Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Phenomenology, smart materials and ambient robotics

Jill Coffin was another Digital Media PhD student I met at GA Tech, and I had the pleasure of talking with her about phenomenology in art and design practice (pdf), as well as the opportunities and challenges of collaborative work.

Although I'm not much of a Rorty fan--I prefer the work of Merleau-Ponty and especially the ethics that arise from Alphonso Lingis' phenomenology--I was impressed by Jill's desire to find common ground with HCI researchers by focussing on embodied interaction - especially since such collaborations with artists affect notions of scientific validity.

People who keep up on ambient computing might also recall Breeze, a cyborg tree project that was exhibited at ZeroOne in 2006. Like XS Labs' Kukkia and Vilkas dresses, Breeze uses the shape memory alloy Nitinol to guide its movements.

YouTube: Breeze

Robotany is a collaborative of Jill Coffin, John Taylor, and Daniel Bauen to combine nature and robotics. At the Robotany blog, you will find "documentation and tips on how to build ambient robots using smart materials."

We talked a bit about totems and talismans as participants in embodied interaction--and all without claiming anthropomorphism--but I think that's a topic that deserves far more attention than we were able to give it over tea.

Now, if I could just remember the name of the conference she was telling me about...

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Underground aesthetics and ethics

SeeShell by Johanna Brewer

"SeeShell is my new project, an augmented Oyster Card (the RFID-enabled Underground ticket) holder which displays, over time, the journeys a rider has taken.

When a user passes their Oyster card (which is inside the SeeShell) over the touch-in point at the gate to the station while they are entering or exiting, the SeeShell, using RFID, senses which station the user just passed through and over time a map of the stations they have visited begins to emerge on their Oyster Card holder.

When you purchase an Oyster card it is not necessary that you give up your identity, but you must register the card if you want to purchase a monthly or yearly pass. Registration allows you to recover a lost or stolen card, but obviously comes with the trade-off of having all of your journeys (which are traceable) linked to your name. The Oyster system already tracks users' journeys but there is no convenient way for the users to access or make use of that data.

By building SeeShell on top of an already existing system, I hope to show how lived patterns of mobility might be leveraged in new ways and placed back into the hands of their creators."

In a paper on underground aesthetics (pdf) for IEEE Pervasive Computing last year, Arianna Bassoli, Johanna Brewer, Karen Martin, Paul Dourish, and Scott Mainwaring explain how Londoners used to give their paper day-travel tickets to strangers at the tube station when they were done travelling for the day and wouldn't need them anymore. They also describe how free newspapers are commonly left behind so that other passengers can read them. While the authors recognise these material objects as "potential interaction points" that "acknowledge current and future passengers," I think they underestimate the ethical implications. Whether or not there is any direct (i.e. conversational) interaction, in both scenarios people act as though they are socially obligated to each other. The ethic of this paper-based aesthetic involves collective action. In political terms, we could call it community or citizenship.

The SeeShell project works within the framework or system afforded by the Oyster card. Since the RFID-based card is a personalised and reusable device, there is no opportunity or need to share it in the same way as the day-travel card example above. We might even go so far as to say that its use encourages personal rather than social relations. By positioning agency in terms of how "users can conveniently access and make use of data," the SeeShell project may indeed offer the individual new means of self-awareness and aesthetic expression. But this kind of parasitic or participatory surveillance does nothing to encourage a social ethic that binds people to each other, or a sense of citizenship that challenges the surveillant assemblage and its atomising effects.

I'm not saying that I don't like the project, or that all projects need to be social and political. What I'm saying is that as new technologies attempt to shift from interaction models to participation models, we might take a closer look at what we mean when we describe design in terms of user empowerment. What kind of agency or power is this?

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Representing the political agency of technological devices

Light Trail at Speed Bump by lilduckling

"In my view, the bottleneck is in the difficulty of describing what happens to agency when there are no anthropomorphic characters. And there is no vocabulary—no accepted vocabulary—to talk about that. So every time you do that, immediately people say—I know because I have done it many times—people say, ‘Oh, you anthropomorphize the nonhuman.’ Because they have such a narrow definition of what is human, that whenever a nonhuman does something, it looks human, as if it’s sort of a Disney type of animation. So if my ‘sleeping policeman,’ actually a speed-trap, begins to really do something, people say ‘yes, but you are projecting human intention onto it,’ even though it has been made precisely so that there is no policeman there and there is no human intention there and you break your car if you speed...I think that the bottleneck is that we don’t know how to define the nonhuman at all."

-- Where Constant Experiments Have Been Provided: A Conversation with Bruno Latour

In Guaman Poma's chronicle of the Inka there is an illustration of December's [June's] Inti Raymi festival, named after Inti, the Inka Sun God. In it, Inti and his consort Mama Killa (Mother Moon) wear human expressions.

A great Peruvian archaeologist once told me that Western scholars always misunderstand the sun in Inka culture. Inti, he explained, has a face not because the Inka anthropomorphised him but because the Europeans had no words to describe humans and non-humans as if they were the same.

I've always assumed he was referring to animism, but now I'm more intrigued by this question of lacking words to describe non-humans, and what this means if we try to account for relations between humans and non-humans.

If Crang and Graham are right, the biggest threat in a world of pervasive computing is the delegation of political agency to inanimate objects (i.e. computers) and invisible forces. In such a scenario, I find it useful to think of humans and non-humans as the same. Well, not actually the same, but certainly not different. I'm reminded that every RFID tag has a person--many people--attached to it. People who make decisions, people who are implicated and interpellated. And I wonder how can we best reveal--best represent--the people, the actions, the politics that are normally hidden in these devices. How can we communicate what these devices do? Or how they act?

Timo Arnall's Touch Project has investigated how RFID transactions can be visualised, including these RFID icons by Alex Jarvis and Mark Williams at Schulze and Webb, and Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim came up with these Everyware icons (pdf). In all these examples the driving metaphor is the transaction, or the exchange between human (user) and non-human (computer)--which is, of course, very useful from a usability and user-centred design perspective. It also makes sense if we assume that most of these devices will be used in commercial contexts.

But I'm interested in the political agency of these devices. I'm interested in ways we can represent the political relations they embody--something which must begin, I believe, with the explicit recognition that these exchanges or transactions involve unequal power relations.

How can we represent the reality that a given device or environment is collecting and correlating data in ways that are more powerful than our ability to resist? How can we demonstrate tactical potential in the face of strategic control? Perhaps more simply, how can we represent a given device or environment as an assemblage of people, places, practices, objects and ideas? How can we draw (out) its relations to others?

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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Urban computing: looking forward and looking backward

I've finally managed to find the time to read Mike Crang and Stephen Graham's recent paper, Sentient Cities: Ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space--and it's really good!

As I've said many times, Graham's work on networked urbanism is superb, and Crang's work on space, culture and ethnography is also exemplary. Compared to American accounts that draw on cybernetics and systems-thinking in architecture and urban planning (think Bill Mitchell, Malcolm McCullough, etc.) I find the British cultural geography approach (following Nigel Thrift, Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge) far better attuned to the variety and complexity of everyday lived experience, and the connections between place and identity (i.e. power) over time. Perhaps most importantly, I think this focus on spatialisation, temporalisation and embodiment leads to a critical approach that isn't undermined by the persistent techno-determinism and lack of socio-cultural nuance that tend to characterise the former.

I've argued before that ubicomp is both imaginary and concrete, and Crang and Graham also distinguish between various manifestations of ubiquitous computing:

"[There are] three key contemporary domains within which the reconfiguration of cities and their politics are being actively imagined and enacted through the imagination and deployment of ubiquitous computing (or ‘ubicomp’). This is going on, we suggest, through the production and dissemination of technological fantasies, the more practical processes of technological development, and the actual deployment of, and contestation over, operational ubicomp systems. These three vignettes address: commercial fantasies of ‘friction-free’ urban consumption; military and security industry attempts to mobilize ubiquitous computing for the ‘war on terror’; and attempts by artists to interrupt fantasies of perfect urban control through artistic use of new ubicomp technologies to try and re-enchant urban space and urban life" (791-792).

In my mind, the commercial promise (or threat) of ubicomp pales in comparison to military and government interventions in this domain. For example, in 2004 the US Defense Science Board:

"saw possibilities to exploit ubiquitous computing technologies in developing a massive, integrated system of surveillance, spanning the world, and tailored specifically to penetrating the increasing complexity of urban life. Such a system, it argued, would once again render the US military’s targets trackable, locatable – and destroyable. The purpose of the New ‘Manhattan project’, then, was seen to be to ‘locate, identify, and track, people, things and activities – in an environment of one in a million – to give the United States the same advantages in asymmetric warfare [as] it has today in conventional warfare’" (800).

This plan is connected to broader trends in post 9/11 surveillance and has been integrated into the Pentagon's "Long War" strategy, which raises critical issues about who has access to citizen's ever-increasing digital traces. But access isn't even the primary issue--it's the government's desire to correlate and "backtrack" data so that potential behaviours and situations can be anticipated and controlled. This is what Felix Stalder is describing when he says that data traces don't just follow us, they precede us: "Before we arrive somewhere, we have already been measured and classified. Thus, upon arrival, we're treated according to whatever criteria have been connected to the profile that represents us."

This kind of seeing is anticipatory, and while it may have its origins in commercial marketing practice, this kind of social sorting has far more harmful implications than RFID tracking and Minority Report-style tailored advertising. The biggest issue, as Crang and Graham put it, is that "such a technological politics, of course, risks delegating whole sets of decisions and, along with that, the ethics and politics of those decisions, to invisible and sentient systems" (811).

In an early 2007 interview with Adam Greenfield, Régine Debatty asked why there was no mention of art practice in his popular book, Everyware, and he responded:

"Not referring to art projects was an explicit decision, based in part on my desire to limit the discussion to ways in which information processing would be showing up in everyday life. And almost by definition, however trenchant or clever the point of view embedded in them may be, art objects are simply not going to be relevant to that consideration."

I strongly disagree with that assessment of artistic relevance, and Crang and Graham's final section on artistic interventions that seek to "challenge or subvert (some aspects of) the dominant commercial and military visions" (805) successfully makes the point that locative media and art projects tend to inscribe memories rather than anticipate actions, and this tendency to look backward instead of projecting forward is important.

Rather than making us passive or controlling our actions in particular places, locative media and art "allow us to claim and mark our territory" (807) in multiple ways: as publics, as individuals, as citizens. While many projects can be seen to romanticise a renewed public sphere, the collaborative nature of most projects is still distinct from the one-way, top-down models offered by commercial and military players. They also tend to make socio-spatial relations visible, rather than rendering them invisible. The primary drawback here is that "these moves risk making what was formerly protected by its opacity and transitoriness, visible and recordable" (812). But as Crang and Graham also put it, "these artistic media are trying to densify the liquid – not solidify places" (810) and "the effect of memory is not the creation of perfectly known environments. Rather, it involves a destabilization of spaces, a haunting of place with absent others" (812).

However, it's in their conclusions that I find the necessary pragmatism and the most hope:

"Urban ubicomp clearly has a fetishistic power in appearing to finally offer solutions by rendering place and space utterly transparent in some simple, deterministic way. Indeed, we would argue that there is a danger that locative media are equally seen as a technical fix for oppositional voices and alternative histories in art projects. In this sense the myths matter and have effects. But they are only mythologies of a perfect, uniform informational landscape. In reality, the seamless and ubiquitous process of pure urban transparency that many accounts suggest will always be little but a fantasy. In practice, the linking of many layers of computerized technology is generally a ‘kludge’...


Far from the pure vision of what de Certeau calls the ‘concept city’, we may find the production of myriads of little stories – a messy infinity of ‘Little Brothers’ rather than one omniscient ‘Big’ Brother. Some of these may be commercial, some personal, maybe some militarized. There is a real issue about proliferating knowledges circulating routinely and more or less autonomously of people. But it would seem to us that the political options are not those of rejection or romanticizing notions of disconnection. Rather, it is to work through the inevitable granularity and gaps within these systems, to find the new shadows and opacities that they produce" (813-14).

For anyone who wants more, here are some notes on Stephen Graham's keynote at the recent Mobile City Conference that cover some of the same material.

Photos, Naccarato & David Foster Nass

Update 01/03/08: Fabien Girardin adds some interesting links to this discussion, and reminds me how little time I have to keep up on others' work right now. I can't believe I missed Nicholas and Fabien's recent pamphlet, Sliding Friction: The Harmonious Jungle of Contemporary Cities (pdf). The infrastructure section reminded me of Jeff Maki's very cool Critical Infrastructure project.

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Technological force and social counter-force

'For every technology we embrace, we should require of ourselves an answer to the question, "What counter-force does this thing require from me in order to prevent it from diminishing both me and the social contexts in which I live?"'

The Trouble with Ubiquitous Technology Pushers (Part 2) by Steve Talbott, January 27, 2000

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Activating new technologies

NY Times: Who Needs Hackers?

"Most of the problems we have day to day have nothing to do with malice. Things break. Complex systems break in complex ways."

"The threat is complexity itself."

"It is complexity of design and process that got us (and Murphy’s Law!). Complexity in the sense that we, the ‘software industry,’ are still naïve and forge into large systems such as this with too little computer, budget, schedule and definition of the software code."

“If you design the thing right in the first place, you can make it reliable, secure, fault tolerant and human safe. The technology is there to do this right if anybody wanted to take the effort.”

“We throw this together, shrink wrap it and throw it out there. There’s no incentive to do it right, and that’s pitiful.”

From a sociological point of view, this article is interesting because it gets at some of the tensions that shape technological innovation. In particular, there is the tendency for (software) designers to refer to some sort of autonomous (hardware) technology that exists before them, and without them, and yet requires activation by them - a phenomenon I witnessed in my dissertation research as well.

Most of the mobile media researchers and designers I spoke with described their work as possible only because particular wireless technologies, or technological capacities, already existed. At the same time, they described the value of their work in terms of finding socially compelling uses for these technologies.

While it's tempting to infer that these pre-existing technologies were considered neutral in-and-of themselves, and given meaningful qualities through use alone, all of the researchers and designers mentioned the limitations of existing technological protocols. In other words, these mobile technologies were treated more like materials for research and design, each associated with some kinds of malleability and not others.

But these attitudes still suggest that wireless technologies were considered inevitable in the sense that someone was going to create them and push them out into the world. Interestingly, no one I spoke with considered herself or himself to be that someone. Nonetheless, almost everyone described their work as something they felt compelled to do so that these technologies were rolled out in the best (according to them) ways possible.

I think there is something simultaneously technodeterministic and utopian about all this. I see it in popular discourse on ubiquitous computing in general; you know, the position that goes something like "Ubicomp is present, but it's not very good. Ubicomp is the future, but only if we design it better." In either case, the technology itself is considered inevitable, but there is still hope because it is design-able, and therefore somewhat controllable.

Now, before you think that researchers and designers suffer some sort of god-complex, everyone I spoke with also simultaneously subscribed to some variation on William Gibson's famous claim that "the street finds its own uses for things." In other words, no one was willing to suggest that they could ever totally plan, or account for, how people would actually use the stuff they make. And although it would be easy to describe this as either genuine humility or false modesty, I'm more inclined to believe that this is all part of the bigger - and often contradictory - mess of technological and social agency at play.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Long-time favourite Bitch Magazine is looking for submissions for upcoming WIRED issue:

Wired (#39, Spring 2008) The world is a wired place, whether you're wired to the Internet, wired on coffee, wired into the latest political information, or wired up on methamphetamines. With such a multiplicity of meanings for the word, the Wired issue can't help but be a fast-paced tour through some pretty varied terrain: Women in the information age, the joys and terrors of cranking up your metabolism, unplugging with the simplicity movement, the electricity of attraction, building your own circuit board.

Features are 2,000 to 3,000 words of meaty critiques, essays, and articles on pop culture from a feminist perspective. If you're familiar with Bitch, then you know what we want -sharp-eyed perspectives on pop culture and the media, brimming with your personal insight, brilliant analysis, and sparkling wit. Features vary in format: interviews, reported pieces, and critical essays are welcome, as are roundups and graphically driven formats like timelines and charts.

In addition to features, we're looking for shorter pieces for the front of the magazine. Our front-of-book section features 1000-1500-word columns on film, television, language, activism, advertising, publishing, and more, with pieces taking the form of reviews, critical essays and activist profiles. We also have a back page to fill, generally with a brief history of a pop-culture phenomenon, in our "Annals of..." column. And that's not all -- we're always on the lookout for Love It/Shove It items. Love/Shoves are short (300-500 words), and cogent analyses of the latest things that either pleased you or enraged you.

Pitch Deadline: October 1, 2007.

So many possibilities...

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Saturday, July 7, 2007

"Anne, I have a question for you about the future...

Will the iPhone become a Mother Box?"

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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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Thursday, March 15, 2007

BNMI Reference Check: Now Accepting Applications

I'm very excited about my involvement with the Banff New Media Institute's first research-based Co-production Residency programme, Reference Check, taking place this summer in Banff, Alberta, Canada.

If you're doing graduate or post-graduate research on where art, technology and culture meet, and you fancy spending a month this summer in one of the most gorgeous places on earth, with excellent facilities, ten other researchers and three peer advisors, intensely thinking and talking and making and doing individually and collaboratively, then we want to hear from you!

The official call for applications is below -- note the dates and costs -- and if you have any questions or concerns about your proposed project or the application process, please feel free to contact me directly.

Reference Check: A Co-production Residency for Developing Researchers

Residency dates: June 24 to July 21, 2007
Application deadline: April 9, 2007

The Banff New Media Institute (BNMI) invites researchers working with new media at the masters, doctorate or post-doctorate level to spend four weeks at The Banff Centre this summer.

Join BNMI for its first independent research-based Co-production Residency program, bringing together a select group of researchers. Individuals and small networks who are working with art and new media as a research strategy are invited to explore the broader social contexts of technology and digital culture.

Participants will be supported to pursue their self-directed research. They will also be given the opportunity to reflect on the field of new media and contemporary issues such as creative pluralism and multiple modes of knowledge production.

Participants will have the opportunity to develop their research with a peer group of ten participants and the support and mentorship of BNMI alumni and Reference Check peer advisors. These advisors will work with participants individually and as a group to help focus their ideas, and suggest methodologies, collaborative and multidisciplinary forms, and ways of enhancing their work and impact in the world.

Peer Advisors:
Andreas Broeckmann
Anne Galloway (CA)
Sarat Maharaj (UK)

The total cost for this intensive, four-week residency program will be $1,369.80, (CND) plus applicable taxes. Nearly $7500 of additional in-kind support for each project will be provided by BNMI staff and the dedicated studio and production facilities at The Banff Centre’s Creative Electronic Environment.

More information and to apply

We're looking forward to hearing from you!

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