Sunday 28 December 2014

Step into the pool of light and run round in circles

“What the inventor wanted”, a stranger helpfully informs me, “is for you to step into the street light and start running around in circles”. He promptly does so, and after a lap or two in the pool of light, points out to me the second shadow that is now running, just in front of him. “It’s like you’re chasing yourself”, he exclaims joyfully, and encourages me to have a go.

It feels unkind to tell him at this point that the ‘inventors’ (or designers, as I prefer to put it) are me and my collaborator Matthew Rosier; and, in fact, continuously running in a loop is just one of a surprising and brilliant suite of behaviours that people have been inventing for themselves since Shadowing launched back in September.

So, I join in, chasing him as he chases his shadow, and watching passers by delight as my shadow emerges too and starts to chase behind me. "Shadow" me is chasing me, I am chasing him, he is chasing his shadow. The passers by step into the light and start to add swirling shapes to the mix by spinning with their arms out and before you know it, we are all giggling and playing together, stone cold sober (well, some of us), by the light of an everyday streetlight in a grimy alleyway in Bristol.

Shadowing was the winning proposal which Matthew Rosier and I put forth to the Playable City Award, a yearly competition run by Watershed in Bristol. The notion of a ‘Playable City’ forwards the idea that technology in cities can serve not only to streamline, optimize and control, but can also be used to encourage play and interaction. It was this view that was attractive to us - that technology does not have a fixed motive, that we can create interventions and infrastructure that support community, interaction, and perhaps even joy.

We won the 2014 Award, and in Bristol, between September 11th and October 31st, eight streetlights scattered around the lesser-travelled alleys of the city were given the quality of memory. Walking under these lamps, a second shadow would appear to walk beside yours - the trace of the person previously present. The goal of the project was to enable interaction, through time, between people who share a space.

In the beginning of our process, we limited our ideation with a few assumptions. One was that cities are interesting because of the other people. Another was that a successful intervention would need to emulate existing city infrastructure, not appear as a temporary installation or art project. When we started to make the work, we were lucky enough to get hold of some real, disused lamppost heads from Bristol City Council to experiment with. Over a period of 3 months we built, tested and refined the interaction design of our shadows, seeing what felt natural and supernatural. What made the difference between intriguing and unnerving? It was important to us that the experience of encountering Shadowing in an everyday environment felt plausible and legible, albeit extra-ordinary and unexpected.

 

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We were particularly interested in what would happen over time when people who passed a Shadowing street light every day got used to living with the exceptional in their built environment. After the launch, we’d visit the locations on rented bicycles to observe the activity. Some were more active than others, yet to visit a location was always exciting - to see the traces of those, to see who had played, who had walked by. One location, up on a hill in Montpelier was often busy, with many different constellations of people through the night. Often, groups would form around the light, and work together to record different patterns. Amazingly, the groups were formed of strangers - a family here, two friends there, a dude walking to the train.

One of the highlights for us came when a woman walking a blue-eyed Alsatian called ‘Wolfie’ told us “This used to be a mugging area, but the light has brought people out to play. The muggers don’t come here anymore”.

We started to hear back through social media how people were encountering the project and each other on the streets.

@helenmanchester: Came across #shadowing last night at Easton underpass- danced with a South American woman and was ranted at by a bloke about surveillance.

The question of surveillance culture was an interesting one for us. The technology that we used to record and play back the shadows of those that passed underneath borrowed from CCTV, using IR (Infrared) cameras. IR light exists below the spectrum of human-visible light, yet is visible to certain cameras. Using CCTV cameras and image processing, we were able to capture the walking silhouette. This technique is commonly used in interactive installation work, yet the IR image is used as input into a system, not exposed in its raw form. By making visible our method of imaging, we also raised questions around what it feels like to have the your image not only captured but echoed back to you in public space.

Our shadows were designed not to be recognisable as individuals, like the shadows you cast everyday. These were abstract shapes moving through a pool of light that just happens to have a memory and will remember you to the next person who walks past, will dream about you for a while longer (the lamps when left to their own devices would recall a procession of the previous 14 visitors as a ‘dream state’), then forget about you entirely. We didn’t keep the images, and we didn’t share them online or suggest that you find and tag your shadow on Facebook. We were not entirely a filmless camera, however, we do have over one hundred thousand extremely lo-res gifs that we exported from the lamps that show us how many people got involved and in the loosest form, what they did. We haven’t shared these yet but we might, they are kind of great. For us, this project was about an exact moment in time and in place, when something different happened to you, and then melted away, not about its digital footprint. The question of if or how these traces might live on is still on our minds.

In terms of what is next, we are working with Watershed to bring Shadowing to cities around the world. We look forward to seeing how new locations and contexts affect the experience and how those who live, work and visit these places react as they encounter the shadows of those who have trodden this path before them.

 

Jonathan Chomko is the co-designer of Shadowing. For further information on the project, visit the Shadowing website.

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