Your City is Watching You

I wrote a piece on city surveillance that has been published on the RTE Brainstorm website. It can be accessed here:

https://www.rte.ie/eile/brainstorm/2018/0709/977431-your-city-is-watching-you/Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 11.55.19

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The Machinic City – Part 1 – Brasilia: A Machine For Living In (video – 5 min)

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I shot this short film to promote my forthcoming book—The Machinic City: Media, Performance and Participation (Manchester University Press – Materialising the Digital Series). Referring to one of the iconic cities of Modernist Urban Planning—Brasilia—where I lived as a child, I describe how modernist cities were conceived as ‘machines for living’.

Furthermore, I offer an alternative interpretation for contemporary cities that envisions them as an assemblage of machines that includes the ‘abstract machine’ as an actant with inherent potential for change.

This film is divided in two parts. The first examines Brasilia as a ‘machine for living’ and the second part offers an alternative interpretation of the machine-city that I will elaborate in more detail in my book.

This film was shot entirely on a mobile phone (at 720p) with the internal microphone and only the odd scene shot with a tripod, so the quality is not great. I hope to eventually be able to produce a broadcast quality series based on this pilot project. Any feedback, comments and suggestions are very welcome!

And here is the link to Part 2:

Urban art: reflecting on the reART:theURBAN conference (Zurich – October 2012)

MacGhillie by Knowbotiq – conference attendant taking part in the performance

How can we define urban art? Art that is performed in urban spaces? Art that questions, challenges and addresses urban issues? Or art that originates in the city and is distinctively urban? It is perhaps all of the above, but more importantly, urban art is about encounter. Performative and embodied encounter. It is about participation. It is also about uncertainty, awareness, reflection. It can trigger political action, social interaction, or play. Or it can just sit in the background, waiting for someone to wear it (see video above), trip on it (see video below), pick it up or sit on it.

Its outcome is contingent on the unpredictable agency of the city and the subjectivity of participants, who might interpret it in significantly different ways than envisioned by the artists or the institutions that have commissioned it. By moving outside of the controlled environment of art galleries and museums, it is subject to performative ‘failures’, although, as Judith Butler puts it, performance must fail, as the failures of performance can bring new affordances.

The reART:theURBAN conference showcased and discussed the many facets of urban art, including its discrepancies, missed potentials, contradictions and failures. During the open plenary, Charles Landry pondered why there is so much red public art around the world. Is it because it needs to make a point by ‘shouting out’ its purpose by standing out against the chaotic backdrop of the city? Can urban art not make its point discretely? After Landry’s talk, Erik Swyngedou highlighted the contradictions in the employment of urban art as a promotional tool for cities that market themselves as creative/sustainable/eco cities.

Swyngedou’s warning call can be seen here:

He replies to the question: “How can we bring divergent approaches to the table?” by arguing that it forces us to mistakenly think that we can actually all come together and agree in the city. Instead, we must understand the city’s most important quality as being exactly the ability to cater for an assemblage of individuals with divergent opinions, desires and ways of living. IN this case it is worth pondering the following question: how does the city support the development of the commons through urban art without succumbing to the rhetoric of the ‘cultural city’?

Rimini Protokoll’s 100% Zurich, performed during the conference, attempts to sketch out such commons in a two hour performance: 100 citizens on stage representing a statistical selection of the population of Zurich take part in a staged performance that shines a torch on the city through a lens that highlights its people and their ways of living rather than the infrastructure fabric. These ‘experts of the everyday’ tell their individual and collective stories, opinions and wishes through a semi-rehearsed performance, while multiple questions are posed to the 100 members, who scramble around the circular stage (that doubles as a sort of giant whiteboard filmed from above) to indicate statistically their answers. At one point, the narrative states: “We are a body with 100 heads”. This statement summarises the role of the city as a stage for a commons through dissensus, according to Swyngedou’s argument.

Slavoj Zizek’s keynote lecture – When Art is Dangerous – also questioned the totalitarian aim of the cultural city rhetoric. During his entertaining and engaging talk, Zizek elaborated on the ‘poetic military complex’. He argues that “authentic poetry, authentic art is used in crimes of poetic military ideology”. He referred to the justification of crimes against humanity through the use of poetic rhetoric – from Hitler via Karadzic to contemporary African dictators. The poetic military complex. These crimes, according to Zizek, are perpetrated through the use of language as a totalitarian weapon. Instead, he argues, “language should be tortured to tell the truth” so that poetry can be redeemed. He mentioned as an example Eisenstein and his ‘torturing of language through montage’.

I think Zizek’s point must be taken seriously especially when the focus on technology as effect/technique/theme in urban art foregrounds spectacle and an action/interaction effect molded on cybernetic predictability that affects participation, the important role of embodiment and reflection. It is a refreshing challenge to the myth of unimpeded information flows that help us find our way in the ‘concrete jungle’, (think Robocop, Minority Report, Google glasses…), or, as Katherine Hayles puts it, the belief that, in our posthuman condition, the body is redundant. Zizek’s point sheds a light on the need to be less prescriptive on the outcomes of urban art and forgo the rhetoric of cultural city in favour of a multiplicity of participatory modes and of foregrounding embodiment.

A better understanding of the multiple ways in which participants engage with urban art helps to overcome the urge to categorise it and pre-define its outcome as political, leisure, social. While many projects might have a specific agenda to start of with, the outcome is always unpredictable. I agree with Hilke Berger’s argument in her presentation about participation during here talk at the conference: “citizens attach their own value to things”.

A work of urban art can be interpreted in many different way by participants. During his inspiring and innovative presentation, artist Manos Tsangaris argued that “the urban is inside of us”, and that “if art says: I have to do this for x-reason, it fails”. According to him, we must focus on the punctum, the ‘leaping point’. Or in other words, we must pay close attention to sudden moments of displacement, of social potential, of renewal of what the term ‘urban’ stands for.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was taking part in a workshop on Urban Games ran by Jakob La Cour and Sebastian Quack. Through an iteration process, we adapted and played two ‘urban games’: Surveillance Roulette and Tetris Smuggling. Surveillance Roulette consisted of a typical roulette game where, instead of gambling on numbers, participants bet on the future actions of selected passers-by entering the designated space. In Tetris Smuggling, two competing teams had to recruit passers-by smuggle physical representations of the pieces of the famous electronic game into a designated security space and attach the pieces to a magnetic surface while avoiding two security guards patrolling the space.

Both games are remarkably simple, cheap to reproduce (no digital devices involved) and cleverly draw in passers-by into the game playing by reinterpreting traditional games (roulette and Tetris) and situating them in an unfamiliar space (transport hubs, bars) in a simple but challenging way. They raised questions about participation. Some participants felt uncomfortable engaging strangers to ‘smuggle’ pieces of Tetris past the ‘security personnel’ (a participant with a bright green safety vest). Passers-by were drawn into both games with unexpected results. During the enactment of the Surveillance Roulette game, many passers-by realised they were being observed and were puzzled by the excitement on the table inside the conferences bar where participants were assembled around the improvised roulette table. Sebastian and Jakob argues that urban games can “make you more aware of other participants” and to “observe and learn more about space”.

One of the important outcomes of these games is to allow adults to engage with urban space in a playful way, outside of everyday life routines. But they also fulfill other important roles, and therefore categorising them simply as playful interactions does not do them full justice. Through rule discussion, play and post-game analysis, the potential of embodied participation and reflection triggers disagreements that must be worked out through a democratic process. Therefore a temporary commons emerges through participatory dissensus.

La Cour and Quack’s workshop summarises what I liked most about the reART:the URBAN conference: it reassures me of the importance of participation in the creative re-appropriation of everyday urban spaces where the outcome is open, rather than an attempt to narrow the focus of urban art towards pre-defined categories (social, political, cultural, play) or prescriptive outcomes.

This, I think is an approach that can help us avoid the use of art, in Zizek’s words towards “providing an aesthetic screen to make us blind and indifferent”.

Experiencing Blast Theory’s I’d Hide You – Gaming your way through Manchester’s night scene

I’d Hide You by Blast Theory is described as an “online game of stealth and cunning” performed during the FutureEverything festival in Manchester during three evenings (17-19 May). It relies on live online broadcasting and consists of three teams of players competing against each other while running along the streets of Manchester.  The players (or runners) don colourful brightly-lit helmets and a device consisting of a portable video camera with a ring of LED lights attached, making them very distinct. At the same time, anyone can join the game online by logging into the game’s website for a specific period of time and choosing a player. They can see the live video feedback of the player’s video camera.

The objective of the street players is to covertly film players of the opponent teams. Once they have them in the sight of their cameras, the online players that have chosen their camera view click on the screen and score points, while the street player targeted loses lives.

While many of Blast Theory’s projects participants assume the role of street players while the narrative is delivered to them through mobile devices, in I’d Hide You (and also previously in Can You See Me Now?) the roles are reversed: participants sit in front of the screen of their networked devices while the narrative is brought to them through a group of previously arranged street players (or runners). The latter are even given an online presence, where you can choose between red, yellow and white teams to see their self-descriptions and short videos.

Another defining feature of I’d Hide You is the use of live online broadcasting, which, despite the advances of broadband technology, computer speed power and software, is still subject to glitches, breakdown, overloaded servers and variable image quality. This is perhaps why major broadcasters are reluctant to depend solely on it for transmission of major events. However, independent online broadcasting is undoubtedly a great playing field for experimental arts, and hopefuly we will see more of it in the near future.

EXPERIENCING I’D HIDE YOU

I logged in to the game’s website on the second day. The rules are simple enough to grasp while playing and the only action to score points is to click on the screen at the right time (when an opponent is in sight). I chose a player called Paul and his online video stream appeared in front of me. I was suddenly being taken around the streets of Manchester on a live tour. Paul kept turning around the camera to himself so he could chat while waiting to ambush other participants. He was quite skilfull at the latter, and once another player was on site I started clicking frantically on the screen, scoring nearly a dozen points (one for each click). The game goes on pause after the first seconds of a live confrontation because once the opponent realises he is being shot he turns around and the whole point of the ambush is gone. It then gives players time to move away and regain their breath before starting over again. While playing, I was able to send comments to Paul by typing on my keyboard (“Watch out, there is someone behind shooting at you!”). The experience of being ambushed is quite annoying. Paul got a bit distracted, was ambushed and lost all his lives.

The game reset and I was brought back to the initial screen presenting a map of the streets of Manchester with live updates of the locations of players prompting you to choose one. Some nice background music comes on and I am briefly presented with the top scores of online players. I notice that the highest score is above 900. What? How did he/she manage that? I get a Twitter from a colleague reminding me that the points accumulate, so you need to keep playing. Gosh, you can;t get away from obsessive game players even in an art-based project…

I join another player (Abi). She is too slow, and keeps getting killed. I get a bit annoyed, but unphased, I move on to join Matt, who seems more confident, assures me that he knows the streets of Manchester really well and that he is “in it to win it”. Matt is an efficient player, and I manage to add a few points to my tally while he ambushes a few players. Although my score keeps resetting to zero every time I switch players, I hope that somewhere in the server my score is increasing. However, after a while Matt gets into a cruisy mode and starts a kind of ad-hoc tour of Manchester’s night scene, entering a kebab shop and sitting down for a while, discussing the shop’s choice of music. He is stopped on the streets while people ask him what on earth he is doing. He dishes out cards with the web address of the game. Some peopl strike a conversation with him, holding hi back. I send Matt a message: “Come on, let’s keep going”.Other messages from online players also pop up on the screen (“There is another player behind you!”, “Good playing, Matt!”).

For me, the most interesting aspects of the game are the amazing random camera shots and the random conversations that street players engage in. They keep me entertained for over an hour. The serer eventually crashes, it must be overloaded, and for me it’s time to get back to reality. Or to my closer reality at home. Thanks for Paul, Abi and Matt, I spent some time cruising the streets of Manchester alongside them with the excuse that I was playing an online competitive game to try and knock out the highest score (I was never going to do that and honestly did not aim for it). Like sandboxing in a walking version of Grand Theft Auto, except the scenery around me is not generated by algorithms.

Reflections on Public Art: Anish Kapoor’s ‘Cloud Gate’

On a recent trip to Chicago I visited Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, installed in the Millennium Park. Approaching it from Michigan Avenue is like encountering a mirage. Cloud Gate is as impressive as it is uncontainable and indescribable. Like a gigantic drop of shiny mercury fallen from the sky, its sensual shape evokes something that is constantly morphing, reaching for the sky while also firmly grounded. It is an alien structure, yet by reflecting back the surrounding city, it becomes immediately familiar to us.

The terms ‘cloud’ and ‘gate’ evoke many things. It is a cloud that contains the sky, rather than being contained by it. In contrast with the dark, heavy and uncanny ‘data clouds’ that govern our mediated lives – clouds that attempt to transform us into pure information to be contained behind the closed gates of private data centres – Cloud Gate reflects back our desires, expressions and emotions to ourselves, passersby, and the city. As a gate, it does not create new spatial hierarchies. Rather than performing the role of a symbolically charged ceremonial gate – that eventually becomes detached from their original meaning and survive as an architectural curiosity – Cloud Gate invites the viewers to interpret it through their own subjectivities and to engage with it. It invites people to enter it, revealing its navel, a cave like space that catches visitors by surprise: a crescendo of darkness and distortion where the whole surroundings and everyone around seems to be swallowed up towards its apex.

It is interesting to note that the first thing visitors do is to try and capture the sculpture on camera, attempting to register something that simply refuses to be captured in a two-dimensional canvas. It feels like Cloud Gate is trying to capture you rather than allowing you to capture it and transform it into yet another nugget to be uploaded to some faraway ‘data cloud’ . Cloud Gate reserves its full experience to those that engage with it, joining it on stage rather than sitting in the audience. Despite the many times I read about it, and saw pictures of it, I was still in awe when encountering the real thing.

The second thing that visitors do is to engage playfully with it: distorting their own images, lying on the ground to see the reflection of the city and passersby on its surface, touching it and trying to spot themselves as they walk near it. The lack of clear visual references, such as starting or ending point, actual height of the navel’s apex, location of your reflection – and sometimes, difficulty in determining where its edge stops and the real sky begins – lends an ethereal touch to the whole experience.

My experience was like any other visitor’s. I walked around, took photos, tried to get different angles of the navel’s reflection by kneeling down and looking up, walked inside and through it to experience the differences in light and distortion. I amused myself at the reaction of other visitors and the lengths that people went to in order to capture it from a different angle. In the end I also sat back on a bench and, as a detached audience member, admired the slow movement of real clouds reflected on the upper part of its shiny, near-perfect surface.

Cloud Gate is a testament to the power of simplicity and elegance. In our age of gratuitous spectacle, it reminds us that the best spectacle is the one that we provide to ourselves through interaction with our surrounding environment.

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My heavyweight competitor in the Google search engine

Strange things come up when you Google your own name. I found out that I am competing for online presence with, among others: a Dominican olympic swimmer (not fair: his surname is Diaz), a Brazilian skateboarder (he is pretty good), a computer programmer working for IBM, an evangelical preacher… There are probably hundreds (or thousands) of Marcos Dias around the word, but this is certainly the heaviest one. It’s beaten me a couple of times. Not by imposing its oppressive weight and measurements, but rather, I suspect, because its location is constantly tracked and beamed to the web. Says a lot about the “Internet of Things’. Here’s my homage to this heavyweight. Hope I don’t meet you while I’m out surfing…

ShipSpotting.com
© Rogério Cordeiro

 

Lecture 2.0

Lecture 2.0:

Users add value” (Tim O’Reilly)
“You control the information age. Welcome to your world” (Time Magazine)

This is a collaborative effort. But also an opportunity to reflect on the Web 2.0 rhetoric…

We will use comments you made on a colleague post in the ‘production’ of the Week 12 lecture.

Themes to be covered (from each week):
W. 1 – History of New Media
W.2 – Software and code controlling our lives
W.3 – Web 2.0 and the ‘produser’
W.4 – Participatory networked cultures
W.5 – Privacy and ethics in networked cultures
W.6 – WordPress
W.7 – Blogs and citizen journalism
W.8 – Webdesign and Vernacular creativity
W.9 – YouTube and online video
W.10 – FLOSS, Creative Commons and ‘free culture’
W.11 – Piracy and sustainable cultural production