Spaces for Critical Action in Urban Software Art

via Quartier des Spectacles
via Quartier des Spectacles 

Last night I attended a salon on spectacle in urban software art, featuring artists Eric CorrielKacie KinzerRune Madsen, and YesYesNo / Molmol Kuo. The event was hosted by LISA/Isabel Walcott Draves and Tanya Toft, who organized it as part of a curatorial fellowship and her doctoral research at Copenhagen University. Okay, that’s probably more detail than you need. Anyway, Tanya was my former advisee and research assistant at The New School, and I’m now serving a external advisor for her CuratorLab project. The salon marked the launch of her new Urban Media Aesthetics platform, which I announced here earlier this week. She intended for the evening’s conversation to examine how these artists’ works “embody and exercise a form of criticality in public space” — in other words, how they use “spectacle” to do critical work.

Tanya invited me to write up a response to the salon. It’ll be posted to the UMA website [and here it is!] — but I figured I’d share a draft here, too. So…


If capital-S Spectacle implies superficiality, commodity fetishism, and alienation, perhaps little-s spectacular, in its less overdetermined condition, offers at least some possibility for redemption, for the recuperation of thoughtful, critical engagement. Maybe we can still find somewhere in those dazzling urban screens and media facades, or in those captivating interactive maps of sentient urban systems, the means of critique or radical action. We might also discern in all the blinking LEDs a reminder that “to be radical” in the cosmopolitan city – where efficiency, profitability, and growth-for-growth’s sake are prime virtues – might mean, simply, making time for play or contemplation.

At the Urban Media Aesthetics salon on December 4, four computational artists presented work that, while spectacular within its urban contexts, still allowed for some form of criticality. Looking across the oeuvres of these four practitioners, however, it became clear that that critical potential resides in different places in different projects. Sometimes it’s in the conceptualization and execution of a work, and sometimes it’s in its reception or use: in the user’s active manipulation of the work; in the way the work prompts the user to reexamine herself, or her relationship to those around her; in the user’s phenomenological experience of the work – even her resignation to and absorption into the work.

By simply recognizing that there are so many means of engaging with urban media art – that they’re more multifaceted than the totalizing theories of the Spectacle might imply – we’ve already done the critical work of acknowledging that all those glowing rectangles, big and small, are more than flat screens. They represent a layering of infrastructures, a three-dimensional interface between their makers and users, a generator of social space. Rather than erecting superficial “planes of alienation,” Urban Media Aesthetics has the potential to generate environments for purposeful thinking and action.

Written Images from d_effekt on Vimeo.

Rune Madsen began his presentation by talking pedagogy. In “Printing Code,” a class he teaches in NYU’s ITP, students learn graphic design through code, by acknowledging the algorithms behind so many creative, expressive practices – the measurements behind grid systems, the geometry behind typography, the proportional relationships behind color choices, etc. He wants his students not to be “blinded by the tool” or the technique, but, instead, to be aware that those often-invisible infrastructures are present – and have been present for as long as our ancestors have been making art – and informing their creative choices. “Students often don’t know what rules they’re trying to break – or they don’t know the rules at all.” Knowing the rules – then perhaps deliberately breaking them – makes for more thoughtful and critical designers and programmers, he suggested.

via SP_Urban 

In his own work, Madsen aims to highlight, if not break, the rules governing learning algorithms, which learn what we like – in food, in friends, in fashion – and filter the future options placed before us, à la “if you like this, you’ll also like that.” For The Artist is Not Present, which appeared in the SP_Urban Digital Festival in São Paulo in 2013, Madsen created an algorithm that generated iterations of geometric art; then, by rating those works on a scale of 1 to 9, he “trained” his computer to predict his aesthetic preferences for the next generation of designs. As his algorithm generated the 50,000 increasingly complex, unique artworks that were projected on a São Paulo building façade for the three-week duration of the festival, Madsen effectively effaced his agency as the artist. And the software then effaced itself on the last day of the festival. This intentional erasure or disappearing – perhaps, if we’re into awkward neologisms, we could say “de-spectaclization” – also characterizes Madsen’s Tiny Artists series, which, again, grants aesthetic agency to the algorithm. Tiny programs generate geometric poster designs, which are then printed, before the programs delete themselves and their own source code, leaving the analog prints to stand alone, mutely hinting at the process of their generation.

Tiny Artists
Tiny Artists 

In a gallery setting, a visitor would likely be privy to Tiny Artists’ backstory, and might appreciate the critical issues – regarding authorship, originality, materiality, the creative freedom of artistic production, etc. – that Madsen is grappling with in this work. Yet in downtown São Paulo, it’s quite possible that a passerby, unfamiliar with the work’s critical play with aesthetic agency, might see little more than dynamic shapes in vibrant colors flashing on a skyscraper – a scene that might be read, as Christiane Paul suggests, as “an aesthetic visualization of a public social space or as pure visual spectacle.” There’s less control, in this urban context, over the critical context in which the work is perceived – and thus greater chance that the critical intention might be missed. Yet there are at least two cues in Madsen’s work that might enable even the uninitiated to recognize that there’s more here than meets the eye – that this isn’t a gratuitously clever techno-Spectacle. First, the work’s provocative title, The Artist Is Not Present, if displayed or broadcast anywhere in the vicinity of the projection, raises critical questions about Madsen’s intentions; and second, the obvious “pattern language” of the display – the fact that there’s clearly a rhythm, a repetition of certain formal, chromatic, or compositional elements as the designs evolve – could compel passersby to want to “crack the code,” to wonder about the logic driving the artwork’s evolution. The Artist Is Not Present thus becomes a mystery: one of missing persons and secret codes.


There’s a mystery behind Kacie Kinzer’s work, too. When a city-dweller sees one of Kinzer’s tiny, unassuming, good-natured Tweenbots rolling aimlessly through an urban park, he or she likely wonders who’s behind this small-scale spectacle. Who’s manning the robot’s controls? As it turns out, nobody. Well, actually – you are, sort of. As Kinzer explains, “the adorable and helpless-seeming ‘bots,” constructed of cardboard and the most rudimentary of mechanics, “roll along at a constant speed, in a straight line, and have a destination displayed on a flag. They rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.” And people do. Kinzer offered up plenty of video documentation of park-goers interrupting their conversations, putting down their guitars and sandwiches, parking their bikes, hanging up their cellphones, and empathetically engaging with this inanimate, yet highly emotive, cardboard object. The improbability and mystery – the small-s spectacle – of this decidedly un-spectacular object led people to choose to perform an irrational, yet compassionate, act. And in making that choice, many people seemed to be visibly vulnerable – aware that they were critically reflecting, in public, on their own code of ethics.

There’s an empathy-inducing vulnerability in much of Kinzer’s practice. She professed unease or distaste for highly scripted interaction design – for the kinds of projects in which designers might develop hypotheses regarding what will happen when they place technological objects in controlled urban environments. Rather than championing this “scientistic” criticality, she prefers a more speculative form of critical action in which the outcome is emergent. Kinzer aims to create contexts in which “connection, serendipity, and play” come together in urban space, and then she “embraces the unexpected” – even if that unexpected result is failure. There is indeed much critical insight to be gained from experiments that fail.

Molmol Kuo and her partners in YesYesNo also use fanciful, rudimentary robots to generate serendipitous encounters – encounters that, despite their seeming mundanity, have the potential to raise critical questions about ethical interaction. Their YesYesBot has the enviable job of roaming around and dispensing candy. Anyone can download the remote control app onto his or her iPhone and dispatch the little retro-style bot to share candy with whomever crosses its path. It might be a stretch to suggest that YesYesBot will inspire its beneficiaries to reflect critically on the nature of the gift economy, or that it’ll compel its remote control operators to ruminate on depersonalized commodity exchange. But perhaps the technology might allow for other applications with more obvious critical dimensions. Consider Kuo’s Walk in Shelter, a walking robot modeled after a goddess’s temple that travels around Taiwan for one week each year, drawing pilgrims who divulge their trials and tribulations. Kuo’s version is embedded with a video display showing documentary footage about sex trafficking and domestic violence. The robot’s sculptural form and animalistic movement create a small-s spectacle on the street, which draws an audience – both to the sculpture and, ideally, to the critical issues it aims to address.

via Connecting-Light
via Connecting-Light 

In “Connecting Light,” a project they created for the London 2012 Festival, YesYesNo strung hundreds of six-foot-diameter weather balloons equipped with LEDs along Hadrian’s Wall in the UK. People could visit the project’s website and post messages, which were then translated into pulses of color and transmitted down the 73-mile line of balloons. As various messages originated from different points along the wall, they crossed paths with one another, and their colors blended. Kuo’s colleague Zachary Lieberman told the Telegraph, “We are imagining a reverse wall – an inverse of the border. The border was built to separate people, and we want to bring them together again.” We’ve seen similar urban media art projects that transmit user-generated messages, or translate them into light or sound. And many of these projects – like those of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Krzysztof Wodiczko – grapple with critical issues, like surveillance and immigration. But again, we must wonder if a public encountering illuminated balloons will see “pure visual spectacle,” pure delight and frivolity – or a form of communication that does critical breaking-down-walls work. As Zimmerman explained to the Telegraph, “We want to create experiences that are magical, and create wonder and surprise – and give people good dreams.” Do good dreams preclude critical engagement? Perhaps not – if those good dreams envision a better world.

Eric Corriel’s Pool Portals, an interactive video installation projected onto a pool of milk, created more of a psychedelic experience, one that carved out a heterotopia, or a space of exception, in the urban environment. There’s no explicit critical message here – but Corriel did tell the story of one little boy who became obsessed with the work; played in it for hours, with his mother on the sidelines, clearly fascinated by her son’s fascination; and emerged from the experience convinced that he wanted to be an artist. This – convincing young people of the value of aesthetic experience – is indeed critical work.

But Corriel also uses his work to convey more explicitly ideological messages. Water Will Be Here, a video installation positioned at street level on building facades, premiered in Dumbo, Brooklyn, in 2010 (it later showed in Atlanta, Toronto, and Southampton). The immersive installation created the sensation of floating in water, and periodically going under. Particularly in the waterfront neighborhood of Dumbo, which was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, the installation made the potential effects of climate change – specifically, the rise in sea levels – palpable. It transformed an abstract concern into something experiential; it made a critical argument phenomenologically. It made aesthetics ideological.

And while not all of the works explored in the salon were overtly ideological, all embodied a criticality – in their making, their reception, their manipulation, even their appreciation. It might be especially critical to recognize that even the “mere” act of contemplation – the bracketing of time to appreciate quotidian beauty and the routines of everyday experience – can itself be a critical act, particularly in an urban environment that demands urgency and productivity and profit. Those spectacular glowing rectangles can, after all, provide deep spaces where we can contemplate purposeful thinking and action.


Tanya Toft’s New “Urban Media Aesthetics” Platform – w/ Events This Tues + Wed


I’m very pleased to announce that the brilliant and talented Tanya Toft — Ph.D. Fellow at Copenhagen University, current participant in CuratorLab at Konstfack Universitet, Stockholm, and my former research assistant (!!) — has launched an exciting new curatorial/research platform, Urban Media Aesthetics, which examines the curation of digital art forms in urban environments. I had the honor of serving as external advisor for the project’s first phase of development.

“Spectacle” is the first of several themes Tanya will explore through the platform. Through invited writings, interviews, and events, she’ll examine how we might develop alternative discourses and aesthetic possibilities for “spectacle,” which don’t reduce it to illusion, commodification, and fetishization.


Lynn Spigel on George Nelson’s Storage Walls

via DesignHistoryGroup:

We ended our Media + Architecture class early tonight (which unfortunately meant curtailing a really great discussion on architecture and film!) so that several of us — those of us who didn’t have 6:00 classes to attend — could trek uptown to the Bard Graduate Center to hear Lynn Spigel’s talk, “Media Walls: From Mid-Century Domesticity to Smart Home Environments.” We had read her Make Room for TV and discussed television and architecture last week.

[We arrived 10 minutes late — damn New School elevators, stupid A train! — so we missed the introduction.] Shortly after Spigel started showing some historical images this evening, I thought, ein minuten bitte! This looks familiar! Once I got home, a quick consultation of my still un-transcribed notes from last May’s ICA conference confirmed that, yes, I’d heard her give an earlier version of this talk last year in Boston! I was glad to hear tonight how her work has progressed.

For those students who couldn’t join us, I’ve promised to post my notes from the talk. My fellow note-taking attendees are welcome to amend these notes in the Comments section.

*   *   *   *   *

Mark Weiser, the “father of ubiquitous computing,” believed that “the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are undistinguishable from it.” Spigel traces the disappearing technical object back to architecture — specifically to mid-century design. Architect/writer George Nelson, for instance, was a strong advocate for the disappearance of objects.

With Henry Wright, Nelson wrote Tomorrow’s House (1945), a book featuring sections on lighting and heating, living and dining rooms, sleeping and sound conditioning and storage (among others). Spigel noted that this book is also where he “invented” the term “family room” — a room that, as it was depicted in the book, allowed for separate gendered activities to happen simultaneously [full text of the book here].

via Modernism101:

Spigel then presented a selection of experimental, tech-infused houses (I don’t recall the specific argument she was making here):

  • the plastic, modular Monsanto House of the Future at Disneyland (Monsanto was among Nelson’s clients; others included Abbott, Alcoa, BP, Ford, Gulf, IBM, General Electric, and Olivetti)
    • The house featured Nelson’s famous coconut chair
  • the 1939 World’s Fair’s House of Tomorrow

Tomorrow’s House also introduced the storagewall, a unit that would make objects disappear. Such a device was necessitated, Spigel proposes, by three converging trends: (1) the shrinking size of modern homes; (2) the decreasing number of domestic servants; and (3) the increase in the amount of “stuff” (my term) in the home — all of which contributed to clutter.

source unknown!

The cluttered home was, at the time, a target for social reformers; Spigel cites the Hoover administration’s cleanliness campaigns and the 1922 Better Homes in America campaign. We should take note of how the problem of clutter was gendered (see the image below).

According to Spigel, Nelson was particularly interested in addressing the mess that media — radio and television sets (the “horrible eye”), for example — created. He wasn’t a fan of the ornate cabinetry — much of which was in the ghastly Chippendale style — that had been developed to house these new media as they entered the home (Spigel talks about this in Make Room for TV).

via Treehugger:

[Spigel showed a fantastic image of the storagewall from MoMA’s 1949 “Modern Art in Your Life” exhibition; I can’t find it online, so the image above will have to suffice.]

The storagewall was modular, and, because it was intended to work as a room divider, it was accessible on both sides. Nelson explained that it made more efficient use of the otherwise-wasted space between the home’s interior walls.

via Modern Findings:

Tomorrow’s House presented the storagewall as “the key to the imagination of the home as a media space“; it contained modules for the radio, record player, speakers, television, phone, print media, and writing implements, and featured a fold-out desk. In the image above (two above, actually), in the blonde wood section to the left, above the open drawer, we see a module with a round portal; this section housed the radio, and that circle’s the speaker. The storagewall imposed an order on these technologies and structured functional relationships among them. It fashioned domestic media — both “old” and “new,” both media of reception (e.g., TV and radio) and production (e.g, pens and paper for writing letters) — into a “media network” that Spigel likens to a “makeshift computer” (more on this later).

The storagewall also often contained space for board games, which, when grouped with all the home’s entertainment media, fashioned the unit into the home’s leisure center, too. Yet, according to Spigel, popular press coverage of the storagewall — which appeared regularly in publications like Life and Better Homes & Gardens — rarely showed the unit housing sports gear (the above image may be a rare exception?).

via Stylepark:

Press and publicity also commonly presented the storagewall as a “communication medium for the housewife” — a means to express herself through strategically placed vases or houseplants. Nelson’s 1957 Problems of Design contains a chapter titled “Design as Communication,” in which he explains that “[e]very design is in some sense a social communication, and what matters is…the emotional intensity with which the essentials have been explored and expressed” [p. 6]).

While the wall created a structure for leisure, it was also an “edifice for domestic labor.” In supporting both of these activities, it embodied the (gendered) tension between work and leisure. The wall was a site for women, as the (new?) “managers of family life,” to perform their managerial labor — to handle the filing of bills, to organize the family entertainment, and to coordinate the cleaning. Even when dad and kids are pictured lounging in front of the storagewall’s TV, mom is often seen fetching drinks and snacks — managing her family’s leisure activity. [Spigel commented during the Q&A that designers of the period attempted to “rebrand” the kitchen, too, as the home’s “work center.]

The storagewall was thus a site for “reassembling the social life of the home.” It was a material site where women in particular renegotiated the relationship between homeowners and their (“disappearing”) servants and coordinated relationships among family members — between genders and generations — themselves.

Spigel emphasized that the storagewall was not meant to be an all-purpose storage unit; there were certain objects it simply wasn’t meant to contain. Sentimental objects, for instance, which typically comprise a huge proportion of domestic clutter, had no place in the storagwall. Spigel suggests that this is because Nelson conceived of domestic space as a space for “storage and organizing data” rather than a space for memories. She contrasts Nelson with Bachelard, who, referring to literary spaces of the 19th century — an era preceding the rise of domestic media — describes the home as a memory space, a “maternal paradise.” Bachelard’s home is an enclosed space that “doesn’t communicate with the outside world”; the only means of escape is through daydreams.

Nelson focused instead on active storage — the storage of stuff that would be used, not momentos or nostalgia pieces. If I understand her correctly, Spigel attributes Nelson’s focus on utility and efficiency — and particularly his conception of the storagewall as a site for “organizing data” — in part to his experience in working with computers. He worked with the Eameses on the US pavilion at the Moscow world exhibition in 1959; he consulted with IBM engineers on the design of the SABRE scheduling/reservation system for the airlines; and he designed typewriters and computer terminals (John Harwood writes about much of Nelson’s IBM work in The Interface). This experience cultivated a very particular understanding of storage, and led to the conception of a storagewall that managed only particular kinds of clutter.

Nelson’s 1954 “Storage” — via Modernism101:

Despite this desire to push away the clutter of nostalgia, and to model the home as an efficient data storage device, Spigel says, memory persists. The home “has never been modern,” to borrow a phrase from Latour. The storage wall never cleaned up all the mess. Two competing models of the home coexist, and live in dialectical tension — the concept of the home as a memory space, and the concept of the home as a storage space.

The digital world creates its own clutter — both in the material form of obsolesced machines and useless adapters; and in the conceptual form of “information overload.” It’s interesting to note that Mark Weiser, Mr. UbiComp/UI/OS, lists “garbage collection” among his hobbies and has written frequently on the topic.

Let’s attend to this garbage, examine the clutter. Rendering objects invisible, Spigel says (echoing many other theorists), “hides the social/political apparatus that creates them.” Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell, in their recent Divining a Digital Future, advocate for studying the mess of digital infrastructures.

They sell these at my dad’s hardware store. I have at least a hundred in use in my  apartment.

In her May 2011 talk at the ICA, Spigel recommended focusing on “the mess of infrastructures that arise out of Nelson’s creation” — which I’m guessing would include the wires stuffed behind the TV, gathering dust; the power outlets sourcing multiple storagewall modules. Did they have powerstrips and CableClamps in Nelson’s day, too?

How would we design contemporary domestic interiors (or other interiors?) that, rather than “disappearing” the technological object, highlight its infrastructures — that somehow call attention to the “social/political apparatuses” that make this technology possible? Do we aestheticize our wires? (Pipes have already become “decorative” in renovated “raw” spaces.) Visualize our wifi? Amplify the hum of our 60 Hz electrical current?

via HowardLake on Flickr:

We talked in my “Libraries” class spring about designing libraries and archives that make people aware of the infrastructures (and their attendant politics) that deliver their “free” information. How do you do this without  turning the building into a big, dumb digital “duck”?

Digital Beijing – Studio Pei-Zhu