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January 12, 2013 / Leo Hollis

Is there space for the arts in the future city

I was walking behind the churchyard of St Mary’s Redcliffe, in Bristol. The weather is filthy but I am bustling along Colston Parade, listening to my ipod, an eery cascade of organ music, seemingly coming from inside the respendlant Gothic structure across the yard. As I step along the parade, the music suddenly stops and a voice appears out of the silence, telling me a story, asking me to look at the church to think about the people who first built it.

The narrative connects the first master builder, Jack Henderson, his daughter who despite her sex, knew more about carving stone than any worker, and how she tragically drowned at the nearby quay. After the master’s funeral his wife was said to have scattered Mourning Widow seeds, which still grows throughout the neighbourhood like weeds. I pause and wait for the narrative to end and then move off, the organ dirge surging into focus once again. I follow my route on the screen in my hand and go in search for the next chapter of the story.

Missorts is an art project devised by the novelist Tony White, alongside the Bristol based art  organisation Situations. The project was commissioned by the Bristol Legible City Initiative. Taking it cue from Bristol’s very own literary explorers such as native authors Thomas Chatterton and Angela Carter, it is an intriguing adventure in the relationship between technology, art and the city. Wandering through the soundscape, the city itself became a canvas for an alternative experience, a different way to appreciate the urban scape around me. This is not prose, or theatre or art as I normally appreciated it, but the technology – my iPhone, audio recordings, GPS locators, 3G network – combine to provide a way to look at the city anew.
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In November last year, Everything Everywhere, the 4G network owned by T Mobile and Orange launched across 11 cities in the UK. Most people would have barely noticed except for seeing Kevin Bacon’s adverts discussing the finer points of network theory. However, by summer 2013 all major networks will have adopted faster, download connections for most smart phones and tablets. Dull news perhaps, offering little more than the chance to watch TV from the top of the bus, but the potential ways this may change how we live in cities and how we experience art and the culture is profound.

Artwork like Missorts is already having to compete in a very cramped digital space. The techno-prophets have been heralding the dawn of the age of smart cities, augmented reality and the end of geography as we know it for some time. Millions have already been invested in dividing up this virtual market place amongst the major corporations, even before the 4G networks are up and running. IBM, CISCO, Philips, Siemens are all investing heavily in smart city solutions, at a price. The free wifi that was available on the London tube network over the last summer, is now only open to Virgin, EE and Vodafone cumstomers.

But how will this change the way we make our cities as places of the arts and culture? Already there have been some interesting signals of what might be. GPS offers opportunity for creative exploration. While there has been numerous maps showing the most poular jogging routes (at least for runner sporting Nike trainers) in London and New York [http://vimeo.com/26399542], there is also figurerunning [figurerunning.com] that allows you to use GPS to draw your route upon the map, sharing your regime alongside others who have run through the streets to create the shape of a rabbit, dog or christmas tree.

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There are also a small community of GPS artists who are using the city as a canvas. A number of artists now use information as their material to create visually interesting works. At the launch of the EE in Liverpool the artist Brenden Dawes [http://brendandawes.com/], collected the data for the first three days – 29-31 October – dividing up the main topics that were being discussed and then transformed into appealing patterns. What became apparent was despite the move to faster connection speeds, Liverpudlians continued to discuss the everyday subjects: Hurricane Sandy, the new release of Skyfall, and, in particular, the disallowed goal by Luis Suarez.

Mapping also can change the way we move around the city. Street Museum devised by the Museum of London allows one to see historical photos embedded in real world locations. GPS travel guides like Pocketguides offer apps which include walks, audio tours, video and text to enhance the city break. Chris Speed at Edinburgh College of Art has been using GPS mapping to layer historical maps onto the present day city. In the Walking through Time App, one can switch between Edinburgh in the present, 1950, 1939 and 1919. As you walk around, there is also added material on landmarks and historical commentary.

At the moment we experience these through our smartphones but Apple, Microsoft and Google all have developed ‘augmented reality glasses’ and this will alter the way we upload information and how we see the city, where information will be layered across the horizon as we circumnavigate. As yet, none of the developers are willing to reveal what the future will look like, but things are appearing decidedly ‘Minority Report’. So far, Google is forcing every developer who wants to create an app for the glasses to pay $1,500; it is clearly aimed at commercial enterprises rather than writers or artists.

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The coming of 4G networks means that we will be relying more and more on technology to move around and mediate our experience of the city around us. As a result who owns the virtual, information space of the city will be as powerful as those who own the actual fabric. But is there any virtual space for creativity? Returning to the soundscape that Missorts created from the ordinary streets of Bristol, one can hope that soon artists, writers and filmmakers will start to exploit the new networks to delivered different types of writing and performance. Could we soon be making films, staging opera or bringing history out of the archive, gallery or darkened screening room.

Nevertheless, while the technology offers the possibilities to explore and expand the role of arts in the city, transforming both artistic practise as well as the urban space where it is embedded, these are dangerous times. Already it is clear that the promise of freedom within the new networks are going to be surveilled by both business and government. Just as 4G gives us access to ever more information, so we will become more watched. Secondly, we have to ask why all this new information. It is becoming increasingly clear that  – to repeat the great Silicon Valley open secret – if you are not paying for the product, then you are the product. There is always a price for getting something and now more than ever, this will mean you are handing over information about yourself, even if you don’t know it.  

But where will this new technology leave the arts? The opportunties are clear: art in the age of 4G could be revolutionary. Not just will it become easy to access whatever one wants wherever one may be, but this also offers new ways of production, development and exploring new art practises. However, there is a huge ggulf between the promise and the reality: as the internet seems to become increasingly free, it is becoming ever more controlled by commercial gate keepers. And this, in the end, will reduce what is possible everywhere else. The corporatisation of the virtual world may just prove to be the biggest threat to face our cities.

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