Spent an hour walking around Birmingham city centre with Andy Howlett, my partner in art-walking (specifically the Cross City Walks project) to sketch out a walk for the Rituals week of Instructions for Humans in December.
The walk was always going to be inspired by Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York book, a guide to where the internet physically manifests in the city, from sensors and camera to antenna, cable ducting and routing buildings. But I am not an expert on these things like Ingrid is. I know what a camera is and can make a loosely informed guess as to what it’s doing, but my survey of the network leaking into the streets is built on a load of assumption and speculation.
But that’s fine and has been a thread throughout this show. It’s hard to know what’s actually going on behind the scenes on the network. A black box on the street could be anything and guessing is a real part of living with this stuff. In fact, the act of guessing wrong is a massive step forward from not paying any attention at all.
So we started at New St Station where there are literally hundreds of dome cameras hanging from the ceiling. It’s pretty clear that no human is watching them - the data is probably being processed to spot patterns in behaviour which alert a human to pay attention. We also found an ambient noise sensor, ie a microphone measuring the volume of the space, notable because the new dome in the station is acoustically terrible, acting like a parabolic reflector into the centre of the concourse. I wonder if this is monitoring that. Or maybe it’s monitoring for some other purpose. The main thing is we spotted a non-camera sensor!
[addendum - this is what it’s doing.]
Outside we looked at the “eyes” which show massive adverts. These were heralded as having cameras which scan the crowd to determine the demographic mix to target the adverts. We talked about how effective this was and how much of that was hype. I’m on the side of it being PR hype and just gathering simple data, but the cameras on the 6ft digital billboards in the pedestrian areas are likely to be much more accurate as they are scanning people at their level.
On our short walk we did find a couple of curious boxes with obvious aerials and a load of cabinets that were probably part of the cable network. We also looked at things like parking metres and bus stops which have network potential simply by being plugged into electricity and able to house a radio transmitter.
The challenge, though, is to turn this into something more than a “look at this box, we don’t know what it is” pointing exercise and into something more… artistic. I’ve been enjoying giving people commissions to work within the context of what I’ve built in the gallery. Seeing how they respond to how I’ve communicated these subjects brings a different sort of clarity to whatever I’m doing. (Cue sidebar on the nature of “collaboration” beyond mere sharing of labour, but that’s for another day.)
So in essence I’ve left the shape of the thing to Andy to figure out. Something that uses Ingrid’s way of seeing as a framework but which embraces the ignorance we have of this obfuscated infrastructure that surrounds us. It’ll probably also have something to do with cargo cults, of course. We’ll meet up next week once the performances are out of the way and he’s digested everything. I’m very hopeful!