Roger Malina is a physicist and astronomer, Executive Editor of Leonardo Publications (The M.I.T. Press), and Distinguished Chair of Arts and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas. Dr. Malina helped found IMéRA (Institut méditerranéen de recherches avancées), a Marseille-based institution nurturing collaboration between the arts and sciences.
Mariateresa Sartori and Bryan Connell are two artists recently based at IMéRA. Their work connects with human movement through the city, and addresses the intersection between technology and perception. Recent work by Venice-based Mariateresa Sartori has encompassed drawing and video. Bryan Connell, Exhibit/Project Developer at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, works especially with landscape observation devices and mapping.
Lawrence Bird interviewed Roger Malina, Mariateresa Sartori, and Bryan Connell about the intersection of their work with the city. Images above courtesy: Roger Malina, Rita Gambardella, Bryan Connell.
Lawrence Bird: Roger Malina, in your recent writing you make the case that science is no longer just a field of positive knowledge. Scientists are increasingly open to engagement with the arts — for example artists’ residencies at CERN. You’ve even argued that we’re in a crisis of representation as profound as that of the Renaissance or the 19th century, and this is “driving a new theatricalisation of science.”
Urban life has often been understood as performative – display, performance of social roles, presentation of oneself before others are all part of the public life in cities. How would you say that crisis of representation plays out with regards to this performative dimension of urban life? How is science implicated alongside art in the city, in these conditions?
Roger Malina: One of my arguments for the ‘crisis of representation’ really looks at Renaissance systems of representation — first driven by what the eye could see, and then the eye extended by microscopes and telescopes. These systems of representation were developed that led to a deep contextualising of the viewer in the world.
Today we are in a new situation because so much of our perception of the world comes not through extended senses but, in a real way, through new senses. This has been happening over a number of decades; the first wave of this was at the end of the 19th century when there was a cultural shock with the introduction of x-ray images, infra-red and later radio — which didn’t extend existing senses but augmented them.The most recent series of triggers maybe comes from the nano-sciences and synthetic biology — we now perceive phenomena of which we have no daily experience of (eg quantum phenomena). Field emission microsopy or MRI or some of the other new forms of imaging really don’t build on our existing experience — there are discontinuities and dislocations. Another element is of course the hand held device that leads to techniques for ‘augmented reality’ — I have a phone app that I can point at an aeroplane overhead and it tells me what the plane is, where it came from, and where it is going.
Coming to your question about the city — there is clearly a shift in map construction and reading — from the Cartesian map that we have been acculturated to. The ability to toggle between the bird’s eye view and the “street view”, and the ability to view maps that have multiple layers simultaneously are driving artists and others to develop new forms of representation.
Someone whose work is interesting in this regard is Bryan Connell in San Francisco, he just finished an art science residency at IMéRA in Marseille. He was working on a large urban trail project called GR13 — 300 miles through industrial, urban, sub urban, and wild landscapes (the city had a hell of a time getting right of way through these areas). Bryan is currently working on a web site for the Marseille European City of Culture events, where he’s working on some of these questions of representation. The project involves a collective of ‘artist-walkers’ that I think fits right into this question of performativity.
LB: There’s currently a great deal of interest in the connections between representation, digital technology, and politics, for example the current Hybrid City II conference in Athens. As you’ve pointed out, these often underline the connections between what digital media mean for artists and what they can contribute to citizens — what’s emancipatory about them. What can art offer civil life in this context? Are there any conflicts or contradictions in that relationship?
RM: One pertinent example is the work of Bruno Giorgini, a physicist, and Mariateresa Sartori (visual artist) who work on the “physics of the city.” They were recently in residence in the IMéRA Mediterranean Institute of Advanced Study which hosts artists and scientists in residence who want to work with each other. We now have access to incredible amounts of data on human mobility (pedestrian and various forms of transportation) so it is now possible to study human behaviour quantitatively. Sartori discovered that she could tell many things about a person just through the morphology or topology of their movements through the city. Girogini discovered that people’s movements could be predicted at the 80% level, but 20% of the time he had to introduce what he called ‘social temperature’; in discussions he also referred to this as a ‘free will’ parameter. Barabasi has found similar results analysing cell phone GPS data of individuals. So its interesting to think of the development of cities as 80% predictable and 20% serendipitous. This of course then highlights the role of the arts and culture in making cities part of the cultural imaginary that drives people to make choices. Recently Max Schich here at the University of Texas has analysed very large data bases looking at where prominent people are born and where they die over the last 500 years. Immediately you can see how suddenly certain cities become cultural ‘attractors,’ say the way Berlin or Hong Kong are now. And of course cities are now trying to ‘design’ this into the development of cities. Here in Dallas there has been a huge investment in the ‘arts district’ and in institutions of higher learning in the belief that healthy cities require such investments. See for instance the US National Endowment for the Arts Program; there are many similar programs in Europe.
This doesn’t yet address your ’emancipation’ question. One of the things that is happening is that we are becoming a data taking culture (see the recent literature on ‘big data”). The cell phone has transformed every citizen (that has one) into a data taker. Of course much of this data is used by companies for marketing objectives. But many citizen groups are now able to take data for their social objectives. Some of this is captured by the ‘citizen science’ movement ( one example is here). There have been good examples of citizen’s taking data (on pollution, on illegal activities etc.) and then being in a position to challenge ‘authorities’ of various kinds whether scientific, political or economic (see for instance the way citizen groups have mobilised to collect data after man-made disasters such as oil spills, or illegal logging in forests).
A few years ago I wrote an open data manifesto which argued that I would like to advance a new human right and a human obligation:
1. Each of us has the right to the data that has been collected about ourselves and our own environment.
2. Each of must contribute to the knowledge construction by collecting and interpreting data about our own world.
Most scientific data collection is funded by public tax payer funding. The public has a fundamental right to all data collected and funded by public tax money.
LB: How do you imagine an artist’s training will change as these conditions evolve? And a scientist’s — could we foresee any kind of convergence?
RM: One interesting development is a cohort of hybrids, who have one degree in science or engineering and one in art and design ( for example J.F. Lapointe, a researcher at the National Research Council of Canada with degrees in molecular biology and dance) or degrees in Science or engineering and employment in art or design (like myself or Paul Fishwick, a key figure in the field of aesthetic computing). There’s been an emergence of art/science Ph. D. programs that take students from art or design or science or engineering. I suspect this cohort will grow over the coming years.
LB: Mariateresa Sartori, your IMéRA research project with Bruno Giorgini focused on mobility in the city. Can you tell us a little bit about how your work and Dr. Giorgini’s work complemented each other? What kind of evidence did you bring to the table as an artist?
MS: The project I worked on with Bruno Giorgini developed an exploration that began with earlier work in Venice. There I created a series of drawings using a rudimentary, even crude procedure: I traced out the movements of each pedestrian in the Piazza San Marco, drawing their paths with a felt-tipped pen on a transparent sheet placed over the computer monitor. I then faithfully transferred the results onto ordinary large sheets of white paper. The lines thus drawn in different directions created a space, drawing a St. Mark’s Square that is actually not there. As well as the actual physical space, it is also a drawing of our individual and collective manner of relating to space. Each single path determines the route of others, in a continuous and reciprocal game of influences that makes our collective progress.
At IMERA we developed this method for a new environment, a city more ethnically and culturally plural than Venice. Together we set up procedures and tools for collecting data about mobility networks there: nodes, links, chronotopi. These drew on the work of Bruno Giogini’s Laboratorio di Fisica della Città of the University of Bologna. We shot videos focusing on specific behavioural patterns where strategies of shifting, approaching and distancing play a decisive role; and we were also attracted by the places and situations of pedestrian congestion. Using the same technique as in Venice, I translated these into drawings of movement. These again created a space that marks out squares and places which are actually not there, each synthesizing space, time and humanity in a single image.
LB: Is there an emancipatory or governance-related dimension to this work? Degrees of mobility have human rights implications. How does your work as an artist connect with these rights, especially the notion of the right to the city?
MS: The first goal when I work as an artist observing reality is observation, i.e. a way of observing that implies a new attention. The result is always instructive because I do not have particular expectations. After lines have been traced following my process, something always emerges and what emerges can be a useful and indicative element for the emancipatory dimension of the urban condition. I would say that Bruno Giorgini is more involved in that dimension than me, especially in the notion of the right to the city.
LB: There’s a current preoccupation among researchers in a number of fields with the relationship between representation, often engaged with/through technology, and urban life. How has your latest work connected with this relationship?
MS: My way of working with technological instruments such as computers is very particular and limited. I use the computer as a technical tool strongly mediated by the senses, i.e. by human perception. I am very interested in modalities of perception: they are so imperfect, yet sufficiently perfect to make our existence possible.
LB: You described the way you work with technological instruments as “particular and limited.” Another way to look at this is that you make the technological system slow down by inserting yourself into the process… and the result is your drawings, which still movement. Might this be one role for art — to insert the human into the machine? Much net art focuses on flows of information, virtual movement, and representing that. While not quite glitch art, do your representations of movement in some sense intentionally put a brake on the machinery?
MS: I find your words enlightening, you describe my way of working better than me….. Actually I insert myself into the technological process…..but this is not a statement of a position against technology.
I can say that what interests me the most (and art’s relation to science is just one instance of this) is the thread of connection between specific cases and general theory, between subjective and objective. Between, on the one hand, the singularity of events and, on the other, general theory. The individual’s experience is singular, unique; but there is always a thread, even if fine, that leads each individual case to a wider generalisation. What interests me is this incessant – indispensable as much as concealed – mental activity that every day leads us to search for generalisations and regulating principles. What interests me is the human tendency to comprehend phenomena, even the most complex, via schematic representation, via a generalisation that leads to the identification of organising principles. I mean “Comprehension” in very wide sense, where emotions and feelings participate too in embracing reality, including reality. Maybe in this sense I put the human in the machine…
There is a discrepancy between how we perceive reality, mediated by our senses, and the truth decreed by science. On a rational level we recognize the truth, but we cannot internalize in a deep way this knowledge; this is beyond our human capabilities. I think that in my artistic research I find myself in this deep discrepancy.
LB: Bryan Connell, your work in Marseille addresses, among other concerns, technology and its relationship to nature. Do you see the urban environment as playing any particular role in that relationship — of having a particular status in our negotiation of it?
Bryan Connell: One of the things that intrigued me about the metropolitan hiking trail in Marseille is the way it plays with our sense of meaning and value in the exploration of contemporary landscapes. Most long distance hiking trails are designed to lead out of urban environments, not into them. We don’t usually think of carrying a field guide that illustrates the taxonomy of fire hydrants, electrical pylons, or urban weeds on an extended city or suburban walk. That kind of engaged, systematic attention is usually reserved for wild natural terrains. From a traditional environmental perspective, the less altered a place is by human technology, the more scientifically interesting, ecologically exemplary, and aesthetically rich it’s going to be. Without undermining the validity of ever-present environmental concerns, the trail functions as an invitation into a more challenging and complex relationship to the emerging para-wilds and novel ecosystems that are arising at the intersection of the natural world and the technological infrastructure of the built environment.
Similarly, the Marseille trail doesn’t really focus on the kinds of urban sites that are traditionally thought of as having significant historic, architectural, or cultural interest. Instead, the trail route incites visitors into an exploration of the everyday environments and working landscapes of the contemporary urban transect – a world of parking lots, freeway overpasses, suburban developments, abandoned railways, and semi-rural wildlands.
Landscape ecologist Earl Ellis argues that to better navigate our way through the current geohistorical epoch, the Anthropocence, we must expand the traditional ecological concept of regional biomes into the parallel notion of “anthromes” – biomes that are complex interconnected melds of human technology and natural systems. In a sense, the GR 2013 Marseille trail is a sketch or system of exploratory paths into what a publically accessible, anthrome based urban ecology observatory might look like.
LB: A similar question is in relation to the image, especially sequential images. What does it mean for our negotiation of the relationship between nature and technology? Between science and art?
BC: We increasingly live in a networked digital metropolis with an image and information density that both mirrors and exceeds the high population densities of the physical metropolis. One topic of particular interest to me is the role these images play in transfiguring the quality of our desire. To what extent do scientific or aesthetic images that increase our ability to find meaning and satisfaction in observing and understanding urban landscape phenomena mitigate our need to physically alter the landscape to conform to an idealized image of what it should or shouldn’t be?
For example, the Marseille metropolitan trail didn’t require much physical alteration of the terrain – it’s a conceptually designated network of pre-existing roads, paths, streets and highways. The trail’s function is not to alter place, but alter the cognitive landscape of trail users so they have a richer sense of place. If you are fascinated by the diversity of ways a para-wild plant population has adapted to a technologically modified environment, do you need to engage in an energy and material intensive re-landscaping of that environment with a palette of conventional horticultural plantings to make it more “beautiful”? In this sense, constructing interpretive images of landscape is more than a way of augmenting a recreational hiking experience, it’s a way of shifting and re-configuring what we think we have to consume and alter to find meaning and vitality in contemporary landscapes.
Hybrid City is an international biennial event dedicated to exploring the emergent character of the city and the potential transformative shift of the urban condition, as a result of ongoing developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) and of their integration in the urban physical context. After the successful homonymous symposium in 2011, the second edition of Hybrid City has grown into a peer reviewed conference, aiming to promote dialogue and knowledge exchange among experts drawn from academia, as well as artists, designers, researchers, advocates, stakeholders and decision makers, actively involved in addressing questions on the nature of the technologically mediated urban activity and experience.
The Hybrid City 2013 events also include an online exhibition and workshops, relevant to the theme
Hybrid City Conference 2013: Subtle rEvolutions will take place on 23-25 of May 2013.
The Hybrid City II events will take place at the central building of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.
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