Experiencing Ciudades Paralelas – Cork Midsummer Festival, June 2012 (part 2 of 3)

Ciudades Paralelas: Station: Sometimes I Think I Can See You
In Station, three writers with portable laptops and mobile phones are connected remotely to three different displays situated in the entrance lobby of Cork’s train station. As they observe passers-by walking along the lobby, the writers type messages onto the screens making comments about passers-by trying to get their attention. If they were successful, the writers sometimes would try to get them to engage in ad-hoc performative acts. In the most successful one I observed, a child with her mother spent about five minutes looking at the screen, clapping and dancing after being prompted by the screen. This was the only event that wasn’t ticketed, so I came in through the side door of the train station’s main lobby and sat on one of the benches, in front of one of the writers typing away on her laptop as she watched the actions unfold. One of the writers was actually typing his messages from a smart phone, and it took me a while to spot him, although he was only five metres away from me.

As I sat and watched the writers from close range, I was conscious that it would only take a few seconds for them to pick up on something I did (such as raise my arms while stretching) and I would be drawn into the performance. The success of the writer’s interpellations depended on the awareness of passers-by. When trains came in, passers-by tended to ignore the displays, as they were discreet enough and people seemed to be in a rush. However, when someone walked into the train station, waiting for a train in the lobby or for someone to arrive, they tended to pay more attention to the screens, especially the one situated in the middle of the hall.

Passers-by reacted with surprise when they noticed that the screen was addressing them, the sort of reaction you would get in the ubiquitous candid camera TV programmes. They would discreetly look around, trying to figure out what was going on. Some people laughed, others just carried on with their lives. No one seemed particularly offended or angry. And no one approached any of the writers. Perhaps we are so used to people holding laptops in public spaces so it is difficult to make the connection between the writers and the screens. It would have been interesting to see how the writers would react if approached.

Ciudades Paralelas: House: Prime Time
In the house performance, a section of the street had been blocked for the event to take part. I was given a pair of headphones and a radio transmitter on arrival. Standing in the middle of the street, my attention was directed to two blocks of flats situated opposite each other. Through the headphones, I could hear the stories of several neighbours while watching them carry out their daily routines through the wide windows of the flats.

The facade of the buildings was akin to a multi-screen interface where each window was an individual screen, switched on and off as the focus moved on from one neighbour’s story to the other. Sometimes the actors/neighbours would get out binoculars and look towards other participants. This signalled to viewers/participants that they should direct their gaze across the road towards another participant, who would then start narrating their story. Although the voices seemed pre-recorded (as participants remain immobile while you could hear their voice), some of the ambient sounds, such as the Bob Marley soundtrack, the guitar playing and the sound of one of the neighbour’s turtle swimming in a tank sounded live.

The opposing blocks of flats served as social containers where the most contrasting living experiences happened side by side: an Indian couple with two daughters that were sowing clothes, a lone engineering student with his turtle tank and guitar, a gay couple who were into music producing and partying, a German girl that liked to play darts, a Hungarian florist… Some of the neighbours seemed to know each other, but most of them had nothing in common. The event lasted half an hour. It felt like a mix between a movie and a theatre play: the windows as screens with a wide depth of field, and the possibility of directing your gaze away from the focus of the narrative. At the very end it seemed that the audience/stage relationship had been inverted: it ended with participants looking at us through their binoculars, inverting the stage/audience relationship. The whole experience felt slightly voyeuristic, with the inversion of the gaze at the end providing a slightly uncanny experience: are they really pointing those binoculars at me out of curiosity, or it this part of the narrative? Shortly afterwards, all the windows went dark a the neighbours switched of their ‘screens’. It was time for the next performance, as the next group started to arrive and collect their headphones.

Experiencing Ciudades Paralelas – Cork Midsummer Festival, June 2012 (part 1 of 3)

Experiencing Ciudades Paralelas – overview
The following is a series of three post blogs describing my observations of Ciudades Paralelas, a project curated by Lola Arias and Stefan Kaegi (from Rimini Protokoll) that was performed during the Cork Midsummer Festival in June 2012. Previously, it has been performed across several cities worldwide, including Berlin, Buenos Aires, Warsaw, Zurich, Utrecht and Singapore. Lola and Stefan invited eight artists to create interventions that reinterpret the topology of eight ordinary/functional spaces – factory, court, shopping centre, house, library, hotel, train station and the rooftop of a building – transforming them into performative spaces and changing our perception of these spaces. In Rimini Protokoll’s website, the artists state that Ciudades Paralelas’ aim is to “make theatre out of public spaces used every day, and seduce the viewers into staying long enough for their perception to change” (http://www.rimini-protokoll.de/website/en/project_4677.html). Ciudades Paralelas unleashes powerful narratives onto these taken-for-granted spaces of our everyday lives, raising our awareness of these spaces and their users/inhabitants while in some occasions suggesting alternative realities and possibilities through performative acts.

During my short visit to the Cork Midsummer Festival, I took part in four of the eight events of Ciudades Paralelas – Hotel, Station, House and Shopping Mall. The events invited the audience to engage in manifold ways: talking to hotel staff, engaging with a public information display, observing and listening to residents and taking part in a public performance. In the Hotel event, by Lola Arias, the public took part by taking an individual tour of five rooms in the hotel that were transformed for the performance. In the Station event, by Mariano Pensotti, passers-by unaware of the event were incidentally drawn into the performance, as three screens displayed in the train station hall attempt to establish a dialogue with them. In the House event, by Dominic Huber and Blendwerk the audience were situated in the middle of the street and the facades of two opposite buildings become the stage. And in the Shopping Mall event, by Ligna, participants actively engaged in a slightly transgressive manifesto-driven act inside the mall.

Ciudades Paralelas: Hotel: Chamber Maids

I arrived in the Maldron hotel and was given five key cards for five different rooms. I was told to enter them in a specific order and to exit them as soon as I heard the phone ringing. A festival volunteer guided me to the first room and said that I would thoroughly enjoy it. I was then left on my own.

I apprehensively entered the first room, and was directed to some notes left on the desk and some photos inside a pillowcase. They told the story of one of the chamber maids that worked in the hotel. I spent some time looking for other clues. The phone rang. I made my way to the second room. On entering, I was surprised to see a massive pile of sheets and towels on top of the bed that nearly reached the ceiling. It was rock solid. I sat on the bed, leaning against the pile. On the TV set in front of me, the static image of another chamber maid suddenly started talking to me, knocking on the TV screen to get my attention. while it was a recording, it was quite engaging. She was quite confident, and eager to tell me about the hard work she undertakes on a daily basis, making me slightly guilty of all those hotel rooms where I stayed before (“I clean 20 rooms per day, that’s 600 rooms per month”). Her image freezes, the phone rings, and I am off to the third room.

The third room seemed to have been customised by a chamber maid from Ghana, including photos of her daily routine from her home to the hotel, and several references to her home country: colourful bed sheets, sculptures from Africa, a Ghana flag hanging over the window. In one of the photos, she is portrayed praying. The legend says that she attends the Adventist church. There was an MP3 player hanging over the door. I picked it up, and as I walked around the bedroom looking at the photos and reading the legends, I was also listening to the chamber maid’s voice describing her daily routines. She was studying hospitality at a university in Cork and working part-time. So far, the three different stories, despite pointing to different origins and countries, all depicted stories of humble origins, hard work, and determination to persevere.

The fourth room was the most amazing! On opening the door I couldn’t believe my own eyes when I encountered a real forest! This was quite a surreal and unexpected experience. Pine trees, an overpowering smell from the earth covering the carpet, loudspeakers playing forest sounds, carps swimming in the bath tub, and a soundtrack with a voice-over of a male chamber maid from Poland. Also, a meter-high sculpture of Jesus on the window sill and a bible over the sink. The Polish cleaner’s voice spoke of his strong opinions: he thinks the recent death of the Polish president in a plane accident was a conspiracy, and he said he had proof of that. He also said he wrote edited content for a Polish radio programme that attempted to provide an alternative political discourse. He also spoke of his religious beliefs.

After the intense experience of the forest, on entering the fifth bedroom, I was invited to lie down on a bed and watch a detailed video projected onto the ceiling. The images was reflected from a small projector located under the bed through the use of a mirror. It portrayed and Irish cleaner that worked sometimes as supervisor. She said she hated the hoovering, but didn’t mind cleaning the toilet. Her skill making the beds and pillows showed her experience working as a cleaner, she worked really fast and with perfection. She said that every time she entered a room she feared the worst, such as rooms that were destroyed by hen parties. But the worst was when she encountered a dead lady in one of the rooms, after being asked to check out because a lady had the do not disturb sign up for days. Apparently the lady had overdosed on drugs. Worst of all, the cleaner had to keep working on that day.

The five stories together provided an amazing journey through the lives of these ‘invisible workers’, with a crescendo of emotions and experiences that brought you right into their lives. But that wasn’t the end.

After hearing the customary phone call to exit the room, I was surprised to open the door and encounter the chamber maid from Ghana! This was a slightly distorted experience: meeting a stranger after her daily life was described in reasonable detail in room three. It felt like meeting a character from a book in person. She introduced herself and took me on a quick tour of the hotel, showing the room where her boss worked, where they kept the cleaning equipment and sheets and towels and asking if I had any questions. I nearly felt I should offer the same question, wondering if she would be curious about her guests. But instead I was just happy to listen to her. Strangely, it felt like she was performing yet another daily chore, but she seemed to be interested enough as I asked her about her studies.

All of the stories were very engaging, and the blurring of the functional space of the hotel room, the narratives of the hotel workers and the physical objects inserted into the room triggered in me awareness, curiosity and surprise. Rather than simply trying to make you feel guilty listening to the hardship of the hotel workers (“hen parties are the worse, the stains from fake tan are hard to clean”), the narrative brought you quite close to their personal worlds, interpreted through the room furniture and decoration, and the addition of audio and video in different ways. I said goodbye to the chamber maid, and as I walked through the hotel lobby, I felt like I was crossing a line back into the mundane, the banal and the unconscious everyday life of being a hotel guest. If only every hotel provided such experiences…

Dublin Mini Maker Faire – DIY and Performative Publics

http://sciencegallery.com/makerfaire

Last Saturday I took part in the first ever Dublin Mini Maker Faire, an event hosted by the Science Gallery and Trinity College for crafters, tinkerers and hobbyists and displaying all sorts of DIY stuff. People from all ages and backgrounds were in attendance, and the organisers estimated that 6500 people visited the event, more than twice their predicted outcome. The event had an emphasis on engaging the public to participate, either through demonstrations or by getting people to produce things, from cardboard robots to electronic badges to music.

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I took part with a prototype of an Arduino project I’ve been working on, a Moveable DIY LED lamp, a.k.a. “Dynolamp’. It consisted of a very simple interaction, where motion and tilt combined changed the colour of a LED light on top of an animal-like structure with flexible legs, designed to be hung around different objects and surfaces. I added some TIC TAC boxes to add to the sensorial experience (sound and smell). Despite the simplicity of the project I was surprised by people’s interest, scrutinising my rough sketches and asking me all sorts of questions (what controls the light change, what are the TIC TAC boxes for, where is the power source…).

I put a sign up encouraging people to pick it up and move it around, and was delighted to see many kids having a go at it, bending Dynolamp’s legs, tilting and shaking it and suggesting things (make it walk!). From 10am to 6pm I was flat out explaining Dynolamp to people from 3 to 80 years old. I took a break and got a volunteer to replace me for an hour. When I came back, the table was surrounded by people listening to an explanation given by volunteer Maurice.

In the opposite corner of the room I was in, the NUI Maynooth crew was even busier, and their popular gesture-controlled giant Tetris game was a hit. It created an ad-hoc performative space where people surrounded the player and cheered them on as they played. It was great to see how a re-appropriation of a game considered banal and trivial was generating so much interest, including from kids that are so used to much more sophisticated games. I didn’t see a single person completing one round of the game, as the gesture controlled system was quite difficult. The NUI crew said they had to do some work on the code to make it smoother, but I think that by making it harder to control it actually created a more interesting challenge for people. They also had a DIY old-school arcade cabinet with several games from the 80s and 90s, and kids seem to enjoy playing Pac-Man, Space Invaders and other ‘oldies’.

The Faire extended into the Trinity College Physics lawn, where, among other things, there was a giant drum that could be played by up to twenty people at the same time. It was a nice collaborative device, and I particularly liked the idea of having a dozen people in a circle performing on the same instrument. One guy seemed to be performing the role of percussion leader, and he got people to synchronise (to a certain degree) their drum playing.

In several tents, kids were creating and playing with things. Among these: a giant scalectrix activated by the electricity generated by a participant using a gym walking machine; DIY remote controlled submersibles, and a class on soldering techniques.

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

 

Latour and Cosmopolitics

Yesterday Bruno Latour turned up at the Science Gallery here in Dublin to give a lecture on Reenacting Science. Tackling the issue of climate change research, he use the analogy of the weight of the world (or Gaia) to ask the question:

“What could it mean to take the world on our shoulders?”

Latour points out (via Sloterdijk) that the philosopher is the one who “knows that he/she is loaded with the weight of the world”. While in previous times we were faced with the concept of an infinite cosmos, Latour argues that in the globalised era we have paradoxically moved back to a limited and contested cosmos (there is no outside…). And if we can no longer look towards the future, what we see behind us is “HORROR” (as Latour demonstrated through an acting stint – he stood up and walked backwards…).

During the Q&A session at the end, I had the opportunity to ask Latour the following:

“In Laboratory Life, you talk about the way in which scientific statements move gradually from the speculative arena to acquire a status of general acceptance. When we consider the issue of climate change, has this process of gradual acceptance of the truth been stalled by politics?”

I can’t quite remember his whole answer to quote him directly, but Latour suggested that we look at the financing behind opposing scientific arguments on this theme to put it into context. He pointed out that some climate change scientists come over to “cry on his shoulder” and ask Latour to help defend them against the powerful lobbies supporting the scientific research groups that ignore or refute the effects of climate change on Gaia. He argued that the separation between science and politics is a moot.

From his talk, I take that Latour considers the evidence of catastrophic consequences to be funded on thorough research based on ANT-type analysis that avoids short-sighted accounts based on partial results. And that rather than simply blame mainstream politics for muddying the understanding of the impact of climate change on our planet, we must build a cosmopolitics that is both a demo-cracy and a geo-cracy, and that redistributes the ‘weight of the world’ among all of us. This does not erase the issue of politics, but is perhaps the ultimate call against anthropocentrism. As Latour puts it:

“Gaia will keep going on, it will just shake us off”.

Latour is writing a play on Gaia.

 

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

Lecture 2.0 – W.2 Software Studies – Software, CC and Creativity

http://allanalderson.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/a-monopoly-on-creativity/

This post comments on the following statement by Creative Commons: “We do not recommend using Creative Commons for software”. Allan argues that software is also a creative process like any other and therefore there is no reason why CC shouldn’t cover it.