[iDC] Interactive City: irrelevant mobile entertainment?

Kevin Hamilton kham at uiuc.edu
Mon Aug 14 14:25:30 EDT 2006

kanarinka -

 From our own recent correspondence you can probably guess where I would 
come out on your excellent questions, but for the sake of discussion 
I'll jump in anyway.

I saw very few of the actual exhibits you mentioned, but read about more 
of them on the ISEA website, and share your doubts. The ISEA Interactive 
City projects seemed to follow either the problematic "community through 
collecting story" route or the also problematic "liberation/activation 
through mobility and play" route, to which you allude.

I understand in your questions some doubt about the ways in which the 
work of de Certeau and the Situationist project have formed a 
significant platform for "interventionist" work today. Perhaps you're 
more interested in questioning the application of these ideas in the 
context of a New Media event, but I think it's worth examining the whole 
contemporary project of critique through mis-use.

It's a question Sarah Kanouse first asked me years ago - who really gets 
to walk like de Certeau's walker/reader in the city? Certainly his 
theory is useful in making sure we don't grant TOO much power to 
Foucault-Bentham's panoptic eye on the other end. But what exactly is 
produced in these infinitesimal acts of mis-reading? I think we can 
answer this question on two levels - first, at the level of 
self-perception  and second, at the level of the public/symbolic.

On the personal level, certainly some of the actions you mention produce 
awareness in the mis-walker of the ways in which one self-regulates in 
space. As someone who's participated in similar projects, I recall 
enjoying the ways in which such actions manifest on a bodily scale how 
the world "could be other." It's as simple as how jumping a fence 
instead of going around it connects a specific bodily exertion with an 
extension (or negation) of permission. At their most effective, such 
actions are the spatial equivalent of Schwitters' spoken language 
experiments, liberating the speaker through action outside of social 
bounds but well within the body's capabilities.

But don't they also often re-iterate an understanding of public space 
that revolves around permission and regulation, instead of around 
freedom, accountability, or justice? I'm also suspect of permission 
granted or grabbed through mobility, for the same reasons that the 
cities and buildings of Constant look to me like an existentialist hell. 
Many of Beckett's characters have all the agency they could want, pacing 
around endlessly, but there's "nothing to do be done" with it because 
this agency is bestowed in an asocial world.

On the symbolic level, we can examine the different ways in which acts 
like the ones you describe are then re-presented to others, reinforcing 
or re-creating power structures. Especially in the context of art 
careers, few carry out such actions without then showing someone else 
later, and these images/videos perform a separate function. Compare, 
say, footage of parkour runners on a Nike ad to video of Alex Villar 
climbing a wall in Manhattan, screened for an exhibition. These 
representations function differently for their different audiences, 
dependent upon complex intersections of race or perceived race, class, 
status, place, history, athleticism and agency.

For each of the examples you mention, or for those of our(my) own work 
about mobile play, I think we just have to look carefully and ask 
questions about where permission is granted as opposed to power, whose 
vision and view such imparting depends on. We have to ask these 
questions at the levels of experience and representation. (For an 
example of the latter, I recommend Martin Berger's excellent and helpful 
analysis of the old American painting, "Fair Exchange, No Robbery" by 
William Sidney Mount. The picture depicts a walker engaged in an 
apparently harmless but covert act of landscape alteration, and Berger 
does a great analysis in terms of race, form, context, representation. 
See the first chapter of "Sight Unseen," on U of California press.)

I'm still confident in the potential for protest or effective 
empowerment through play, but not as a rule, and not without a great 
deal of positioning and fore-thought and analyses on-the-go. 
Anthropology tells us about how ritualized forms of play, even socially 
or politically liberatory play, are carefully contained and located 
through tradition and hierarchy. Inventing new play, ostensibly outside 
proscribed boundaries and toward liberatory ends, would probably require 
a kind of surrogate cultural context, invented and carefully deployed. 
I'm not sure if I think this is possible or not.

For a discussion like this, it would also be useful to distinguish 
between the two frequently-asked questions of "Is this action 
politically effective?" and "What is the political effect of this 
action?" Both questions are useful, but the first requires some 
knowledge of a project's goals and methodology, and may not be always 
appropriate. For example, some explicitly political projects eschew the 
vocabulary of "effectiveness", and other projects/artifacts have no 
stated political function but have plenty of negative/positive political 
effects. (I admit that I'm getting a little out of my league here, 
through my lack of experience in activism.)

I would love to see this discussion continue in the context of analysis 
of a specific work or two together - maybe at the Conflux next month? I 
hadn't planned on attending this time, but the promise of such a 
discussion would certainly motivate my involvement. I recall Trebor 
calling for more specific analyses of projects here on the list, as 
well, so maybe it can happen online.

Thanks for bringing it up, Catherine.

Kevin Hamilton

PS - Sorry I missed the IDC gathering, I had to leave after my panel, 
and just barely made my next appt. in San Francisco.

kanarinka wrote:
> Hello All -
> A pleasure to meet some of you at ISEA. A brief introduction - my name 
> is kanarinka/Catherine D'Ignazio. I am an artist, software developer, 
> co-founder of iKatun and the Institute for Infinitely Small Things, 
> former Co-Director of Art Interactive in Cambridge, MA, and part-time 
> faculty in the Digital+Media dept at RISD. I have been lurking on the 
> list for some time now but have not posted.
> I wanted to post a nagging doubt I have in light of the title of the 
> ISEA conference theme "Interactive City" in conjunction with the 
> ZeroOne "Global Festival of Art on the Edge" and the artwork showcased 
> there.  This is not a condemnation, more of a call to reflection for 
> myself (who participated in a project there) and possibly for others. 
> I would be interested to hear from others as to their thoughts on this.
> The festival's imagination of the "Interactive City" seemed to be 
> characterized by a spirit of play which feels increasingly oriented 
> towards middle-class consumer spectacle and the experience economy. To 
> give you an example of some art experiences that were possible at ISEA:
> - eating ice cream and singing karaoke
> - calling an old person in San Jose to talk about whatever you might 
> have in common with them
> - pressing a button on a machine and getting an artsy plane ticket 
> with your photo on it
> - drifting through the city as if it were a sports field via applying 
> sports plays in urban space
> - visualizing your social network via bluetooth as you go around the 
> conference and talk to your friends
> - watching/listening to noise music made by people riding skateboards 
> around the conference
> - listening to an erotic sci-fi narrative about san jose on your cell 
> phone while riding the train
> - flipping light switches to make a one-word message in public space
> - viewing colorful 3D representations of wireless digital data
> So, my questions to the artists, the organizers, the attendees and 
> everyone else is - is psychogeography/locative media work simply R&D 
> for a new generation of entertainment spectacle? Or, what are we 
> actually trying to do with these ideas of "play" in urban space? Who 
> gets to play? And what about the interactive cities in Iraq and 
> Lebanon and elsewhere? Why didn't we address war, security, 
> militarization and terrorism as aspects of the contemporary 
> interactive city? For me, running around making the city into a 
> sandbox, a playground or a playing field feels increasingly irrelevant 
> and irresponsible.
> A gentleman invited to drift with us summed it up nicely "Sorry, I 
> can't go with you. I have to work here until 8PM and then I have to go 
> to my other job."
> What are your thoughts?
> Thanks,
> kanarinka
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