october 02, 2008.
As part of Rob van Kranenburg's selection of twenty-five artists invited to provide their idiosyncratic views on this major dutch digital-media-mega event, for three full days (sept. 24th, 25th and 26th) ookoi joined the "heads of business, government leaders, marketers, designers, producers, investors ..." that were heading for the 3rd PICNIC on the Westergasfabriekterrrein in Amsterdam. There they indulged in the miracles and wonders of a myriad of "cutting-edge products and services at the intersection of media, technology, arts and entertainment".
They, us, altogether ... called and asked to "create the future"
And we went. "Net zo makkelijk," one says in dutch. But we were well aware of what we were: embedded artists.
That is to say: the right people, and in the right place.
PICNIC, " Amsterdam's annual digital schmoozefest " ( * ), is an initiative of 'crossmedia company' Media Republic and De Waag Society. Just like many of those responsible for the basic structure, the protocols and the original philosophy behind what became the internet had their roots in the 1960s hippie and psychedelic movement, the origin of dutch pioneering digital and e-culture institutions Mediamatic and De Waag can be traced back, via 1990s initiatives like Hacktic and De Digitale Stad, to the dutch 'autonomous' squatting and DIY culture of the 1980s. Which therefore, and that is rather curious, connects the present to the SoundBlog's previous entry ...
PICNIC08 was fast-paced.
This was well-illustrated by one of the several applications - all of them refreshingly playful, like a vibrating sofa and a make-a-new-friend-get-a-free-drink voucher printer - powered by Mediamatic's pet-technology: RFID (see also the earlier SB-entry Rags 'n' Riches). The applications were installed at several of the PICNIC locations, and were activated by the tags that were handed out at the registration desk, and linked to your personal profile on the picnicnetwork web site.
The application I mean was called ikRun.
What you were asked to do was simple: run as fast as possible from Virtueel
Platform's E-Art Media Dome along the Gosschalklaan
to the Gashouder ... To clock your 'race', you activated a timer
by placing the RFID-tag
on the module (see picture) outside the Dome. Upon arrival at
the Gashouder, you then stopped the timer by posing the (same)
tag on the finish-module over there. Accompanied
by heartfelt cheers or disdainful laughter, a picture was taken and automatically
added to your picnicnetwork profile ... According to Google maps, the distance
from start to finish is some 260 meters (850 feet).
PICNIC participants loved it.
It was a popular recreation; or was it another challenge to be met? Already on the very first day we witnessed new young media workers that with evident athletic ambition sprinted their hearts out. But this was a smart bunch, and competition is tough. It therefore did not come as a surprise that not much later we saw this thirty-something marketer activate the ikRun clock only to race off fast as lightning on a light-weight bike ... Better still was the following sample of collaborative creativity, as demonstrated by a couple of young-ish start-uppers.
Let us call them Abelard and Eloise ...
Abelard had a second tag made at registration, also linked to his (the same) profile. He gave it to Eloise who then took it over with her to the finish. Once arrived there, Eloise used her handy to call Abelard who had stayed at the start. Abelard then activated the timer with his tag, only for Eloise to asap bring it to a grinding halt again with the second tag ...
"A la guerre comme à la guerre," one says in french. We decided to take it easy. And we made a new number ... :
But how slow could one get?
Not very, as a matter of fact. Which was sort of intriguing. I will try to indicate why, as this should be seen in relation to the many issues related to the 'silent' but 'large-scale' introduction of the RFID-technology, of 'low-end' and 'ambient' computing into everyday life, enabling the massive 'tracking' of all and everyone's moves in an 'internet of things'. All of us are being tracked, and we know it. But then shouldn't we also - at least be able to somehow - control that tracking?
In our first attempt at establishing a _l o n
g_ ikRun we activated the timer with our
RFID-tag around lunchtime on wednesday september 24th.
Going around our planned PICNIC-business for
that day, we only passed at the Gashouder again for the first time
after activation towards the end of that day, some five or six
hours later. ( ** )
But when we came there and tried to stop the clock that - we were sure of it - for us was still running ... nothing happened.
Can you imagine our confusion? How come? Where were we? Why didn't we show up on the screen among those that had 'just arrived'? It took a while before we realized that we had been 'kicked' from the system. We had disappeared from the base. We did no longer exist ... Eventually we were told that the ikRun had been programmed such as to 'drop' ikRunners that did not 'finish' within 20 minutes. And there was nothing we could do about it ... So, you see, the ikRun-application in a way deprived PICNIC- participants from one of their fundamental rights: the right to be slow ...
One of the e-art objects on show in Virtueel Platform's Media Dome: Virtueel, by Jelte van Abbema of MU (Eindhoven). A Remington typewriter is linked to a digital screen, and made 'touch sensitive'. If you strike the keys softly, letters are small and thin; when you strike them hard, the letters come out big and bold; the letters in saved documents will slowly fade out ...
Of course there were laptops everywhere, on each and every one of PICNIC's locations, spread across the Westergasfabriek Culture Park, most of which from early morning until early evening were (wo)manned by lab-bing, lobby-ing, conferenc-ing and network-ing corporate heroes, sent by and representing a great many small and large, national and international, companies, for which in one way or another digital media and technologies are at the heart of their business. Some came looking for investors. Some came looking for new ideas. Some came for both. All came with at least as many handies as they came with people.
TheiPhone proved a most frequent specimen among the divers breed of hi-tech handheld communication devices that I saw being used at PICNIC. Some of you will know that I've got a pretty smart handy myself: a titanium black LG Shine with a custom inscription on its back, that says: "... toute la vie ...". When I accidentally dropped it on the floor, inside the Virtueel Platform's white Media Dome, I overheard one lady who had seen this happen smile to a friend: "I bet he's doing it on purpose. If it breaks, that'll give him an excuse to buy an iPhone ..." Though this would make a marvelous hook for a series of iPhone ads, to be honest, I am not really interested in obtaining an iPhone to replace my phone.
What does interest and impress me though, both with the iPhone and the iPod Touch, is the user-interface: a multi-touch screen combined with a built-in accelerometer. I toyed with that for a while ( *** ) and was immediately won over. It was a bit like the at-first-sight recognition of the correctness of the solution to a problem, as I know it from doing math: long before having sorted out the many details, sometimes one senses with great certainty that a particular solution can not be but the right one. And even though in this case it may not be completely clear what precisely the problem was, the iPhone's interface convinced as its solution from the very moment I first laid my hands on it. Undoubtedly this is how soon enough a lot - maybe most - of man/machine interfacing will be done: no more buttons, no more trackpads or joysticks, no more mice ... just one's fingers and a screen on small handheld devices that in ever more subtle ways will respond to the way in which they are held, to the way in which you move them; that will learn to react to - only - your voice, and to the where's and what's of your current location in view of predicted intentions derived from (one of) your histor(y)(ies) ... Wirelessly connected 24/7 to the - or probably rather: an - (inter)net of data, things and applications.
You will have heard it before, but let me say it again: for all practical purposes personal computers as we know them will soon become superfluous ... And notwithstanding the many looming dangers this may entail, I could not but marvel at the thought: despite the dazzling gap that separates my very first 'go' at computing with a pack of FORTRAN punchcards that were fed into an IBM Mainframe in the 1970s ( **** ) from the writing of this entry on a wirelessly connected MacBook, in fact 'we ain't seen nothing yet' ...
PICNIC's keynote- and other lectures took place in the Zuiveringshal West, which had been transformed into a large theatre. Its 'green' ("is the new black") and sober but nevertheless 'monumental' decoration undeniably showed Speer-ish qualities. This was at least partly due to Levi van Veluw's (one of this year's PICNIC featured - as opposed to embedded - artists) 4 x 5 meters grand self-portraits that were adorning the walls.
While during the conference's kick off, with one or two feeble attempts by PICNIC co-founders Marleen Stikker and Bas Verhart to have the audience join in a massive 'do-you-feel-allright' and 'are-you-ready-for-PICNIC' cheer, the stage up front was taken by Charles Leadbeater lecturing on 'The Power of Mass Creativity', I sat playing Koi Pond on the iPhone. Koi Pond ('koi' is japanese for 'carp') is nothing much, really. There's just a bunch of colorful fish animations swimming around in a virtual pond. Remarkably though, the iPhone's screen acts as the water's surface. Tapping the screen or dragging your finger around will cause ripples and waves that scare the koi away. If you shake the iPhone, you release pellets of food, and your fish will re-appear and eat. Keeping your finger motionless on the screen will induce them to surface, and 'nibble' your finger ... Surprising and entertaining ... But what precisely is it, this whatchamacallit, this ... thing ... ? It hardly can be called a game. It has no purpose or goal, whatsoever. Nothing to win, just time to lose. No beginning, no end ... I actually find that it most resembles a snow globe, probably because of the shaking. What's interesting about this, is that apparently I tend to think about the 'thing' as of an object ...
If nothing else, this does hint as to one among possible directions for the development of digital 'game-like things' as an art form, which, btw, has become a recent focus for Stichting WIM's R&D department. ( ***** ) Of course in this WIM does not stand alone. On friday september 26th PICNIC saw the attribution of the Ding! Prize for artistic game development, the result of an open call (though on a very short notice) that was issued by the Virtueel Platform, the Fonds BKVB and the Stifo for 'concepts to stimulate the development of games with an artistic angle'. The Ding! Prize went to the Stedelijk Museum and Submarine Channel, for 'A Split Second', a joint proposal for the development of an autonomous game involving 'arbitrary moments of decision'.
Collaborative creativity was this year's PICNIC's main theme. Or maybe it was rather about 'mass collaboration & participation', as epitomized by "The Sheepmarket", a work by Aaron Koblin, the most visible among PICNIC's featured artists. "The Sheepmarket" consists in a collection of 10.000 drawings of 'left-looking sheep', made by workers on the Amazon Mechanical Turk web site, an online 'marketplace for work'. Koblin's 'Turks' got paid 2 american dollar cents for each finished - and accepted - drawing of a sheep that they submitted.
There is of course a substantial difference between a work that is collectively
created by a great many 'creators', and a work that is being done using
the input of a lot of different individuals. We all believe firmly
in the second option, where one person or a relatively small team directs,
shifts through, evaluates and then uses (or not!) the input and/or productive
work of lots of contributors. Mainly of course because this is the way substantial
'production' has always been organized. It is the way the Egyptians built
their pyramids, it is how Eiffel had his tower made, it's how New York erected
the Empire State Building and it is how physicists gave us the LHC.
They all use 'Mechanical Turks'. What's new, is that the internet
and the ensuing 'global connectivity' potentially gives us access to 'groups
of Mechanical Turks' defined by whatever imaginable criteria, including
their locality or not. That is why and how photographer Spencer
Tunick succeeds in bringing together up to several thousands of individuals
at a precise moment in a precise place, willing to, all together, take of
their clothes and pose naked for one of his pictures. What is also
new, is that the web and the digital tools currently available enable different
sorts of '(auto-)organization' of (very) large groups of individuals for
productive work in other than 'physical' domains, using (mainly) volunteers,
on a scale that is unprecedented in human history. Think for example of
the writing, correcting, verifying and moderating of texts as it is done
for Wikipedia. Or the coding and testing for open source software projects.
One of the more recent examples that was among those presented at PICNIC
is filmmaker Matt Hanson's A
Swarm of Angels, an attempt at collaborative creation of an 'open source'
I think that on the other hand the first option - the idea(l) of a truly collective, non-hierarchically organized 'creation', with equal responsibility for all those involved - will almost always turn out to be un-work-able. It is interesting to observe that collaborative projects starting out on the basis of strictly equal responsibility over time often are seen to settle 'naturally' in some de facto hierarchical structure. As e.g. Charles Leadbeater observed in his PICNIC keynote lecture on wednesday: whereas many of the Wikipedia pages have been 'edited' over time by a substantial number of individuals, closer inspection learns that very often almost all of these edits actually were made by only a very small subgroup ...
Which finally brings us to music. Because despite the remarks above, we know very well the power of collective non-hierarchical creativity. It, for example, is at the heart of free improvisation, where a collective of musicians with equal but balanced input auto-organizes to create a meaningful and dynamic musical process. We also know that in a such improvisation 'size matters': when the number of players increases we soon come to a point - in practice that seems to be with around six players - where in order for the collaboration to continue to be successful some form of prior organization appears to be needed. And when the number of participants in the improvisation increases even further - as soon as there is more than ten, twelve - the need for an even stricter organization is soon felt: it is then that one asks for a 'conductor' ...
A such view of music as a metaphor for our ability to (self-)organize, and that of the conductor's leading of an orchestra for a management leading a business, was brought to the fore at this year's PICNIC by Israeli conductor Itay Talgam, who exploits these ideas in the Maestro program, a series 'learning from music' workshops for companies and other organizations ... He was one of the speakers, and his talk 'Conducting Creativity' - late wednesday afternoon - must have been among the more interesting and thought-provoking of PICNIC08. Many told us so, for example some of the other embedded artists that had been there ... You can see a couple of minutes of the talk in the short uTube (shot by ulrikerenate) to the right. But sorry to say that we actually missed Itay's talk ... At the time we were embedded elsewhere ...
Now, would you eat me if you could?
notes __ ::
(*) Which is how the Amsterdam Weekly described the event (volume 5, issue 37, page 7: "The 'It' Girl") [ ^ ]
(**) We indeed also considered 'arriving' on friday, the conference's final day, but decided against it. It would have been 'unfair', as meanwhile we would have 'crossed' the finish several times without actually 'finishing' ... [ ^ ]
(***) ookoi has a non-zero iPhone factor. [ ^ ]
(****) ... via the several weeks long lasting calculations on fractal images coded in BASIC on my 8-bit Commodore 64 in the early 1980s, and my first resplendently blinking HTML pages made on a Paris university's SUN-workstation in the mid 1990s ... [ ^ ]
(*****) The 'Stiching WIM' (that is: Werkgroep Interactieve Media) provides much of the ideological and all of the administrative context for ookoi's activities ... [ ^ ]
tags: PICNIC08, Amsterdam, ookoi, new media, RFID, sheep
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