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Faculty Q&A

Mark Shepard on Digital Media and the Near-Future City

Work featured at 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale

Venice Mussel Choir

Putting 'Natural Intelligence' in the hands of the people: Mark Shepard and his collaborators observe the Venice Mussel Choir, a water quality monitoring system that 'sings' daily water-quality readings taken from a canal, at the 2012 biennale in Venice.

Published February 11, 2013

Two of our faculty members — Joyce Hwang, assistant professor of architecture, and Mark Shepard, associate professor of architecture and media studies and co-director of the Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies — participated in the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, the most prestigious architectural exhibition in the world.

Their projects were featured as part of the award-winning U.S. Pavilion, “Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good,” which investigated the future of the American city through a series of 124 small-scale urban interventions. We sat down with Joyce and Mark to learn more about their research and get their take on this year’s American exhibition.

Q: “Spontaneous Interventions” exhibited 124 socially-minded projects — small-scale, temporary and unplanned — designed to address areas of urban life undermined by conventional practice. What problematic urban situation does your project address, and what solutions does it propose?

“In the near future, finding our way from point A to point B will not be the problem. Maintaining consciousness of what happens along the way might be more difficult.”
Mark Shepard, Associate Professor
Department of Architecture, Department of Media Study

MS: Both of my projects address the projections and promises of the so-called “smart” city and critically examine the implications for everyday urban life. The Sentient City Survival Kit is a collection of playful and ironic artifacts for survival in this near-future city. Serendipitor, one item in the Kit, is an alternative navigation app for mobile phones that helps you find something by looking for something else. The app combines directions generated by a routing service (in this case, Google Maps) with instructions for movement and action inspired by Fluxus, Vito Acconci and Yoko Ono, among others. Enter an origin and a destination, and the app maps a route between the two. You can increase or decrease the complexity of this route, depending how much time you have to play with. As you navigate your route, suggestions for possible actions to take at a given location appear that are designed to introduce small slippages and minor displacements within an otherwise optimized and efficient route. Here, the intent is to reintroduce forms of play and mobility in the city that are at risk of being undermined by this highly optimized, ever-more efficient and over-coded city.

The Venice Mussel Choir addresses the question: what if the “smart” city we are promised by corporate interests and government agencies turns out to be not so smart after all? Building self-contained models or other representations of irreducibly complex urban ecosystems is neither the only nor the most strategic way to exploit sensors and the computational opportunities of the ‘Internet of Things’. Yet the promise and projects of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to produce intelligent systems has led to certain cultural expectations and misreadings of the critical opportunity we face. Natural Intelligence (NI), by comparison, is a paradigm that couples feedback from natural systems into social systems for ongoing interpretation and information. NI locates and displays the information within the community for whom it is most relevant — rather than being first and foremost for the centralized databases of government agencies and regulatory bodies.

The Venice Mussel Choir is a water-quality monitoring system that “sings” daily waterquality readings taken from a canal bordering the Giardini Publici. Using a scientifically proven technique involving a hall sensor and a rare earth magnet attached to the shell of the mussel, it is possible to detect changes in the gape of its shell over time and subsequently extrapolate its response to local water conditions in situ. The public workshop we conducted in Venice introduced the issues and challenges related to waterquality monitoring, and demonstrated how to build a water-quality sensor using mussels. A prototype system incorporating an array of these mussel sensors was submerged into the canal near the Riva dei Partigiani pedestrian bridge. Data from these sensors was used to generate a song performed by synthesized voices (the Choir), vocalizing changes in the water quality of the canal. My collaborators on the Venice Mussell Choir were Natalie Jeremijenko (director, Environmental Health Clinic, New York University) and David Benjamin (director, Living Architecture Lab, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation).

Serendipitor App

Mark Shepard's Serendipitor is an alternative navigation app for mobile phones that helps you find something by looking for something else.

Q: This new design ethos is often participatory and open-source. How does your project engage the community in this process of remaking our city?

MS: Both of my projects are built upon open-source technologies and involve participatory models of interaction for their realization. Each is fairly specific in the way that participation is structured, and how the different communities are engaged. In the case of Serendipitor, the app builds on conventions of interaction with GPS navigation systems and lodges its critique within these very conventions, as enacted by the participant as they move throughout the space of the city. rather than being first and foremost for the centralized databases of government agencies and regulatory bodies. Doing so puts the information in the hands of those who can take actions directly informed by it.

Q: Spontaneous Interventions — in fact, this year’s entire biennale — reflects a sense of optimism about the power of the architect and designer to effect change by deploying unconventional tactics that create more meaningful, accessible and sustainable places. Do you agree? How do you see this movement happening around you — here at our school and in Buffalo?

MS: I think we see with exhibitions such as Spontaneous Interventions that architecture is a very broad field occupied by specialists and non-specialists alike. Many projects exhibited in the U.S. Pavilion were not produced by architects but by teams of artists, activists and citizens who have taken matters into their own hands and are shaping the city in perhaps small but significant ways. This is especially evident in places like Buffalo where organizations such as People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo) are doing great work on the West Side. What we are seeing is a shift from top-down, centralized to bottom-up, distributed initiatives that are proving in many cases to be more agile and effective in achieving a desired outcome.

Mark Shepard on Tools for Survival in the Near-Future City

Q: Can you take a moment to share with us the origins of your project, and how this work emerged? What are future directions for this research?

MS: I’ll be conducting a graduate design research studio on this subject later this spring that takes the City of Buffalo as both site and context for a series of experiments in minor urbanism conducted by students from UB’s Department of Architecture and Department of Media Studies, together with students visiting from the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Germany, within the framework of the new International Media Architecture Masters Studies Program (IMAMS). The studio will also engage in a collaborative workshop with iDAT, a lab for creative research, experimentation and innovation across the fields of digital Art, Science and Technology at the University of Plymouth, UK. Outcomes from the studio’s research will be featured at MediaCity 4: MediaCities, an international conference exhibition and set of workshops to be held in Buffalo from May 3–5, 2013, which I am organizing together with my colleagues in the Department of Architecture and Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies: Omar Khan, associate professor and chair, and Jordan Geiger, assistant professor.