technology

Aleksandra Kasuba at the NDG, Vilnius

It's a privilege to be speaking about the work of Aleksandra Kasuba at the National Art Gallery (Nacionaline Dailes Galerija) in Vilnius this coming Thursday at 5pm.

One of my earliest memories, from when I was four, is crawling through her Live-in Environment, which she had installed in the townhouse that she and her husband, sculptor Vytautas Kasuba owned. You can imagine the impact it had on me. 

In my talk, I will focus on Kasuba’s constructions of the 1960s and 1970s in which she worked with high technology fabric from Dupont to create environments that occupy a third spatial order, neither art nor architecture. I will also read her work against a larger discourse on art and architecture in New York City at the time, revealing her own approach to problems that challenged other avant-garde artists and designers of the day.

The occasion is the opening of a reconstruction of her 1975 project "Spectrum, an Afterthought " which she conceived of after the installation of "Spectral Passage" at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.  

Kasuba's work is uncannily similar, and in many ways to the digital architecture of the contemporary era (not to mention Richard Serra's torqued ellipses). Still, the diaphanous qualties of the fabrics that she worked with give it a lighter feel and mark it as distinct from architecture (she was neither trained as an architect nor did she consider herself to be one). Instead, it strikes me that these kind of inhabitations are closer to tents, perhaps structures that nomads might construct within the non-places of the contemporary world. Imagine if airports were filled with structures like these, as spaces to pause in.       

If you are in Vilnius that day, I hope you can make it. I'm afraid that my talk will be in English although I'll be delighted to take questions in Lithuanian as well as English. 

Apple's Missed Opportunity

Apple refreshed the iPhone 5 and a new line-up of iPods today, but in doing so, it missed an opportunity. Handily dominating the world market for smartphones and tablets, Apple now faces the challenge of expanding its market significantly while introducing merely more mature versions of existing products.

In 2008, Apple introduced the iPhone 2, which made locative media a reality through its App Store and integrated Assisted GPS (aGPS). To be fair, earlier phones had the ability to install apps and aGPS*, but the iPhone's ease of use, large user base, and often-fanatical developer following made it a huge hit. But the now what? The iPhone 5 is merely a refinement of the iPhone 4. Apple CEO Tim Cook has promised "Amazing new products," but thus far we've seen little we wouldn't reasonably expect. The predicted smaller iPad is no different, just a smaller form factor at a lower price.

What then, would be the proverbial "next big thing?" I think the answer is clear: DIY ubicomp. I've been watching with interest a number of Kickstarter projects that aim to bring remote-sensing capabilities to the masses. Twine is the most sophisticated of these. This simple sensor will hook up to a Wi-Fi network and, when outfitted with appropriate sensors, can Tweet that your basement is flooding, e-mail you that your TV has been on for three consecutive hours, or send a text message you when a major earthquake happens. Operating for months on AAA batteries, Twine is a huge step forward in taking the kind of capabilities recently available only to hobbyists who bought Arduinos and went through complicated processes of assembly and programming.

So when Apple announced the new iPod Nano, it was quite a let down. The previous Nano was a small, square device that could fit on a wristwatch. Even though it only appeared to run the iOS, there is no reason why Apple couldn't have come up with a rudimentary programming interface that could let developers program Apps for it. With Wifi and one more port, perhaps the "Lightening" port Apple introduced today, a new Nano could have had access to a new market of inexpensive sensors that could make it aware of the world. Even at $99, which is more than the price of a Twine, marketing and momentum would likely have made the device a huge hit. If Apple had then committed itself to downward price migration, a ubicomp world could have been ours quickly.

I'm looking at my BBQ and imagining a future $50 device that I could plug into my temperature probe to text me to let me know when the temperature gets out of range. I think about my back yard, where deer are all too present and wonder if such a device might not wait in ambush to alert me with a message to my phone to let me know that there was motion in my back yard. I imagine that the tiny screen on the device might communicate some basic, useful information to me, like the temperature outside and the air quality, as sampled by another sensor connected device.  I wonder what my crafty children, or for that matter, someone like Mark Shepard or David Benjamin would do with such a thing. 

It may be that Twine itself is the next Apple II, to the Arduino's Apple I, and certainly that could be a better thing if Twine is a more flexible and open platform than the notoriously closed one at Apple. But still (and perhaps only because I own Apple stock…a disclaimer that I need to make), I regret that Apple has not rethought the Nano. For ubiquitous computing is already here, but it's just not yet for the masses. And that, I am convinced, is the proverbial next big thing.       

*Memory fails me, but I believe my Kyocera 7135, which ran the Palmo operating system and was first released in 2002 had aGPS.

On 30 Years of Soundtracks to Life

Over at the BBC, a teenager named Scott compares an iPod to a Sony Walkman (read it here). Scott is amused more than baffled by this obsolete technology, although it takes him a while to realize that a cassette tape can be flipped over.

On July 1, the Sony Walkman will be 30 years old. It's hard to imagine what urban life was before the Walkman. Sony first introduced portable transistor radios in 1957 and these proliferated rapidly. With an earphone (like this), it was possible to carry music around on the go, but both sources and quality were limited. Portable cassette players and boomboxes flourished in the 1970s and if the latter served as means of building impromptu communities, they were also consciously thought of as sonic assault devices, marking out territory and creating tension in urban spaces. The Walkman was a counter against this, turning music inward toward a solitary experience (although not entirely: as Scott points out, Walkmen often had two jacks, making them less solitary than iPods). If the boombox represents the last moment of urban decay and street violence, the Walkman represents its re-colonization. This would be recapitulated in 2001 when the iPod turned out to be the first major consumer product introduced after 9/11.   

A brief hunt for information about the Walkman's history revealed that an engineer named Andreas Pavel invented the first personal audio device. I can't fathom what all of the jacks on the stereobelt do, but it certainly looks very cool. Plus, the stereobelt had numerous innovative features. First, whereas the Walkman simply reproduced sound as if it was a miniature tape deck for a stereo that you plugged headphones in, the patent (which was filed in 1983, after the Walkman's introduction, but is an extension of earlier patents) indicates that the stereobelt was designed to play binaural recordings. Moreover, the Walkman was intended for mass consumption. It's true, that mix tapes were a step down the road to networked publics, but in itself a Walkman couldn't produce them. In contrast, the microphones on the stereobelt allowed users to not only take notes but to partake in what Pavel called "life recording (sound hunting)." 

stereobelt

Curiously, the Walkman was a product of jet-set life. The founder of Sony, Masuru Ibuka, asked for a portable music player for plane trips, thus spurring the device's development.  

What strikes me about the history of the Walkman is how different technology is now: iPods are 8 years old and already by the time of their introduction, CD players, flash-based MP3, and minidisc players had supplanted Walkmen. Technologies, such as the Walkman, that once seemed ubiquitous now have a run of less than a decade before disappearing or transforming utterly. And yet, historians and theorists use operative models largely developed within the days of the Walkman or—thinking of the continued popularity of the Situationists or Deleuze—in the days of the transistor radio.

Wouldn't it be amazing if we could develop frameworks to explain our world as rapidly as we could develop such technologies? 

clustering silicon valley

I'm back from a trip to see my parents in Vilnius where I had the opportunity to visit a great new project by Valdas Ozarinskas, one of the most interesting conceptual architects working today at the Contemporary Art Centre and from Limerick, where I was delighted to see three years of student work at the University of Limerick coming together nicely. So I'm a little behind with blogging, but hope to redeem myself over the holiday period.

This week the New York Times ran an article on the emerging industrial microclusters in Silicon Valley. Concentrations of engineers specializing in a technology, such as networks, form microclusters within the Bay Area, generally anchored by a large corporation such as Cisco, Google, or Intel. Thus, a new corporation would inevitably form in that same area. Moreover, shared ethnicity as well as contacts built up in universities such as Stanford, facilitate communication between engineers.

I'm fascinated by how narrow and focused such cases of clustering can be, to the point that identity becomes  the product of one's context more than anything else. What are the architectural possibilties (and limits) in this?

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