Review of City Centered A Festival of Locative Media and Urban Community

San Francisco blogger Emma Whittaker of CultureDebate.org had some nice things to say about our current exhibit: SENSEable Cities Lab: Exploring Urban Future.

The City Centered Festival of Locative Media and Urban Community brought together a broad range of practices from artists, researchers, urban planners, community organisers, educators and computer programmers. The Festival began with a symposium over two days, followed by an art walk and hands-on workshops the following weekend.

Held at KQED, the San Franciscan based Northern California Public Broadcasting organisation, the programme was divided into two areas ‘Sensing the City – Data Visualization and Urban Life’ and ‘Location, Politics, and Community’. Here the sense of an overarching rationale ended. The disparity of the intensely localised focus on the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, that included consideration of topography, demographics, noise levels of specific streets, to the wide ranging debates of cities and media more generally, may have left the audience wondering about the intention of the symposium. But, it was this very layering of modes of delivery, from performance poetry, bar graphs and newsreel footage, that created the convergence/divergence of ideas, from which came an emergent narrative.

The diversity of speakers were differentiated not only by the specialism of their practice, but by their tone. The impassioned evangelising of localised public services and the role of storytelling, delivered by Willa Seldon (CEO, Glide Foundation and Chair of the Board of Directors of KQED) was preceded by the keynote speaker Joel Slayton’s theoretical play with the notion of the physical and the virtual path, entitled The Nature of Path/Minimal Dislocation.

TenderVoice, created by a team led by Jake Levitas & Mayra Madriz, is an interactive web based application that uses a simple game format to link sound clips of voices from the community with specific services and resources available in at locations on a map of the Tenderloin. With a key presence at the Tenderloin Tech Lab, a facility specialising in adult computer and employment skills training, the project aims to raise awareness of local facilities. This project has a clear functional aim, underpinned by a strong ideological focus on social justice. The interface is clear and intuitive and importantly the application has an option to access the community information without the game, which would have limited playability after initial use. The presentation of the project described the application, that is a worthy endeavour, but it was unclear why it was jointly sponsored by the Grey Area Foundation For the Arts, or presented as art and included in the ‘Art Walk’.

The sister project of TenderVoice, TenderNoise was created by ARUP, Movity & Stamen Design, a project that collected sound data from locations within the Tenderloin district. The website produces a visual interpretation of the sound as a colour coded time line, plotting the decibels over a few days. Simultaneously animated bursts of colour appear over the Tenderloin map that correlate with the timeline. The website declares that the data is available for any interested parties from city planners to residents but direct application of the data is not suggested. The website exists as beautifully designed information graphics, and as a document, whose purpose is not fixed.

Stamen Design’s Ben Cerveny’s presentation stood out, as it moved from the descriptive, of the Tendervoice/Tendernoise projects, to an articulate discussion of the perspectives from which the city may be analysed. Cerveny considered the qualitative value of sound in the city, identifying the interplay between hypermediated subjectivity of a multitude of voices and the collection of abstract mediated data. Cerveny offered a model for relating the individual to the abstract by asking what affordances we are giving the city.

Brooke Singer of Preemptive Media, the critically engaged artist activist group, discussed technology enabled projects that alert the public to a range of social ills. ‘AIR’ Area’s Immediate Reading 2006 used portable air quality measurement kits to monitor various air pollutants in Lower Manhattan and involved the community in the visualisation of the data. Zapped! 2005 alerted the public to potential confidentiality infringement posed by RFID tags. In a recent project Superfund 365 Singer visited and recorded sites across America that have ‘Superfund’ status – sites that have been deemed hazardous waste sites and attract funding for their clean-up. The accompanying website Superfund 365 collates data concerning the selected 365 sites and reveals that the status of these sites are often unknown to the public and whose locations are as diverse a supermarket car park to popular beauty spots.

Although not discussed within the presentation, Singer’s work falls clearly within the tradition of politically motivated art that seeks to subvert the status quo, stimulate debate and potentially provoke social and political change. Often the means used to produce the work are the media associated with its target: advertising techniques; ‘official’ websites; physical re-enactment; re-purposed technology. The work often has the aesthetic of the ‘pseudo official’ and so satirises the notion of legitimation and implicit power structures. Adbusters, Recode, Guerrilla Girls and the historical legacy of Dada and John Heartfield form the context of Singer’s work.

Paula Levine describes her work Transposing Spaces as “transposing events of one place over another”. This deceptively simple device of overlaying the places, events and stories from the West Bank in Israel over the top of the map of San Francisco creates a powerful connection between geographically and politically disparate places. Levine cites Sontag’s notion of images as bridges to empathy, the impact of which was explored with students at San Francisco State University, as they overlaid the West Bank Wall onto the map of San Francisco and charted the effect the wall would have on their own lives.

Catherine Herdlick’s presentation entitled Rediscovering Cities Through Play, also transforms perceptions of the city with a dynamically different approach. Involving participants in collaborative forms of play, the city becomes a giant playground and setting for a number of games. The Come Out and Play Festival began in 2005 by Herdlick and colleagues and involves,

“…street games, pervasive games, new urban games, big games, locative games, location-aware games, location-based games, gps games, flash mob games, augmented reality games, scavenger hunts, art-sports, and even LARPs…” http://www.comeoutandplay.org.

The games in the Come Out and Play Festival take diverse forms, from the politically motivated spray chalk game with the purpose of drawing attention to possible cycle lanes, to narrative, puzzle, adventure or historical games.

The Come Out and Play Festival has an international following, inspiring many similar events including London’s Hide & Seek Festival. Interactive and location based games have long fallen within the territory of London based art collective Blast Theory.

Day three of the City Centered A Festival of Locative Media and Urban Community invited participants to an Art Walk, ten projects sited within the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Block of Time: O’Farrell Street by Krissy Clark stood out as a resolved work that immersed the participant and was specific to the site within the Tenderloin district.

Telephone numbers were placed on the floor every few feet along O’Farrell Street, simply signposted by a balloon. Approaching the balloons in any order, participants were invited to use their mobile phones to ring the numbers. The answering voice (a voice mail box recording) was of a contemporary or previous resident of O’Farrell Street. The voices, actual residents or re-enacted voices of previous residents, spoke about themselves and their connection with the point on O’Farrell Street, on which you were standing. The tales were sometimes shocking, others sad, amusing or revealing of how their lives and the geography of the street had evolved. O’Farrell Street had many identities in the last hundred and fifty years and was once close to the sea.

As if in personal conversation, sounds from the street blended with the recorded voices, merging the past with the present. Standing in front of modern offices and parking, a house that once stood there is described. The voice is the reminiscences of a Victorian woman as she recalls her family home. Small details, such as the thickness of the carpet, evoke an O’Farrell Street of the past, in the imagination of the listener.

The soundscape as immersive site-specific experience has been frequently used by artists over the last twenty years and is increasingly adopted by arts and heritage industries. The use of mobile phones makes artwork increasingly accessible without the need for specialist hardware and provides the possibility of experimental and non-linear narrative.

SENSEable Cities: Exploring Urban Futures is an exhibition of projects by MIT SENSEable Cities Lab, at the Grey Area Foundation for the Arts, located within the Tenderloin. This polished exhibition utilises the white cube aesthetic to display a large selection of innovative technology driven projects from MIT ’s SENSEable Cities Lab.

Eloquent solutions to issues within urban planning, collection of data via mobile technologies and green transport are amongst the many projects. Presented as a series of short information videos with accompanying information, as seen on the SENSEable Cities website. Predominately a technology and design retrospective of the successful research department, there are moments of poetic beauty, as in the work entitled Flyfire 2010.

“The Flyfire project sets out to explore the capabilities of this display system by using a large number of self-organizing micro helicopters. Each helicopter contains small LEDs and acts as a smart pixel. Through precisely controlled movements, the helicopters perform elaborate and synchronized motions and form an elastic display surface for any desired scenario.” http://senseable.mit.edu/flyfire

Closely reminiscent of James Whitney’s painstakingly produced kaleidoscopic animations from 1960’s, Flyfire captivates the imagination, the fantastical notion of tiny robotic helicopters producing a tinker-bell-like light display. The video is an animated imagining of the project, and as such, it evokes a romanticism, a level of engagement that the clever realisations of more functional projects do not reach.

Locative media, as a term, is often used to refer to the use of digital technologies that utilise the specific geographical location of an individual or object to collect or deliver information, for example, GPS, mobile phones, RFID etc. The festival provided a lexicon of possible interpretations of locative media that included art work made to be seen in, or as part of a specific location (site specific art), services that are specific to the local inhabitants, location specific data collection, citizen journalism, location specific digital storytelling, location specific political activism, location inspired poetry…

While a coherent theoretical underpinning did not unify the festival, the diversity of projects and scope, ambition and passion of the organisers Elizabeth Goodman, Kari Gray, Molly Hankwitz, Paula Levine, Josette Melchor, Leslie Rule and contributors, warmly welcomed the audience in an ongoing and emerging debate.