MIGRATION TOWARD THE CITY OF BITS
The move toward the "city of bits" is on. We set off to explore a universe in which all experiences and all attitudes are possible, one that we populate, occupy, and inhabit with what we are and what we would like to be. We can take anything with us - parts of dreams, samples of reality, meeting places, fragments of memories to help us forget, and even, anonymously, the most carnivalesque fantasies. The migration to cyberspace inspires many arrangements and compels as many rearrangements. We invent new places, and new ways of inhabiting those places. And while this universe may seem limited to the dimensions of a screen, one knows it is a window onto the largest network that has ever existed. What we exchange in this space is as diverse as it is unlimited. We need not travel light, likely because "the essence of the digital world is weightlessness," as Edmond Couchot1 noted so well. But this migratory movement is not without its effects on the other life, the one governed by the laws of gravity. Indeed, we see that this window on the world and the imagination is upsetting the physical organization of all activities.
Lewis Mumford2 remarked that the industrial revolution had produced a separation between the home and the workplace, relocated near natural resources or communication routes. The Internet, on the other hand, often brings work back into the home. And it isn't just a work tool. It's a leisure accessory, a conduit for services and exchange. And while one may have wireless access anywhere, cyberspace displaces many functions and activities, and provokes heretofore unsuspected changes of attitude and disposition.
MIGRATION RATHER THAN TRANSFORMATION
We realize, however, that the burgeoning revolution, which some have qualified as a transformation, has rather taken shape as a migration. The mutant gave way to the migrant, one who settles elsewhere, in unfamiliar, or - in this case - altogether new territory, since cyberspace has yet to be built. Also, as an image, system and model, the city metaphor seems to act as a catalyst for these new explorers. The city scale counterbalances a global village so complex and vast its immensity seems limitless, unrepresentable, abstract. To this all-encompassing globality, the city offers local charm. Cities have a sensual dimension. Each city has its colours, its smells, its particular relief. One enters cities, walking and sweating in them, shedding memories and sightings along the way. Web surfers are understandably drawn to city-building projects, as a way of spatializing exchanges, of populating a space by leaving one's mark here and there. It's also a way of occupying the ethereal and volatile space of the Net by projecting oneself into it, furnishing it, because we realize that the varied exchanges that proliferate within it need a spatial framework in order to take shape. Loci, whether real or virtual, provide an often decisive context for establishing connections, and for exchange. They create atmosphere, set the mood... It's difficult to settle a transaction between partners, when one is located on a beach, say, and the other in a skyscraper.
A shared buffer zone, as pointed out by Maurice Sharp3, better supports the exchange. Recall that on the Internet we are, first and foremost, addresses. It is the basis of our identity and of our localization anywhere on the planet. One must contextualize these addresses, which reinforces the choice of the city metaphor.
Several artistic projects have taken this route. One of the very first sites to do so is Flavia Sparacino's City of News (1996). The Media Lab artist describes it as an "urban landscape of information." The site presents itself as a city, with its streets and adjoining constructions, which several people can "inhabit" in real time, through wearable and gesture-based interfaces. Ambling through City of News, one discovers travel photos or the portrait of a featured personality favoured by the artist, with links to their Web site. The site helps manage expansion and changes of scale, making for areas of more intimate and physical scale - houses, streets, neighbourhoods - and more anonymous areas, with skyscrapers and large complexes. Additionally, it allows one to pass between one locus, and its associated functions, and another, to focus on or magnify an intimate view, or, on the contrary, to adopt a global perspective that allows one to grasp the relative value of each component, the space allotted for each generally being proportional to its value.
The border-lines between interiority and exteriorty become blurred on the Net. Here too, the city metaphor favours the passage from one to the other, or embedding one within the other. One marks the locations, inhabits them, personalizes them. Several itineraries are possible, often evolving as trajectories. One can follow the narrative sequences of real and fictional trajectories. The narrative of encounters, events, and personal reflections follows the stops that have caught the artist's eye. A very poetic example of this pattern is Sophie Calle's Vingt ans après (2001), which recounts a day's worth of comings and goings and various encounters.
THE TEMPORAL DIMENSION
Even though the city metaphor provides essential spatial landmarks, time remains the predominant coordinate on the Internet, governed by the urgency of maintaining the connection. Time certainly seems to be what we most lack, and not just because change doesn't respect the pace of maturation and metabolic processes, nor is it so much because we lack the resources to filter and process the multiple channels of information that assail us. Rather, it's fear of disconnection that makes one's relationship to time so precarious.
In Connected Cities, Söke Dinkla emphasizes the point:
"The driving force behind connectivity - whether urban or digital - is fear of disconnectivity.
This sense of being linked, which often lasts no more than a few seconds, is fed by the fear of being cut off.
Networks - whether digital or urban - are vulnerable.
They are thin, invisible, and, because they are influenced by constantly changing factors, often unpredictable."4
This factor is probably only temporary, like video screen snow in the 1970s, but it feeds and maintains the anxiety associated with the general lack of time. In the same vein, some artists have understandably chosen to play on other forms of temporality, recapitulating a series of past events, using stop frame images, looped animations, and so on. Many sites based on the city metaphor refer to and process time in ways that are worth examining, because they involve tensions and gestural inventions that are enlightening in many other respects.
Returning to the spatial dimension of cities on the Internet, many sites incorporate projections on digitally reproduced monuments or buildings. These urban constructions become screens or windows into slices of private life, sometimes becoming a tad obscene, as if there were a pressing need for the city to become a medium for all projections, giving the odd impression that anything goes, or that taboos and things the city conceals - its dark, forlorn nooks and crannies, its red light districts, its underground life - are meant for ostentatious display.
In the end, as William Mitchell so rightly points out, the digital world submits to a single law: "Out there on the electronic frontier, code is the law."5
THE CHARM OF THE BANAL
One finds ordinary objects, like clothing, furniture, utensils - insignificant to those who haven't invested them, but making direct reference to a private history - weaving a personal history with the city's, giving it texture and colour. Such, approximately, is the experience one finds in etay (2005), "an immersive lifetime data experience" arranged by David 'jhave' Johnston, who set up a loft to be alternately used by a dozen artists for 15 days. Their artistic and everyday actions were recorded in private and then disseminated on the Net as if projected onto concrete blocks in an empty lot in downtown Montreal. The site author himself insists on the temporal dimension: "Time inhabits us as we inhabit space."
Many cities are also represented as maps on which sites are embedded. A trajectory can be drawn between these various sites, as one visits them, each offering personal inscriptions, moments of complicity between artist and community (often presented as interviews), snippets of local history.
Such is the case with the vibrant site, Life: a User's Manual (2004), developed by Michelle Teran, who points out that the "voyeuristic walks" governing the composition of the site are in some sense a "series of hybrid intersections of virtual and physical spaces, both public and private, that one traverses and inhabits."
The city of Utrecht has become a kind of "game board" in which one discovers concealed stories, fragments of life in various places, all caught on wireless video during ten walks.
Somewhat along the same lines, David Crawford's site, Stop Motion Studies (2002-2004), disseminates partly animated photos of people in the subways of Paris, New York, London, and Boston. Here again, we are presented with a narrative of ordinary scenes in that tradition of photography and video that introduced us to simple representations of the home universe, unburdened of movie-making overhead. We are witnessing a rewrite of history in which the framing of the observer is a visible part of the observed scene, since we are led to follow suite, to trace the observer's path, to adopt his point of view.
For the purposes of this article, I only took into account references to the city as a spatial and physical expanse, though it is presented in a digital and thoroughly virtual mode.
Lacking here, is a treatment of the city theme that would emphasize the organization of communities on the Internet.
Relying less on narcissistic projection and the libidinal investment of a space, the urban and community edifice broaches new ways of "living together," other ways of "inhabiting the planet," a destiny that awaits us all.
N.B. : Three of the webworks mentioned in this feature are discussed more at length in this issue: etay (see webwork 1), Life: a User's Manual (see webwork 3) and Stop Motion Studies (see webwork 5).
1 : Edmond Couchot. La Technologie dans l'art. Nîmes, Ed. Chambon, 1998.
2 : Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1961.
3 : See Maurice Sharp, A Summary of the Presentations from the First Conference on Cyberspace, June 1, 1990, p: 3.
4 : Söke Dinkla. « Are Our Eyes Targets ? », in Connected Cities. Duisberg, Hatje Cantz Verlag. 1999, p. 25.
5 : William Mitchell, City of Bits. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1997, p. 111.
(Translated from French by Ron Ross)