The City As Alien Artifact: A Living Patchwork Of Systems And Processes [Q&A]
The London Design Festival recently drew to a close, and with it, its manifold events and exhibitions. One of the highlights of the works on show was artist Keiichi Matsuda‘s Prism, commissioned by Veuve Clicquot. Matsuda’s installation was a real-time data sculpture that presented London and its infrastructure as a giant paper lantern patchwork of fluctuating information. It took up residence in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s tallest tower (usually closed to the public), accessed by a spiral staircase.
Up there, its patchwork design glowed in the darkness, radiating visualisations of the hidden data that flows about the capital, harnessed into the immersive panels of the structure. The data ranged from the gas used at the prime minister’s residence to the tidal Thames and traffic webcams. The different sources were assigned their own texture, reflecting the museum’s history of arts and crafts but refracted through the language of code.
The idea was to explore the machine languages of the city, the algorithmic undercurrents that stir throughout the buildings and infrastructure—examining the communications between the technologies that monitor, watch over, and control the places we inhabit.
And, while the installation is no more, we can announce that the sculpture will live on as a website, which will display the textures used in the work while drawing from live data and updating every minute. To coincide with this, Matsuda answered some questions about the work revealing his and his collaborators’ intentions, and the inspiration behind this data lantern.
How does the piece work? And what is it representing?
Keiichi Matsuda: Prism is an alternative understanding of London, viewing it as a network of processes and data exchanges. We normally think of the city as a built, human environment, but it is also a habitat for machines and their communications. The volume of these communications is growing rapidly, and we are starting to rely on those invisible networks more and more, so I wanted to provide a lens into that world, to try and reveal some fragments of it.
We drew live data from around 50 different sources, and visualised a single source on each panel of the sculpture. Each of the visualisations updates in real time, so if you start to explore the installation, you are also exploring the virtual city. The visualisations were contributed by a network of programmers, creative coders, and enthusiasts, so the whole thing becomes a kind of multi-authored live patchwork.
Where did the concept for the piece come from?
My background is in architecture, so I’ve always been interested in urbanism and the changing character of the city. I’ve increasingly been drawn to its technology and media though, as these seem to have a really profound effect on our behaviour within it—maybe more so than the architecture itself. So when the chance came up to build a major installation, I immediately knew that I wanted to do something to combine the physical and virtual sides of London.
A lot of the other concepts were inspired by the amazing site. The V&A is probably one of my favorite museums in the world, and we managed to install Prism in a space that had never previously been opened to the public, in the top of its tallest tower. The V&A is a museum of craft and decorative arts, so I thought it would be interesting to try and show that coding could also be seen as a form of craft. I also asked each of the coders to draw their inspiration for their texture from the collection of the museum, to link back to those traditions. I like to think of Prism as an alien artifact that has been growing in this hidden space in the V&A, feeding on London’s data and reflecting it back through the visual language of the museum it occupies.
What interests you about exploring the unseen data that you say “controls our lives”?
I got used to seeing the city as a built thing, of bricks and mortar and steel and concrete, and it left little room for expanding the concept of what we could do in the future. If we look at its data and processes though, it opens up so many possibilities. Now people are starting to talk about operating systems for cities, combining their sensors and making them ‘smart.’ What we thought we understood, we now realize has other hidden dimensions, rife with danger and opportunity.
And in what ways does it control our lives?
We use the city’s algorithms every day—our traffic and transport systems are controlled by them, many of our buildings regulate their services based on them, they are part of many of our daily activities. There are algorithms that detect low supplies in your local supermarket and place orders, algorithms that divert traffic, process payments and even dictate planning policy. Maybe it’s a bit strong to say that the data controls our lives, but we are certainly dependent on it in many ways.
Was the idea of making the installation a paper lantern to contrast the resulting sculpture with the digital/virtual data that it represents?
I spent some time working for Naoaki ‘Paper Nao’ Sakamoto in Western Japan a few years ago and gained an appreciation for Japanese paper. It’s very durable, strong and light, and it has an amazing internal texture that comes out when light passes through it. I wanted to use the paper, which could be seen as a craft material, in a rational and unsentimental way, and it really does make an excellent screen material. But yeah, there was definitely a desire to use something very physical and tactile to make the sculpture into something with presence.
Is the piece making a statement about data and our relationship to it? And if so, what would that be?
Of course, I have my own ideas and motivations, but I think it’s more interesting for people to draw their own conclusions.
I would say that for most people, let’s say the average person on the street, the data that flows all around us in various forms is an afterthought, as fascinating as it is. As well as the fact that we can’t see it, why do you think that is?
Many people would say that technology should be invisible, that it should be so intuitive that it would just disappear and we shouldn’t need to know how it works. I see where they are coming from, but there are also lots of advantages to understanding what is out there and knowing how to get hold of it and use it. We’re not used to thinking of the city in these terms, so we often don’t realize the potential.
As our lives become increasingly more virtualized and the digital and physical crossover, how do you see our attitudes and relationships to data changing?
It will be interesting to see how it pans out. The proliferation of the virtual city is inevitable, so the only question for us is, how do we want to approach it? We could back away and keep seeing the virtual as something not ‘real,’ but I hope that we will try to get beneath the surface, and become more interested in knowing how these systems and processes work. Then we can see these networks and data sources as tools and resources for us to explore and utilize. If more organizations follow the Carbon Culture and TFL etc., and make their data open, and if the amazing people who are encouraging kids to get into coding get their way, I’m confident that we will find many ways in which our cities can move forward and become something really new and exciting. Forget flying cars and skyscrapers, we can have a city which becomes a wild organism, living and breathing and sensing and mutating under our very feet.
All photos © Susan Smart