Review: SENSEable Cities: Exploring Urban Futures

Art Practical, the Bay Area’s preeminent online magazine devoted to the visual arts, had a fantastic review of SENSEable City Lab’s SENSEable Cities: Exploring Urban Futures

Copenhagen Wheel

The Copenhagen Wheel via Wired (http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2009/12/mits-senseable-city-lab-brings-formula-one-technology-to-bicycles/)

“SENSEable Cities: Exploring Urban Futures,” currently on view at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, includes fifteen visualization projects by researchers at MIT that translate real time data from cities around the world into vibrant representations of density, volume, movement, and exchange. These visualizations are intriguing both as artistic creations and political devices. They demonstrate in practical as well as imaginative ways that matter and energy circulate and change form, and showcase the power of visual culture in helping policy-makers manage the multiple aspects of our networked lives.

Information abounds on every wall of the expansive 4,600-square-foot Gray Area gallery. A vinyl linear motif in shades of blue streams between projections of light and sound, like the lines of an avant-garde musical composition. This is a clever twist on exhibition wall labels that sets a cohesive, interconnected tone to the works on display.

MIT researchers at the SENSEable City Laboratory have seamlessly equipped smart phones, buildings, furniture, cars, and bikes to collect user data in user-friendly ways. Many of MIT’s visualizations take the aggregated data and map patterns of public life, as in currentCity (2009), New York Talk Exchange(2008), and Real Time Rome (2006). The resulting depictions contain bold colors that express the intensity and dispersion of collective action across the plane of each respective city. Though much livelier than pie charts and bar graphs, they remain flat, reminiscent of abstract paintings. While beautiful, the awesome displays of color tend to distract from and obscure the underlying data analysis and data-collecting gadgets.

SENSEable City Laboratory. Flyfire, 2010; documentary video. Courtesy of SENSEable City Laboratory, Cambridge, MA.

These visualizations are consistent in their implicit claim to democratic anonymity. Still, it is important to retain focus on the underlying relationship between the individuals, smart objects, and agencies behind them in order to critically assess the process by which cities or corporations aggregate, categorize, and utilize user data. The raw data may be subject to any number of algorithms and agendas, rendering certain collective actions visible and others obsolete. Cultural theorists Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star explain that the infrastructures of knowledge and power have the tendency to disappear, even as these other physical and organizational structures are revealed.

The more novel and exquisitely designed smart objects are depicted in the exhibition, if only virtually. These include AIDA (Affective Intelligent Driving Agent) (2009), a personal robot that may someday replace current GPS navigation systems; The Copenhagen Wheel (2009), an electric motorized sensing unit that transforms a bicycle into a hybrid hill-climbing data-generator; and The EyeStop (2009), a smart bus shelter with touch screens that delivers site-specific information to commuters.

One of the most novel projections is neither a flat depiction nor a virtual object. Flyfire (2010) is a display system composed of self-organizing micro helicopters that contain small LEDs. MIT calls these “smart pixels.” They are capable of incredible synchronized movement, morphing from one three-dimensional composition into another, “a swarm of pixels in a space.”1 Even when displayed as a projection on the gallery wall, these animated pixels demonstrate great potential for depth and range of motion. For example, the micro helicopters that arrange themselves into Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Mona Lisa convey the sensation of paint as a particulate matter momentarily assembled in space and time. These hovering lights illuminate the multi-dimensional quality of the da Vinci masterwork.

Digital technologies make it possible to represent and visualize the world as it may be outside the purview of our inborn senses. This summer at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, visitors are welcome to explore this expansive terrain of possibility. Hopefully this is a prelude to San Francisco’s own use of digital technology in forging its urban future as a leader in green infrastructure and community engagement.