Assistant Teaching Professor, Florida State University
Associate Professor, Florida State University
This essay discusses the conceptual and technical underpinnings of Packet Switching, our ongoing body of work that visualizes architecture as fragments affected by economic and communications systems. Inspired by the technical process of the same name, Packet Switching emerged out of a shared interest in the intensive integration of software and the built environment. How, for example, can we represent the unruly algorithms of high frequency trading, and their resulting effect on housing markets? As this issue continues to evolve, so does our collaboration, with iterations including custom software, public commissions, generative animations, and writing.
Our research began with an examination of the growth of automation in the manufacturing of space and form. We looked at structures introduced before computerization that incorporated decentralized manufacturing, mass production, and/or usability studies, all of which often appealed both to a sense of the “greater good” and to profit margins. The Sears Company’s prefabricated home, for example, or architecture based on efficiency studies such as the Frankfurt Kitchen, provided us with entry points into thinking about the increased systemization of everyday objects.
Developments in hardware and software have seen computerized processes follow organizational principles to become instrumental in every aspect of concept, design, and manufacture. Not only do designers first imagine structures using digital methods, but also the resulting environments are now wired and connected in what human geographers call “code spaces.” In their book Code/Space, Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge describe how such spaces conflate architecture and software by requiring technical mediation for navigation.  An airport check-in process for example, is completely dependent on software that manages the flow of humans through space. Should that software fail, such a space would quickly regress into a chaotic waiting room.
Designer Frank Chimero describes software as the “new plastic” because like plastic, software can be anything, and ultimately it has become everything.  Software, like plastic, created a revolution in manufacturing, allowing not only faster and cheaper production of objects, but also designs that previously wouldn’t have been possible. Likewise, software allows objects such as smartphones to be used for practically anything, combining such disparate tools as a flashlight, game system, and phone into a single device.
Software also facilitates the manufacture of systems not intended for humans, as in the new fiber optic networks laid to connect machines for high frequency trading. As a result, not only are objects and space dependent on machines and software, but now the need for such connections is affecting the natural landscape. Blasting through the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, one such network will allow data transmitted by software between machines in New York and Chicago to travel a mere three milliseconds faster. 
While disfiguring the natural landscape, ambitious attempts to accelerate the performance of software through hardware reconfigurations have also led to unexpected outcomes such as the “flash crash of 2010.” On May 6 of that year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 1000 points (approximately 9%) only to recover the same millions of dollars in value the same day. The blame was later placed on automated responses to the abrupt selling of futures by yet other automated trading systems. Did the machines fail, or are we putting too much faith in them?
Packet Switching is our response to these charged environments – the way they affect everything from the abstract profit-based systems, which exploded the US housing markets to the manufacturing of the objects themselves – and how these processes can all go very wrong.
The title of the series references the technical process of packet switching. Through this process, contemporary communications systems break digital files into smaller manageable blocks of data called packets. Systems then send each packet through a network, taking the quickest route possible, and reassemble these packets into a whole once they reach their destination. One digital JPEG-formatted image, for example, might be broken into several packets, each of which may travel a different path through the net, even through different cities, before being recompiled into an exact copy of the original file.
This process illustrates how a distributed communication network such as the Internet exhibits significant moments of control within a seemingly chaotic process. It also shows how the structure of the net is more open to free flows of information, where every node has an equal possibility of becoming a part of the communication mesh, thereby removing traditional top-down information-restricting hierarchies.
These ideas were underscored in trying to view the architectural file for the College of Journalism and Communications building at the University of Florida, where our first commission would be installed. As it happened, we received the file from the architecture firm in a proprietary, closed source software format, and immediately had difficulty trying to view the planned structure to devise our project.
Eventually, through a time-intensive conversion to the open source COLLADA format, we were not only able to view the file representing the building, but all of details for the structure. Interestingly, the file described every part of the structure down to the brackets where the fire extinguishers would hang, including the metadata for the brand and ordering information for replacing such brackets.
Additionally, since the COLLADA format is an open standard XML schema, it allowed us to analyze the plain text contents of the file and its millions of geometries. Instead of working to exchange the format in order to allow edits through a GUI, we made an artistic deviation and wrote code to access and iterate over the geometries in the XML. The resulting software, available on Github, treats the elements of the building as an open mesh, giving one control to randomly isolate a range of geometries within the XML of any 3D model and export fragments of the original. ColladaFragmenter, as the name implies, therefore reimagines architecture as potentially thousands of new, fragmented forms by introducing chaos through random selection. 
ColladaFragmenter allowed us to produce still imagery for the University of Florida commission, but a later commission from Flashpoint Gallery in Washington D.C. prompted us to animate this imagery, and to remix it with related live data. After researching the local housing market to make the installation more site-specific, we realized that Washington D.C. did not have many foreclosed houses. What was impressive about the local real estate market was its extreme amount of turnover. Like the imagery we were producing, the characters in this city epitomized populations made transient by larger systems.
Inspired by the place where software and objects collide, our process underscores how incidental fragmentation and automation can streamline markets, but also make them vulnerable to systems failure. Our project’s use of architecture specifically points to recent real estate market volatility, and considers how the computationally enhanced pursuit of profit margins alters our most basic needs.
- Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge, Code/Space (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 12.
- Frank Chimero, “What Screens Want,” 2013, http://frankchimero.com/talks/what-screens-want/transcript/
- Paul Krugman, “Three Expensive Milliseconds,” The New York Times, April 13, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/14/opinion/krugman-three-expensive-milliseconds.html
- ColladaFragmenter, https://github.com/omundy/ColladaFragmenter
Joelle Dietrick’s paintings, drawings, and animations explore contemporary nomadism and its manipulation by global economic systems. Her recent artworks consider housing trends that complicate relationships to place. Her work has been shown at Transitio_MX in Mexico City, TINA B Festival in Prague and Venice, Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago, MCA San Diego, Long March Space Beijing, ARC Gallery Chicago, Soho20 New York, MPG Contemporary Boston, Temporary Home in Kassel during Documenta (13), Flashpoint Gallery in Washington DC, Alexander Brest Museum in Jacksonville and the Orlando Museum of Art and as a permanent public artworks at the University of Florida and the University of North Texas. Upcoming solo exhibitions will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville. She has attended residencies at the Künstlerhaus Salzburg, Anderson Ranch, Banff Centre for the Arts, and the School of the Visual Arts and received fellowships from the University of California, Florida State University and the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD).
Owen Mundy is an artist, designer, and programmer who investigates public space and its relationship to data. His artwork highlights inconspicuous trends and offers tools to make hackers out of everyday users. His work has been shown at Transitio_MX in Mexico City, the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, CA, Compactspace in Los Angeles, Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast, the Sarai Media Lab in New Dehli, Bauer&Ewald Gallery in Berlin, and APEXART, Flux Factory, and Art Currents Gallery, in New York. He is the recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the State of Indiana, a Planning Grant from Florida State University, a Center for Humanities Fellowship and San Diego Fellowship from University of California, San Diego, and a DAAD Arts Study Fellowship. His 2014 online art project I Know Where Your Cat Lives was reviewed in the New York Times, Wired UK, Time Magazine, Slate France, Motherboard and others listed at http://iknowwhereyourcatlives.com/about/.