plaza in space

Here at [Re_Map] we’re not just about future visions and computation and an interesting exchange with a historian of technology this week brought together some thoughts, conversations and recent archive footage, of which we had been in receipt, to make this rumination. The historian in question had been to visit RAF Barnham where the Blue Steel nuclear deterrent was stored until 1963. His observations included one concerning the plan of the outer perimeter that had unnecessarily assumed a pentagonal plan, a type of fortification that stretches back to the C14 to contain C20, state of the art, weaponry. The point being that the act of ‘design’ in technology can be seen to be frequently referential to earlier forms and methods, as some sort of default and even in the most extreme of circumstances.

Much has been made, in architectural circles, of ‘interactivity’ and of designed ‘intervention’ in the public realm. One has to ask is this at the expense or in lieu of ‘decoration’? There has been a physical and metaphorical ‘flattening’ of the city in its vertical plane. Relief in facades, over the course of the twentieth century, has diminished, though depth has not necessarily receded in the same way, as new double-skinned solutions emerge to try and affect climate change and carbon reduction. Interactivity in material and built terms is often an applied surface with a variety of environmentally responsive reactions that may include automata, light or sound and in all probability began to emerge from museum display and theme park technologies. The augmenting of reality with some new form of audio-visual encounter that crosses the real-virtual divide is a difficult territory to discuss critically in a blog post – the question as to whether it is even worthy of discourse would have to answered first; are these types of experience in the public realm simply ‘entertainment’? Should we expect the continued Disneyfication of reality as we continue to be great consumers? The role of the ‘image’ in the urban landscape is also an essay in its own right, these are not questions to be answered here.

More exactly here is the fact that ‘interactivity’ and ‘responsive art’ is not new and attributable to the rise of the Arduino and other prototyping platforms. The cyberneticians of the 1960s were all investigating such and the Jasia Reichardt curated exhibition of 1968 at the ICA is now seen as pivotal in bringing together creative from various disciplines around the ideas of interactive, generative and responsive art. Somewhere, amidst the maelstrom of unfettered creativity that seems, from this distance, to characterise the late 1960s was an artist known as William (Bill) Mitchell.

Bill Mitchell explains the setting for his illuminated art on the narrow side of Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester.

Mitchell doesn’t classify himself as an artist, in his words, “I’m a doer, I like doing things, making, and art gave me the opportunity to do that.” His output from the 1950s onwards was prolific and he pioneered new techniques in casting, blasting, moulding and formwork using concrete, plaster, glass, ceramics, rubber and other self-prepared compounds. It is this large scale and ‘machined’ art for which Mitchell is most well known, but his sparkling imagination would not confine him to ‘sculpture’ in the conventional sense (despite his unconventional approach), he found himself concerned with the “brashness” of applied illuminated advertising in places like Piccadilly Circus and set about finding a way to control the arrays to combat the pollution by disorganised agglomerations of neon. He set his sights on the growing tower of Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester, eventually subject to a suitably futuristic marketing campaign which saw it branded as the ‘Hotel in Space’. Footage sent by Mitchell to [Re_Map] shows him describing the context in which the new building sits as being formed mostly from a “bus station and lots of extraneous matter like trees, not very good trees”. He wanted to develop a design for a “flexible, sort of piece of drawing paper, that you draw on with light” that would cover the entirety of the narrow side of the new tower and would face Piccadilly Gardens.

Text from publicity brochure for Piccadilly Plaza. Held at Salford Local Studies & Archives.

Mitchell’s own working model of sensors and activated bulbs.

The 300ft x 65ft façade was to be covered with 16,000 photoelectric cells in panels each of 11ft in height to align with the floor-to-floor dimensions of the tower. The photoelectric cells when subjected to a signal, in this case light, would activate bulbs in a panel of a different scale, but the same gauge; there was a sensor for every bulb.

Mitchell stands in front of a full scale mock up panel. The model on the left is a scale model of the tower and the small white rectangle represents a single panel.

Mitchell was as much an inventor as a designer or artist and in his studio he mocked up a ‘Heath Robinson’ version of his idea using a  “home movie outfit” and sensors and circuits he had put together himself as well as a full scale mock up panel and models of the building.

The footage shows Mitchell explaining his role and that he then “had to get somebody who could put two wires together”. That someone was “Mr. Parker”, though we never discover where Mr. Parker came from. To produce a picture they needed to generate half tones using thyristors on the circuit boards, it was this sort of knowledge that Mr. Parker brought to the project. It is unclear from the footage whether indeed this was a commission to build or to experiment or just something that the energetic Mitchell decided to do. The conclusion of the footage states that the developer, Bernard Sunley, has yet to decide whether or not to stump up the £180 000 required to realise the dream – obviously he turned it down. It is also not certain whether the lights would be in lieu of the circuit board relief panels that were eventually used on the end walls of the tower.

Mr. Parker demonstrates his more sophisticated model that can produce half tones.

The possible application did not stop there, architect Gerry Matthews of Covell & Matthews thought that Blackpool promenade would be the ideal location for a similar set up based on two screens and outdoor amphitheatre adjacent the promenade. At the new Curzon Cinema in Mayfair Mitchell switched the light sensors for audio sensors and generated kaleidoscopic ambient projections that were years ahead of their time.

In this short film is encompassed a mass of ideas and latent commentaries that are contemporary in the twenty-first century; the notion of brand and its impact upon the city, the idea of reactive and responsive environments, the role of art in the public realm, kaleidoscopic urbanism and electronic art to name but a few. Mitchell is an intriguing character who is currently penning his own biography and this will undoubtedly yield more evidence of the innovation embodied in his practice.

navigating data/cityscapes

The authors were invited to present at the international conference, Royal Geographical Society Annual International Conference 2010: Confronting the Challenges of the Post-Crisis Global Economy and Environment, in London, UK on 3rd September. The paper, ‘Digital Networks: between open source mobility and closed loop assemblages’, responds to what a number authors have referred to as the ‘network city’ via an increasing abstraction of space coupled with the continual erosion of place. This has precipitated a number of effects on social and cultural activity and respective communities, most significantly, the original nature of the public realm within the built environment as both a receptive and reflexive domain appears to now be located in digital networks that permeate contemporary life rather than physical conditions. The ubiquity of technology across our daily communication and other exchanges as a correlation of increased growth of broadband in the developed world and the global continuum facilitated by mobile phones, has become manifest in readily accessible, ever-present networks that not only challenge our ideas and experience of place but have precipitated an evolution in relationships of time and distance. In addition, these digital infrastructures afford the connectivity and mobility of communities with niche interests to be networked in an unprecedented manner. Who operates across this territory, how and why? The schism between the high degree of connectivity that permeates the digital networks versus the increasingly fragmentary nature of the physical urban condition has provided a rich geography for exploitation for artists, communities and sub-cultures who are involved in navigating this ‘inbetween landscape.’ A range of case studies were used to illustrate such negotiations and subversions of urban space and their implications for an increasingly hybridised public domain that seeks to explore digital and physical boundaries.

isolative urbanism: an ecology of control

Image by Will Riley exploring notion of BAE Systems as local authority

Friday 9th October 2009 saw the official book launch of Isolative Urbanism: an ecology of control, co-edited by Richard Brook and Nick Dunn. The book is the first published research output from the [Re_Map] unit and the essays collected together are concerned with the relationship between urban conditions and space, public and private. In particular, the book has a primary focus on how the ownership of space is demarcated, enclosed, implied and enforced. This situation is heightened and accentuated in the context of a town with a singular economic force, particularly when said force is the manufacturer of military hardware. As the essays establish a general view of their focus, they also make explicit the manner in which their area of study may be considered in the context of Barrow in Furness.

Increasingly the design of (public) space is concerned with the control of that space, its visual permeability, its surveillance and the capacity for crowd control. It is the proximity of digital and real space that is testing these realities and challenging the convention of behavioural patterns. The question of what constitutes community, networked and residual space is of concern here as are devices of appropriation, enclosure, severance, fragmentation, and cultural identification of space. With this in mind, the essays gathered here seek to address the various mechanisms of control within contemporary urban conditions in relation to three key areas of discourse: Policy, Utopia and Globalisation.

Reactive policy development, that attempts to define spatial configurations and legislate for functions within designated systems, is instrumental in the negotiation of boundaries between physical and socio-economic territories. The first section of this book therefore concerns itself with the future development of policy, typically establishing a framework within which the extremities of political governance can be tested in relation to various scenarios. The question of what may constitute the future of urbanism is often inseparable from the concept of utopia, against which the radical reorganisations of extant conditions are investigated and evaluated. This builds upon a basis of policy and as such the second section of this book relates to research wherein the focus is to apply idealised regulatory systems to analyse emergent or enhanced strategies for urban space. Beyond these immediate contextual relationships are the connections to a wider environment whether physical, economic or social. It is the identification of potentially lucrative integration with a globalised market, and the corresponding repositioning of Barrow-in-Furness in relation to this, that underpins the third and final section of the book. The generation and adaptation of new and existing industries that may assure the future of the town is developed through a range of research methods and synthesised to address the problems of isolative urbanism.

debranding the city

During a recent research trip to New York the authors were made aware of a project which sought to reclaim some of the visual public domain. On 25 April 2009, 30 participants whitewashed nearly 120 street level billboards in broad daylight. These were subsequently used as blank canvases for artists and members of the public to produce public rather than corporate messages. In total the advertisements covered approximately 29,450 square feet of the public environment.  The map below illustrates the  illegal or unpermitted NPA City Outdoor locations located in Lower Manhattan. The question of what constitutes spatial demarcation and legal activity is further raised by this type of intervention.

These are the results:
-Yellow locations were were not a part of this project
-Blue dots indicate locations that were painted white
-Red dots indicate locations that recieved artwork

More images of the individual works can be found here.