Thursday, May 31, 2007

MediaShed +

During my recents visits to the UK, I had the pleasure of hanging out with some of the Mongrel & MediaShed guys, talking about everything from Mass Observation and soldering to the cultural impact of public art and lighting one's farts on fire. (I was the one classy enough to bring that last one up, not them.)

Anyway, a few of their projects strike me as really lovely and unstable balances between the creative and political, or the ethical and aesthetic. I appreciate how they value everyday life beyond technology, and how they manage to be critical without relaxing into dystopian fantasies. They appear to have a genuine curiosity for the people and objects around them, and seem to be most content when simply making stuff with others.

What could, I think, easily slip into a paternalistic or shepherding relationship with the people tends instead towards using technological prosthetics to temporarily assemble publics. (Note to self: How is that related to the Situationist 'Possible Rendez-Vous'?)

Just take their Telephone Trottoire project:

"The aim of the 'Telephone Trottoire' project is to engage the London based Congolese community in issues that affect their day-to-day lives. 'Telephone Trottoire' is based on a new form of 'contagious' telephone application developed by Mongrel and named after the Congolese practice of 'pavement radio' or the passing around of news and gossip between individuals on street corners. In Central Africa people defy media censorship by sharing news and gossip using 'radio trottoire' or 'pavement radio'. Built in collaboration with the radio programmes 'Nostalgie Ya Mboka' and 'Londres Na Biso', 'Telephone Trottoire' encourages London's Congolese community to pass around news stories and discuss them using a unique system of sharing content over the phone. The project engages the Congolese community on their own terms by using systems that draw from their own culture, beliefs and folklore – some stories are intended to provoke, some to entertain and some to educate. All allow listeners to record their own comments and pass the call on to a friend or family member by entering their phone number. Some are true and some are false – after all isn’t this all about gossip – the 'Telephone Trottoire'?"

Or their Video Sniffin' projects:



The Commercial

"When MediaShed members found out about ‘Video Sniffin’ on-line, a term given to the practice of picking up the public signals being broadcast by wireless CCTV, they decided to apply the technology to make a film. Young people from the local YMCA and others used a cheap video receiver from a high street store to ‘sniff’ the streets for CCTV cameras. After finding 24 cameras or ‘hotspots’ they then asked shop owners if they could make a film by acting out in front of their CCTV cameras and recording the signal. The shop owners were very surprised and happy for the young people to create a film this way. The final film was screened on a ‘video sculpture’ of 16 recycled PC monitors at South East Essex College on 29th April. This display was part of the final ‘Being Here’ event – Southend’s recent arts regeneration initiative. These kinds of projects allow people to see how a common technology that is normally used for the surveillance of the same young people can be repurposed by them for creative activities. The project created great interest from the local council and local businesses who positively engaged with the project."



minä olen

"Hijacking the CCTV cameras of municipal buildings in the town of Kokkola, Finland a group of young people from the immigrant class at Kiviniitty Secondary School made a film about their cultural isolation ... This provided the young people with a means of regaining control from the ‘institution’ influencing their future. The final film was installed at Tupakkamakasiini, Pietarsaari City Museum as part of a larger exhibition of Mongrel’s work, and was also displayed at Kokkola Town Hall bringing the heartfelt message to as many local people as possible. The young people, some of whom had only been in the country a matter of weeks, positively enjoyed the opportunity to invade ‘government’ buildings and felt an increased confidence within their surroundings. Additionally the film was used to encourage local ministers to continue to provide regular classes in the young peoples’ own language and culture."

The Duellists

"In March 2007 MediaShed were invited to the Manchester Arndale Shopping Centre to make a film combining free-media with free-running. Parkour or free-running involves fluid uninterrupted movement adapting motion to obstacles in the environment. Like free-media, free-running makes use of and re-enrgises the infrastructure of the city. Free-media film adapts environmental and discarded hardware to make filmmaking accessible to all. Working with Southend based professional parkour breakin' crew Methods of Movement a choreographed performance was filmed in the shopping centre over three consecutive nights. The film was shot using only the existing in-house CCTV network of 160 cameras operated from the central control room, with a soundtrack created entirely from the foundsounds and noises recorded during the performance. The finished film was screened at the Manchester Arndale (10th - 20th May) on the infrastructure plasmas, in an exhibition pod and inside eleven stores as part of a ten day exhibition entitled Art for Shopping Centres."

I have some questions about how they come to their conclusions but mostly I'm impressed by how they blatantly seek affective change. (Or is it affective contagion?)

For example, the material, embodied, performative and productive aspects of their engagement with CCTV allow MediaShed to avoid more distanced intellectual debates on public vs. private, or surveillance vs. sousveillance. Rather than pointing at our docility and predicting our decline into dividuation, there's something creative and hopeful in these projects. And despite their rather earnest charter, it's not particularly idealist or utopian. But it does remind me of what Anna Munster refers to as actualising bodies and abstracting selves, which she also basically applied to Harwood's earlier Uncomfortable Proximity project.

MediaShed projects also rely on old technologies like radio, video, telephone. I think this is important simply because "ultimately, new cultural phenomena rely on encounters with the old," and because these technologies still require people to serve as active broadcasters and receivers.

(I mean, I suspect that part of why RFID or GPS seem so hard to work with critically is because the myths of pervasive computing are so ahistorical, and because the communication model underpinning them practically strips out human intervention. Although I have some concerns about the tyranny of participation, I really don't see "participation" becoming an issue - positively or negatively - for pervasive computing. Current discourse and practice allow it no space, but I think that if we can temporarily converge as publics around it then there's still hope.)

Anyway, good stuff and lots to think about!

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Friday, May 25, 2007

"[W]e need many different prostheses..."



"Instead of the radiant citizen standing up and speaking his mind by using his solid common sense, as in Rockwell's famous painting 'Freedom of Speech', should we not look for an eloquence much more indirect, distorted, inconclusive? In this show, we want to tackle the question of politics from the point of view of our own weaknesses instead of projecting them first onto the politicians themselves. We could say that the blind lead the blind, the deaf speak eloquently to the deaf, the crippled are leading marches of dwarfs, or rather, to avoid those biased words, let's say that we are all politically-challenged. How would it look if we were chanting this more radical and surely more realistic slogan: 'Handicapped persons of all nations, unite!'?

[...]

If we are all handicapped, or rather politically-challenged, we need many different prostheses. Each object exhibited in the show and commented in the catalogue is such a crutch. We promise nothing more grandiose than a store of aids for the invalids who have been repatriated from the political frontlines —and haven't we all been badly mauled in recent years? Politics might be better taken as a branch of disability studies."

- Bruno Latour, From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik (Introduction to Making Things Public)

(Late 16th century prosthetics by Ambroise Paré, via BibliOdyssey)

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