Alternative Approaches to Representing Knowledge in the Human Environment

How is knowledge represented in the environments that surround us? What messages are best promoted, most compelling, or most sophisticated? The impact of our knowledge environments is becoming more apparent as economies become increasingly information-driven and facing our global challenges relies on reliable knowledge. On the scale of the individual, knowledge environments influence the thoughts and feelings that we act upon.


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So much of what a civilization does, internally and externally, is defined by how it handles information: the degree to which it is controlled, the emphasis placed on discovering new knowledge, and ultimately how knowledge becomes embedded cultural wisdom.

Historically, civilizations have produced special artifacts to contribute to building culture from key knowledge they (usually, their leaders) believed was essential. The ideas of the Catholic Church were famously promulgated by the art and architecture in Florence, and the sand paintings of the Navajo people of North America express spiritual ideas that form core beliefs of their culture. In the present-day United States, however, the two best funded, most visually arresting and ubiquitous informational artifacts are not intended to increase cultural wisdom. Instead, commercial advertising and entertainment share the purpose of producing revenue. Social psychologist Albert Bandura's social learning theory advanced our understanding of how signals embedded in people's environments impact individuals' beliefs, attitudes and, ultimately, behaviors. [1] With their ability to dominate the public messaging environment, commercially motivated interests purchase determinant influence on social norms. Advertising in the US is a $400 billion a year industry. For over one hundred years it has employed not only highly skilled message and image-makers, but psychologists, anthropologists and more recently, neuroscientists, to produce highly sophisticated persuasion schemes. [2] These have had a cummulative, synergistic effect on socially normal beliefs and attitudes that many believe is out of line with wisdom. [3] In contrast, media that could contribute to valuable cultural knowledge is severely under-resourced. Hollywood films routinely cost 1,000 times as much to produce as educational programming ($100 million, versus $100 thousand per product). Broadcast venues have been commercially controlled, leaving negligible room for social concerns. Even when educational or prosocial programming proves to be commercially successful (as was the case with the well-known 1977 television series Roots, or producer Norman Lear's series All in the Family) the industry eschews socially motivated endeavors. [4] Such commercial control of the airwaves sets the US apart from other developed countries from Britain to South Africa to Nepal, where governments reserve significant parts of the broadcast spectrum for prosocial and educational programming.

The proliferation of inexpensive, high quality production tools and the open venues of the Internet and mobile networks now allow alternative and valuable information artifacts to be created and to enter the cultural discourse. Evading both state and commercial attempts to control or bury them, such artifacts can ignite political change and also serve the quieter mechanisms of cultural evolution such as the slow growth of common wisdom.

For over ten years, transdisciplinary collaboration between the Imaging Research Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the media research and development firm, InfoCulture, LLC and other researchers from the US and Canada has led to experimentation with new forms of knowledge to test how contemporary media tools and venues might best be used for social goals. Each of the three projects described below is aimed at learning how to engage a population in knowledge that might help them improve their health, education and wellbeing.


Like nearly everyone, young people want to feel as good as they can for as long as they can. They want to know how to survive and thrive emotionally. In the US, despite that the pursuit of happiness is a founding ideal, young people are typically provided little knowledge of what helps the brain sustainably produce chemical rewards. Neuroscience and psychology literature as well as the experience of psychiatric clinicians support that when a person commits to the pursuit of meaning and engagement as a way to achieve the most positive emotional states, the euphoric effect meets or surpasses that produced by mood altering drugs or adrenalin-producing high-risk behaviors, but also is sustainable. However, for lack of that wisdom prevailing in socially normal thinking people engage in more destructive pursuits - a problem that has increased human suffering and plagued societies around the world for decades or longer.

To find a way to engage young people in considering the pursuit of meaning and engagement, the US's National Institutes of Health funded The Euphoria Project. Artists and filmmakers worked with neuroscientists to develop content. It became clear that profound discoveries that had been made about the brain had not entered mainstream thought from which young people were taking cues. Specifically, in addition to the neurochemical rewards of pursuing meaning and engagement, such a pursuit and the rewards it supplies feed off each another in a feedback loop - suggesting to young people that the effort they might expend will be multiplied when returned. Further, the sheer power, complexity and beauty of even a single neuron firing, combined with the astronomical number of connections in the brain is impressive knowledge that could build self-efficacy (one's belief in one's own ability to accomplish and objective). Especially when combined with information about neural plasticity - the concept that a brain grows and changes to increase its ability to face new challenges.

The story seemed strong, but to learn more about how to tell it in a way that might cause young people to engaged with it, researchers chose to represent the knowledge in a feature film, but to abandon the structural conventions of educational and informational media designed to be clearly understood in real time on the first screening. Instead, the new experimental design would be informed by structural concepts found in celebrated works in all the arts - works that have historically engaged audiences and become culturally significant. It would use aesthetics, analogy, ambiguity and authenticity - what the team came to call the 4 As, to compel audiences to reflect and discuss the work to understand it - thus facilitating more personal connection to the ideas in the film. The experimental structure would juxtapose a stream of visual metaphors - three-dimensional sculptures and tableaus built on urban and rural landscapes, against a narrative that wove together some of the neurobiology, social psychology, anthropology and history related to the pursuit of happiness. In one scene, we see a man standing on one leg, constrained by a big box he is wearing and surrounded by the outline of a head drawn in metal pipe. At the same time we hear dialog about the neural basis of depression. In another scene, multicolored clay feet are dropped, one at a time, into a pool of clear blue water where each releases dye which all combine into polychrome clouds that form abstract designs. All the while, the narration discusses the negative impact cross-cultural traumatic conflict can have on an individual's ability to pursue happiness. The narrator himself, rather than appropriating conventional host's garb, wears copper colored, bejeweled shoes and often appears in only his underwear. The incongruity of these juxtapositions plays out for viewers, mostly unexplained. Researchers gambled that it would be better for the film to confuse the audience than be didactic, unimaginative or condescending. The objective was to give the audience something they could not dismiss with easy categorization or predictability, and thus good engage in open-mindedly.

A randomized, controlled study of the film's effect on 500 high school students found that students who saw Euphoria were able to make the connections necessary to understand the content, and reported liking the film more than those who saw the sham film, Storm Chasers reported liking that film. Perhaps most interesting was data from a follow-up survey that showed that the beliefs and attitudes of students who only saw the sham film had shifted toward the ideas in the presented in the Euphoria film, suggesting as the only plausible explanation that the film initiated a social discourse. Though an experiment, Euphoria was accepted into several national film festivals, winning a gold award at the Houston International Film Festival and garnering a substantial amount of praise in the press. Most important, the film showed that the conventions of informational and educational media could be replaced by a more artistic approach and be more effective as a result.


Online and mobile technologies don't just change the ways we do things; they change what things we can do. Fieldtrip is a research project that explores how to best leverage today's portals and venues of communication to provide a specialized social network where teenagers can engage one another in discussions about their thoughts about and feelings toward education. Developing such a discourse on the contemporary technologies that are woven into students' lives outside school, in environments where attitudes about education often form, is something that was previously unaffordable for educators and school systems. In the past, motivational issues had to be addressed by parents, or in school. Of course, young people use these technologies to connect with one another, not with adults. Accordingly, Fieldtrip is based on literature supporting the promise of peer mentoring and peer support to deal with a range of issues.

Researchers used $20 iTunes gift certificates as incentives to recruit a population of 14-19 year-olds to join an online community. Members supplied assent and parental consent forms and filled out an online survey about their attitudes toward, and achievement in, school in order to establish baseline data from which to measure potential changes. One another's real identities were unknown to recruited members. Instead, new online identities were begun as members created screen names by combining three words from a large list (resulting in names such as FreeSushiCasserole and TheWildRose). To prompt dialog on the site, 2-3 short films were posted each day. They were personal video journals made by high school-aged filmmakers. They documented the impact that family, peer and internal struggles were having on the filmmakers' orientations toward school. Through members' written comments, a dialog emerged among community members that would be analyzed to assess the project's potential for shifting members' educational motivations. (Members were not required to watch the films or comment in order to get their iTunes voucher).

The project posed two key challenges: First, to integrate the expertise of adults in order to make the films compelling enough for teenagers to elect to watch, without losing the fact that these were authentic teenage voices. Second was the problem of moderating and facilitating the discussion without distorting it. These questions lie far beneath the veneer of the technologies that made the project possible and reflect the larger, historic question: What is the most constructive relationship between young people and adults in situations where adults are trying to encourage growth?

Professionals mentored the young filmmakers and edited their footage to increase production value, but this expertise was invisible to most people because the faces and voices viewers saw remained those of teenagers. [5] Near-peer-aged, college students of psychology moderated the discussion, chosen with the hope that they could be sensitive to the need to preserve the adolescent-owned character of the discussion but move them forward in constructive directions. [6] Thus, the perception that teenagers controlled the site was maintained.

During the month-long pilot, hundreds of comments by community members accumulated. Analysis showed that the content of comments mapped well onto motivational literature: These were the kinds of discussions that could affect teens' ability to succeed at school. Modifications to the interface of the site and moderation practices were made for a second pilot, and helped further orient community members to the messages in the films, increasing the adolescent engagement in discussions, suggesting self-reflection and the development of beneficial self-perception had occurred. The next step in the research is to scale the online community to reach a wider teenage public and keep it open indefinitely.


The US spends more on healthcare per capita than any other nation and is home to some of the greatest advances in medicine and medical technologies, yet the health of US citizens is ranked 37th in the world. [7] The primary cause of this problem is destructive behaviors such as eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle, rather than a lack of available care. It is clear that people are acting in ways they know will hurt them. Further, commercial messaging aimed at selling potentially harmful consumption is unlikely to be significantly countered by more helpful messages. Could an online public discourse infuse common attitudes with new ways to think about health and tilt the balance back toward more constructive social norms?

That was the research question driving the Speakhealth project. Like the Fieldtrip project, the effort would build discourse with media. This time, however, experts would be a very visible be a part of the mix. To develop content, a transdisciplinary team of medical practitioners, artists and social media producers created three extensive graphic information maps: the first of constructive health ideas, the second of US cultural traits that might facilitate or undermine the adoption of those ideas, and the third of potential co-mission groups. Content emerged when lines were drawn across the three maps, linking ideas with cultural traits and potentially supportive groups. It was decided that the most supportive initial group was likely to be health professionals themselves. The hope was that they would then spread the ideas through and beyond their own networks. Given the modest budget of the project, media that was edgy and improbable would be used to draw attention. A similar strategy had worked in the Euphoria film, and in the Truth anti-smoking campaign sponsored by the Legacy Foundation ( That effort also used unusual, extremely sarcastic and imaginative online films and is credited with 22 percent of the decline in young adult smoking from 25.3 to 18.0 percent between 1999 and 2002. [8]

The website was launched with a talk at a major integrative health conference in front of doctors and other healthcare practitioners. Reaction was extreme and mixed. While some in the audience were enticed, many found the films disturbing. One film presented an enormous computer-generated, though very real-looking human heart orbiting the earth, which then entered the atmosphere and slammed into a suburban cul-de-sac, bouncing nearby residents out of bed and leaving their traffic circle in flames. The short film was intended to introduce the site's visitors to research findings indicating that a sense of community, something US suburbs often struggle to establish, is significantly correlated with improved cardiovascular health. [9] The audience did not expect to see such departures from the norm. Over the following six months, the Speakhealth project built an active online community. It was clear that the most controversial and/or imaginative media created the biggest draw. However, the project's research sponsor, an independent integrative medicine organization, became fearful that this media would harm their funding support and alienate some colleagues. Rather than allow the sponsor's organizational needs to redirect the project in ways not supported by literature and experience, the research team chose to end the project.

As the projects described above indicate, the opportunities for social progress offered by unprecedented access to mass audiences provided by new media and communication technologies are only beginning to be understood. A great deal seems possible, but research is necessary to test new approaches.


References and Notes: 
  1. Albert Bandura, Social Foundations of Thought and Action (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1986).
  2. Bryant Paul, Michael Salwen and Michel Dupagne, "The Third-Person Effect: A Meta-Analysis of the Perceptual Hypothesis," Mass Communication and Society 3, no.1 (2002): 57-85.
  3. Tamara Piety, "Merchants of Discontent," Seattle University Law Review 25, no. 377 (2001).
  4. Arvind Singhal and Everett M. Rogers, "A Theoretical Agenda for Entertainment-Education," Communication Theory 12, no. 2 (2002): 117-135.
  5. Lee Boot et al, "The Fieldtrip Project: An Online Community Featuring Teen's Cellcam Films Sparked Substantive Peer Discussion," International Journal of Ubiquitous Learning 1, no. 4 (2009): 79-88.
  6. David Gurzick and K. White, "Developers and Moderators: Lessons Learned in the Co-development of an Online Social Space," paper presented at HCI International (HCII), at San Diego, CA, USA, 2009.
  7. The Commonwealth Fund Commission on a High Performance Health System, "Why Not the Best?" New York: The Commonwealth Fund, (2008).
  8. Matthew Farrelly, et al, "Evidence of a Dose--Response Relationship Between 'Truth' Antismoking Ads and Youth Smoking Prevalence," Am J Public Health 95, no. 3 (2005): 425-431. 
  9. Penelope Hawe and Alan Shiell, "Social Capital and Health Promotion: A Review," Social Science & Medicine 51, no. 6 (2000): 871-885.




CTRL – O Confronting Barriers to Communication in Interdisciplinary Projects

Artist Linda Duvall was invited by the University of Saskatchewan to curate an exhibition of student research addressing digital media. The curatorial process revealed much about the gaps between disciplines. From the beginning, Duvall noticed that each area had its own specialized and idiosyncratic language. Even more instructive were the conventions utilized by the various areas for communicating information.



'Interdisciplinarity' is a term that had a wave of popularity in the 70s in selected academic institutions around the world. Today, it is enjoying a revival – as evidenced by this conference – but there are major problems with inserting interdisciplinary programs into discipline-based institutions. I am proposing a working model, based both on my own art practice and an exhibition that I recently curated. The model that I am proposing both values and utilizes the expertise of specialists; and allows for people outside specialized disciplines to access specialized information. I tentatively call it ‘snatch and grab.’

As a Visual Artist and Academic Fellow at University of Saskatchewan, I was invited by the university's Interdisciplinary Centre for Culture and Creativity to curate an exhibition that highlighted the range of research being undertaken by undergraduate and graduate students across the Arts and Sciences programs. The intent was to show some of the research and art projects that have looked critically at the role of digital media in culture, as well as to initiate a dialog among these students and the faculty that support them.

Project Tea and Gossip

Before I talk directly about this exhibition, and the implications for the students, the university, and the community, I will first position myself and the structures I have developed in my own art practice. 

Although I define myself primarily as a visual artist, I have always considered that I work across a few disciplines. I have degrees in English and Sociology, Education, and two Visual Art degrees. As a Visual Artist, I have worked collaboratively with people from other disciplines and much of my visual practice embodies significant aspects of sociological research. This blurring of boundaries is a crucial part of my practice. I will show one example of a project that incorporates such research into my art practice.

My starting point for the project Tea and Gossip [1] was a personal story of misattributed paternity. In the short narrative video that I developed, the main character did not reveal the identity of the biological father of her daughter to her husband, her daughter or the biological father, until her daughter met and started dating her half brother.

I began by showing this video to friends and neighbours; and taping their responses. I purposely began by asking a diverse combination of people, from mediaevalists to street involved youth. As I continued, I noticed that many comments took an ethical direction; so I worked with theologians from evangelical Baptists to the other extreme. I also involved people who might offer legal, psychological, or medical expertise.

In the presentation of this work, I incorporated these diverse opinions and enabled visitors to further contribute their views, both verbally during the ‘gossip’ sessions and on small cards. In this instance, some people’s contributions evidenced their disciplinary expertise, while others approached the questions from a more personal perspective.

So, when I was invited to curate a show that crossed many disciplines, I was delighted.

Exhibition CTRL – O

Now about the exhibition CTRL – O, the title referencing the keyboard shortcut for "open file." This show presented students who were paying attention to the possibilities of new global networks and innovative intersections of the fine arts, humanities, sciences and computer sciences. These projects included analyses of social networking sites, use of new media in community building or teaching, computer modeling and simulations, and technically complicated digital manipulations such as 3D and digital collages.

From the beginning, I noticed that each area had its own specialized and idiosyncratic language. Even more instructive were the conventions utilized by the various areas for communicating information.

In areas such as Sociology and English the students included as much textual information as possible under titles such as goals, objectives, and checklists. The visual elements were clearly secondary and proposed learning was through reading the compiled information.

The Computer Science and Science students presented projects that included participatory elements such as buttons or models. Here, the learning emerged through interacting with the material presented. 

The Visual Art students presented material that contained no clear conclusions, but embedded elusive personal questions. Their viewers were left to draw their own conclusions.

Context for CTRL - O

Now about the context for this project: the exhibition was presented in a student art gallery as part of a university wide Technology Week and was widely advertised by the institution. The opening was held on an afternoon during Technology Week, during which each student made a brief presentation about his or her work. Then there was time for visitors to meet with the students, and for the students to meet each other. The exhibition remained up for a week.

The University of Saskatchewan has recently introduced a new Interdisciplinary Program, called the Interdisciplinary Centre for Culture and Creativity, which initiated CTRL-O. However, since it is a recent development, there were only two students from that Centre who were part of the exhibition. The rest were all from defined disciplines within Arts and Science. One of the main aims was to initiate dialog across disciplines.

Assessment of CTRL - O

It is difficult to assess whether any of the defined aims of this project were met. The students remained firmly in their own disciplines, with their means of communication clearly modeled by the departments within which they studied. However, I did a follow-up survey in which I asked the students involved about any consequences of their participation in CTRL-O. Several reported that other disciplines had invited them to speak.

For example one art student wrote:

After the show, Prof M. asked me to talk to his class for a bit, then I invited some of his students back to the DRC to further look at the 3D modeling […]  The show really drove home that there are more cross applications of technology out there than we know.

None had begun to work directly with other students or other disciplines and none reported that there was a mutual exchange of ideas. Rather, any interchange had taken the form of an interested person with an already developed area of research wanting to get information from the student. This is what I call the ‘snatch and grab’ model.

 As another example, I received this email recently from a community artist:

The show you curated at the Snelgrove has directly inspired my latest sculptural work. I contacted a few of the students in the show and met with them to discuss my idea. Cory S. worked on a prototype drawing for me which was used as the starting point for a CAD drawing and small maquette produced for me by the Engineering Workshop at the U of S. [Author's emphasis.]

This is a clear example of a community artist who engaged the expertise of the students in the exhibition for her personal project.

What was also interesting about this email was that it demonstrates the fact that this exhibition provided an opportunity for members of the Saskatoon community to see what was happening at the university. It seems that community members not involved in the university – as well as faculty and students in other disciplines – have difficulty finding out about academic research.  This show provided a window into the area of digital media at the University of Saskatchewan.

Further Thoughts on Tea and Gossip

Looking at my own project Tea and Gossip, I realize that I also used the 'snatch and grab' model. I began with a defined structure in place. Each participant contributed their opinions and ideas based on their personal frameworks and expertise, and inserted these into my project. They each changed the content of a project a bit, but I maintained the framework through which visitors would access the material.


In conclusion, I would like to make the following comments and recommendations:

  1. The model of ‘snatch and grab’ should not be seen as a failure of an interdisciplinary program, but rather an appropriate way to transfer information. One is ensured that the person initiating the contact is receptive, since they can already see an application in their own research.
  2. There is a need for a full exploration of alternative models for the transmission of research material and interesting ideas. For example the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada has wide corridors with blackboards and coffee alcoves and lounges that are conducive to making visible one’s current thoughts.  
  3. In order to have a 'snatch and grab' model work well in a community or an institution, one needs a context in which a range of researchers/faculty/students/independent scholars/children/elders show their work/ideas outside their defined disciplines.
  4. Within the academic system, one needs a way to value the ‘consultants’ – those who find time within their own research to contribute to the understanding of others from other areas.

In conclusion, the current institutional structures are not conducive to a total blurring of boundaries, but there are ways to open up the discourse a bit, and to nibble away at the tightness of the disciplinary framework. The exhibition CTRL-O is one example of an approach; and the strategy utilized to develop Tea and Gossip is another implementation of that model.




References and Notes: 

  1. For more information about Tea and Gossip, visit (accessed September 2011).

Tracing the City: Exploring the Private Experience of Public Art through Art and Anthropology

What happens when the private experience of art is disrupted or reframed by the chance encounters and events of urban public life? Conversely, what happens when modes of production of art are opened up for the public to intervene in artistic creation? We draw on Lefebvre’s sociospatial theories to present the framework for our interdisciplinary research-creation project, and use it to interpret an art installation on a public city bus route.


Whatever its form and setting, contemporary art tends to privilege a one-on-one relation between the viewer and the art. In the gallery, people encounter artworks within the bubble of their own personal space. In the cinema, they watch films ensconced in the dark, in a comfortable chair. People feel emotional reactions to art within their own bodies and express them to only a small circle of companions. Their experience of art takes place in a social context, but is typically privately contained. This paper – written by an urban anthropologist, a multi-media installation artist and a film-maker, respectively – presents the premises of an interdisciplinary research-creation project that questions this one-to-one relationship. We posit that the public space of the city can challenge – and indeed can creatively be made to intervene in – the private space of engagement with art. We ask, what happens when the private experience of art is disrupted, unsettled or reframed by the chance encounters and events of urban public life and space? Conversely, what happens when modes of production of art are opened up so that the public can intervene in processes of creation?

In our individual practice, we are each driven by a concern to investigate the sociospatial dialectic: the idea that the organization of society is necessarily expressed in and constituted by the organization of space, such that transformations in the one effect change in the other. Our collaborative project explores the urban sociospatial dialectic through a combination of creative processes in the visual and media arts, principally film and site-specific installations, and empirical qualitative research in the social sciences. [1] 

The sociospatial dialectic and new media art

We draw on Henri Lefebvre’s conceptual triad of the social production of space to theorize our work. [2] Spatial practice, or perceived space, consists of people’s perceptions of society through space that arise in their ordinary activities and routines, and the material settings and objects involved in these – the commute to work and the bus, the weekend movie and the cinema, grocery shopping and the supermarket. Representational space is the realm of symbols and images, also called lived space, because spatial symbols can be ‘lived,’ non-verbal, ineffable or clandestine rather than explicitly articulated. Here, space can be invented and imagined, and critiques of society and culture are possible. The visual, rhetorical and performing artists, the chefs and the artisans, the urban shamans, priests and diviners work in this kind of space, adumbrating the meanings that attach us to cities. In contrast, representations of space are consciously codified by those who have the power to shape and define society, such as urban planners, technocrats and scientists. Also called conceived space, this is the view from above; representations of space contribute the kind of knowledge that makes the city immediately or potentially knowable, productive and ‘useful’. For instance, an anthropologist makes representations of space in order to understand it more accurately. Of course, anthropological research also involves observing and invoking spatialized routines and symbols. Each kind of space cannot be fully understood in isolation from the others, but together they refract the nebulous concept of ‘space’ in useful ways.

The sociospatial dialectic has evolved in ways that Lefebvre could not have foreseen, thanks to new information and communications technologies (ICTs) that collapse time and distance: cellphones, GPS, social media, GIS, and Web 2.0 protocols, which allow us to track and construct complex representations of geographical and social data. This spread of virtual space and its intersection with the material alter our conceptions of what ‘space’ really is, challenging “three deeply embedded assumptions [...]. First, that space is three-dimensional and shared between actors. Second, space is either solid or void. And third, you can only be in one place at one time.” [3]

The collapse of the virtual and the material also blurs boundaries between public space and private space. In urban anthropology, the distinction between public and private space is not based on ownership or function, but accessibility and visibility. Space is public when it brings strangers from all walks of life into view of and into contact with each other, as individuals and groups. [4] Private space, in contrast, implies invisibility and interaction with an already known, even intimate circle of friends and family. New ICTs bring the private realm into public space – as you hold an intimate telephone conversation with your sibling on the bus – and the public sphere into private space – as you post comments on a newspaper website in the comfort of your living room. What results is an expanded idea of presence in space, and a sort of open border between intangible and material space.

This open border has been extensively explored by artists. However, we have two criticisms of many of the artworks that we have reviewed so far. Firstly, artists often incorporate locative media technology in ways that shrink public space into the personal world of the cellphone or computer screen. For instance, dialling a number posted on a wall or even, thanks to GPS, simply approaching a site with a cellphone can deliver a lyrical representation of that location through the phone to the listener, but it’s for that listener’s ears and eyes only. Our second criticism relates to public participation. The new layers of the sociospatial dialectic seem to have integrated seamlessly into our everyday lives, and yet this very seamlessness conceals the authoritarian nature of the media. GPS and GIS were developed primarily as tools for making representations of space (conceived space), to better survey, know and control territories and their inhabitants. Interactive art projects – representational spaces – make earnest attempts to use ICTs to place authorship in the hands of the users. However, they often retain a hierarchical relationship between the artists and the public participants by selecting and therefore censoring interactive content according to non-transparent protocols, even when there is no technical requirement to do so.

Time Transit

In contrast, we aim to build on work that uses ICTs to broadcast over a wide swathe of the city and to decentralize authorship. One such example is co-author Morgan’s Time Transit, a temporary mobile art installation that combined art, engineering, public transit and digital media in order to explore the impact of ubiquitous technology on our daily lives, and its potential to generate both interconnection and alienation in urban public space. [5] The installation site was the City of Regina Transit bus route #4 (Walsh Acres/University), a route which, significantly, traverses neighbourhoods that vary greatly in class and culture, from the university through to the impoverished north central (‘the hood’) to wealthy new suburbs. The installation had three principal interactive public components: an operating city bus; six major bus stops along the route equipped with cameras that constantly filmed them; and a website with text messaging and email (

The bus was fitted with a GPS system, four flat-screen monitors, a computer and a wireless network connection. Two monitors were mounted near the front of the bus and two near the middle of the bus. Each set of two monitors displayed the same content, which meant all the riders could experience the installation more or less equally as they rode the bus (Figure 1). The monitors displayed images captured from the cameras that were focused on the six major bus stops along route #4. The right-hand screens showed real-time images of the next filmed bus stop along the route (i.e. where the bus was going). The left-hand monitors displayed images from the most recent major bus stop, and these images were translucent stills layered on top of each other, to represent the cumulative, collective memory of gestures and activities from where the bus had been. The passengers were thus able to view what had happened at the last stop and what was happening at the next stop on the screens. The website (Figure 2) showed the real-time location of the bus as well as film from the bus stop cameras. More importantly, it allowed users to communicate with the bus by typing a text message into a sidebar textbox, which would be displayed as scrolling text on the monitors of the bus. The message could either be displayed in real time or be dropped at a particular zone along the route, in which case it would show as soon as the bus reached that location. In addition, people could send messages to the bus via cellphone text message or email. A display hierarchy was set up to give these latter messages priority over ones from the website.

Time Transit made plain the ways in which ICTs fold time and space in on each other. Firstly, the installation existed in virtual and real space simultaneously. People could experience it by riding the bus, by appearing at the bus stops that were monitored by cameras or by browsing the website where they could either view or interact with the installation in real time. Secondly, Time Transit cumulated past, present and future: riders could see where they had been and where they were going. They could watch themselves board the bus or see friends waiting for them at their destination. Thirdly, Time Transit played with conditions of surveillance and anonymity. Using their private cellphones, riders could send messages to unknown others that would be displayed publicly on the bus screens. Website users submitted messages to known passengers: “Larry bring home milk.” The installation thus permitted privacy and even intimacy to dwell in the very public space of the bus. As one art critic wrote, “[Time Transit] not only prompts up to consider the city and its citizens but prompts subtle shifts in our understanding of how we occupy and experience the city and how we shape it – and it shapes us.” [6]

While Time Transit pointed to the ubiquity of surveillance technology and its effect on our perceptions of private and public space,[7] it also challenged our paranoia about such issues. Here the users controlled the content and data collected by the equipment. They could appear before, perform for or hide from the cameras, remotely operate them, watch and be seen on-screen. They could publish their own stories and read those of other passengers – tales of their day or experiences of the public transportation system, shout-outs to friends or cheers for local sports teams. Regulars posted stories as serials, in daily instalments. Poetry often scrolled across the bus monitor screens... and so did profanity. Following a series of pointed insults, and at the request of the bus company, the project engineers added filters to censor profanities, but riders could also put their considerable creativity to work in finding ways to curse without using the forbidden words, circumventing authorial regulations. In this way, members of the public contributed to the installation not only by precipitating the activity (using the bus, viewing the screens), but also by creating its content. 

To use Lefebvre’s terms, Time Transit used conceived space – surveillance technologies and new ICTs – to create a lived space – an art installation – by means of perceived space – the everyday bus journey. The representational space had the unexpected side-effect of creating a new practical representation of space, in that this interdisciplinary artistic inquiry led the project engineers to develop an open-source application to track the real-time location of buses in city transit systems. Time Transit will acquire another layer of conceived space when we use urban anthropological research methods to analyze and interpret the text messages that were collected over the life of the installation. What kinds of content did the installation prompt users to create? How did it vary over time? What were the recurrent or one-off themes and modes of communication?

Tracing the City through Art and Anthropology

Our Tracing the City project will similarly create and trace public, interactive art installations through new avenues of anthropological and artistic inquiry. We aim to use locative media (GPS and GIS), cellphones and Web 2.0 interfaces to engage ‘the public’ – understood as people and places/spaces – in artistic creation. By layering dynamic data over physical space – for example, an architectural plane – we will create an augmented spatial environment that then becomes a tangible interface for the public, who collaborate to create the ultimate meaning of the work. The resulting artworks will be exhibited (installed, projected) in outdoor and indoor public spaces, becoming part of the sensory experience of the city, and will also have a virtual presence on the web. The project therefore engages with ‘the public’ in terms of both space and society. One site we are particularly interested in is Halifax’s downtown public library, not only because it is a quintessential urban public space, but also because, like Regina’s bus #4, it already has a public membership, a set of regulars, and is well integrated into spatial practice.

The anthropological component of the project consists of building in feedback loops that will both investigate how members of the public experience our artworks, and generate material for creating subsequent artworks. The research-creation process will be enriched by the contributions of three collaborators whose practices are connected to our own: Ellen Moffat, a sound installation artist based in Saskatoon; Christopher Kaltenbach, an interdisciplinary designer based in Halifax (NSCAD University) and Tokyo; and Erin Wunker, a cross-genre literary scholar at Dalhousie University. We are keen to find out how both the interdisciplinary collaboration among the research team and the interactive collaboration of the public will affect the structure and content of the artwork.

To come full circle back to Lefebvre, we will be engaging perceived, lived and conceived space in particular ways. We want not only to emphasize but to amplify the interdependence of imaginative space and everyday space: we want to bring spatial practice (perceived space) into representational spaces (lived space), making quotidian, routine experiences of the city alter and interfere with its resonant artistic symbols. This means bringing the banal events and objects of urban public space, both routine and haphazard, into the imaginative but typically personal world of art and culture. Moreover, by doing interdisciplinary ‘research-creation’, we want to draw on representations of space to make representational spaces – and, indeed, vice versa. Dialogue between artists and social scientists should enable the latter to creatively explore the conduct and consequences of arts-based inquiry, and the former to conduct rigorous research, particularly with respect to public interaction with and experience of their works. We recognize the paradox of, on the one hand, working to subvert and decentralize creative authorship, and on the other, turning creative processes into ‘objects of study’ and ‘sources of data’ that potentially nourish the commodification of urban symbols. But however codified and commodified they may be, representations of space still provide the knowledge that underpins our understanding of spatial practices and representational spaces. We take the opportunity of interdisciplinary collaboration to try working in the interstices between perceived space, lived space and conceived space. In these ways, we aim to make the public space of the city creatively intervene in the private space of engagement with art.

References and Notes: 
  1. Tracing the City: Interventions of Art in Public Space is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Research-Creation in the Fine Arts award no. 848-2010-0019
  2. Henri Lefebvre, The Social Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).
  3. Mike Crang, “Urban Morphology and the Shaping of the Transmissable City,” in City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action 4, no. 3 (2000): 303-15.
  4. See e.g. Lyn H Lofland, The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory (Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1998); Sophie Watson, City Publics: The (Dis)Enchantments of Urban Encounters (London: Routledge, 2006).
  5. The Time Transit Project Team were: Kim Morgan (Artist in Residence, TRLabs Regina); Craig Gelowitz (Research Engineer, TRLabs Regina, University of Regina); Bill Friedrich (Computer Programmer, Co-op Student SaskTel, U Regina); Lee Henderson (Media Artist, Research Associate); Jane Uttaranakorn (Graphic Designer, Graduate Student, U Regina); and Laura Wiley (Student Engineer, U Regina).
  6. Kim Morgan, “Artist Remaps City in New Ways,” Leaser Post (Regina), November 29, 2006, (accessed June 7, 2012).
  7. See Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

The interactive and immersive experiences shape the new architectural language.

This paper undelines how the hybrid relationships establieshed among 3D and interactive installations offer sensorial explorations for a better understanding of architecture and the public space, by illustrating the works ‘If building could talk…’ by Wim Wenders and ‘Sandbox’ by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.


“Freedom is participation.” Giorgio Gaber

In recent years, many artists, filmakers and designers have studied the alliance between art, society and audience by employing new media and technology as innovative tools to rethink the use of public space and to reinvent new opportunities for experiencing and for a better understanding. Reflections on the idea of space and its collective awareness, that we have of it, can come from the contribution within the architectural research by exploring it with artistic and cinematographic languages and how they shape their narrative and the overcoming experience that we can live by walking through the artworks or installations that requires our active immersion with it. [1] This paper based on an ongoing research, started with the workshop in Exhibit Design, held at the Università Iuav di Venezia, aims to articulate how the embodiment of  the interactive projections and 3D technologies enable artists, such as  Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, to broadcast the environment we are living in a participatory way and film makers, such as Wim Wenders, to set new vision for architectural and landscapes scenes in exhibition space.

Often we forget that the exhibition space, such the Biennale, is more a laboratory, rather than a simple display, where interdisciplinary experiments can take place. In 2010 Kazumo Sejima, the Japanese director of the 12th International Architecture Exhibition ‘People meet in architecture’ of the Biennale in Venice, invited Wim Wender to interpreted her lyric building the Rolex Learning Center of the Ecole Polytechniquue Fédérale in Lausanne (Switzerland) for the exhibition space at the Arsenale. For the German director the primary issue was to convey the strong feeling of the building, which perfectly resonates with the surrounding landscape, and secondly capture the openess and the sense of ‘infinutum’ of the center. So he found amusing the idea of experimenting 3D technology in an immersive installation, titled ‘If building could talk…’, in order to give the viewer the impression of being into the screen and to live the architectural experience of walking in it. [2] [3]

But in fact the building talks to us! Wenders guides us in an persuasive exploration of the space, into the architectural structures and the soul of the idea behind it. To use 3D technology appeared to be the most suitable way to translate the multiple curves of the building and the losing of orientation suggested by it, because curves generates (phisycal and intellectual) directions translated into a fluid shooting, where the fascinating survey on the relationship among space and time is narrated as a storytelling, whispered by Megan Gay’s velvet voice: «Can you hear me? Places have voices. Buildings can talk, as you can hear. No, not all of them. But some need too. Some have chosen to remain silent. Some really want a constant dialogue with us ». In the silence, Thon Hanreich’s music amplified the perception of the space, giving volume to it which can be only an intepretation of architecture within the exhibition space. Thus is the moviment-image, where « objective and subjective images lose their distinction, but also their identification, in favour of a new circuit where they are wholly replaced or contaminate each other», as Deleuze stated, that extracted the essence of the place. [4] Without solution of continuity, the 12 minute film  run in a continous loop the same sequence of images, but with slight changes in the text and music, thus offering multiple sensorial perceptions to the spectactor. For this reason Wenders has chosen to use digital technology as a tool for enphasizing, in order to make more effective the comunication of the architectural experience based on interdisciplinary approach. Morever this also met Sejima’s curatorial aims to stimulate and create new thinking processes and new ways of understanding the world we are living in.

One of the reason why I have choosen Wim Wenders’s installation at the Biennale was due to the fact that it was a 3D movie designed for an exhibition space, in other words a place of public cultural consumption, while on the other hand I would like to compare it with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s installation-event ‘Sandbox’, in the Californian shore in Los Angeles, since in this case it takes place in an oudoor public sphere has a more political and social dimension.

‘Sanbox’ was a large-scale interactive installation created originally for Glow in 2010, which was an all night cultural expereince that imagines the Santa Monica beach as a ludic agora for free access of a participatory and temporary artwork.  The large-scale project consisted of two sandboxes: in one infrared surveillance cameras detected people walking on a certain 3,000-square foot stretch of so thay it could be projected in the second sandbox and watch their actions magnified in large scale on the beach. « As participants reach out to touch these small ghosts, a camera detects their hands and relays them live to two of the world’s brightest projectors, which hang from a boom lift and which project the hands over 8,000 square feet of beach. In this way people share threee scales: the tiny sandbox images, the real human scale and the moustrous scale of special effects», describes the artist in his website. [5]

That is the reason why his work is as empowering as provokative.

A core element of the research by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s thought is on designing spaces and dynamics for and of participation ‘where a plurality of positions may emerge’, in any case both exampels integrate the observers/visitors with the digital image.

Furthermore, Lozano-Hemmer’s work implies an invasion of the physical space, where the real body of the spectator turns into the moving image (simulacra) of the co-author of the performative interactive installation, since his research has always leaned, as said, to pursue a certain number of social issues. 

More broadly he states that «technology is inevitable the language of globalisation […], it is inseperable from contemporary identity and it can be used as a way of criticizing from within some paradoxes of our culture.» [6]
For example it is interesting to put in practice that the technologies used for  ‘Relational archiecture’ installations mainly are the same ones used for the security system of control in order to identity and to punish, but by manipolating the use of them (such as the ominous infrared equipment or the video tracking system) with digital cinema projectors into amplified images, the sense of intimidation, fear and social disconnection is transformed instead into an intimate and a more playful relation with the public cultural arena, which in this case was the Santa Monica beach.
This leads to a final key question: does every one really want to participate in the  cultural agora? Obviously no, but the interactivity experience in Lozano-Hemmer and the more contemplative immersion in viewing Wendes’s movie are both examples of enriching opportunities to learn, generate new forms of attention and collaborative production of senses in our contemporary society.

In conclusion, what we can observe is that by participating in a collaborative manner with immersive experiences with the audience, both in a indoor exhibition space and outodoor public sphere, we can expande our own perceptions and widening our experiences; this ultimately leads to a broader understanding in life, a deeper awareness of freedom and hopefully to a re-design of our cultural landscape.

References and Notes: 

  1. Gilles Deleuze, Millepiani no 28: Spazi Nomadi: Figure e Forme dell'Etica Contemporanea (Roma: DeriveApprodi, 2004).
  2. Teresita Scalco, “Se l’Architettura Potesse Parlare…”, Bollettino d'Ateneo's Web Site, October 2010, (accessed July 27, 2011).
  3. Wim Wenders’s official Web Site, (accessed July 27, 2011).
  4. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 149.
  5. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s official Web Site, (accessed August 15, 2011).
  6. Heimo Ranzenbacher, “Metaphors of Participation,” in Takeover – Who’s Doing the Art of Tomorrow - ARS Electronica, eds. Gerfried Stocker and Christine Schopf, 240-243 (Vienna: Springer-Verlag, 2001).


Eco Sapiens Round Table

Saturday, 17 September, 2011 - 11:00 - 12:00
Ian Clothier
Nina Czegledy
Andrea Polli
Sophie Jerram

We know we have built a civilisation which is unsustainable. How are we developing today the new culture that will allow us to create a sustainable civilisation?

Roger Malina, Astrophysicist and Editor of Leonardo

The great work of our times, I would say, is moving the human community from its present situation as a destructive presence on the planet to a benign or mutually enhancing presence. It is that simple.

Thomas Berry, Cultural Historian And Geologian

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