Please mind the gag

Paul Raven @ 04-05-2011

Continuing my fascination with the non-destructive redecoration of urban public spaces, here’s something very Brit-centric – indeed, very London-centric, though I expect similar culturehacks would (and probably already do) take place in other metropoli. Stickers On The Central Line does what it says on the tin, using the familiar names and iconography of tube maps to poke fun at topical issues [via Duncan Geere]. Some of the gags may be a bit too Brit for non-citizens to grok, but some of them are pretty universal:

Central Line tube map sticker hack

I’m going to be heading to London a lot more frequently in the near future, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for these. If anyone knows of similar satires in other cities around the world, please pipe up in the comments! Might be fun to do a compilation post…


Another ‘soft’ graffiti form: thread tagging

Paul Raven @ 31-03-2011

A definite close cousin to yarnbombing, thread tagging looks to be a way to make anti-burglary grilles a little less grim:

Threaded graffiti on anti-burglary grille

Via Lauren Beukes. To reiterate, what’s important here (at least to me) isn’t the criminality or otherwise of urban vandalism/redecoration, it’s the sudden expansion of its forms and practitioners beyond the traditional “angry young men with spraycans” demographic; that’s a profound cultural shift whose meaning has yet to fully play out.

I mean, look at my own word choices in the headline: ‘soft’ resonates with attributes considered feminine – nurturing, decoration, gentleness – whereas ‘graffiti’ conjures images of male aggression/destruction. A core dualism of Western culture is being subverted here, albeit in interstitial and largely apolitical urban spaces… but then, change tends to start out on the edges of things, after all.


Yarnbombers

Paul Raven @ 24-03-2011

Maybe not the most obviously futurismic topic I’ve posted in a while, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to mention yarnbombing, as covered by the charming folk at the Interstitial Arts Foundation:

My knitting group has been doing this for a while […] We’ve knitted flowers to wrap around bike racks, animals for a light post in front of the Animal Rescue League, Christmas ornaments to hang from trees in the park, insects to put on a fence at a dog park, and more. Today we were covering cement rings with brightly colored bits of knitting that we had loosely based around a “Spring” theme. Mine looks like a little bee, and I sewed it around a ring while people from the community watched and took pictures.

So what are we doing, and why are we doing this? The short answer is “sharing our art” and “because it’s fun.” There’s a longer answer about the importance of art being shared in a community, about art being public, about making a statement that people can add to or change as they see fit, but really, it’s fun. People in the South End of Boston, where we focus our efforts, love what we do. It’s a way to brighten up a public spot, and the people passing by today were really excited to see that we were doing something new. A little girl stopped with her family, and ended up helping some of my co-conspirators with the installation. How often does a kid get to say that while they were out walking in the park, they got to help with a public art installation? It’s a fascinating thing to me, that something like this can almost turn into performance art. People chat with us, they share stories about our other installations that touched them, they take pictures, it’s like an impromptu festival.

I’ve long defended the artistic validity of “traditional” graffiti (or, to be precise, the mural-scale tradition of graffiti that stemmed from NY hip-hop culture, rather than the simple scribbling of names on walls) because it represents something important: the reclamation of public space by the otherwise-voiceless public, and a testing of the boundaries of what “public space” actually means in the modern city – which, in many cases, is basically your right to go there at certain approved times, to engage in a certain limited set of legitimate activities, and to be advertised or marketed to.

Defending graffiti is a prickly subject, because it’s hard to get past the “destruction or defacement of public or private property” angle. The usual semantic come-back is that it’s actually “(re)decoration” of a public space, and that’s far easier to defend in the case of yarnbombing, a much softer artform (in both senses of the word). But furthermore, yarnbombing – intentionally or otherwise – reclaims and rehabilitates that urge to redecorate public spaces; the graffiti artist is too easily framed as a component of criminal gang culture and a destructive force in the urban environment, but those attacks dissolve when turned on the yarnbombers… which leaves the question open: is it the graffiti artist’s urge to redecorate his environment without asking permission that is repellent, or is it the [black-rooted, young, male, working class, outsider] culture from which [s]he springs that causes the true offence?


Portugal plans ‘smart’ eco-city

Paul Raven @ 12-10-2010

OK, so ‘smart’ is a persistently misused word in the modern context (my smartphone isn’t smart; damn thing can’t hold a decent conversation for more than a minute or two), but nonetheless: the northern end of Portugal will, if all goes to plan, play host to a designed and networked ecological city, wired to the gills with sensors and systems to control the consumption of energy and water. Unsurprisingly (and in keeping with the general trends in ecological product marketing) it has a stupid smug pun of a name:

Like other sustainable cities, PlanIT Valley will treat its own water and tap renewable energy. Buildings will also have plant-covered roofs, which will reduce local temperature through evapotranspiration, as well as absorbing rainwater and pollutants.

Yet that is where the similarities with other eco-cities end, according to its makers Living PlanIT based in Paredes. For a start, PlanIT Valley will be built closer to existing transport links than the likes of Masdar. More significantly, its “brain” will use data collected from a network of sensors akin to a nervous system to control the city’s power generation, water and waste treatment (see “Brains and nervous system”). It’s a kind of “urban metabolism”, says Steven Lewis, chief executive of Living PlanIT.

While this network of sensors sounds expensive, the cost of installing it will be offset by using more efficient building techniques.

Rather more utopian and blue-sky than the Cisco city-in-a-box, then, which – one presumes – focusses more closely on the infrastructural bang for the buck required in the rowing economies of Asia than on touchy-feely eco-gubbins; one suspects some sort of mid-point between the two might be an ideal worth aiming for.

While PlanIT Valley is obviously a well-meaning project, the designed city doesn’t have a wonderful history of successes, at least not here in the UK; anyone who has ever visited Milton Keynes will know what I’m trying to say here. As pointed out in the article above, it’s all very well to build a technological marvel of an urban space, but all bets are off until people move in and actually start building a community there… and as even the most casual student of utopias will be aware, it’s usually the people that cause the problems rather than the buildings that house them.

[ Why, yes, I am feeling rather pessimistic today – how did you guess? ]


Cisco’s City-in-a-Box for the Asian expansion

Paul Raven @ 10-06-2010

Most urban environments have accreted gradually over decades and centuries, but the changing economies of the Far East demand modern city infrastructure for millions of people where none existed before, and fast. Enter Cisco Systems, the network hardware people, and their new ‘product’: an off-the-shelf city suitable for a million fully-wired inhabitants [via @BLDGBLOG].

Delegations of Chinese government officials looking to purchase their own cities of the future are descending on New Songdo City, a soon-to-be-completed metropolis about the size of downtown Boston that serves as a showroom model for what is expected to be the first of many assembly-line cities. In addition to state-of-the-art information technology, Songdo will emit just one-third of the greenhouse gases of a typical city of similar size.

[…]

It’s easy to see why Cisco is intoxicated with the possibilities: According to a study by investment bank CIBC World Markets, governments are expected to spend $35 trillion in public works projects during the next 20 years. In Songdo alone, Cisco sold 20,000 units of its advanced video conferencing system called Telepresence – a billion-dollar order – almost before the ink had dried on the contract, said developer Stan Gale, the chief visionary of the project.

“Everything will be connected – buildings, cars, energy – everything,” said Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s Bangalore-based chief globalization officer. “This is the tipping point. When we start building cities with technology in the infrastructure, it’s beyond my imagination what that will enable.”

Environmental efficiency and digital infrastructure can only be good things to include in a from-scratch city, but one can’t help but wonder if these places will suffer from the same coldness and lack of character that Brutalist urban planning scattered across Europe in the post-war years. The designed environment is an old, old concept in architecture, but it’s one that has never really delivered on its utopian promises.

But given the migrant magnetism of urban areas in Asia (and the Global South, as well, where Cisco’s cities may well find another place to call home), we can expect a rapid accretion of undesigned and emergent occupation and use to crop up in the interstices, in the spaces in between. How long will that take? How successfully will the designed city (and its ecosystem of law enforcement and local government) resist (or embrace) such end-user hacking? Lots of fresh data for psychogeographers coming down the pipeline…


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