It was sometime in the early 21st century that it happened. Culture had become so saturated with different versions of the future, something inside our collective imaginations just shut off. We forgot how to imagine the future. The ramifications were broader than we first thought. By 2015 the whole planet had lost the ability to imagine change. It didn’t happen all at once, like Gibson’s future, the loss wasn’t evenly distributed.
In this post I’m going to try to articulate some of the concerns I have about the commodification of public space through technology. As networked, augmented, technologically mediated experiences start to dominate our lives, how do we make space for non-consumption based activities, how do we design new forms of common space for reflection and conviviality?
The post has been in draft form since mid November after I went to the service celebrating the life of my favourite Flatlander and good friend, Nic Hughes. In the church was a projection, made by Nic, that sparked a chain of ideas. This post is trying to collect them together. On a side note, I love the fact that Nic continues to challenge and inspire me in his death, I’m sure this will be an ongoing thread in my life, I’m going to continue to blog about Nic’s influence on my thinking in celebration of a great design mind.
Projecting ‘THIS SPACE IS NOT FOR SALE’ and ‘GOD IS FOUND IN THE SHIT’ onto the wall of a church shocked me slightly. My first thought was: surely you’re not allowed to do this, the church wouldn’t stand for it. It’s an act of rebellion and nonconformity, this is bound to be looked down upon by an institution of such conservative values. But I wasn’t quite sure why I thought this, it’s been niggling me ever since.
It maybe due to the medium of projection itself, it seems to be far too flippant for a place of worship – the church is a space for frescos and stained glass; mediums that last, hold ideas in concrete form. A projection is too ephemeral, too ‘light’, to exist in a church. So in a world were screens are being placed everywhere, will the church be one the last places to succumb; a place of digital resistance, where the flow of data is slowed, frozen in an ideological time lock.
I don’t know the context in which Nic produced the work, I think it was during his time involved with Vaux. But as I entered the church, it hit me like a truck, the reconceptualisation of the church as a space away from the dynamics of free market capitalism is both appealing and something I’d never fully considered. Although the writing of George Bataille (in particular Against Architecture) and Henri Lefebvre have long been favourites of mine, I’ve never fully embraced the role of the Church in contemporary spatial politics.
“What is an ideology without a space to which it refers, a space which it describes, whose vocabulary and kinks it makes use of, and whose code it embodies?” Lefebvre demands. “What would remain of the Church if there were no churches?” Lefebvre writes. “The world of commodities would have no ‘reality’ without such [spatial] moorings or points of insertion, or without their existing as an ensemble,” he reminds us. “The same may be said of banks and banking-networks vis-a-vis the capital market and money transfers.” Notbored
In an era of supermodernity, where the non-spaces of ultra-captialism reign supreme, the common space of contemplation away from consumer demands must be one of the main attractions of the church. The physical and mental spaces of worship will always remain other to the forces of contemporary consumption. As every inch of the globe becomes ever increasingly constructed to aid smooth consumption, does the church offer a new role as a sanctity away from consumer pressures?
My obsession with the politics of space have always been focussed on the materialisation/concretisation of certain ideological and philosophical positions. Therefore, my reading of churches and cathedrals has remained at a level where I see them as the embodiment of authoritative and oppressive power. You only need to travel around Italy to fully understand the role of architecture in the meditation and promotion of a higher being. The architecture is literally awe-inspiring, it makes one feel small and humble, in the presence of something greater than oneself.
I also know that worship doesn’t only occur in great temples and cathedrals, it also occurs in humble surroundings, from halls to huts. You only need to travel to the light industrial estates off Old Kent Road on a Sunday to see the vibrancy and popularity of the African Churches. In these ex-spaces of production, warehouses get re-appropriated to gather people together to sing and pray. Although the architecture of faith is important to frame the activity, the programmatic function of the space comes from the community – individuals belief, intention and action.
I think what I’m getting at is something similar (yet less articulate) to my friend Adam Greenfield‘s, The City Is Here For You To Use. We are the city, our patterns of behaviour and actions construct the cultural fabric of our cities, but we are also participating in the digital layer of our urban condition, we need to be proactive in the construction of spatial relations. We need to take the power back. The emergence of new forms of contemplative spaces will emerge through the collective need and desire for them. They can be supported by new technologies, or destroyed by them, but whatever happens, unless we want our spatial experience to be dominated and controlled by the corporate elite, we need to find digital common spaces. We need to find the role of the individual in the construction of our socio-spatial future.
It’s a common observation that social media channels allow us to compartmentalise our lives. In a recent performance/lecture by Rebekka Kill at Improving Reality she looked at the political and social differences between Facebook and Twitter. Rebekka compared the platforms to punk and disco (twitter being punk and Facebook being disco), tracking and comparing their use and content she concluded that she no longer wanted to divide herself… She wanted to be ‘herself’ on all channels, she wanted to be both Punk and Disco.
This got me thinking about my use of social media. For about 4 years I’ve delivered a lecture, Schizophrenic Identities and the Networked Society, where I discuss the fragmentary nature of identity through the technologies we use. In it I look at the different naming schemas as ways to differentiate behaviour and identity.
For example, I don’t really use Facebook, but when I do, it’s all about my private life and old friends. I never really talk about work, ideas or interests, it’s truly social, but in a strange, awkward, historic way… it’s like looking at a life I once lived or a path I didn’t take. For people I went to school with, it must be impossible to workout what I’m like now. In this way, I’m socially closed off… distant… standing in the corner, not talking to anyone, during a school reunion .
Twitter is more about ideas and interests, it’s my true place… (although I do go through moments of panic because I realise I’m a bit sweary and negative) – it represents me more as a professional. I think it gives a truer representation of how/who I am.
And then there’s Flickr. Flickr is a heady mix of the personal and professional, it’s a hobby (or more an obsession), a set of ideas and visual thoughts, a prosthetic memory, a window into my eyes, an archive of my observations as a designer. But it’s all about the socially mediated visual – I favourite images for their aesthetic and creative qualities, not their emotional and personal (although there is a case to be made for an emotional aesthetic). It will always be about photography and visual culture.
Instagram (@mwardy), on the other hand, is all about the flow… about friends, observations and ‘liking’. It’s more social, but far more disposable. I don’t want to store or archive my instagram feed, it’s in constant temporal flux and I like it that way. On each channel I have a different code of ‘favoriting’ or ‘liking’ . These are linked to both usage and personal drive. Each one is nuanced and changes over time.
Recently, I’ve had a few friends who massively crosspost (instagram to flickr, twitter to facebook), at times it irritates me, because it collapses my worlds, it’s a flagrant disregard of my internalised rules. But I can live with it.
I guess the question I’d like to ask is: do we have to make the decision about the fragmentation of personality in the design of these systems – i.e. do we identity the ‘part’ of the person we want to cater for? Or are we living in a period of change where the walls between these worlds are slowly collapsing – my crossposting friends are just early adopters. Are we moving towards a social Borgesian aleph, where the complexity of our personalities are compressed into a singular, unified, publicly mediated self?
Or is this a complete and contiguous mirror of our real life social interactions. We adapt, change, pick and choose how we act depending on context and company. Social Media maybe expanding to the point where simple delineations of identity are no longer possible. All we’re left with is the compelling complexity of the modern human condition.
Since writing my post about the architecture of dementia and reading the wonderful Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon, I’ve been thinking a lot about how spatial scales change throughout our lives – from childhood to old age.
Having a toddler has heightened my awareness of the boundaries and thresholds of exploration – the limits of safety and adventure. Every blindspot within the urban landscape becomes a possible escape route – life becomes a real-time replay of The Great Escape, but with no tunnels or Nazis. Then, as your child gets older, you become aware that they should be exploring and pushing boundaries. That their spatial freedom in some way equals mental freedom – the unseen, unsupervised allows for growth and development.
As Chabon wonderfully describes, in adolesence it is the ‘wilderness’, those part of the landscape – either rural, suburban or urban – that are derelict, abandoned and free from adult management, that allow for a space of the imagination. A landscape of performance and play, where scenes of adventure and misbehavior are acted out, where new worlds are constructed and occupied, where rules are made by kids and the adults are the enemy. It is in these spaces where we grow and foster our creative imaginations.
As we enter young adulthood our spatial boundaries dramatically increase, we move away from home, travel on our own and explore the places of our future lives. In fact, I would go as far as saying you’re identity becomes defined by the scope of your spatial experiences – how many students have maps on their wall proudly displaying pins of their travelling conquests. During this period, the desire to travel is high, the atlas becomes a manual of possibility. In the UK it’s become a middle class, western walkabout.
Into our middle age, the cartography starts to shrink, we ‘settle’ and ‘put down roots’. As we move towards old age – our personal cartographies shrink, sometimes to an impossibly small scale. My dad is currently occupying two rooms and a corridor (although in his mind he travels frequently by boat, train and plane), it is this limited map that he traces with his feet, caught in an ever-changing, always constant, space of frustration.
As we start to develop new technologies that augment our spatial existence – how we move, navigate and experience space – we need to be cognisant of the physiological and political ramifications their effects. This reminds me of Tom Loois’ project Blank Ways (via Adam), here Tom looks for the unexplored in our environments as spaces of mental calm. Our desire to explore is supported by the systems of telecommunications and geospatial surveillance.
[image: Tom Loois, Blank Ways]
This poetic project opens up the undiscovered within our environments, it supports a move towards a fully-lived spatial practice. However, my continuing concern about locative media, is still present. How do we build systems of serendipity and openness on the structures of profit, capital and control? Will our spatial experience be neatly packaged and sold back to us, with adwords included, to commodify the space of our imaginations? How do we build technological systems to trace the networks of our personal cartographies without closing down the creative potency of the unknown?
I’ve been writing some words for our book about to be published by Shopwork. In my chapter, I’m trying to unpack the ideas around photography, image production and consumption, politics and social media found within the Green=Boom project.
One of the main ideas in the piece is how the act of image production operates as a means to construct a form of social reality. By composing, capturing and sharing our lives photographically we ‘art direct’ how others view us, and therefore how we view the world.
With all this talk of a New Aesthetic, it’s made me reflect on the mechanics of seeing and being seen, the politics and power relationships of visuality and the boundaries of identity in the capture and representation of the world around us. This takes me back to some old and much loved art history – in particular Vision and Visuality edited by Hal Foster. A fantastic book, well worth a read (I think there’s a longer post/paper on how the NA is part of what Martin Jay describes as a (post)modern ‘scopic regime’). In Vision and Visuality there is a conceptual split between vision – the mechanics (or biology) of seeing and visuality – the socially constructed gaze. This split, although problematic at times, gives us an interesting way to look at the objects that allow us to see differently. From drones to webcams, satellites to hasselblads, we can start to look at the philosophical and political potential of our visual prostheses.
On a slight tangent, my all time favorite use of a visual prothetic within cinema is in Hitchcock’s Rear Window – here is a wonderful project by Jeff Desom where he expands the view to recreate a cinematic landscape:
To ground this somewhat theoretical discussion, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about lenses recently. I’ve been working out the correct FOV for our latest installation: MIlan = Boom (part of Hacked Milan), the decisions are both practical (minium focal distance and speed) and aesthetic – in terms of cinematic FOV / screen ratio reference:
or specific cinematic moment:
We have to think about the FOV as a reality distortion field, we can manipulate the images we construct to make the audience work harder. Or as David English describes 35mm; ‘It’s more powerful because the perspective skirts along the outer edges of reality’. It is this formation and manipulation of reality through cinematic and photographic devices that I find so fascinating. More from English:
“Because a 35mm lens slightly enhances what we normally see, it invites a more subtle interpretation of everyday events. A 50mm lens suggests that this is what you could have seen for yourself, had you been there. It’s reality as we know it. A 24mm or 28mm suggests a somewhat curved reality — a reality that appears to be in flux with a frame of reference that seems reluctant to settle in place. A 35mm perspective holds a special position in between. It seems to hold time still, as though the scene is carefully balanced between life as it is and life as it could be. Think of it as the subtlest of focal lengths, because it enhances the perspective so gently that you don’t realize it without careful study.” David English, Stillness in Time
What is important here, is that all viewing devices (all optics) help us construct the way we see our world. All devices are wrapped up in messy political complexities that need to be unravelled in order to gain a level of mastery. What we’re witnessing at the moment is not the shift in vision, but also a continual shift in visuality. One where our social reality is made up my both man and machine, but who holds the power in our robot readable world and how is life distorted by our optical manipulations?
Timo Arnall, Robot Readable World
Back in 2004, at a wonderful ‘conference’ called Design Engaged (which was informative, transformational and fun – I made a lot of friends) I gave a presentation about technology and the city – I drew on the ideas of Henri Lefebvre and Guy Debord to critique the trajectory I saw being laid down by telcos for the commodification of public space through ‘locative media’. Nearly a decade later, I’m still worried (that’s another post), but my place of concern is far more intimate – it’s our everyday banalities that seems to be rife for commercial transformation.
The rise of facebook and the forthcoming ad-ification of our timelines, means that the most banal witterings of our inner/outer selves become the place and data resource for people to sell us unwanted shit.
Now… this is not a ‘I hate advertising’ post… I have no time for that level of naive debate. What I’m concerned with is the lack of socio-political aspiration involved in mining our meaningless drivel. The power of social media lies in its transformational collective action – its ability to connect, organise and distribute knowledge and action across the globe. It allows for ideas to spread, inspire and engage people in different ways. Surely there’s a better business model beyond the commercialisation of our continual-partial-distracted attention?
I’m fond of the banalities that come from my friends and contacts, I like sharing some of the meaningless crap in my life, I like social media. However, I don’t want to see it reflected back at me in the form of advertising for weightloss pills. I don’t want my everyday struggles to be turned into a sales opportunity. If this is the only way for the internet to progress, let’s get better at it.