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Homeland Security Blankets, Crime Maps and other Post-Digital Creations
Regine Debatty, 15 May 07
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Reporting from Day one of OFFF Barcelona: International Festival for the Post-Digital Creation Culture

Mario Klingemann seems like a cheerful guy from Munich, but he's actually a heavyweight of the Flash-scene and showed a couple of his projects here, many of which deal with digital found footage. After playing around a bit with images from Flickr to create kaleidoscopic effects, he realized that this is actually an interesting way to create small narratives that have an inherent unpredictability about them. His piece Flickeur "randomly retrieves images from Flickr and creates an infinite film with a style that can vary between stream-of-consciousness, documentary or video clip," a technique which gives it a suggestive power that comes, apart from the sound, without any influence by the artist. Built on that is Islands of Consciousness, in collaboration with sound artist, Oleg Marakov, which gives back a bit more control since it is doing a kind of "tag-surfing" that narratively ties together a bit more closely what appears on the screen, though it's still random. One of his latest projects is The Stake, a sort of Anti-Amazon, which allows you to burn the media you've always hated and have only ever been allowed to put in your shopping cart.

On to more sophisticated things, Stamen Design from San Francisco presented their great research on live data visualization. To them, it is a medium in its own right and rapidly gaining importance, since the world that we live in is becoming ever more measurable. People participate in situations and leave behind (data-)traces but are not able to perceive their own "creations." offf1_stamen1.jpgAccording to Ben Cerveny (their on-site philosopher who was outlining the theoretical backdrop until he got stopped several times by the other guys, quite funny) we can now build something that filters information to make the landscape of patterns and artefacts visible – these are the tools that Stamen wants to build and make accessible. So far, they are probably best known for their work for Digg, which tries to visually tackle the service's massive amount of user-generated content through three different visualizations of activity. The Swarm shows how new stories are being created as circles to which yellow pods attach for each time they have been "dugg." These virus-like aesthetics allow the viewer to very quickly recognize the popularity of stories and to see the current liveliness of the system as well as the variability of the data. Stamen also helped Digg to get an idea about the usage of their service by mapping diggs in time. Already a simple time-mapping of activity, later color-coded by the age of individual users' accounts, revealed interesting facts. For instance, it made visible possible activity by bots which might have gone unnoticed without the possibility of being able to see the respective patterns with one's eyes, with the actual process being slightly similar to tuning a radio to a certain part of the spectrum. Another effect that became obvious once the visualization had been tuned accordingly was that many new users seem to randomly digg stuff on the homepage, probably just to try out the service.

offf1_stamen2.jpgCabspotting is another one of their projects which maps activity in time, in this case the activity and speed of San Francisco taxicabs according to their GPS data. Again, mapping data in time gives you an idea of activity and, quite literally, lets you see the city pulsate in a very capillary way. When cabs were passing the Bay Bridge on the lower deck, they would cause a sharp spike on the map, basically because their GPS lost track of the satellites. But this wasn't necessarily a bad thing because it revealed a vertical dimension which in Google Maps, for instance, one wouldn't notice -- mapping the city through glitches. These give useful tools to people who are "psychologically invested" in their city and have an active interest in shaping it. An example are the Oakland crime maps Stamen has recently been working on. Built on the Modest Maps framework, they allow people who've been victims of a crime to collaboratively map incidents, which results in a both "lyrical and analytical" view of the city that eventually could even show in advance where a crime is about to happen. Quoting William Gibson: "In the end, you will be seen to have done that which you did."

Robert Hodgin showed a range of his works with generative design. We were completely in awe of his latest experiments in which he toys around with the laws of nature to extend the aesthetics of magnetism and gravity into breathtaking visuals.

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Finally, Futurefarmers' Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine took a shot at audience participation, starting with "Rainbow Seating," which required all of the audience to get up and reshuffle in accordance to their shirt colors. We were then asked to draw something (I was blue so I had to draw a shoe) and write a word we felt would relate to the drawing. The words would then be used as cues during the presentation, and the drawings themselves (stitched together on stage by Amy and Michael taking turns) will be featured in several exhibitions in the future. On the project side, Futurefarmers presented a couple of selections from their wide range of works, most of which are about people and how they relate to nature, essentially wanting to be a reminder that our environment isn't something which is separate from us.

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The gorgeous Sundial Watch is one such project, as is their Photosynthesis-Robot. The robot is built around the idea that the natural process which comes closest to the I/O-paradigm of computers might be that of photosynthesis, hinting at the fact that many of our so-called inventions are actually biomimicry. When the Department of Homeland Security was promoting their color-coded terrorism forecast, some US citizens apparently received letters from the DHS that warned people of handwritten or otherwise "unusual" letters, and requested that they report any such findings. Futurefarmers found that terrible and reacted with a series of ironic Homeland Security Blankets which "disseminate temperature change" and sport an indicator light which alerts the user of current threat and "comforts them accordingly." Harnessing the unused powers of nature is another one of their notions, for example the Hydrogen Bioreactor ("green hydrogen from pool scum") which, built in collaboration with Tasios Melis and Jonathan Meuser, is a $100-system that produces hydrogen to power cars from a big bag, some kitchen equipment and oxygen. The Botanical Gameboy works along the same lines in the way that lemons are being used to power a Gameboy in order to show people how much chemically produced energy it takes only to power such a modest device through a game called "Count Volta" (In fact it would have taken 48,000 lemons to go the same distance as its four AA-batteries). offf1_future3.jpgRaising awareness is also the objective of their Gardening Superfund series of projects which all deal with pollution that was and is caused by the IT-industry, both in the US and in other parts if the world. A Superfund site is "any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a candidate for cleanup." During ISEA in San Jose, Futurefarmers organized "Free Soil Biodiesel Bus Tours" to visit those sites and a disassembling workshop with a single PC. What was really striking was the fact that lots of the highly toxic e-waste actually goes to China to be manually scrapped for metals, beautifully captured by Jeroen Bouman (his site is unfortunately a bit toxic as well). Their last and probably most charming project before they read out aloud the green group's words was Michael Swaine's "Reap What You Sew" community project in which he pushes an old fashioned ice cream-style cart on wheels with a treadle-operated sewing machine on it through the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin district and sews stuff for people.

At the end of the night, Graffiti Research Lab rolled out their Mobile Broadcast Unit Barcelona to tag the white walls of MACBA. That was before the policía came and told them off. They took it to the streets again yesterday night, curious to find out what happened.

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