Thursday 24 January 2013

Street talk

Sam Hill and Ben Barker of PAN Studio Sam Hill and Ben Barker of PAN Studio Ladbury PR

How many lamp posts have you walked past today? Try counting them on your journey to work tomorrow. What if they had a story to tell – about what they see under that light, how they were installed, and what has been written on and stuck to them over the years?

Hello Lamp Post! is a project to create a fictitious but real world based on the stories of street furniture. Winner of the Playable City Award, it will be installed into the city of Bristol this summer before it goes on an international tour.

The Award itself is the first of its kind for Bristol. Devised and developed by a consortium of public and private organisations and led by city art venue Watershed, it invited applications from across the UK to propose a new piece of interactive public art. Judged by musician Imogen Heap, Google CD Tom Uglow, Clare Doherty of arts commissioners Situations and the Watershed's own Clare Reddington, the award was quickly whittled down from 93 initial applications, of which Hello Lamp Post! was chosen as the winner of the £30k prize fund earlier this week.

Digital interaction with street furniture is not new to this project; many of us have texted the number on a bus stop to find out when the next bus is arriving, or contacted the council to report a faulty street light. The concept is the same here; the project won't create a new set of street furniture, but will place SMS short codes on existing installations. Texting the shortcode will return a piece of interactive content about it, or the world around it.

The Internet of Things has been a common thread to much of the work of PAN, the experience design agency behind the project. According to PAN's Ben Barker, the main challenge of the project was to build a rudimentary network in order for the street furniture to communicate with each other, as well as ensuring that context and content were ahead of technological prowess for the sake of it.

The changing narrative of each installation uncovers more about it and more about its "life". According to Imogen Heap, Hello Lamp Post! uncovers the "... whispers on the street [and the] guardians in dark corners, humanising our cities' appendages whose eyes and ears now have a voice. Vessels for an ever evolving conversation, connecting us together."


Hello Lamp Post simulation. Photo c/o Ladbury PR


Barker explains how the project came into being.

"Our submission came from a piece of thinking on how memory and place relate to each other. Having read Austerlitz, Sebald's excellent novel about a man unravelling his forgotten past by travelling Europe, it painted an image of cities as wikis... how we get to be the way we are. All that we needed to do was to walk their streets to be reminded of the ingredients. We wanted to explore what a real-time document of both our identities and the cities would feel like."

As the project kicks off in coming weeks, Barker is keen to bring Bristol's people, groups, and institutions into the mix. He admits that some have already been in touch, and sees engagement with people really starting through the launch of a series of workshops, followed by public beta testing. What fascinates Barker is how new contexts can be given to installations with so much history, and how our relationship with them has changed over time.

"Post boxes and phone boxes are increasingly perceived as artefacts. People don't need to know their details - collection times, location, and so on - as much as we used to. We see them as oddities, not integrated in our lives. I think that's a growing trend of our infrastructures becoming digitalised, or at least digitally triggered.

"I'm a huge fan of textable bus stops. The immediacy of the response seems to breath life into the interaction. You feel a relationship with the service and with the location. It feels one step more intimate than an app... as if it is how the city always expected to interact with you."

Lamp posts that are pleased to see you, bus stops that reveal fascinating stories about your neighbourhood. The street is talking back, and Hello Lamp Post! gives Bristolians a unique chance to listen to it.


Ben Barker is co-founder of PAN Studio. He is @BenGBarker on Twitter.

For more information on Playable City and for updates on the project's progress, visit the Watershed website

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