Ars Electronica 2006
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Pixelspaces 2006: Goblin City
Media, Art and Public Spaces

' Ars Electronica Futurelab Ars Electronica Futurelab

The urban realm is being equipped to function as a multimedia environment. Digitization is making a physical impact on the cityscape itself. Architecture is being endowed with the qualities of media and infrastructure ranging from built-in telematic furnishings to location-based services forms interfaces to linking up virtual and material spheres of communication. Creative encounters beyond the realm of advertising and high-tech décor deliver real proof of the growing awareness of the mediatization of modern society. The results of these confluences integrate themselves into their physical settings as subtle interventions, in addition to ones charged with accomplishing often mundane tasks. The manifestations of media art beyond the confines of the exhibition context—as an architectural component or in the form of the telematic configuration of an environment—has meant the emergence of a new quality on the part of installations.

Pixelspaces is a symposium series hosted by Ars Electronica Futurelab that discusses contemporary currents from the point of view of a media laboratory. As part of Pixelspaces 2006, which has been dubbed Goblin City, projects and approaches will be presented that navigate the tension-charged relationships between media, art and public space.

The discussion surrounding art in public spaces is rooted in the 1960s and thus in the very same decade in which media art originated. Then, mathematicians and programmers were the ones taking the recently developed industrial plotter and utilizing it in ways other than the one for which it was intended. They established an artistic genre by presenting their works at exhibitions and calling it “computer art.”

On the other hand, there have been the efforts of (usually politically motivated) artists to take leave of the exhibition venue altogether in order for their works to reach not just an audience of experts but John Q. Public. The thinking here is to dispense with having to outfit these works with a heavy-handed “ATTENTION: Art!” label and instead to undertake subtle irritations designed to stimulate and enrich the perceptual world of passers-by. For the most part, this is not a matter of the public sphere as such but rather of the integration of a specific location. Daniel Buren and Hans Haacke are among the leading lights in this area.

The idea of art in public spaces has been accepted by government officials responsible for cultural policymaking—at least in German-speaking Europe—and is being implemented on a wide scale here just like the various “Art in Architecture” programs that such efforts often closely resemble. In this way, a piece of architecture enters into a dialog with its respective surroundings. People living in an urban setting are subjected to countless stimuli, some of which are artistically intended. We’ve grown accustomed to being confronted by objects and structures whose meaning isn’t immediately obvious, and these interventions constitute a welcome relief from the advertising messages, traffic signs and functional structures with which we are deluged. Moreover, cut-and-dried features can be replaced by solutions that display a great deal of artistic flair as they carry out the concrete tasks of everyday life.
The experience that has been amassed in this field in recent decades applies to an equal extent to the media art projects that are becoming increasingly familiar features in public spaces and on building façades. When it’s done right, architecture and media come together to form a holistic entity that was preconceived to work together; in most cases, however, thought isn’t given to such projects until well after the architectural blueprints and the spatial use concept have already been finalized. This state of affairs, in turn, makes it more difficult to come to terms with the physical location and the particular circumstances that are operational there, which is, perhaps for this very reason, the greatest challenge that faces the designers of such projects. This customized rapport with a specific place and, above all, the fulfillment of the responsibility owing to the public that uses it cannot be taken lightly, particularly because the casual pedestrian—in contrast to someone who intentionally visits a museum—doesn’t deliberately seek out an encounter with art.
A desirable quality that is highly relevant to the interactive projects in this category is that the involvement of members of the public is as intuitive as possible—that is, completely as a matter of course without thereby diminishing the work’s meaningfulness and expressiveness. After all, when the individual partaking of such a work encounters the artifact itself in an unmediated way, then inherent in this experience is the possibility of triggering something unforeseen and addressing new groups of recipients.
An expansion of this state of being attuned to a specific location applies to a recent form of virtual extension of the urban sphere: location-based services. Hand-held devices provide access to information networks that completely overlay the cityscape and are increasingly linked up with local media projection surfaces. Media artists are in the process of discovering and exploring this emerging domain as a playing field for their activities. Furthermore, digital architectures are more flexible and thus offer media designers a sort of home-field advantage as they go about developing and implementing new concepts for the configuration of the virtual public sphere. Some frequently cited aims of such projects are eliminating transmitter-receiver hierarchies, installing infrastructure and facilitating access to it.

Now, at a time when the social and technical preconditions seem to be in place to allow media art to pervade all areas and aspects of life, the marketability of ubiquitous computing is achieving critical mass in numerous respects, and the emergence of the realtime city is being proclaimed, we’re interested in scrutinizing the chief protagonists here, their various approaches and the works that are contributing to this development.

Text: Pascal Maresch

Translated from German by Mel Greenwald

The modern city is characterized by aggressive neon signage and in-yer-face billboards that can be seen as a proxy for the commercialization of our society. In response, Graffiti Research Lab has developed an arsenal of technologies like LED throwies, graffiti-writing caption software and mobile urban projectors that allow individuals to stake their own claim to a piece of the cityscape. Affordable DIY components facilitate a form of urban protest that carries on the graffiti tradition using state of the art high tech.

Prix Ars Electronica 2006, Award of Distinction, Interactive Art

THE G.R.L. School Bus

At the 2006 Maker’s Faire in San Mateo, California, the Graffiti Research Lab purchased, painted and outfitted a 40-foot 1974 school bus with graffiti technologies. The GRL, including agents Michelle Kempner, Huong Ngo, James Powderly, Todd Polenberg and Evan Roth, along with over 1000 workshop participants, installed LED throwies, several electro-grafs and LED spinners on the black bus, while 100s of children and adults caught their tags with markers and paint.

JESUS 2.0 on the corner of Lafayette and Kenmare

D.C. street artist Mark Jenkins collaborated with the GRL to create and install Jesus 2.0. Using a number of his tape sculptures, LED throwies and a really long pole, Mark and agents of the GRL brought about the second-coming in the streets of New York City.


The writer Katsu catching a 36 foot long and 15 foot tall AMERIKA1 throw-up in the lab using the GRL developed High-Writer (featured in the foreground of the image). The High-Writer, developed by agents Powderly and Roth, is a 6–12 foot telescoping pole with a spray can mounted on top that can be triggered by a repurposed bicycle braking system. Instructions for making the High-Writer can be found at http://graffitiresearchlab.com

Kai Kasugai, Philipp Hoppe
denCity.net¾augmented rubanism

In denCity.net urban places and objects are tagged with QR-codes (~ barcodes), giving them a virtual address. All tags are virtually interlinked by denCity.net. The tags contain the respective location’s ID and GPS coordinates: smoothly combining the virtual with the real, each tag in denCity.net has a physical location.

denCity.net examines the enrichment of real urban sites by a virtual dimension of information and networking. The project explores the territorialization of the virtual and the deterritorialization of the physical, en route to an augmented perception of urban reality and density.

Dan Phiffer / Mushon Zer-Aviv
Shift Space¾a public space on the web

Having wandered for years in an owner-centric Cyberspace, where do we turn for online public spaces? Using a loosely coupled network of distributed proxies, ShiftSpace seeks to provide a new set of collective virtual spaces built above the existing tunnels and stations that make up our hypertextual subway system. We are building an Open Source meta-web and we would enjoy your company.

ShiftSpace is currently developed in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunication Program.
ShiftSpace is supported through a grant given by the Swiss Confederation.

Maren Richter
Ist Linz schön?
Linz 2009¾European Capital of Culture

Ist Linz schön? (Is Linz Beautiful?) is a project marking Linz’s selection as European Capital of Culture 2009. Already in advance of this event, the project is endeavoring to confront the urban space with its emotional, social, economic and political currents.

The programmed change from industrial city to cultural center has shaped Linz in many ways during the past decades. The residents of Linz have now been called on to describe their relationship to their city and to actively participate in the processes that are developing in the effort to build a local cultural identity for the city by 2009.
Ist Linz schön? invites people to engage in reflection and discussion. Commentaries as well as image and audio files can be posted on the website of the same name.

Shortly after project launch, an anonymous actor documented how the concept works by leaving behind a record of the question in the form of graffiti on a controversial city wall.

Carlo Ratti, Burak Arikan
SENSEable City Laboratory, MIT

The real-time city is now real! The increasing deployment of sensors and hand-held electronics in recent years is allowing a new approach to the study of the built environment. The way we describe and understand cities is being radically transformed—alongside the tools we use to design them and impact on their physical structure. Studying these changes from a critical point of view and anticipating them is the goal of the SENSEable City Laboratory, a new research initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Real Time Rome project, shown here, uses aggregated data from cell phones, buses and taxis in Rome to better understand urban dynamics in real time. By revealing the pulse of the city, the project aims to show how technology can help individuals make more informed decisions about their environment. In the long run, will it be possible to reduce the inefficiencies of present day urban systems and open the way to a more sustainable urban future?

Real Time Rome was developed by MIT SENSEable City Lab for the Venice Biennale 2006 with Telecom Italia as principal sponsor.
Real Time Rome / Software 2: Pulse¾Average cellphone users distribution on the satellite image of the city of Rome. The final match of the World Cup 2006 was played on July 9th, from 8 to 10 pm approximately. Afterwards, people started celebrating around the Circo Massimo in Rome, shown in the image. The following day the Italian winning team arrived in Rome and celebrations continued from the afternoon till morning.

Andrew Shoben

Greyworld explores the potential of small interventions, embedded in the urban fabric of a public space, to allow some form of self-expression in areas of the city that people see everyday, but normally exclude and ignore. Their work strives to establish special intimacies through the unexpected articulation of objects installed in public spaces—to “short circuit” both the environmental and social expectations supplied by the surrounding urban realm.

Andrew Shoben is willing to share his passion for a new kind of public art that responds to, and reflects, the diversity of life lived in and around a public space. Public art that places the viewer at the centre of the creative experience, and offers a glimpse into another magical layer of reality.

The Source
The Source, an eight-storey-high kinetic sculpture, is the new symbol for the London Stock Exchange. Every morning, millions of viewers around the world will watch the installation come to life, signifying the opening of the London Markets.

The Source is formed by a grid of cables arranged in a square, 162 cables in all, reaching eight stories to the glass roof. Nine spheres are mounted on each cable, and are free to move independently up and down its length. In essence the spheres act like animated pixels, able to model any shape in three dimensions—a fluid, dynamic, three-dimensional television.

Visitors to the atrium are greeted by this motion: its particles rising and falling, generating an infinite range of figurative and abstract shapes that rise, dissolve, and reform at different heights in the atrium. The shape of the sun rising on a new day of trade, the names and positions of currently traded stocks, the DNA helix at the centre of life formed by the work, and floating in the 32 meter void of the atrium. This complex and sophisticated installation is a microcosm of activity, a living reflection of market forces.

Bins and Benches
Five bins and four benches have been injected with a magic serum of life so that they can break free from their staid and fixed positions to roam free in a public square in Cambridge.

Travelling free and happy in their natural environment, they move and flock, drifting across the space. They frolic with the other species that inhabit their world, exploring their plaza. Each bin or bench has its own personality and impulses—if it’s raining, a bench may decide to park up under a tree waiting for someone to sit on it; whilst on a Wednesday, the bins will line up waiting to be emptied. Occasionally, they will all burst into song with the bins forming a baritone barbershop quintet and the benches a high soprano choir.
The work of art was completed in July 2006 and it is a permanent feature outside the Junction Theatre in Cambridge. It is open to the public seven days a week.

Worldbench is an ambitious art installation that uses park benches to unite locations around the world—from Berlin to Newcastle, London to Cape Town.
Each installation is situated in a school and consists of a bench placed next to a wall, onto which is projected the mirror image of the bench. However, whilst one side of the bench may be in the grey playground of a primary school in Newcastle, the other is in the sun-baked playground of a school in Cape Town. The people sitting on the bench can have an idle conversation, may discuss their lunch, or perhaps indulge in a little light flirtation, which they might have done, had they been sitting on the same bench, and were not separated by thousands of miles.

Several benches have been installed in five schools across the UK, one in a dynamic interracial primary school in Cape Town, and another in a secondary school in Berlin.

Railings plays on the simple pleasure of picking up a stick and running it along a set of railings to make a lovely “clack-clack-clack” sound. We tuned the railings so that they play “The Girl from Ipanema” when you run a stick along them.

Toshio Iwai
Creating Digital Public Art

Ever since Edison invented the light bulb in the 19th century, countless types of artificial lights flood the city. Although uneventful looking, these lights constantly blink on and off or change their intensity in a certain frequency. This, however, is invisible to our eyes. SOUND-LENS, ortable device resembling a walkman, converts these high frequency transitions of light directly into sound, creating an amazing fusion of light and sound, in other words integrating sight and hearing. When we listen to light using the SOUND-LENS, our sensory organs can enter another dimension, allowing us to experience the world from a totally different aspect.

ther Time, Another Space in Marunouchi, 2002
This large-scale public interactive installation was installed for the grand opening of the Marunouchi building in Tokyo in 2002. With tens of thousands of people passing through this public space every day, I wanted to make a piece with a high participation factor, which anyone could easily interact and perform with. Video imagery was stored in the memory of a computer, and then shown through a computer program, turning it into a strange flow of time. This work was based on an installation which I exhibited in Antwerp Central Station for the EC Japan Feest for cultural exchange between Japan and Belgium in 1993.

oombergICE, 2002
This is a permanent installation designed for a Bloomberg showroom, the international information agency in Tokyo. The basic idea of oombergICE to show the aesthetic and playful use of information. This large glass icicle translates stock exchange data into moving graphics, so that anyone can understand the ups and downs of Wall Street without any difficulty. In addition, there are 800 infrared sensors with an LED display behind the screen. People can enjoy manipulating light and sounds by moving their hands and body, without any direct physical contact. There are various games and experiences—a digital harp, a wave generator or electronic volleyball, for example. This work was created in collaboration with Klein Dytham architecture.