Device Art Symposium Special Lecture: "Misadventures in Technology"
by Usman Haque (Architect)

Device Art Symposium Special Lecture

"Misadventures in Technology"
Usman Haque (Architect)
Date:21 June 2006, Venue: Akihabara UDX 6F Conference Room

Haque:Thank you very much for coming. I am going to talk about a range of projects that have taken place over the last five years or so. There are nine projects, split into three groups. These three categories are the things that have guided me in particular directions.

The first category that I am going to be talking about is what I call, "ephemeral stuff". I am trained as an architect, and in fact, I worked as an architect in a broad sense. And I am particularly interested in something I call the "software of space", as opposed to the hardware. Instead of the physical fabric, I am more interested in what happens in between. So, the first category will be three projects on "ephemeral stuff ".

The second category is related to collaboration and non-expert, non-specialist things. This is basically a range of projects that had come out of the fact that I am not so good with technology. When I do electronics, I make nice little fires and explosions. I don't know if it's just bad luck. Maybe I have some strange thing with electricity, but I can't do hardware. What I can do, is hack. A lot of projects have come out by taking existing technology and plugging things in the wrong way, and by taking toys and getting the sense of that. This is a useful way for me to make things. And linked to that is, of course, the notion of collaboration, of what happens when you build on other people's work.

The third category of projects, again with three projects, has to do with cybernetics. And by cybernetics, I mean this in the classic sense; which is the study of systems of control and communication in animals and machines. This is the original definition of cybernetics back in the 40s and 50s. It's not this kind of science fiction "Matrix" cybernetics. It is very simply about how do we communicate and how do we have systems of control with each other. It looks at animals, humans, and machines as a similar sort of system. So that is the third category, which I am going to discuss.

Now you have probably noticed that I refer often to old stuff, from 40, 50 years ago. This is because we are at a time now, when we can build almost anything we can imagine. We are just about there. If we can imagine it, we can probably find a way to build it. So it's now the most important time to start to reevaluate the aesthetics or the poetics or even the metaphysics of the things that we build. And there is a lot of work which was done 40 to 50 years ago, which has been forgotten in this race for the newest thing, the next paradigm, the new high-tech.

A lot of my work is actually old fashioned, in a sense, that it probably could have been made 30 or 40 years ago. Some of them, of course, use things like LEDs, which are more recent inventions. But generally, the hardware is kind of old stuff. And I am just putting icing on the cake of other people's work from a long time ago. So this is the introduction to the nine projects I will talk about.

#04-2-1: Ephemeral Stuff

The first category is about "ephemeral stuff". As I said, I am interested in architecture, the "software" of architecture. I had worked as an architect -- building buildings and steel details; designing toilets and living rooms and all these kind of things. But what has guided me throughout all this is the idea of grasping architecture as a system, or architecture as a software. I think this image displays basically what I mean. These little animals are in a box, which is two degrees lower than this other box with the same number of animals [inside the box with lower temperature, the animals are huddled together]. Just by changing the temperature, the perception and the relationship to that space is completely transformed. The relationship of the body to space, which is what architecture really is about, is transformed just by changing the software. The box is the same, the inhabitants are the same; we just changed the program. So this is the kind of thing that I am particularly interested in, when I am looking at ephemeral things and architecture.

1-1:"Scents of Space"
     "Scents of Space"

The first project is called "Scents of Space". This project basically came out because architects don't use things like smell. When you think about architecture, you think of visual field, maybe the tactile field, you might think about sound, the acoustic qualities of architecture. But smell is not often used in an architectural sense. And when smell is used as a design, it is used for basically three purposes. One is, of course, perfume. It makes someone seem sexier because of the scent. The second way it is used, is for example -- I don't know if you have it in Japan, but in Europe you have these shops, which pump the smell of bread out in front of the shop. And the idea is to make people feel hungry and come inside; it's a device to trick people to come in. The third way that smell is used is, for example, branding. This idea is applied in designing a hotel lobby of a hotel chain; where the lobby of every hotel around the world smells exactly the same. Or, for example, I think it was Paris metro: they wanted to design a smell, just so there was a distinctive Paris smell. I don't know whether this project lasted very long.

However, smell is not used in a spatial sense; even though smell is the most spatial of qualities that we can perceive. This is because smell is something that is spilled into space. And the reason that smell is not used, is because it is so difficult to control. Let's say I have some kind of output system of smell over here. Within 30 seconds, it is going to spread to the front row. Within 45 seconds, it will reach the second row. By the end of five minutes, the whole room will smell one smell. And if a new smell is tried, you will end up with this horrible mix of different smells. So it's not very easy to use smell in a spatial way.

This project was made to find a way to control smell in a spatial sense. The idea was to make pixels that are in three dimensions; so we can have one smell here, another one here, and another line of smell over there. That was the purpose of the project. And the way we did this, was actually quite simple. We made a structure that is a very slow wind tunnel. You probably know that in the process of designing airplanes, there is this wind tunnel where the wind goes through for 200 kilometers per hour, so one can see how the air moves. In this tunnel, all of the air, at every point, is moving in a straight line. We made a very similar system, except the air is moving just 0.2 meters per second. That is not fast, so you don't feel a breeze {Fig.1Fig.1, Fig.2 rightFig.2}. So, the air is pushing through a diffusion screen into a high-pressure chamber, and the smell is introduced at the wall. After that, in this space inside, the cubes of smell just move down the tunnel very slowly. We can build up zones and boundaries and collages of smell. This is an image {Fig.2 leftFig.2} of the exterior, showing a wall of fans. It was quite loud. The fans were pushing the air from one end. And in the other end, there was this fat massive duct, which was sucking out all the smell. The smell that was coming out of this end was awful, because it was a mix of everything going in there. This tube was sucking used smell away from the project, but we actually made a big mistake of leading this tube to the library next door. There were a lot of complaints about that.

We had several different versions of this project. And a part of this project was to look at how many people were able to perceive the different smells of boundaries. We tried to create a collage of the city. The smells we had coming out were of things like sweat, coffee shops, launderette, etc. We made one mistake of putting a lot of the bad smells below. So the kids only had bad smells: they got the smell of rubbish, car tires, and sweat. Because smell really does move in a straight line, if you're not tall enough, you really get only one smell. And the way we did this is quite simple. Again, low-tech is going to be a theme that comes back. These are cans of air {Fig.3 rightFig.3}. We put a big plug of air that's moving through this. Airbrush, which is normally used for painting, was adapted for this part. The scent was put into the airbrush which was then, squirted out into the air stream to form a block of smell. So, that was "scents of space".

 1  2  3  4 Next

1-2:"Sky Ear"
    "Sky Ear" no.1
    "Sky Ear" no.2

I was working with smell, interested in this idea of the "software of space". Another project that has to do with this idea is called "Sky Ear". It is about electromagnetic fields. The project started about six years ago. At that time, I was an artist in residence at IAMAS. And in my studio, I found out something funny. We had a really beautiful studio, and I spent probably twenty hours a day -- for almost five or six months -- in this place. They also had a really nice bed to make sure that we really stayed there, producing some stuff. But the funny thing was that the mobile phones didn't work in some parts of the building; at least my phone didn't. Maybe it was my company. Anyway, I was walking around my studio, trying to make a phone call, when I realized that every time I come to one side, the phone call cuts off: for some reason, there was no signal there. And as I was moving around the space, I began to realize that there was this kind of electromagnetic field, which is pushing me in one direction or the other. It was directing me, very much like doors and walls and corridors do in traditional architecture. So, in order to get a phone call, you need to go over here. To stay away from phone calls, so that you can pretend that you're not there, you go to the other corner. And I wanted to understand what the texture of this electromagnetic field that is surrounding me, is actually like; what it actually feels like. It was probably going up and down, and I had no idea what it really was. But I did know that there was a different quality in one corner of the room to the other.

So the very first thing I did is kind of obvious. You know that on mobile phones, there are these bars that tell you the signal level. Sometimes you have four bars, sometimes you have three, two, one. Actually I just went around and measured: OK, one bar, two bars here, three over there. And then I made this map that would show me what this space looks like, from the perspective of the mobile phone. What I wanted to get a handle on, or get an understanding of, was what this space looked like as a whole. I discovered, of course, that this was always fluctuating, always changing. So it was really difficult to draw a good map of this space. This space is called, "hertzian space" by the industrial design theorist Anthony Dunne. Hertzian space refers to the electromagnetic space that our devices produce, that our bodies produce, and things like that. What I was trying to do with this project was to get an understanding of the quality of hertzian space.

Fast forward, about three years. After many design iterations and grant proposals, it eventually came to what this project was going to be. I realized that, in order to understand what this space looked like, I need a large array of sensors. I am going to need maybe a thousand sensors, distributed over possibly 30 meters, responding in real time to electromagnetic field. Now, that is one thing. But it occurred to me that if I really wanted to carve this space, I need to make this array rise up, so that I can make a three dimensional map of electromagnetic field. The idea is a little bit like the way radar sweeps across objects and lighting them up. Like that, I wanted to make my array sweep across the space and light up things as it was rising through.

So I have this sensor array, which is basically a thousand balloons with helium inside. Inside each balloon is a sensor that is responding to this electromagnetic space. One thing I'm not interested in doing, is having only reactive projects. I am not that interested in making representations of something -- in other words, just making a metaphor of an existing phenomenon and displaying it as something else. What I want to do is make a kind of instrument in two senses. An instrument can be something that measures the electromagnetic field, but an instrument can also be something like a musical instrument: it becomes something that creates. So I decided to put several dozen mobile phones inside my cloud. We have the sensors spread over about 30 meters, and then we have a number of mobile phones inside this cloud. The reason I put mobile phones there, is because mobile phones actually make electromagnetic fields as well. And it occurred to me that, if there were people down on the ground watching this cloud of sensor array, it would be quite interesting for them to be able to listen as well to these electromagnetic fields.

You probably know what I mean by the aurora: the aurora borealis, the northern lights. This is a kind of electromagnetic phenomenon in the atmosphere that is turned into a visual field, a visual type of output. There is also a very similar process involved with something called spherics and whistlers. It is not really audible by itself; you need a radio to listen to it. But you can actually listen to these electromagnetic fields, to these electromagnetic sounds. They are very beautiful, natural electromagnetic sounds, which exist in the atmosphere. They have existed for millions of years. It's only really in the last 100 years that we started to add more to this cacophony of electromagnetic sounds. So basically, I have this cloud that is responding to the electromagnetic fields. There are people on the ground calling the cloud to listen while they look. But at the same time, they create new electromagnetic fields by calling the mobile phones. So actually by trying to observe this cloud, they change what they are trying to observe. It's never a simple reactive system. It's a very complex system where, depending on how many people calling, the electromagnetic fields up in the cloud changes.

So this is a close-up of the project. Fast-forwarding again about a year or so and many design iterations. Basically what we have is a balloon and a sensor, and this sensor has a coil, which is picking up the radio frequencies. And this is really simple. On mobile phones, you sometimes have a sticker that you put on the back of the phone that flashes when it receives a call. Inside this sticker there is a little coil that turns the electromagnetic field into a voltage. So I have a little coil there that turns the electromagnetic field into voltage, and I have green, blue, and red LEDs, so they can mix to create any color. And then I have infrared input and output. This is because I wanted the balloons to be able to communicate through infrared. We may be able to call that the B2B network, the balloon-to-balloon network, which allow these balloon sensors to coordinate across the surface of the cloud. Then, there are about 30 balloons put into one carbon fiber unit, and there is one mobile phone inside one unit. So with the total of 37 units, we have 37 mobile phones. That's probably a little bit complicated to understand but I will show you a little bit better here {Fig.4Fig.4}. So this is one unit: we have 30 balloons, we have thousands of these. These balloons are quite big, they're not normal sized balloons. This is a carbon fiber frame that holds the balloons inside, and there's a mobile phone inside that one unit.

This was quite a large project that took about 40 people to set up {Fig.5Fig.5}. We had to design a system to inflate them very quickly. One of the big problems of this project is that we couldn't actually test it before we flew it, because it will respond in such a different way. So remember this is about 30 meters across. It's difficult to see the scale in the dark. {Fig.6Fig.6}( The sound that you can hear in the background, are spherics, or whistlers. This is a natural electromagnetic field that can be picked up on your AM radio. Now when it is flashing like this, what they are trying to do is coordinate. Like I said, we couldn't test it, or we couldn't calibrate it before it got into the air, so they had to self-calibrate. Down on the ground are the audience looking up and calling into the cloud {Fig.7Fig.7}. Again, I think these are very beautiful sounds. All of these sounds are natural; they are not processed in any way. And, on the ground, the phone number is projected so the people know what number to call {Fig.8Fig.8}.

This, here in the background, is the Royal Observatory in London. We did this near the Royal Observatory, because that is where the line of GMT is defined. There was actually a laser that defines a zero hour on the planet. Originally, we hoped that we would be able to take this around the world and have every time zone. We hoped we could get a ring of electromagnetic fields around the planet. But it was kind of tiring so we didn't get to do it.

The video is not so good but I think the photographs look more like how it seemed in real life. You can see this change in texture across from ones side to the other. This is the laser I mentioned before, the line of GMT. And this is the Royal Observatory.


This is another project under the theme of the ephemeral, the invisible. In this, it is funny because I have gone so far away from the object to ephemera; there is nothing really to show. There is no video that I can present. It was basically a project about haunted spaces. By haunt, I mean ghosts. It is about the perception of personality in space that we sometimes have, when we get scared of that space. So as an architect, I am interested in the construction of space. And to be interested in the construction of space, you really need to know how we perceive space, how we relate to the space that we inhabit. And it occurred to me that when a psychologist wants to study a brain, they often study someone who is crazy. By studying the difference between the normal and the crazy, you can learn something about the mechanism of the brain. It occurred to me that, as an architect, I should study what this crazy space is, what this anomalistic space is. This is why I got interested in haunted spaces.

So I did a bit of research into this. And it turns out that there is a lot of material explaining how in haunted spaces, there are often high incidents of infrasound. Now, infrasound is a sound that is too low for us to hear. It's not something that we can actually hear directly with our ears, but we can feel it in our bodies. You know, when you go to a drum & bass concert, or to a reggae/dub concert or something, you have this vibration going through your body. That's what infrasound is. Now, at particular frequencies, it can vibrate the body without us really knowing that the body is vibrating. So it can make us ill. Often in haunted spaces, there is this frequency of around 18 to 19 hertz -- that means 18 to 19 cycles per second. And interestingly enough, that frequency is the resonant frequency of the stomach. So with that frequency, you can actually make people start to feel a little bit nauseous, a little bit ill. Also, it can vibrate the eyeball. The eye itself starts to shake. You don't know that the eye is shaking, but what happens is, that the vision gets smeared. And you might see something at the edges -- a sort of shadow. So infrasound is quite interesting. Of course, also in haunted spaces, there are things like humidity: you feel a little bit damp. Your skin feels a little bit strange and the temperature is a little bit cool; combined with the dampness, it makes you shiver. Also there are air movements. All of those things have been correlated with haunted spaces.

And interestingly enough, it turns out as well that in haunted spaces, there is often a very particular complex electromagnetic field. And in psychological experiments, electromagnetic fields have been shown to have two effects. One is to give the sensation of a religious experience: to give the sensation and feeling that there is somebody else there. The second thing -- this is not to do with haunted spaces, this is purely to do with electromagnetic fields -- it is known to do, is to increase the sense of suggestibility. In other words, if you have somebody sitting and reading something, they will believe that more when there's electromagnetic field playing than when it's not. So, actually this is an obvious project. I just found out about all of this from literature indicating the effects of infrasound and electromagnetic field. I was very surprised that nobody had tried this before. I thought, why not take an empty neutral space and add all of these things in, and see if I can make a haunted space.

As I said, there's not really a whole lot to show on this project apart from a video here, with some interviews with people who went in there {Fig.9
}. This man says he felt this space was scary. It was a totally empty room -- there was an electromagnetic coil, and an infrasound speaker, but they were all hidden {Fig.10
, Fig.11
}. He says: "I got a sensation that there's something behind you", "There is this kind of circle where things are happening". This guy says he felt safer in some corners than others. His throat felt tight. He heard a cough behind him, and then a cough in front of him. So, in this project I put 100 people through the experiment: 25 people had electromagnetic field, 25 people had infrasound, 25 people had both, and 25 people had nothing. But of course, they didn't know the condition of the space that they were going into. And we asked them to draw a map of the things that they felt in the space. We were able to see what kind of combinations of phenomena result in what kind of effects. So these maps are interesting; they show the things that people felt {Fig.12
}. There are all sorts of things {Fig.13
, Fig.14Fig.14}: sudden feeling of being watched, swirling patterns, a shadow near the floor, strange ball of lights, "I think I saw a butterfly".

Prev 1  2  3  4 Next

#04-2-2:Collaborative/Non-Specialist Stuff

As I said, things like "Scents of Space" and "Haunt" could easily have been done 50 years ago. There is nothing particularly high-tech about them. There is often a feature of low-tech in my work. It's actually not because I believe so much in low-tech. It is just because I'm not very good at high-tech, so I must do that kind of low-tech stuff. And I have to collaborate, because I need help from other people. I am not a very good designer in a traditional sense. Some people love designing; they can sit down and have 50 beautiful drawings in two weeks. But it's really painful for me to design; it's not a pleasurable process. It's like a really bad 24 hour labor birth, accompanied with pain and anguish; once it comes out I don't even want to see it. It's that kind of difficult thing.

One of the things I'm really influenced by, is a project called "New Babylon" created by an architect called Constant, who only died about 6 or 7 years ago. He was working actively in the 50's with the situationists, which was a group of artists and philosophers and political theorists working mostly in France, but also throughout Europe. Constant was an architect who was affiliated with them. He had this conceptual project for an architecture that would be built around the planet, but not by architects -- it would be built by people themselves. It would be a collage of architecture that will just grow organically around the planet. In fact, he was pre-figuring, pre-imagining what open source really is in a physical and hardware sense. Interestingly enough, he was also talking about things like spaces that are made up by smell and sound. He was also saying that everyone could be an artist, that everyone becomes a productive member of the creation of things. So Constant has always been an important reference for me. Because I think, in a sense, he had actually already done everything I have wanted to do, and I am just filling in the gap.

2-1:"Low Tech"
    "Low Tech" no.1
    "Low Tech" no.2

The first project I will talk about is low-tech. It actually comes out of necessity. For example, this picture shows the work I have done in '95. Actually, now we have BASIC Stamps and we have simple chips, which makes these things much easier. But back in '95, certainly there were no such things and I was so bad with hardware, I was making fire. And so, to make an output system -- I was kind of good at software; software is OK for me -- I made these light sensors on the screen and I just had black and white squares that can switch things on and off with relays. That was the first kind of low-tech approach. I am sure that the designers and artists in the audience probably have also used this system of ripping apart a keyboard to plug things into it, because that makes it very easy to get input into a gear.

This picture shows a project I did in India. I worked with students who were not architects; they were not used to designing space. We were putting together plastic bags and desk fans to create this inflatable thing. It was a collaborative production by people who don't normally design space. It was very interesting because at first they didn't think they were going to be able to do it, but by the end, they felt very confident about being able to design a space. It was quite nice because with very simple material, you could create a space; and you can change it just by a pair of scissors and some cello-tape.

So together with a friend of mine, Adam Somlai-Fischer, who also is working in a similar field, we decided to make a PDF manual for "Low Tech" -- how to take toys, gadgets and cheap devices and hack them for their sensors. Much for this project came from this device that we found in Budapest, which was a cat that we could buy for about \100 {Fig.15Fig.15}. So it is really nice, because these all together only cost about \1,000. We had sound sensors, touch sensors, sound output, electrical output (which make the eyes flash), and with these things we could very quickly start to build simple interactive systems. We took a pen laser, which again, we could get for maybe \200, and if you tie this to a wheel of a remote control car, then you can create a beautiful line around the space. And if you get a whole bunch of them, you can fill the space with this kind of laser field, which reminded me a little bit of the Dumb Type exhibition at ICC about three or four years ago. They had a line of lasers, which was probably very expensive, but we managed to do something similar for maybe \1,500. This is another one. We found out a way to make a very cheap proximity sensor. We did this by using a toy. I'm pretty sure that there is something like this here in Japan. You have this toy gun, and somebody else wears a badge; when you shoot the gun, infrared beam comes out and the badge lights up. So we took the badge, put it next to the gun with a kind of divider in the middle, so that the gun doesn't see the badge. But, when somebody comes forward, then the infrared bounces off them and hits the badge. So by coming forward, it can trigger a cat, which sets off a digital pulse from its eyes to trigger something else.

Our PDF shows how to take apart this cat, and how to make a wireless network out of walkie-talkies and cats and things like that. One of our favorite things was this. It is called a "self-powered remote step sensor". When you are working in public space and wish to have a foot sensor in the middle of the space, it is very difficult because you always have wires coming for data and power. But you just want this isolated object that's doing something. Now with this project, we used one of those generator torches that you can get quite cheaply; to use it, you push the handle and then it lights up the torch. We took the torch, and strapped it into a walkie-talkie {Fig.16Fig.16, Fig.17Fig.17}. So when you step on it, it fires up the walkie-talkie; the walkie-talkie sends a pulse over here; then to the cat, and then it can trigger something else. Actually we are also making a cat computer, by making AND gates and OR gates and things like that. We even made cat memory by stringing lots of cats together.

We made this room which can't be seen so well in this picture, but it was a full-blown "interactive room" responding to sound, mobile phones, foot steps, laser output, steam, and with sound coming out and lights flashing {Fig.18Fig.18}. We had all these kind of things, but our budget was only about \5,000. So this PDF file is available online. It is for free, of course, and now we have this Wiki, where other people can start to add more of these low-tech hacking projects. Actually, there are a lot of these things nowadays. There is "Make Magazine" for instance, and "Instructables", etc.

2-2:"Config.urable T-shirt"
    "Config.urable T-shirt" no.1
    "Config.urable T-shirt" no.2

Now, I will go on to something totally different. Being an architect, I never quite imagined I would design a T-shirt. But a few weeks ago, a Japanese company asked me if I would design a T-shirt to represent my country for the World Cup. Actually, I don't really have a country that I can support for the World Cup, and I am not really a designer, as I said. So I thought what I needed to do, is to design a T-shirt where other people can design how it would look. So, they can decide what country to support, or what flag to draw. Basically, I have a black T-shirt with these pixels on it -- they are blue and yellow. And the idea is that, with a black pen, you can color in the pixels; you can switch them off with a permanent pen, and you can make your own design. And then, there is a web interface where you can prototype your own design and also share it, by adding it to the gallery. You can start to build on other people's design. Of course, if your pen is not a permanent pen, you just wash the T-shirt and it is ready to re-write again {Fig.19Fig.19, Fig.20Fig.20}.

These are some images from the gallery. There are about 350 designs now. And they are amazing, because people came up with all sorts of designs, which I could have never ever imagined. So, somebody did a World Cup T-shirt for Japan. There is a wide range of things. This is one of my favorite "With confidence 2003". This is nice; little flowers. Another World Cup T-shirt "Go Japan". "Welcome to Heaven: Die", and so on and so on. One of the features of the gallery is that, when you click on any one of the pictures, it gets loaded into the interface. Then, you can start to change other people's design and build on it. For example, somebody had done this T-shirt that said "I LOVE YOU", and somebody else came along and changed it to say " I LOVE NEAT -o- rama". This is the actual T-shirt. As I said, I can't design right; so that's what I did. That's my wife's and that's my brother-in-law's {Fig.21Fig.21}. You will see throughout all this collaborative stuff, that it comes from a fear of design. I want to push as much responsibility on other people. It's not really an altruistic thing.

2-3:"Open Burble"
    "Open Burble"

Which leaves me to the last project in this section of collaborative works, the "Open Burble". This actually came from "Sky Ear". Always for me, the problem with "Sky Ear" was the fact that people were far away from the thing that they were supposedly interacting with. There was always a distance. And of course, people really wanted to come up close and manipulate directly, but just because it was so dangerous, they always had to be removed from it.

So, I had this imagined version where people would be holding onto the "Sky Ear" and thrusting it around and shaking it; being able to take it, fly it themselves, move it around in space. At the same time, I had two things at the back of my mind. I always wanted to build "Jack and the Beanstalk". Are you familiar with the story, where this plant goes up into the sky? And also, I had heard about this story of Buddha going down into hell on a spider thread. I liked the idea of being able to climb up and down, or this relationship to the heavens that can make you get up there.

This is a very quick prototype; just trying to build with balloons, a thing that goes up into the sky. And I Photoshoped it to imagine what it would look like when it gets bigger. Basically, with this project, it is much more about the people themselves. I can't really call them an audience now, because they are going to do the work all by themselves. I will give them this module, this kind of unit, which is a carbon-fiber ring with 7 balloons and 7 sensors with the LED things. It is quite a big ring, but it only weighs about 200 grams, so even kids can take them. And the groups in the audience will make these molecules out of the rings. They will assemble them in whatever pattern they want, because they can be clipped together from any direction. Then, all the molecules will come together, assembled into this huge structure, which is 60 meters tall {Fig.22Fig.22,Fig.23Fig.23,Fig.24Fig.24,Fig.25Fig.25,Fig.26Fig.26}.

I am calling it a "burble", which is a complicating word. Burble means, something to do with turbulence. It's a type of turbulence. You say for instance, burbles of air -- the edge of things where the air is chaotic. But also, it is used in another way. When you get so emotional, you can't speak; the words are coming out chaotically and they don't mean anything. That is burbling. So I liked the idea that this thing is a turbulent structure in the sky, which is also coming to life through our voices.

The audience is on the ground, controlling this thing, moving it around. There is no director to tell them where to go with it. And the idea is that, it will go stretching up into the sky, in the shape that they created. This is actually going to be made in Singapore in the beginning of September, for the Singapore Biennale. Of course, they will be moving all over the place; they might be folding in on themselves; they might be shaking the thing, rustling it. And the idea is, while this is happening, the pulses of their movements would be passing up through this cloud, ascending up into the sky, and to the heavens. And at the same time, their voices -- as they yell at this thing -- and the pulse of the sound will be ascending up to heaven. What I am hoping is that people would be screaming at it, yelling at it; maybe even starting to chant, or getting into rhythms. So by the end of the event, they will have this hoarse voice and hopefully have this memory of creating something spectacular.

This is a unit from one of the early prototypes. A carbon fiber structure with cables, and there are these balloons and sensors. And this is a Photoshop version to get an idea of what they might actually look like {Fig.27Fig.27}. As I said, it may look like this, but it might be totally different. The shape depends completely on what the audience produce.

Prev 1  2  3  4 Next

#04-2-3:Cybernetic Stuff

The last category is about cybernetic stuff. Since we're running out of time, I won't go into cybernetics too much, but it is very important for me to understand the original meaning of cybernetics. Which is, as I said in the beginning, the study of control and communication in animal and machine. It is not about trying to say, we must be like machines; it's not this "Matrix" kind of idea of cyberspace etc. It is very simply, about understanding things like this: how do I communicate with you, even though I don't know exactly what you are thinking; how do you communicate with me? This becomes possible because we have this representation of the other and we act as if we understood each other. And we can come together in an agreement because we respond to each other in a way that we think, is consistent. The point about cybernetics is that, you can do this for human beings, for machines, for humans and machines. You can also do this for humans and environments, etc. These projects all come out of an interest in how do we relate to our machines, not in an object sense, but in terms of inter-relationship.


This project started out with me wanting to get a picture of wifi space in the same way that I had earlier tried to understand the space of mobile phones. Wifi networks (wireless networks like you have at home, at the office, and in coffee shops) are all around us, and are increasingly guiding us in our movements in space: indicating where we should sit with our laptops. But they are also creating a personal data space through which other people are moving (and who are able, with the right technology, to view our data spaces). So I began in this project to understand just how this "wifi landscape" varied over a particular space: my apartment. I used my laptop to measure the wifi strength at every point in the apartment at 0.5m intervals, in all 3 dimensions. I walked around my whole flat to find out what wifi texture looked like in there. And there was this one spot where wifi was completely absent. There was no signal at all. It was really interesting to me because there was this cube of absence, cube of no wifi. It occurred to me that it might be a quite interesting subject for me to study. While I was measuring, the other thing I discovered was that my neighbor's network was seeping in. And yet, there was still this space of absence where nothing was coming in.

And I was thinking about the fact that in our cities, our devices are leaking data. If you have the right bit of hardware and technology, anyone can read our mobile phones, sniff our phone conversations, listen through a window, or even discover what channel we are watching on television. And we have satellites viewing us from above, tracking what we do. In a sense, we do not have any private space. Certainly not at home, because that is the one place where we have an address: we cannot be private, because it is so easy to access and identify who we are in that space. So, if I wanted to make a truly private space, I actually have to do it outdoors, in the middle of the city.

This is a conceptual project, where I imagined floating devices that create spaces of absence. {Fig.28Fig.28} So they block off all GPS, wifi, smell, even that really uncomfortable feeling of warmth that is left in a chair by somebody else. This device sort of air-conditions the space, so it really is a zone of privacy and absence. There are no phone calls; they even blur the area so that the security cameras can't see you. And from above, there is this camouflage so that satellites think that there is nobody there. And these things are, of course, constantly moving around and floating. Because if it was tied to one place, then it will always be possible to identify where that place was. So, this is a sketch of how it might be organized {Fig.29Fig.29}. I have actually found an engineer who might help me to work on this, so that is good.

3-2:"Evolving Sonic Environment"
    "Evolving Sonic Environment"

This is actually quite difficult to explain. Let's put it this way. Normally, when you design a piece, you design it so that people can go and experience. The idea is that, there is this thing, and people go to experience it. With this project, we wanted to design a thing that is going to experience the people. I am trying to flip that relationship in space. So when people go into this project, there is nothing really interesting in there to see. But what we are trying to do is, we are working with an artificial intelligence paradigm to look at the perception of the occupancy of the space. So effectively, what we are doing is building a neural net, which functions a little bit like the brain. It develops its own perception of how the people are occupying their space. I told you it's a little bit difficult to explain. Basically, none of these components are programmed. They are all analog components; it is not determined what they are going to do. But because they communicate with sound -- they actually are working with ultrasound -- when people enter into the space, they change the communication parts {Fig.30
}. So the devices have to reconfigure themselves, and in so doing, we can actually demonstrate that it functions very much like a brain does. I will show you a little bit more about that.

These are the devices {Fig.31Fig.31, Fig.32Fig.32}: there is a speaker and a microphone. And at the back, you will see this unit. It is actually quite a simple analog circuit. Of course, I didn't design this; this project was made in collaboration with psychologist and computer scientist Robert Davis, who is a specialist in neural network design. This is a video showing what it's like. Now, maybe some of you can't hear this sound because it's too high; the way that we hear high pitches varies a lot across people. This room is full of this ultrasound and it is constantly varying in texture, in precise frequency; it's actually changing throughout the period of its existence. What you are hearing now, is the same sound in real time, but it is lowered by10 octaves so that we can hear it. Here, we are tracking the frequencies over time, and then comparing how those frequencies match to how the room was occupied. And what we are able to show is that where it's yellow, there is a particular pattern of occupancy. In other words, there is a particular pattern of people in the room. We can then take the lines across, and see what the patterns of frequencies were. And as it turns out, after 2 or 3 days, the room learns, for example, to respond in one way when there is one person entering the room, and respond in another way when there is a different group of people entering the room. It falls into these frequency bands much more quickly.

For example, in this pattern-- I don't remember exactly how many people were there -- you can see that there is a definite beat of frequency. This image shows how it was before it was able to learn, and you see it is more random, more chaotic. This pattern emerged after 3 or 4 days, but only when there was a certain arrangement of people in the room {Fig.33Fig.33}. [note: plate33 is not the exact image shown in this lecture. However, the 3 examples here indicate the changes in the frequency pattern, which is based on how the room is occupied (number of people, length of occupancy, length of emptiness, etc.]

3-3:"Wifi Camera Obscura"
    "Wifi Camera Obscura" no.1
    "Wifi Camera Obscura" no.2

And then, the very last project, "Wifi Camera Obscura". This is a very classical project. A lot of the other works went back 50 years. Now I am going back 500 years, because the principal of the camera obscura is a very old one. It is a collaboration again, with Adam Somlai-Fischer, who I did the "Low-Tech" project with, and Bengt Sjölén, who is a hacker from Sweden.

In the 1600s and the 1700s, visible light was the most important way of representing our environment; of course, I am talking about the west. The notion of the picturesque that was developed in the west was to do with the aesthetics of visual light. Paintings of picturesque scenery were based on visible light, and it also determined the way people arranged their spaces. So people will see a beautiful park, they will paint it. The way they painted it, would affect the way of designing buildings, trying to match this picturesque scenery. The camera obscura was important in this function, because it was a first attempt to create a so-called "objective" view of that space. It was literally a light coming in to illuminate and create images. It's a very simple principal. You have a light source, and you have a dark box with a hole in it. And the light can only come in, in straight lines, and it falls against the back wall and creates an image there.

This image was created by a Cuban photographer. He had darkened out his room, made a hole in the blinds so that the light could come in, and after a long exposure got a beautiful view of the city. So this is a classical notion of the picturesque. But what is picturesque for us these days, is actually these other electromagnetic fields. The radio waves, the wifi waves: these other kind of phenomena that are affecting us. We have not yet decided what picturesque means in this sense. And I will give you an example. In my flat, one door has cut off the wifi network; because of this wifi space, I design my space so that the door is already opened. I design my space so that the table is not over there, where I originally wanted it; because I can't get the network there, I put it over here{Fig.34

With this project, we wanted to get a view -- the aesthetics of this wifi space. And we took just simply, the principle of the camera obscura. We could make a box, which is dark to wifi, in other words a box made of material that doesn't allow wifi in, then make a hole in it for wifi. Then the wifi, which is basically 2.4GHz, will come in straight lines into this box. And along the back end, we can have a big array of sensors. Even just a USB wifi dongle -- with an array of that, we can pick up the signal level of the wifi strength in every point, and create an image of this wifi view. This image will give you a better idea. Concrete is almost opaque to wifi waves. Wood is more transparent. The human body is almost completely transparent: the wifi will completely transmit through us. Brick, tends to reflect the 2.4GHz. By setting up this kind of scene, we can then, with our box, create a wifi view. This is the close-up of the box. You can see the hole here, and an array of sensors along the back. We just used one of those wifi finders, a kind of USB wifi stick; and then there is an array of them. This is the original plan. Of course, this needs a lot of USB sticks; so we had this new idea, which we are going to build next. We used a Pringles can to make an antenna for wifi {Fig.35
}. With this, you can extend the range of wifi, really long. This is because of its particular diameter and length, and it is perfect for focusing the wifi waves. Basically, our plan is to take this Pringles can and scan the view. Instead of having a lot of pixels, we will just have a scanner to create a real time view of this wifi space. We may also use this, which is a frying thing for vegetables; that should work well for focusing wifi.

So the result will be something like this. A traditional camera obscura would show this kind of image: {Fig.36
} a person standing, the bricks, the walls, the wifi access point. This image shows what we think, roughly, you might see in such a space with the wifi camera obscura {Fig.37
}. The access point is really bright; wifi is bouncing off the ceiling, off the back wall, and off the bricks in the middle. The wood is slightly illuminated but it probably is slightly transparent. Of course, the body is going to be completely transparent. Except, we have no idea what happens with the bones; whether it's like an X-ray and you actually see the bones, or whether it's sort of a strange smudge. This, we will not know for another couple of months.

[This project is ongoing and currently called gWifi Camerah]
Thank you very much.
(transcription: Nozawa Tomoyo)

Usman Haque website: *Haque Design + Research

Prev 1  2  3  4 Next discussion