This is my undergrad thesis work, a project called ‘Re: Collection’. I worked on this in my final year of 2011-2012 and it was a critical introduction in my understanding of networks and community, memory and images, urban intervention and placemaking.
Glocalization and our shifting community
Glocalization is a term coined by a University of Toronto sociologist named Barry Wellman, who describes the effects of industrialization and globalization at the local level. Changes like the introduction of the automobile and factory have brought on a paradigmatic shift away from the local group structure and community of villages and urban neighbourhoods of the preindustrial area and moved towards a new ‘glocalized’ society, where communities were based on social relationships rather than immediate spatial relationships.
This delocalizing shift was driven by industrialization as well as increased mobility, telecommunications and globalization. (Wellman) The place for community became the home and the workplace instead of the town square and the decline of the local community began. We now rarely have interpersonal interactions with our neighbourhoods, and as follows, our neighbours have become strangers to us. While this change allowed us to be a part of many groups rather than one specific local group, what’s been lost is the sense of a present and embodied local group whose sociality can provide a sense of collectivity, social identity and belonging. It’s also hasn’t affected the public equally, with negative impacts affecting seniors and children more than the more networked and mobile 18-65 groups.
This loss of locality is such a dominant and sometimes cliché subject within social theory but with reason, locality is actually a tenuous social accomplishment, one that is constantly under duress in our globalized and networked world. In our contemporary condition, we cannot discuss locality without recognizing its continuous negotiation with globality. With mass migration and the rise of global multicultural cities full of conflicting and non-native, alienated cultures we are accelerating our estranged relationship with our neighbours and the process of becoming de-homed nomads. Our local communities degrade as we turn to new virtual and global communities.
Locality's importance to our anthropological history is seen in the rites and rituals that have been practiced in an attempt to inscribe locality on the body and in the spatial production of place. From the rites of passage of tribal tattoos and circumcision to the material building of houses, gardens and roads we strive to find identity as natives. (Appadurai) But with the degradation of locality, we are in crisis as we struggle to find our local communities’ identity and our own personal identities within them. We lose a rootedness, as if we’ve lost our sense of home. A crisis in a global city like Toronto. With this loss comes a loss of convivial sociality in our local neighbourhoods. This project aims to reconnect and rebuild locality in space and to intervene in this crisis of lost locality.
During the rise of the internet, we were impressed by the fulfillment of McLuhan’s prophetic Global Village. The ability to subvert space and time and connect with anyone across vast distances seemed the ultimate fulfillment of telecommunications technology. It appeared to be the final frontier of all the socio-technological developments of the previous century. This was the new community; we shed our boundaries and restraints and moved into the village.
Within the social theory frameworks presented by U of T sociologist Barry Wellman, my thesis investigates the rise of networked society and how it has affected our sense of local community, conviviality and sociality through a process of delocalization of neighbourhood communities and the loss of physical co-presence.
The project focuses on the Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale and seeks to build a social apparatus that connects public space in our urban environment with the newest conventions of locative social media.
Collective memory & community
Organizational online community-building tools such as hashtags, @replies, shortcode SMS, and foursquare locations can be seen as a kind of social texture that reflects the collective memory, a sociological concept first described by sociologist and philosopher Maurice Halbwach in his book La Mémoire collective.
The mediation of memory through the means of different technologies such as language, inscription or photography, and is a way in which we constitute our own identities within our larger collective memories. (Dijck) Our memories and media act as a bridge between individuals and our various communities. Every day as we move through the city we update our Facebook status and our Twitter accounts. We take pictures of the streets and the buildings, the food we eat, the places we visit, of our own stories. Stories which we impart with small captions, hashtags and geolocations, in an attempt to ground these memories in something, some space, some community.
The places for these dialogues of personal narratives have been changing throughout our post-industrial and now networked societies development and in the age of social networking, it’s pushed further from the local neighbourhood well and farther into the virtual space of the internet and burgeoning metaverse. Can we regain and rekindle these lost interpersonal exchanges within our neighbourhoods by reconnecting our local communities to our now networked, collective memory?
Memory is always a part of the recursive dialogue between individuals and their communities, (Halbwach) and the place for this dialogue has changed. These photographs and texts no longer adorn the hallways, journals and albums of our environment. We no longer share our stories around the campfire, or the village well. Instead, they inhabit the ephemeral space of the online social, the new campfire, a digital campfire. Within the contemporary urban environment, as we struggle to share our personal narratives in our public space, we’ve lost a dialogue with our neighbours.
The identity of the stranger becomes familiar to us all. The seismic changes brought on by industrialization and the rapid development of digital networks have forever changed the conditions of the community and the ecologies of memory they exist within. Our collective memory is a binding force that can bring us together within our communities. To help reconnect our communities to a shared collective memory I began experimenting with social media and what I coined as locative memory conduits. These experiments included objects, book design, projection art, and wheat-paste graffiti interventions.
In an early experiment and in an attempt to locate these lost memories and facilitate the sharing of personal narratives I built a simple program to cycle through the chronological ordering of an individual's Instagram history. I then projected these onto them as I took their portrait.
In a second experiment, I printed every photo from my Instagram account, 362 images in total and designed a small keepsake locket of my memories, logged chronologically and printed with a high-resolution inkjet printer.
The village well
Long ago, there was a desert village with a well at its centre. The houses clustered within the distance that a jar of water could comfortably be carried. In the cool of the evening the people came to the well to collect the next day’s supply of water, and they lingered there to exchange gossip and conduct business with one another. The well supplied a scarce and necessary resource, and in doing so also became the social centre - the gathering place that held the community together.
Then the piped water supply came. Who could deny the practical advantages? It was more convenient, and kids no longer got cholera. Population grew, and the village expanded into a large town, since houses could be supplied with water wherever the pipes could run. Dwellings no longer had to concentrate themselves in the old centre. And the people ceased to gather at the well, since they could get water anytime, anyplace. So the space around the wellhead lost its ancient communal function, and the people invented some new, more up-to-date and specialized sites for socializing - a piazza, a market, and a cafe.
History replays - this time because the information supply system has changed. Once, we had to go places to do things; we went to work, we went home, we went to the theatre, we went to conferences, we went to the local bar and sometimes we just went out. Now we have pipes for bits- high capacity digital networks to deliver information whenever and wherever we want it. These allow us to do many things without going anywhere. So the old gathering places no longer attract us. Organizations fragment and disperse. Urban centres cannot hold. Public life seems to be slipping away. E-topia, William J. Mitchell
Further explorations and experimentation into collective memory led me to discover the emergent and organizational qualities of hashtag culture. Hashtags are used in social media to quickly attach tags to media that group them into global and local collectives.
Digging through the over ten thousand images associated with Parkdale's hashtags I noticed patterns of what people found representative of Parkdale or simultaneous events that were shot from multiple perspectives. The following are composites of these images that layer photographs and present us with the collective memory the community shares of certain locations.
Monuments & public space
When considering locality, my attention was drawn to monuments in public space due to their concreteness, spectacle, permanence and their location in urban public spaces. Central to my interest was their innate ability to engage with citizens and their potential to help foster a sense of togetherness and promote dialogue.
These monuments caught my eye. They are a part of a series that today stand abandoned and forgotten in Yugoslavia. The series is titled Spomenik and was commissioned by the president of the Yugoslavian state at the time during the sixties. They were built to commemorate the second world war but today they lay in ruins.
Nation-states strive to build a national collective memory through the use of monumental architecture. These memorials honour a cultural past that is anything but local. The nomadic urban inhabitant does not care for this nationalistic agenda. Neither does the migrant stranger of the global city. These structures honour the hero's of long-past wars with concreteness, permanence, and prominence within public spaces that fail to engage with stranger citizens in any meaningful way.
In the manifesto titled Nine Points on Monumentality by Sert, Légar and Giedion they describe the lack of meaningfulness in monumental architecture and draw perimeters for the building of meaningful contemporary memorials.
“Monuments are the expression of man’s highest cultural needs. They have to satisfy the eternal demand of the people for translation of their collective force into symbols. The most vital monuments are those which express the feeling and thinking of this collective force - the people... The feeling of those who govern and administer the countries is untrained and still imbued with the pseudo-ideals of the nineteenth century. This is the reason why they are not able to recognize the creative forces of our period, which alone could build the monuments or public buildings that should be integrated into new urban centres, which can form a true expression for our epoch.” – Sert, Légar, Giedion, Nine Points on Monumentality
The points that are brought forward by Sert, Légar and Giedion point out the failures of state-sponsored monuments and direct towards a potential future for monuments that are truly representative of the estranged citizens of the metropolis. The site of collective representation they describe resembles the heterotopias that Michel Foucault describes in his essay–Other Spaces. Places that he illustrates as real sites that exist within every culture that effectively represent all other sites simultaneously, a sort of meta place. (Foucault) Another principle of the heterotopias he details is that they reflect slices in time, places that create a break with traditional time, such as a museum or library. Alternatively, there are also heterotopias that are linked to time in its immediate present and transiently flowing aspect.
Seeing graffiti adorning the surfaces of these state-sponsored monuments made me wonder if there was a better way to foster and negotiate collectivity and interpersonal exchanges within the urban environment. I wanted to build a monument. But what kind?
Taking a closer look at the graffiti in and around Parkdale I found inspiration in the back alley doors in my neighbourhood. These were found in the laneway ‘Milkyway’ that runs parallel to Queen Street West in Parkdale. The layers of tags represent a type of chronological documentation of collective memory.
The mediation of memory onto the topology of the city is not a new phenomenon enabled by advanced telcom technologies it’s been a human practice that’s been ongoing since the very first civilizations of Mesopotamia. William Straw speaks about this existing physical mediation in his essay–The Circulatory Turn.
" The physical edges of the city's built environment are almost inevitably mediatized, either through the functions they assume as points of orientation, or through the ways in which they become literal surfaces for inscription and text." – William Straw, The Circulatory Turn
We can see the marks of our collective memory all over the city in the graffiti-laden alleyways of queen west and the inscriptions we carve into park benches. They create these types of heterotopic zones where seemingly disparate and competing semantic codes can be collected and juxtaposed in a type of chonos history and dialogue. Eric Rutherford espouses this beautifully in his article about his experiences with the city of Toronto.
"Wooden telephone poles punctured by thousands of staples – the trace of countless homemade messages – are totems in a city that had not institutionalized every single human interaction" – Rutherford, Toronto: a city in our image
After taking several long walks and observing the graffiti practices of artists in Toronto I became involved by creating a series of wheat pastes using locative memories. I used photos from the popular social network Instagram and pasted them in the approximate locations where they originally were taken within the neighbourhood.
The newest technological capability to use geospatial satellites to moor our digital memory mediations to physical space is closely related to the existing rituals of inscribing memory on the surfaces of our cities. Tweets, status updates, check-ins, vines and Instagrams are all forms of this new locative media; texts that superimpose on the urban environment to create invisible heterotopic milieus. To help foster local community networks I wanted to understand how we can create our own heterotopic monuments.
Global positioning technology is the latest ontological development in the transcendent spatiotemporal conditions that we navigate through in our newly networked society. What it enables is the re-mooring of digital media, which had become unhinged in the early dawn of the internet. This allows for the physical space of the neighbourhood to be superimposed on by a growing amount of geo-located digital texts. The physical space becomes a canvas for our collective memory that we as strangers are co-creating together.
The hashtag is likewise a new paradigm in the organic and self-organizing networked now. It allows us to find our ‘people’ amidst an exponentially expanding datasphere of the worldwide web. They can be hyper-local, personal, temporal, or familial. They can act as a navigation system, breadcrumbs or nodes in a complex collective memory. A layered and weaved social texture that superimposes unto each other and unto our built environment.
This superimposition became a central metaphor that I explored visually, metaphorically and literally through various experiments. Taking memories and stories documented through images and text, layering them, and superimposing them back into both virtual and physical spaces. Relocalizing and reterritorializing the space. Pushing back and intervening on the loss of local networks. I was trying to make locative space matter again through placemaking and the creation of a new type of monument, a collective monument.
I wanted to build a new version of the village well that William Mitchells describes. A place where people could gather and exchange. I wanted to bring together the unmoored memories of the village and when I read Michel Foucault's essay- Other Spaces, I realized it was very similar to what I was thinking about. He describes heterotopic places as real sites that exist within every culture that effectively represent all other sites simultaneously, a sort of meta place.
Another principle of the heterotopias he details is that they reflect slices in time, places that create a break with traditional time, such as a museum or library. Alternatively, there are also heterotopias that are linked to time in its immediate present and transiently flowing aspect.
The nature of both memory and time are more complicated, transient, impermanent and fragile than the permanence of any state-sponsored, concrete memorial. This raised several questions in me. How can this drastic difference be reconciled, and do monuments even need to be permanent? Our collective memory is transforming, mobile and ephemeral, and transitory, incompatible with a static and frozen monument. Where might a monument for the people be located? Why one place instead of another? And does it even need to be a specific place? Over the course of three weeks, I experimented with mapping places around the city and my neighbourhood in Parkdale, and capturing them spatially, temporarily and psychographically.
During neighbourhood walks, I started mapping out the places where congregation and sociality were being encouraged by city planners through the built urban environment. This included landmarks like parks, plazas, street furniture, urban gardens, and monuments. I used a technique called photogrammetry to create 3D spatial maps of the environment. Below are the 3D captures of a plaza at Dufferin Avenue and Queen Street West.
In my continued exploration into the different ways space and memory can be mapped, I discovered a highly detailed 3D model of Toronto, located in the lobby of city hall. I photographed it and used these photos to create collages where images from the city's collective memory were superimposed onto its buildings.
I continued exploring superimposition but began to use projector light. I had found a great deal on 3 high lumens LCD projectors, and I was excited to start playing with light. My first exploration was simply using Google Streetview to project images of the neighbourhood on the surfaces of my walls. I spent a lot of time at home just exploring the way the light was painting the surfaces of my apartment. I experimented with creating simple paper masks to block the light and help align the images on my walls.
I wanted to have more control of how the superimposed images aligned with the architecture, doing this reinforces the anchoring of these images in our physical space, re-mooring them in the community. To understand how this interplay works I designed some simple structures in Sketchup and textured them with images that the community had taken of Washworld–my local laundry matt.
Building a new digital campfire.
Wodiczko explains that interrogative practice needs to be conceived as a performative articulation rather than just a symbolic representation. It shouldn’t represent, speak for or stand-in for the strangers but be designed with them, and it should question the conditions that formed the crisis in the first place. (Wodiczko) He accomplishes this with various apparatus, prostheses, and vehicles. Krzysztof Wodiczko’s work with projection art invades public space in ways that draw many parallels to my project.
I began to experiment with the idea of mobile projection installations as an alternative to the permanence of concrete monuments. Continuing with the metaphor of superimposition I wanted to project back on localities the site-specific social textures of the spaces. I wanted to draw together the chronological dialogues of our time and our collective memories into a new type of heterotopic place, a new campfire for telling stories. One that would embrace our new networked individualism, and reflect it back to us, and interrogate it.
To bring this mobile installation around the neighbourhood needed to create an apparatus. This need for a vehicle is what motivated me to create the Re: Collection trailer. I imagined a trailer, pulled by my bicycle, containing an electrical system, and necessary computer hardware, cellular modem, and projection systems required. I also needed to develop a software application that would allow me to access the images and text associated with various hashtags and locations. Lastly, I would need to understand how to use projection mapping to superimpose the collective memory texture back onto the built urban environment.
Digital & analog strategies
My goals were to foster interpersonal exchanges, create a greater sense of locality and engender sociality and conviviality in Parkdale. To accomplish this I created an Instagram account for my project.
I used an automated bot called Instaautomator to help cast a wide net. It allowed me to set specific hashtags for the service to look for including #parkdale, #parkdalevillage, #queenwest, #roncesvalles etc. When anyone posted a picture with these hashtags my account would automatically like their photo. I set the service to like their photo because I found people more likely to follow my account if they felt I admired them.
The most important thing to growing awareness of the project is engagement, and while I have the automated bot to cast a wide net I still spent roughly an hour a day searching through the neighbourhood hashtags and commenting on photos and accounts from residents in Parkdale. In a matter of a couple of months, I had hundreds of followers, with almost all of them living in my neighbourhood within a 4-5km radius.
Hashtag literacy campaign
I found a lot of reactions to my project's use of social media and hashtags to be slightly negative. I realized that hashtags had become a controversial subject. Well there popularity wasn’t in question, a lot of people still didn’t know what their function was. Some people also lamented the over usage of them.
For my goals to be met I needed people to participate and hashtag their images and tweets. Specifically about certain hashtags and locations. To accomplish this I designed a literacy campaign of posters and stickers.
Trailer design & construction
To create the trailer and electrical systems I came up with a general plan and kind of blindly fumbled my way through the design and production process. I’m not an industrial designer, an electrician or a carpenter. Needless to say, it was fun and just a little bit painful. I used the frame of a trailer intended to tow children and created a welded box that attached to it. Then I created a wooden that sat inside the chassis, with a hinged door, similar to an ice cream cart.
The electrical system was very challenging to figure out. Initially, I purchased a gasoline-powered generator, but I found the sound and exhaust to be far too disruptive for public outdoor installations. I worked out an alternative solution that involved a battery and transformer setup which would allow me to power 3 projectors for up to approximately 90 minutes. The battery is a deep cycle boat battery and feels like its solid lead. It is extremely heavy and makes cycling with this trailer a bit of a challenge, but it does exactly what I need it to do. It powers 3 high lumens Epson projectors for well over an hour.
Processing application & data aggregation
I needed to develop a small application that would allow me to do the following: specify a location and then access the images and text associated with that location in order to composite them as a texture. I used the Processing IDE, Processing is a free graphical library and integrated development environment built for the electronic arts, new media art, and visual design communities. As a newbie to coding, this was the only IDE and coding language that I had some experience with.
Using APIs made available by Instagram, Foursquare and Twitter I was able to specify in the code specific hashtags, or even just the longitude and latitude of a place, and a radius from that location. The application would then gather images and text associated with that place that had been posted to Instagram and Twitter and use these to create a ‘social texture’, a representation of the collective memory of that place.
Initially, my program would pull the images into a grid, one by one, and I found this a bit too literal. In order to communicate the nature of collective memory, I needed to convey a kind of ‘social texture’ with the stream of images. So my program will randomly size, crop, and place these images within predetermined parameters. Superimposing them onto each other with a multiply opacity.
I had created a hashtag for the two-bedroom apartment I shared with my roommate and created my first ‘digital campfires’ using that hashtag at home on our walls. It was amazing to see the place come to life with our collective memory reflected back onto its surface.
Superimposing with projection mapping
The first experiment was a projection mapping on some library books and a cardboard box. I projected some short videos of a snowstorm we had just had that I found on social media.
Public installations in Parkdale
I took my Re: Collection trailer and performance to three locations in Parkdale, typically at dusk and until about an hour after sunset. The installations were successful in fostering dialogue between myself and those passing by. And in one instance, a passerby recognized the project from the Instagram account I had set up.
Leading up to the grad exposition I also created an installation in the main hall of OCADU using the hashtag #ocad and longitude-latitude coordinates. I wouldn’t be able to use this space for the exhibition but I wanted to try it out at the school. The geometry of these balconies actually worked very well as a projection surface.
For the final exposition, I didn’t have access to the great hall and instead used a rigid 4-ply corrugated cardboard to represent the built urban environment. For the exhibition, I had my bike and trailer set up along with the 3 projectors that were used in my installations.