Weekending 06102010

Digital & Analog Day In The Studio

Thursday June 10 21:35


Well, without making a big thing out of it, I thought I’d just share a few of the installation photos from the Apparatus for Capturing Other Points of View, which is at the HABITAR exhibition at LABoral Art and Industrial Creation Centre. ((It’s always fun to see the preposterous things you get excited about installed in a big-ass exhibition hall.))

Thursday June 10 21:44


The exhibition catalogs showed up in the mail and Regine put up a nice blog post about the exhibit, which also includes some fine work from Timo who is like *vapors on the internet and with curitorial assistance from Fabien Giardin. Nicolas contributed a nice essay for the exhibition catalog, as well as Molly Steenson, Anne Galloway, Bryan Boyer, Usman Haque, Anne Galloway, José Pérez de Lama and Benjamin Weil.

What else happened in the week that just ended?


Good times in the studio ((as seen above in the first photo)) — a mix of digital and analog activities all in the spirit of thinking, processing and making with zealous enthusiasm. And some back-to-writing attempts for an essay commissioned for the 01SJ catalog, which is due pretty dang soon.

Final simple preparations for a day trip to Seattle to do a short-sharp talk at the Primordial *Amphibians and mostly meet up with some old friends.

Continue reading Weekending 06102010

Apparatus at The HABITAR Exhibition

Wednesday June 17, 14.44.17

As Fabien has mentioned and due to his participation in curating the event, the laboratory’s Apparatus for Capturing Other Points of View will be exhibited at HABITAR. It’ snice to have this project reconsidered in an art & technology context. The exhibition catalog is available as a PDF here.

Originally this was a thought-collaboration after a Nokia colleague turned me onto this William H. Whyte small book called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Whyte managed to capture the dynamics of urban parks and gathering points with the recording technoogy of the day — eyeballs, notebooks and some 16mm cameras. (You can watch some of it here and other places.)


It was a simple thing to get excited about — how might this sort of observation be redone in the early 21st century and what might be some curious things to look for? My own interest was to build the thing and make it a provocative instrument and then wonder what a video enhancement and post-processing of these images look like? Something algorithmic, I supposed — are there behaviors and movements that can be abstracted from the general hub-bub and rush of urban pedestrians’ lives?

You can find most of the videos here, and there are some new edits at the exhibition should you be in their neighborhood.

Continue reading Apparatus at The HABITAR Exhibition

Week Ending 04232010

Saturday April 10 17:30 Ver.1.01

Well, I missed the Week Ending last week so I’ll capture a couple of the things that happened then, now.

There were a cacophony of tasks to be done, some fun, some that should’ve been fun, and all that tipped me into a level of activity-stress that translated into too little sleep and various physical ailments. These aren’t complaints at all — just a note-to-self to either learn how to manage multiple concurrent fun commitments, or spread them out like butter on a baguette.

There was a Skype lecture between here and Seoul given for a design seminar at Art Center Nabi. That was a curious thing — to lecture with the audience *sort of* there. Basically akin to talking to yourself, or rehearsing a lecture. I’m not sure I could do that again, comfortably. Aside from the challenges of dialing back my weird circumlocutions and the litany’s I dispense midtalk while trying to remember what my next point should be, or might’ve been had I not forgotten it moments earlier — it’s just a bit impersonal. Or maybe it was just the fact that it was 11 in the evening after a proper day in the studio and I just wanted to have a belt and fall asleep.

It was a roilingly active week in the studio, with this sense that there was an intense and focused round of design work on the horizon, and the sort — systemically speaking — that Nicolas and I had pondered would be an ideal way of working, especially after we both made a turn from academic and formal approaches to making things. Looking at the world obliquely, learning from new perspectives and points-of-view, redefining or differently defining what *success and *achievement might be — not just up-and-to-the-right. Somewhat in line with this talk at Lift in 2008 7.5 Rules for Working Together. I’m quite excited by the prospect this bit of work allows for a more skunky/stinky untoward refrain to the normal ways in which things are done. A bit — tip-of-the-spear actions.

Via our weekly Skype, forward progress continues on the iPhone edition of The Drift Deck, with Jon Bell and Dawn Lozzi taking that bull by its horns. Of course, we’re all excited by the prospect of a second life for The Drift Deck — and curious by the translation of a physical deck of cards into its electronic kin. There are a couple of iterations already. Engaged simplicity is the goal. There were discussions that I prompted around game mechanics — don’t know why I, in particular, would be bringing this topic up — and I think the conclusion is that it is what it is. The deck, is the deck.

The Apparatus for Capturing Other Points of View was sent to LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, where it — and the material produced — will be in an exhibition next month. ((More on that in the appropriate week note)). That was an epic undertaking — I mean the operational mishegoss of sending an 8 foot pole to Spain. DHL took it in stride..literally.

@ibogost was a house guest as he had some weird lecture to do, and that meant snifters of Port in the kitchen talking about #OOO, the shapes of things and a discussion of knob-turned-to-11 materializations of social practices, which is something I’m trying to figure out how to talk about beyond just saying that and, as it turns out — it might make more sense to materialize the “talk” about that than to just talk about it. And he’s on this *Carpentry thing, which I think would be our point of contact on this whole Object-Oriented Ontology vector he and his 12 friends appear to be all hopped-up about. ((They had a seminar on it last week — I hope it was captured in something ≫ 140 character tweets. ((That’s the 12 other people all hopped up on #OOO, and I might be number 13 based on our boozy conversation.))

Saturday April 10 17:30 Ver.1.01

This actual week — all that except @ibogost’s visit was the week before — started off with performing the duties of guest critic for the Art Center College of Design’s Media Design Program’s thesis year projects. That was a completely full day — almost 10 hours — of crits. Good work all around, with some curiously strong failures and seductively tenuous successes. Despite the work, which I certainly enjoyed in total, the crits were lots of fun, tiring and engaged. That culture of this sort of design critique was something sorely missing at the Interactive Media Program, leastways when I was there and I reflected on that contrast in the back of my mind. It’s something that is a way of working in the studio, frankly and only adds to the work. Patient, mindful intervention; conscientious and respectful criticisms; hard intellectual and creative framing that is only meant to make the work better.

The rest of the week consisted of some low-key efforts to have Design engage Research differently. We’ve been doing roughly monthly, completely casual, completely self-initiated link-ups with the Research part of the organization, mostly because there are friends there and it’s nice to share and discuss projects. Never really looking for *actionable points of collaboration — the collaboration is in the discussions. For me professionally, The Laboratory is much more interested in finding ways of working than specific things to work on, although sometimes specific things to work on are the ways you understand how different disciplines do what they are disciplined to do. Later in the week when there was another link-up, I found myself a bit sensitive to these different ways of working — Research wants a particular kind of action to unfold rather than action-as-reflection. It’s all sorted out somehow — we just need to make it, and that will be that. Rather than the *crit and the conversations that wonder in the first instance — why this and in this instantiation? Or — let’s throw out all that *work and start fresh with the possibility that we will come back to it at some point. Or, the journey rather than the finalé.

It all ended with a confidential review and excitement about the approaching National Pretzel Day, as well as the book launch of Digital Blur at The Architectural Association on Tuesday evening.

William H. Whyte Revisited: An Experiment With An Apparatus for Capturing Other Points of View

Times Square Urban Living Room from Julian Bleecker. More Apparatus Videos.

[[Update: The Apparatus was exhibited at the HABITAR show at LABoral in Gijón Spain this summer 2010.]]

A couple of months ago a colleague, Jan Chipchase, floated by my desk and handed me a book of his called “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” by William H. Whyte. I had no idea who this Whyte character was and I could only guess what it was about and, just by the title — I figured this would lead me down another rabbit’s hole of exploration and experimentation.

As I flipped through the pages, looking at the images of urban observations of New York City from the 1970s, I was enthralled by the technique as well as the substance of the material. Whyte and his team were capturing the intriguing, sometimes curious ways in which people adapt small corners of urban space and their habits and practices and rituals. The pace and momentum of pedestrian movement is intriguing. Without assuming anything in particular, Whyte’s work was capturing movement in a seductive way — even small scale jolts and shifts and gestures. Someone moving a chair just a small bit to indicate that he is not attempting to invade someone’s microlocal private space. You see the “fast-movers” bobbing and weaving quickly around a phalanx of slow moving tourists, window shoppers or a more elderly pedestrian.

Wonderful, intriguing stuff. Sold. Hooked. What’s the brief? Oh, what would I do? Follow footsteps and curiosities, I guess. I was curious — how can the momentum and pace and speed (or lack thereof) of the urban flows be captured, highlighted, brought into focus and revealed in such a way as to visually describe time, movement, pace, scales of speed and degrees of slowness?

There is lots to say about Whyte, I am sure. I have only begun to scratch the surface of this well-known urban sociologist, explorer, scout, observer. But, for the purposes here what happened as a result of this brief conversation with Jan was something that spread through the studio — a bout of curiosity that led to another, other project. It started simply by wondering if the observational studies that Whyte had done both in this book and in other projects could be done today? And, if so — what might they observe? What might be the questions? By what principles and assumption would small urban spaces be explored?

A copy of the films Whyte had made was secured in short order. Simple observations from ground level as well as from carefully chosen vantage points up high, above the ground. This intrigued me. There had been a project in the studio this time last year with things placed high for observational purposes (high chairs, periscopes, etc.) and it was filed away in the “lost projects” binder, so this seemed perhaps a way to revive that thinking. Over the course of a week, I made four trips to Home Depot, Simon jigged a prototype bracket on the CNC machine, and I had a retractable 36 foot pole that I imagined I was going to hang a heavy DSLR off of — it scared the bejeezus out of me and required two people to safely raise up. Too high, too floppy.

Another pole — 24 feet. Daunting but serviceable. It retracts to 8 feet, which is still quite high, but the range made it worth the embarrassment. After a brief bang around the reputation and suggestion networks, a wide field of view camera was identified and two ordered. Two cameras, secured to the pole produced a fair resolution, very wide field of view for displaced observations from a peculiar point of view. Good enough.

Penn Station Still Observation from Julian Bleecker on Vimeo.

Observation apparatus deployed at 7th Avenue main entrance to Pennsylvania Station, NYC, capturing ingress & egress flows, pedestrians waiting, deciding, waking up in the morning upon hitting the sidewalk, &c. The slow-scan mode highlights things which are not moving and therefore often discounted as to their import such as, for instance, the two peculiar characters to the far left who scarcely move (and were still there at the end of the day, around 7pm!), defensible space obstacles in the form of potted plants, people who wait for things, time to pass, people or taxi cabs, &c.

A notion interpreted and brought into focus by Rhys Newman.

Friday June 19, 16.17.17

15th Street and 5th Avenue, New York City.

Using some generative algorithms to show neutral zones of flow and highlighting areas of relatively stable inactivity. Somewhat mitigated by the windiness of the day which caused the cameras to move quite a bit.

Whyte was intrigued by the movement, flows, behaviors, but also emphasized the engaged observations — pen and paper, not just measurements and statistics. He was observing and analyzing both statistically — flows of people per time period over various widths of sidewalk, for example — as well capturing those things that one misses in abstracted data sets. In the film, his avuncular tone draws our attention to small curious practices. Things like someone to moving a chair in a public open space barely a few feet from where it was so as to indicate to a nearby fellow New Yorker that they were not intending to impose upon their public-privacy.

There was something about these sorts of couplings between the analytic data — numbers and so forth — and the observed, seen and demonstrated activities of people. Observed practices crafted into a kind of story about this subject — the social life of small urban spaces. Finding ways to observe and perhaps produce useful insights and design inspirations based on the observations seems a reasonable goal. There is only so much you can do with the books of abstracted data squirreled away some place before you have to go out in the world. Where I was most interested in exploring was somewhere “lower” than the high-level observations which produce intriguing visualizations but are many steps removed from the everyday, quotidian practices. Some empirical, rough-around-the-edges, observational data ethnography. A close cousin of the truly fascinating data visualizations we have grown to love. Perhaps close to Fabien’s notion of citizen sensors and citizen cartography.

We got plenty of guff with the Apparatus when we took it on the new Highline Park. One rather abrupt park minder — sort of behaving like an airline stewardess on a really bad day — was not pleased with the pole at all and let us know it. I had to talk to someone back at the offices of the "Friends of The Highline" via a cellphone given to me by a guy who was like a human surveillance entity. The woman on the phone explained – after listening to my perhaps overly analytic and historic description of the project, Whyte, &c. – that they do not allow tripods or, "you know..long poles" in the park.

Errr ahhh…

It was all very weird, and very un-appealing and put a cloud on what is a playful project, I think, but — *shrug*.

It’s all to be figured out. Or not. Perhaps its just observation. Scraps and visual thinking. Some notes in video. Constructed objects and anticipation of going mobile in Seoul and Helsinki and Linz and London. &c. Or some kind of exploration to suggest alternative ways of seeing the world around us. That may be closer to the point, at least now.

The post-processing stages of the activity are mostly explorations of ways in which individuals or small groups of people in movement could become their own producers of representations of what they do, in an aesthetic sense. What other sorts of systems might people-flows evoke or be reminiscent of? Weather patterns? Displacement grids? Where is there stillness in the bustle? Can the city’s flows be slowed down to evoke new considerations and new perspectives of what happens in the small urban spaces?

People themselves are often seen to be controlled in a top down fashion — even less insidious than “the man”, I think of the significant pedestrian operator — the “I want to cross” button at many busy intersections. It’s a point of contact with the city’s system of algorithmic, synchronized flows. But what about people as their own algorithms, by virtue of their occupancy of urban space? Not following specific top-down plans, but bottom up actions and movements. Not augmented reality but productions of realities. The center of what happens, displaced from the operational command center that articulates how the flows will operate.

I love these moments that countervene the system-wide control grids, which you can see if you watch carefully the raw footage from 15th Street and 5th Avenue where pedestrians spread themselves into the street, stretching the boundaries of the safety of the sidewalk in anticipation of the crossing. Or, perhaps something I love less but it is still something to note, a bicyclist turning the corner against traffic, possibly into pedestrians who may be less inclined to look from whence traffic should not be coming.

We push buttons to control the algorithms of the city, as in the buttons to control signals and so forth. Or roll our cars over induction loops – these are parameters to the algoithms of top-down controls over urban flows. Suppose we interceded more directly or suppose the geometry of the city were represented this way, as a product of the non-codified “algorithm” of movements.

What sort of world would this be? What would it look like?

Highlighting only things that are moving in the Union Square Farmers’ Market.

A cartesian grid distorted by flows around the Union Square Farmers Market.

Wednesday June 17, 15.04.24

Wednesday June 17, 14.44.17

Help thanks to Marcus Bleecker, Chris Woebken, Rhys Newman, Simon James, Jan Chipchase, Aaron Meyers, Noah Keating, Bella Chu, Duncan Burns, Andrew Gartrell, Nikolaj Bestle. And so on.

Videos live online and will accumulate over time. This is Times Square, NYC, Highline in Chelsea NYC, and a generative video done with Max/MSP Jitter