal, and has the approval of the Swiss ambassador, the Swiss foreign office. The members of the Academy of the Arts discussed this project in their annual meeting and voted in favour of it. The German Federal Chancellery has been informed by the Swiss embassy.

Although our constitutional rights are restricted in the non-protest zone in the government district, there is no restriction of digital communication. With our qaul.net network that is the technological basis of the "Can you hear me?" installation we can experience a completely user-based network without any service provider as gate keeper and regulatory force in the network.

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Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014

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Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014

You organize guided tours. What do you show people exactly?

Guided tours are a possibility to discuss the project with us and to experience the special rules in the government district and the restricted zones in front of the embassies. We experience together the mesh network, and the area. We show how we built the antennas, discuss the network, the artwork and the philosophy behind it.

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Heat maps show how activity in the US embassy's spying nest significantly reduced from 24 October (top picture) to 25 October, after it emerged that the US bugged Chancellor Merkel's phone (ARD Panorama, via The Independent)

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The GCHQ 'nest' on the top of the UK's Berlin embassy (Buggedplanet.info, via The Independent)

You also encourage people to send messages to operatives of the NSA and GCHQ intelligence, is that correct? how do you know how to reach them?

There is a special veneered wall at the US embassy, clearly discovered by infrared cameras where, according to the Snowden files, the listening post of the NSA is located. The GCHQ has a white radome where, according to the Snowden files, the listening post of the British is located.

Our antenna-tower on the roof of the Academy of the Arts is right in the middle of these listening posts and has a clear connection to them.

All messages in the WIFI mesh network are sent unencrypted to all participants in the network.

Thanks Mathias!

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Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014. Antennas at Swiss Embassy

See also: Julian Oliver and Daniil Vasiliev's PRISM: The Beacon Frame. Speculative NSA Network Surveillance Equipment which was swiftly censored.)

Sponsored by:





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IBI trying Town Crier, a device which recognises and reads geo-tagged tweets through a megaphone

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.

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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.

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The Institute for Boundary Interactions display L.O.S.T. Stone and Sticky Data. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

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. 





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Trying IBI's Sticky Data device. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

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Sticky Data display. Image courtesy of IBI

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? 



Sticky Data App Field Test

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.




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Testing sticky data. Image courtesy of IBI

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Conductive glove. Image courtesy of IBI

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.  



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LOST display. Image courtesy IBI

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.  



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IBI trying Town Crier, their latest device which recognises and reads geo-tagged tweets through a megaphone. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

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IBI trying Town Crier, their latest device which recognises and reads geo-tagged tweets through a megaphone. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

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.





Town Crier Public Field Test Documentation

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Town Crier. Image courtesy IBI

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.

Thanks Institute for Boundary Interactions!

Previously: Le Cadavre Exquis.

Sunday at Conflux, the art and technology festival for the creative exploration of urban public space, was hot in every sense including (unfortunately for Summer-phobics like me) in the meteorological one.

Given both the temperature and his own intrepidness, all my admiration went to Lucas Murgida. Last year, the artist was teaching Conflux participants the handy and delicate art of lock-picking. For this edition of the festival, he built a beautiful wooden cabinet, left it on a sidewalk and hid inside it. Mugida stayed in this torridness, for hours and with just a bottle of water, not revealing himself until a passerby would bring the cabinet to their home.

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The name of the performance is 9/10 because Murgida wanted to check what would become of the often-quoted phrase, 'Possession is 9/10 of the law' when private property is placed in a public space. As he wrote: A person is not sure how to look at the object at first, but will usually fall back on the golden rule of U.S. culture (finders keepers, losers weepers) and claim it to be theirs. I am hoping to subvert the "finder's" personal space by claiming it to be my own public space.

Saturday wasn't much of an adventure. The cabinet was left in the street, people appeared to be tempted but they left it where it was. Now Sunday was more eventful, the artist and the cabinet got rolled into the storage room of a restaurant. As he had drilled a hole in the cabinet, Lucas was able to take pictures and get an idea of what was going on. The plan was to slip out unnoticed and leave the cabinet to its new owner.

Get the details.

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Jenny Chowdhury was braving the mellowing heat in her 802.11 Apparel - Wifi Jacket. Part of a line of clothing that reflects wifi strength detected in the wearer's immediate environment, the jacket literally "bring to light" a portion of the invisible radio waves by illuminating five stripes in accordance with the wifi signal strength.

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The basic stripes of LEDs are integrated into a flower motif. This design choice associate our natural environment (the flower pattern) with the synthetic one (technology.)

More wearable devices were displayed all along the festival: CO2RSET which monitors air quality and tightens or loosens on the body in response to the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere; the Back-to-Back Massager vest which rows of electric massagers are pointed outward in order to massage others; Compli-mum, a kind of armor for women that plays movies and changes its own shape by separating or gathering parts of its construction through the use of microcontroller and a motorized skeleton structure and a very fetching Helmet Piece which i'm inconsolable to have missed.

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Another work i missed because i was so busy passing the microphone to the public for a Q&A of the panel i curated for Conflux (more about that soon-ish), is The Light Mobs which showed participants how to use a simple little mirror (the pocket Lightcoder) and sunlight to transmit information.

But lucky me! i met Geraldine Juarez the day after and she gave me one of the Lightcoders to morse around and lucky us! she documented the action online.

The project had a very praiseworthy goal: to bring attention to our blind faith in digital technology as a medium of communication, using a simple analog "device": the pocket Lightcoder.

I finally did a Botanicalls tour in which plants guide you by telephone in the area surrounding Conflux HQ. Each tree or plant, speaks in their own "Botanicalls" voice, based on their botanical habits and characteristics. It all started with the arrogant Rose and her ridiculous French accent (i'm allowed to write that cuz i gave her my voice) and ended with heart-breaking cries for help coming from the kitchen of a vegetarian restaurant.

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I'm back from Asturias which was as lovely as ever. We even had real vegetable to eat this time. The LAboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre in Gijón was opening Banquete_nodos y redes, Interactions Between Art, Science, Technology and Society in Spain's Digital Culture, an exhibition initiated by Karin Ohlenschläger and Luis Rico.

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View of the LABoral shop and of the inauguration party right above it

The press conference started with a string of surprising figures listed by LABoral's Director Rosina Gómez-Baeza Tinturé. In its 14 months of activity, the centre -which has given itself the mission to foster the interaction between art, society and technology- has hosted the work of 261 creators (45 of them come from the region of Asturias), 54 workshops given by some 90 teachers to more than 3000 participants. Add to that many concerts, conferences, debates and other activities. Amazing, even for a space that covers more than 14.000 m². Which reminds me that it would be good to come back one day on the design and architecture of the centre. The public bathrooms only are worth the visit, i feel like stepping inside 2001: A Space Odyssey each time i enter there.

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LABoral bathroom and a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Banquete_nodos y redes presents more than 30 digital and interactive works that critically and creatively explore the notion of Network as a shared matrix, not just from a technological perspective but also from a socio-cultural perspective. I'll be back with a lengthier overview of the exhibition and a small interview with its curator, the art critic Karin Ohlenschläger, later on but right now i wanted to share with you one of the best projects i saw in Gijón last week.

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You've probably read about Clara Boj and Diego Diaz before, either in some media art catalog or on this blog, i interviewed them a few months ago about their project AR Magic System, their Lalalab studio and their interest for the visualization of wifi networks.

For the LABoral exhibition, the Valencia-based duo developed a sightseeing telescope named Observatorio (Observatory).

Observatorio builds upon Boj and DIaz' 2004 project Red Libre Red Visible (Free Network, Visible Network) which was born in an optimistic time when it seemed possible to achieve an utopia made of wireless, open communication networks managed by social groups offering services to the local community. At that (not so distant) time, several city governments offered free access to the WiFi network, sometimes in the entire city. The CMT (Telecommunications Market Commission) denounced those city governments for unfair competition with telecom companies, the free wifi municipal projects were canceled, and grassroot groups started installing, maintaining and extending open WiFi networks throughout Spain.

Today, some companies have adopted new tactics based on the deceptive slogan "Share your WiFi". Companies like FON, and commercial projects such as Whisher and Wefi exploit the current infrastructure of access nodes to the Internet in urban space to provide coverage to the whole city if it were an open, shared structure.

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Obervatorio reflects on this scenario by informing viewers about the current state of wireless networks located in the area where the device is installed. The sightseeing telescope, installed on the Laboral tower, tracks and shows where Gijon's wifi networks are located in real time. You can visualize them on the screen of the telescope, swing it around and see which areas have a denser wifi coverage, and get additional data such as which ones among these networks are open or private. Because Observatorio is programmed to try and connect to any open network available in the area, it can send the information from the observation tower to the exhibition hall, where it is displayed on a big screen. If there is no open networks detected in the area, Observatorio remains separated from the main exhibition space, located in another building. A modification of these networks is also offered, showing an ideal configuration in which the local residents of large areas in the city could gain or share access to it.

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Image courtesy LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial

After having installed Observatorio, the artists discovered many more open nodes than they expected. While testing the project at their studio in Valencia, they couldn't find more than 5% of open networks. In Gijón the percentage is higher, around 30% in the LABoral area.

From the tower Observatorio can reach theoretically almost the whole city of Gijón. The device comprises a high power uni-directional WiFi antenna with a 30º aperture, able to detect wireless networks within 1 to 4 kilometers depending on the number of obstacles encountered; a video surveillance camera with a telephoto lens with the same aperture as the WiFi antenna; and a viewer which, like a periscope, offers a real time image taken by the camera, with the WiFi networks detected by the antenna placed geographically on it.

Banquete_nodos y redes runs at LAboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre in Gijón, Spain, until November, 03, 2008. The exhibition will then travel to the ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, March-July 2009.

More sightseeing telescope: The timetravel telescope, the Jurascope and the Elastic time and space telescope.

Also related: Wifi Camera Obscura.

0aakibuu.jpgKitchen Budapest is a brand new media lab for researchers who are not only interested in the convergence of mobile communication, online communities and urban space but who are also ready to get their hands dirty creating experimental projects in cross-disciplinary teams.

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"Evil Gingerbread man" grabbed from the Kitchen Budapest photo stream

The Kitchen Budapest have released their Summer 2007 catalog. Edited and commented by Eszter Bircsak and Adam Somlai-Fischer, it is yours to download in PDF form. Trust your dear Aunt Régine, the booklet is worth leaving aside whatever you're doing right now.

The catalog highlights some of the projects developed at the Hungarian media lab.

The chapter on Mobile Expressions demonstrates the kind of playful content that can be created using mobile phones; Intelligent and Charming Things is about the way that objects around us can interact with us and even create a culture of their own; Dynamic Media Interfaces shows compelling new ways to explore (or perform) digital content; i guess i've lost everyone here and you're already busy reading the book but i'll keep on describing the catalog just in case. So, we're now at the chapter called Community Technologies which comes up with ideas for a better support for communal interaction and communication. The remaining pages are dedicated to a brief presentations of some of the workshops which took place at Kitchen Budapest (aka. KiBu).

Some of the projects developed are simples, other are quite sophisticated, some will appeal to the hacker, others have a clear interaction design feel, they are sometimes poetical, often thought-provoking and always interesting.

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One of my favourite is the Landprint project which uses a lawnmover to cut text pattern into the grass (so far) or even an image that looks like the print of a photograph when viewed from above (that's the ultimate plan.)

Related: also written by Adam Somlai-Fischer together with Usman Haque this time, Low Tech Sensors and Actuators handbook; Interview of Adam Somlai-Fischer.

A few months ago, i started covering in details the projects developed at the Interactivos? workshop which took place at Medialab Prado in Madrid in June (btw they have a Visualizar workshop going on this week, with a Communication Applied Data Visualization Seminary on November 23 you might want to check out if you're in the neighbourhood). Well, i had kept another project in my closet for you.

Based on an augmented reality system, AR_Magic System allows users to exchange head with their neighbours. You stand in front of the computer screen, next to one or more persons and after a few seconds, your head appears on the shoulder of someone else and you get a new face yourself. I swapped head with Edgar Gonzalez while i was there and as i didn't like the look of myself with a beard, i'd rather show you a video of other experiments:


Video of AR_Magic System

Clara Boj and Diego Diaz work together since 2000. They have developed and exhibited their artistic and research projects all over the world. They have been artists in residence at the Mixed Reality Lab, National University of Singapore and did some research at the Interface Culture Lab at Linz University.

I've been following the work of Clara and Diego for a couple of years and because i was curious about their other projects, i decided to run a longer feature on their work.

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You started working on Free Network Visible Network in 2004. The main objective of the project was to "ask for the free access to the net and at the same time to make actions in the urban landscape as a way to create new meanings in the public domain." When you look back at your ideas at the time, how do you feel? In particular about the free access issue(s)? What were the biggest challenges you encountered and were not expecting while working on the project?

0aaaaawert6.jpgAt that time several situations happened in Spain that brought us to start the Free Network Visible Network project. Some city councils started to offer free wifi acces all over their territory and there were plans to extend this network to other places. But the Telecommunications Market Commision (CMT) denounced this situation as a kind of illegal competence for the phone companies. Even when in some cases those networks were only offering access to the services of a local Intranet, not to the Internet. All this kind of projects supported by the small cities administrations were brought to a stop, and only some voluntary groups continued creating wifi networks all over the Spanish territory. The same situation was happening in other places in Europe and USA.

We were really worried about the privatization of digital space, due the control that some economic powers make over one of the more basic rights of citizens, the free use of the public space. So mainly we started the Free Network Visible Network project to collaborate with those groups of free wifi networks users and somehow to spread the idea of public space as something more than streets and parks.

Now, once the project is technically finished and has been installed in several places we still think that actions need to be taken to somehow make use of the digital public space with freedom. The situation with the big communication companies and legal practices it hasn't changed much. Even is much more restrictive than before and in some places of Europe people have been fined for using their neighbours' open wifi network.

One of the biggest challenges for us, apart from the technical difficulties, it has been the relations with institutions when we were showing the project at museums or official art spaces. It is not always easy to convince people from institutions to create a open wifi network and keep it running after the exhibition is finished. The notion of private property is very strong even for something as invisible as waves.

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Free Network Visible Network in Kyoto

What did the project teach you about the concept of public space?

Basically, this project not only represents the public space but it also allows people to experience it, in a hybrid dimension, as a combination of physical places and digital communication spaces. At present time we cannot talk anymore about public space without including all this non physical places that emerge when people talk, exchange information or play through digital networks. The combination of those territories, physical and digital, creates a new public sphere much more dynamic and changeable, rich in relationships and meanings. Free
Network Visible Network
is a very useful tool to help understand those relations, and what is our situation, as users-citizens in this new domain.

You have used augmented reality technology in several of your projects, one of them is BE CAREFUL, FRAGILE. How was it like to present a high-tech art work in ARCO06, a "traditional" contemporary art fair? What did you try to convey with that particular artwork? How did the audience react to it?

This project had a great success among the ARCO visitors. At some point we were even asked to shut it down for a little bit because so many people were playing with it that they were collapsing the area.

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It was our first time exhibiting at ARCO and we were really concerned about traditional art market and digital media collectionism. It is a very old issue and we ourselves were very interested about how the traditional art market system should be applied to interactive installations. Questions like producing pieces in series, technical needs and maintenance, etc were some of the questions we were discussing with the gallery owner and it was clear that digital media have specifications that need to be carefully addressed when selling a piece to a private or institutional collector. For us it doesn't make much sense to create a limited number series of a digital artwork when most of the time it can be contained in a cd and easily installed in any computer, even more when we are usually working with free software and our projects are registered under creative commons license. The
question was how to preserve the value of the uniqueness that traditional art market appreciate if anybody can download our source code from the web and make it themselves? It is traditional art market ready for this kind of situations?

So we did an interactive installation were a digital 3D modeled traditional vase was projected as it really was over a real pedestal. When visitors tried to touch it the vase fell down to the floor in a realistic way and finally was broken making a big noise. People were
very surprised when two pre-recorded persons (that were us) entered the scene bringing a new vase exactly identical and placed again over the real pedestal. This loop was repeated again and again each time people broke the vase. Somehow our piece exhibited at ARCO was a digital object and it could be infinitely reproduced.

It was really appreciated by the general audience and also by professionals and gallery owners. The audience was continuously playing with it, making the vase fall down again and again.

During the Interactivos? workshop in Madrid, you developed the very fun AR magic system. Can you explain us what made the work "magical'?

0aaaacviuh.jpgThe magical aspect of this project is that it uses a very intuitive interaction for playing with the identity of the users. People just need to look at themselves in the video projection, that it acts like a mirror, and they will see their face interchanged with another person.

It is really amazing how people react when they look at themselves and see another face that is smiling or talking and they can not control the expression. It is as if somebody had supplanted your identity. For us it was a real surprise how people enjoyed this very simple idea and they played during long time and called their friends for see how it feels to be the other. During the time it was exhibited at MediaLab in Madrid and later at Sonar Festival in Barcelona, almost everybody who played with the piece took a picture of their transformed face. We found dozens of those pictures at flicker, which for us is a sign of how people enjoyed the experience.

One of the most magical aspects of this piece it how it plays with technological simplicity but with a really complex universe of meanings about identity.

Do you plan to develop that project any further?

Actually the project as it was developed during Interactivos? it is just a small part of the whole idea due the very limited time of the workshop and the difficulties we found with some technical aspects.

We would like to thanks Zachary Lieberman, Martín Nadal, Damien Stewart, Javier Lloret, Blanca Rego, Julio Lucio y Jordi Puig for their help programing the software which is written in C++ using the openFrameworks library.

Basically we wanted to create a complete set of magic tricks, based on one of the first tricks registered on the history of magic. In ancient Egypt a magician interchanged the head of chickens and ducks and made people believe it was really magic. We will continue working on the piece; adding new tricks were users can play magic in a very intuitive manner.

You mentioned that you want to establish a new media community in Valencia. Can you tell us more about that project? Which shape will it take? What are its objective and what do you hope to achieve?

Valencia is a very dynamic city that is growing really fast but the media art scene is really unstructured, not to say non-existing. There are very good artists, of course, but there is no place to meet each other nor is there any kind of network to meet and collaborate. We have been living in Valencia during the last 10 years but with extensive periods overseas. Recently we decided to come back and install ourselves for a long period of time. We just opened our studio, LALALAB, and we would like it to become a kind of meeting point for digital media artist where they can produce their work, or find collaborators.

LALALAB is not an institutional media center but the idea is to explore the connexions with other production center as MediaLab Prado in Madrid or Hangar in Barcelona to create this network and to dynamize the Valencia media art scene. In Lalalab there will be workshops and artist presentations and we have a good collection of production tools to help other artists develop their works at the same time that we continue with our personal production.

Thanks Clara and Diego!

On 28/11 Clara Boj and Diego Díaz will give a talk on Research art: nuevos modos de hacer en las prácticas artísticas contemporáneas at the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró in Mallorca.

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