The Internet of Things: Smart Art and What It Can Tell Us About Our Environment

Thames21.pngSmartArt first emerged as a ‘tool’ in Microsoft’s suite of tools in 2007. It was defined as “a SmartArt graphic which can be created and added to documents…a way to turn ordinary text into something more visually appealing. It can be used to draw attention to important information or to make information easier to interpret and understand” (http://www.computerhope.com/jargon/s/smartart.htm). This definition of “SmartArt,” as defined within Microsoft, is closely linked with how we view the advanced technologies of smart objects emerging today around the developed world; as a means to “draw attention to important information.” As Anthropologist Susanne Kuchler pointed out in her work on wearable computing, smart fabric (or in this instance smart art), is both “material and informational, with the environment being internal to the material” (Kuchler, 2008:101).

Take for instance a recent art installation in London which reflects the water quality of the Thames river. Artist Jason Bruges created the piece using multi-colored strip light LEDs which are programmed to display different animated patterns onto the Sea Containers House. Using the data collected by the Environmental Agency’s sensors, Bruges’ installation will change tone depending on oxygen levels in the water.

So what is social and infrastructural about this installation and other smart art around the world? And how will people use the representation to make and understand the “scapes” they experience and navigate in their day-to-day lives (Appadurai, 1990:296)? For Jason Bruges and Thames21 Organization, the Sea Container House is no longer just an office building and a hotel, it also carries “byte-sized digital information, with the potential to help the community perceive the world in a new way” (Kuchler, 2008:110). Digital information is being built into the design of the art installation and the relationship between the objects (Sea Container House and Thames River) and the knowledge it imparts on its passersby is being reworked (Appadurai, 1988).

In an interview with Verra Budimlija, the Chief Strategy Officer, at the sponsoring agency MEC UK, said: “The Thames is the lifeblood of our city, but often we don’t celebrate it. We want to help Londoners understand more about their wonderful river’s health and take action. By taking the complex data that exists in the river and transforming into a beautiful artistic visualization, we can help Londoners reconnect with The Thames and be excited by it.” (http://www.thames21.org.uk/2017/03/new-art-installation-to-shine-a-light-on-the-health-of-river-thames-for-london-environment-charity/). As the Thames breathes, as it lungs “contract or expand depending on the environment, information is being made accessible and providing a layer of protection (and awareness) through an ever-ready system of surveillance,” just like that of the smart fabric Kuchler describes in her article (Kuchler, 2008:110).

The focus of many of Bruges’ art installations is their tendency to focus on bringing to life often times invisible infrastructures and “drawing attention to the things we take for granted” (http://www.jasonbruges.com/art/#/data-cloud/).  Much like the WIFI systems which hold together the communication infrastructures that bring people and objects together all around the world (Mackenzie 2005:276 & 281), each piece is an on-going event, “that articulates different types of spatial and informatic movements together” (Mackenzie, 2005:283).

Sources:

photo credit: https://twitter.com/@thamespulse

business case study: http://www.thames21.org.uk/2017/03/new-art-installation-to-shine-a-light-on-the-health-of-river-thames-for-london-environment-charity/

Appadurai, A. 1988. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Appadurai, A. 1990. “Disjuncture and the Difference in the Global Culture Economy” Theory Culture Society, Vol7(1990), pp. 295-310

Kuchler, S. 2008. “Technological Materiality: Beyond the Dualist Paradigm” Theory, Culture & Society, Vol25(1), pp 101–120.

Mackenzie, A. 2005. “Untangling the Unwired: Wifi and the Cultural Inversion of Infrastructure” Space and Culture, Vol 8(3), pp 269-285.

Author Unknown. 1 October 2015. Smart Art Definition. [online] Available from: http://www.computerhope.com/jargon/s/smartart.htm [Accessed: 12 March 2017]

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