In the air of Madrid

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Ever since we organised Doors of Perception 3 on the theme “info-eco” in 1995, we’ve been preoccupied by the dilemma of environmental data. Our world is awash in eco information, we concluded then, but starved of meaning.
In the worlds of science and policy, hundreds of organisations churn out a flood of reports, graphs, studies, punditry – and lists – but our collective behaviour does not seem to change at all.
What would it take, we asked, to monitor and measure our planet’s true condition – its vital signs – in real time.
Over the years since then, a variety of sometimes beautiful perceptual aids has been designed to help us understand the conditon of the invisible natural systems that surround us. The latest, In the Air, is a visualization project which aims to make visible the microscopic and invisible agents of Madrid´s air (gases, particles, pollen, diseases, etc), to see how they perform, react and interact with the rest of the city.
The Madrid team track five of the key pollutants that most detrimentally effect health and quality of life:
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) Carbon monoxide (CO) Nitrogen oxide (NO) Particulate PM10 and Ozone (03.
As well as the visualization, In The Air includes a prototype “diffuse façade” at in Medialab-Prado. There, water vapor diffusors inform passers how much of each component in the air.
[The water vapour mildly cleans the air as and the the water dye/colorant is organic – so the installation does not add contaminants to the atmosphere].
The next step is to integrate the prototype into the entire facade of a building. At this scale multiple pollutants could be monitored and displayed at the same time, allowing for more complexity in the visualization. The building would become “a 24 hour active indicator of environmental conditions, blurring architecture with atmosphere, informing and mediating the bodies that come into contact with it”.
In the Air is on display at Medialab-Prado in Madrid through January 11th. Its creator is Nerea Calvillo “along with the best team possible”

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Look – or connect?

Each year 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness and on any given night, over 700,000 people are without a roof. In Houston alone, some 15,000 homeless people live in abandoned buildings, on cardboard makeshift beds, under freeways, and in shelters throughout the city.
In Western Europe, too, the number of homeless people is at its highest level in 50 years. Homelessness has reached levels not seen since the end of World War II – and this is before the main impact of public spending cuts has been felt on social housing.
In a photography and book project called Shelter Henk Wildschut documents found shelters: roped-up and tarped in Calais, cardboard-boxed in Patra, thinly-sheeted sheds in Malta, found-objects collaged in Almeria, and simply under trees in Rome.
But who is in them?
Susan Sontag’s Regarding The Pain of Others reflected on the role of war photography in shaping how noncombatants respond to its human cost – or not, if they have become numbed.
Sontag questioned the way that fragments of the world were often torn from their context and history, and mixed together in a way that Sontag compared to surrealism. “That kind of promiscuous aestheticizing of experience”, she wrote, “makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”
Do contemporary images teach us about suffering, Sontag famously asked, or do they numb us over time and simply cause us to turn away?
Sontag’s question is a live one today. Human beings are labelled loosely as “the homeless”- but we seldom learn who ‘they’ are.
Happily there are exceptions. In Seattle, Erika Schultz, has documented what she calls Invisible Families. Parents with children are the fastest growing yet least visible sector of the homeless population. Families stay hidden away — doubling up with friends or staying in emergency shelters.
Schultz gives a name and a narative to her work. The above image is accompanied by a caption: “Here, Jack Ahern, aged nine, marches with a bamboo stick while staying at a city, located in Skyway. Sometimes, Jack would enlist fellow “Nickelodeons” to help him look for worms. On other days, he’d play on a pogo stick, in mud puddles or with the resident camp kitten that had six digits on one paw. The bamboo stick was a gift”.
In a recent combined oral history and photography show in Minneapolis, Homeless is my address not my name visitors learn more than usual about the people in the portraits. Underneath about a third of the portraits are phone numbers visitors can call to hear the person in the picture tell their story. These recordings begin with their name, and where they stayed last night.
But bad journalistic habits are hard to break. The headline on the Seattle Times website still reads: “Voices of the homeless featured in photography show”.
This writer is ill-equipped to add new insight to the ethics of photojournalism. [An online book called Photojournalism An Ethical Approach covers the ground well; and a study commissioned by the University of Illinois lists some two dozen different codes and guidelines]
But with an exhibition of artists’ and photography books opening this week in Paris, the position of ‘the other’ in such work is as alive as ever: Is it enough for these images to be striking? Or is there a danger, as we we saw with climate porn that we will become sensitized?
Perhaps even those are self-centered concerns. Perhaps we should judge these images not by what they make *us* feel, but by the extent to which they cause to connect, one-to-one, with the people they portray.

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Is an environmentally neutral car possible?

The future of the car has been electric for what? Five years now? ten? The answer is 110 years, for it was back in 1899 that La Jamais Contente (“The Never Satisfied”) became the first vehicle to go over 100 km/h (62 mph) at Achères, near Paris.
Since then, as we produced hundreds of millions non-electric cars – and despoiled the biosphere in the process – all manner of non-petrol cars, including electric ones, have come and gone.Tesla in the the US and Norway’s Think are just the latest in a long line of newcomers.
They, too, will fail to break the grip of the gas guzzler for one reason: they do not challenge the production system and business model of an incumbent global industry that is so mature that it can only make incremental changes as new pressures arise. Electric cars such as Tesla fall into this category: they are an incremental improvement, not a replacement for an ecocidal global industry.
This writer has long been sceptical that small private vehicles would have an important role to pay in a sustainable mobility mix. But Riversimple has made me pause for thought.
At a presentation in Leicester, UK, last month, where a deal has been struck with the City Council for 30 vehicles to be piloted there in 2012, we were told that the formal purpose of this new start-up is “to build and operate cars for independent use whilst systematically pursuing elimination of the environmental damage caused by personal transport”.
Not reduce but *eliminate* environmental damage? How could that be possible?

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Of popes, pixels, and micropayments

Before Twittter, a serious connoisseur might study the Mona Lisa for 20 years before reaching a conclusion. Today, the average museum visitor looks at a work of art for 42 seconds.
Now 45 seconds is a long time compared to the 11 seconds that most shares are owned by high frequency trading machines. But for the Popes of culture and media, who met last week for the third Avignon Forum, this shallow cultural scanning is a reprehensible downside of ‘culture for everyone’ – theme of this year’s gathering. (My report from last year’s Forum is here).
The popes perked up when anthropologist Arjun Appadurai told them to think of culture as a “tool for managing uncertainty” and when Frederic Mitterand, the French minister of culture, described the digital age as a ‘cognitive revolution…a new ecology of mind.’
French elites have good historical reasons to be nervous about revolting masses. As today’s masses reflect on the heavy price they must now pay for their masters’ gambling habit, culture as “a way of organizing people’s understanding” has obvious attractions.
“What are the new channels for transmission?” a policy panjandrum asked – entranced, or so it sounded, by the prospect of hooking up citizens to Seresta-dispensing cultural drips.
As if on cue, a band called Playing For Change invited us to sing along sweetly to the words of Bob Marley:”Let’s Get Together and Feel Alright”.
] Follow the money

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Unplugged, but not alone

I was snooty in suggesting, in my comment on Doug Rushkoff’s new book, that he should get out of the city more.
But if I’m an armchair tree-hugger, Stephanie Smith is the real thing.
Two months ago, this former architect abandoned her Los Angeles life for a new one in her shack in Joshua Tree, Southern California. The story of what happened next is reported in her Unplugged diary.
Smith’s homesteader cabin sits on a five acre parcel “across the road from the house she just gave back to the bank”.
One reason I’m gripped by Unplugged Diary is that my daughter Kate and I visited the area a couple of years back. It was a three hour drive from downtown LA – and we made the whole trip using these directions, made for us by Stephanie, which I keep proudly on my office wall here in France:
That trip was also memorable because I was fined $350 by a huge and terrifying local cop for overtaking a school bus on this otherwise empty road to Stephanie’s shack:

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Design steps to heaven

I recently visted Luzern, in Switzerland, for a workshop at thethe oldest art and design school in Switzerland, Hochschule Luzern.
My host, Andy Polaine had asked me to set students in the first semester of the MA Design a challenge.
The task I gave them was as follows: find a neglected asset somewhere in Luzern, and design a service to increase its value to the city.
As the workshop began, I assumed that some groups of students would focus on the city’s new cultural centre [photo above]. Designed by Jean Novel, the building had taken twenty years to conceive and plan. With an overhanging roof 35m 100 feet) above the ground, the building had cost the city 130 million euros to build.
This was an iconic building with a capital “I”. I thought it must surely have potential as the focus of some new kind of civic activity.
But then a strange thing happened. When I asked the students what they thought of their new centre, they pronounced it to be “quite nice” – and hastened on to tell me stories about other features of the city that they had found more engaging to work with.
The first joint winner was called ‘Straight way to heaven’.
The team had identified a church as their neglected asset,and proposed to increase its value as a meeting place by opening it up to bouldering in the city.
The group did not expect the church authorities to be thrilled by their idea, but our jury found their service communication to be so engaging that they were made joint winners.
The second winning project in Luzern, Graveyard Alive, was especially enchanting. The group had discovered that the city’s Friedhof Cemetary contained a lot of as-yet-unused space.
They came up with a sublime closed-loop service concept: offer people the opportunity to donate their bodies, once buried, as nutrients to save endangered plants and cultivate biodiversity.
The group had already talked with workers in the graveyard [in favour] and identified a leading Swiss seed bank ProSpecieRara to provide the seeds.
The next step is to sign up the first customers….
Bouldering in the City/Straight Way to Heaven was the work of: Christoph Gabathuler, Myriam Gämperli, Erika Frankhauser Schürch and Antonio Russo
Graveyard Alive was the work of: Nadine Bucher, Anete Melece and Dominik Büeler

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Leave nothing but footsteps

Three years ago German photographer Thomas Kalak published a book called Thailand – Same same, but different!.
Featuring all manner of bamboo scaffolding, knotted aerial lines, hand painted signs, or converted plastic bags, the book celebrated the Thais’ exceptionally gifted art of improvisation.
The strange objects and arrangements reminded Kalak of art world “ready-mades” from the beginning of the 20th century.
They reminded me that salvage society is not a future prospect that will happen when peak-everything hits home. Untold millions of people subsist on the detritus of industrial society right now.
Now Kalak has published a new book,Weltstücke: World Trip Goodies
‘Weltstücke’ features rare, bizarre, and exceptional souvenirs collected by the photographer during his ceasless travels.
‘Take nothing but memories’ Kalack concludes, and ‘and leave nothing but footsteps’.

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From Easter Island to Three Mile Island

You don’t need to know how a combustion engine works to drive your car to work. Why should you need to know anything about the programming behind the pixels just to get around the web?
For Douglas Rushkoff, in his new book Program or be Programmed, the answer is that the web is different.
‘It’s both medium and content’, he writes; the real question is, ‘do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it?’
Choose the former, Rushkoff contends, and you ‘gain access to the control panel of civilization.’
I’m not so sure. Gain access to the control panel of Three Mile Island would be a better comparison.
Rushkoff believes that we are moving into ‘an increasingly digital reality.’ Therefore we must learn not just how to use programs, but how to make them.
But this progressive-sounding proposition is based on a dangerous assumption: that ‘digital reality’ is all encompassing, and is the only one on offer.
As Jarred Diamond explained in his book Collapse, one reason societies fail is that their elites are insulated from the negative impact of their own actions.
On Easter Island, the focus of Diamond’s book, the overuse of wood products eventually destroyed its inhabitants’ survival prospects. And they didn’t even notice they were doing so until it was too late.
This lesson applies equally to us, today. We are bewitched, as a culture, by just one element of the world around us: its digital overlay.
Thus bewitched, we waste astronomical amounts of energy and resources without even realizing it.
Thus bewitched, we are destroying the biosphere upon which all life, including our own, depends.
Think digitally, Rushkoff suggests, and we will be able to ‘see beyond social conventions and power structures that have vexed us for centuries’.
I believe the opposite to be the case. Think digitally, and we will perceive only what the power structures want us to perceive.
Doug Rushkoff is a great writer, but he needs to get out of town more.
He needs to hug a tree.

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A lesson from Cornwall

Shortly after my visit to Oslo I received this question from Andrea Siodmok: “what from Cornwall should the world know about?”.
The director of Dott Cornwall is preparing an exhibit to celebrate the achievements of this fascinating region in south west England, and wanted me to contribute a suggestion.
Andrea did not specify that the thing from Cornwall should be man-made, so I nominated the golden hair lichen.
I’ve always loved lichen. I found this one in Cornwall’s Biodiversity Action Plan, and chose it as a beautiful asset that already exists in the county.
The stated ambition of Cornwall, in the the far south west of England, is to become a “green peninsular”. It’s an evocative concept, but,as I wrote here, people there interpret the word “green” in different ways.
My interpretation is that lichens are among the beautiful things with which the world’s ’empty’ spaces – of the kind we discussed in Norway – are filled.
Lichen are an under-appreciated example of how a restorative economy can replace the extractive one we have now. Gunther Pauli reminded recently me that mining – which played a big part in Cornwall’s economy – is one of humanity’s most brutal interventions.
Armed with dynamite, and consuming massive amounts of water and energy, we extract minute concentrations of minerals from the depths of the earth.
Lichens, in contrast, are capable of extracting specific inorganic molecules like magnesium from rocks and trees – but they require zero fossil-based energy to do what they do – and leave their environment better than they found it.
The most entrancing scenario for me is the idea of replacing mining with lichen. I don’t know how this might happen, but I’m convinced that lichens, including this charming one from Cornwall, have much to teach us.

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