Konstfack University College of Arts, Craft and Design, Stockholm, Sweden
Topics: embedded media, ubiquitous updates, mobile technology, future of airports.
Arlanda Avairy / Ubiquitous Updates is a project that begins by providing a service to passengers flying from Arlanda airport in Stockholm and ends in an art installation between the airport and the Stockholm Central Station.
Using the existing Twitter service, passengers in Arlanda airport can receive mobile updates about flight information. The passenger can also tweet Arlanda airport about experiences they have at the airport and suggest services that would improve their journey. These Tweets are a rich source of data for Arlanda. The artistic qualities of this data are then explored through sonifying the Tweets using text-to-speech software. These sounds are later played back through hidden bird boxes around the airport and the Stockholm Central Station.
About a year ago, I used to walk to work. I lived in London and my path took me through London Fields, the local park. Every time I would near this area, the sound of a myriad mobile phone rings would bombard my ears. I used to query if this park had a mobile-phone-enacting-force field.
Would you be surprised if I told you that these sounds were not coming from mobile phones, but from birds? Like you, I am amongst the savvies who are up to date on how technology is embedding itself into our environment. We both know all about Web 2.0, social networking, haptic touches, ubiquitous information and all that, and so it might not surprise you to learn that these birds were mimicking mobile phone rings. An article on this very subject appeared in 2001 in the Sunday Herald (UK), announcing: “BIRDS living at the cutting edge of information technology are learning to sing mobile phone melodies as part of their mating rituals.”(1)
As if by coincidence, I started using the Twitter online service, a simple updating service that limits messages to the number of characters allowed on the average text message: 140 characters. This limitation keeps it simple. However, I wondered, why would anyone want to write random updates about oneself?
The first time I found Twitter really useful was when I was trapped in Skavsta airport for 9.5 hours. If you have never been to Skavsta, try to avoid it. If you have, you will understand my pain. During 2 of the 9.5-hour experience, I was able to use the Internet, and suddenly I was able to share my feelings with everyone I knew, condensed into 140 characters. The act of voicing my experiences into the web sphere with a click; the expectation that someone, somewhere, would read my Tweet and understand, was therapeutic. With one click, I expressed my feelings; updated people on my whereabouts; and added another criticism to the long list already posted about the low budget airline I was flying. The ability to occupy the virtual space made the real live experience of the airport more tolerable. Although this was a welcome feature of Twitter in this situation, it also had a scary connotation. I realized that when we share our embodied experience simultaneously with virtual ones, we end up with a reality that feels hacked. As the philosopher Herbert Dreyfus puts it: "Tele-presence is an oxymoron. Tele-hugs won’t do it."(2)
The parallels between the airport space and the virtual space became apparent to me in the following way. The airport, like the Internet, connects you to everywhere, anywhere. However, in the case of airports, if you take a connecting flight through Singapore, you never say you have been to Singapore. In this sense, when in an airport, one has the feeling of being nowhere and anywhere at the same time. The same ubiquitous quality applies to the Internet. With regards to Twitter, it is a space composed of multitudes of text-based languages woven across each other in a vast stereophony. We share these spaces of information from corner to corner of the globe and in consequence, we become information spaces built from shared language and culture. We focus our attention on a world where we upload and download ourselves daily.
Download. Upload. Post. Feed. Mail. Text.
Home is where your cell phone is.
The Arlanda Aviary project aims to complete the technology loop that I experienced; from bird songs to mobile phones, back to bird songs again. The project raises a critical lens towards how technology is effecting our environment. The highest percentage of passengers traveling through Arlanda is Swedish business travelers. According to statistics over 70% of Swedes have Internet at home and own a mobile phone. In fact, Sweden has the most mobile phone subscriptions in the whole of Europe. With these passengers as a target audience, it seemed viable to employ a service like Twitter as an option for the Arlanda airport project.
As the passengers physically travel, they invisibly follow and are followed by a cloud of ubiquitous updates. Their thoughts and opinions are translated from one language to another, and yet another. From letters into 1's and 0's. From one technology to another and another.
Translate. Re-translate. Re-trans-late.
The Arlanda Aviary transposes these virtual thoughts to the physical world. It addresses how silent whispers change along their journey. Text to speech software is used to 'speak' the Tweets in various languages. These voices are sped up in post-production to mimic bird songs and later replayed into the environment around the Arlanda airport and around the Stockholm Central Station.
1. Stephen Naysmith, “Birds use Mobiles for Cheep Sex Calls” (The Sunday Herald, May 13, 2001) from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4156/is_20010513/ai_n13960063 See also Chris Gray, “Now Birds Brag by Mimicking Mobiles” (The Independent, May 18, 2001) from http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/now-birds-brag-by-mimicking-mobiles-685142.html
2. John Thackara, In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World (The MIT Press, 2006), 63.
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