01 July 2012

A Hack and a Smile

Graffiti Analysis, 2010, Evan Roth. Software analyses handwriting, hardware prints out a 3D model of the act of spraying
Hack the City at The Science Gallery, Dublin, Saturday June 23rd
A few months ago I attended a talk by Gavin Sheridan on Freedom of Information requests in The Science Gallery (more about which can be found here), and before he began there was a very interesting introduction to the then upcoming Hack The City exhibition by its curator Teresa Dillon.

Running from the 22nd of June through to the 8th of September, with a showcase festival from the 11th to the 15th of July, Hack The City (with its tag line "Take Control") aims to "rethink our cities from the ground up through the spirit and philosophy of the hacker ethos - to bend, mash-up, tweak and cannibalise our city systems, to create possibilities, illustrate visionary thinking and demonstrate real-world examples for sustainable urban futures. It will capitalize on Dublin city’s history, legacy, population and infrastructure, transforming the city itself into a nimble “playground” and live urban hack lab", or at least that's what it said in its introduction.

Dillon introduced the project by referring to Eric S. Raymond's essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar, viewed by many as the founding document of the open-source movement, or at least the path through which the notion of open-source entered the mainstream consciousness. Raymond contrasts the top-down software development model (The "Cathedral" approach) where although the entire code for a project may be released along with each new stable iteration, development of those iterations is still controlled tightly by a small group, with what we now know as the open source model (or 'Bazaar" approach), where all development is transparent and collaborative, and the code is shared and open to any who want to have a go.

Dillon then referred to a second book, Bruce Mau's Massive Change, and the accompanying exhibition which explored how the process of design can be used to effect positive change on the wider world by addressing the needs of society and not just those of a commercial client, mirroring the open-source revolution as it called for designers to "reject the binary notion of client/designer... to look at what is going on, right now [as] the old-fashioned notion of an individual with a dream of perfection is being replaced by distributed problem solving and team-based multi-disciplinary practice. The reality for advanced design today is dominated by three ideas: distributed, plural, collaborative".

Hack the City attempts to use this open-source DIY ethic to reclaim the commons, not the digital commons but the actual urban environment around us, and the summer-long exhibition finally kicked off a few days ago with an opening party that included installations ranging from the digital analysis of the handwriting of graffiti artists to crowd-controlled surveillance drones (whose creators were detained by UK police on their way home), but alas I did not make it along having other, more meteorological, concerns to deal with. I did, however, make it along a day or so later to see the final presentations of the IDEALAB workshop, a project where a number of programmers and designers were brought together by The Science Gallery in a pop-up workspace for a week to put together both hardware and software solutions to existing city problems (derelict spaces, transport, crime etc).

The ideas presented seemed more evolutionary than revolutionary (one group even created a mobile app that would allow users to report suspicious behaviour to the gardai, something that raised the hackles of many "hacktivists" in the audience), though I was very taken with one project entitled The Museum of Thoughts, where the readings of a portable EEG reader were scanned and transformed via a 3D printer into a tangible representation of a person's experience of a specific place at a specific moment in time, physically reminiscent of both an early Edison phonograph cylinder and the Cyrus Cylinder (a 2,700 year-old clay Iranian foundation text), the idea being to create a hard and concrete record of the citizenry's mental and emotional experience of the city that could then be "played back" by future generations as a humanized temporal snapshot of an urban environment that by then would have vanished or be radically transformed.

Introducing the IDEALAB projects the outgoing Lord Mayor Andrew Montague championed the notion of an open-source city, highlighting the Dublinked program that makes available a range of city data from the four Dublin local authorities, and suggesting that future public/private partnerships in the city (such as the expansion of the DublinBikes scheme through JCDeceaux) should include open access to applicable data as part of the contracts. Whether his successor, Fine Gael's newly installed Naoise Ó Muirí, is as interested in transparency has yet to be seen, but I'm not holding my breath.

A number of years ago I participated in a workshop organised by the City Planner, bringing together architects, planners and others to discuss the current city development plan, and while I was struck by the genuine sense of responsibility to the city's inhabitants exhibited by those in the workshop, in hindsight it was very much a text-book example of Cathedral development, where planning was firmly in the control of a small group of people who might occasionally solicit the feedback of those whose lives their work will affect, but would never share the development and decision making process with them.

With this in mind then does involving the Lord Mayor, however well-meaning he is, in part of this series send a very mixed message, forcing us to ask the question what is Hack the City about? If it is about bypassing existing authoritarian structures and equipping the citizenry with the tools and the will to "Take Control" of their city, then why look for the approval of those existing authoritarian structures? If it is about presenting an alternative vision of what the city could be to those existing authorities with a view to engaging them in a dialogue, then why paint it with a veneer of anti-establishment underground hackers and street-artist culture?

With the passing of Elinor Ostrom a week before the launch of the programme, the reclamation of the urban commons was foremost in my mind as I paid my first visit to Hack the City, and I wondered if control of the city is something that can be given to the citizenry in token part or actual totality, or if is it something that must be taken?

This is going to be a good exhibition, very interesting and worth multiple visits over its duration, and no doubt the answers to these questions will only emerge as the series progresses, answers determined not by the intentions of the organisers but by the actions of the participants and any lasting effects on the attendees. But even as the programme launched, one artist took its message to the streets in reclaimed protest, saying that to truly hack the city you can only do so outside of the safe confines of an academy-sponsored, city-endorsed show.

"Smile!" he said, and the whole city smiles with you.

Smile, by CANVAZ
Dame Lane, Dublin, Saturday June 23rd

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