IO_Dencies - Questioning Urbanity

Essay by Knowbotic Research about their work "IO-Dencies", published in "The Art of the Accident," 1998.

IO_Dencies - Questioning Urbanity

The Art of the Accident, 1998

The project ""IO_dencies" – Questioning Urbanity" deals with the possibilities of agency, collaboration and construction in translocal and networked environments. The project looks at urban settings in different megacities, analyzes the forces present in particular local urban situations, and offers experimental interfaces for dealing with these local force fields. Cities like Tokyo and Sao Paolo were chosen to bring about a confrontation between different cultural environments which suggest specific interrelations between traditional ways of building, economic and political conditions, and electronic communication structures.

The contact with the concrete city environment is maintained through working with local architects and urban planners who deal with the problems and challenges of the city they live in. The aim is not, however, to develop advanced tools for architectural and urban design, but to create events through which it becomes possible to rethink urban planning and construction and arrive at a notion of process-oriented collaborative agency. We try to engage with the friction and the heterogeneity of the urban environment by merging the closed and rational system of digital computer networks with the incoherent, rhizomatic structure of the urban space. The project investigates the productivity of such merged, translocal networks as tools for the creation of topologies of interventions and connective actions.

"IO_dencies" TOKYO

In Tokyo, the central Shimbashi area was analyzed in collaboration with local architects. Several "zones of intensities" were selected: Ginza-Shopping Area, Imperial Hotel, Fish Market, Highway Entrance, Hamarikyu Garden + Homeless Area, Shimbashi Station, Hinode Passenger Terminal, JR-Appartment House, World Trade Center.
In these zones, the local architect set out several qualities of urban movements (architectural, economic, human, information, traffic) into a notation system.

These movements and flows and the ways in which they interfere with each other were digitally coded as dynamic particle flows that can be observed and manipulated through the Internet. On a so-called Java-applet, users can introduce a series of specially designed movement attractors into the urban flows. Each of the attractors has a different function in manipulating or modifying those processes. These functions include: confirming, opposing, drifting, confusing, repulsing, organizing, deleting, merging, weakening etc.

Participants in this project can develop hypothetical urban dynamics, based on the local notations. As soon as one participant starts working on and modifying the urban profile by changing the particle streams with movement attractors, a search engine in the background starts looking in the IP-space for other participants with similar manipulation interests and connects to them. They become aware of each other's presence, the activated movement attractors of connected participants will also appear in the applet. Some of these can be "absent" users whose activities are remembered and reactivated by the system some time after the intervention took place. If one or more participants are found, the characters of the data movements can be changed collaboratively in tendencies, they can be made stronger, weaker, more turbulent, denser, etc.

Streams of urban movements can shift between dynamic clusters of participants, chains of events pass through and disturb the personal construction process. Participants can develop new processes or react to already existing, ongoing ones. However, every participant will work on and experience a singular and different urban segment.

"IO_dencies" SAO PAULO

In the Tokyo project, a single architect did the "mapping" of the city, and the streams of forces were mapped and set out in a notation system on the basis of the topological structure of the city. The Sao Paulo project, on the other hand, enables the articulation of subjective experiences of the city through a collaborative process that was made part of the project's development. Over a period of several months, a group of young architects and urbanists from Sao Paulo, the "editors," provided the content and dynamic input. They are local people who approach the city of Sao Paulo by asking themselves "what are the forces that shape the city? What are the processes that create temporarily visible manifestations within the city?" The editors collect material (texts, images, sounds) based on the situation they are in at the moment and their personal urban experience. This material is put into a database by means of a specially designed editor tool. This tool also allows the editors to build individual conceptual "maps" in which each editor can construct the relations between the different materials in the data-pool according to his or her subjective perception of the city.

On the computational level, connectivities are created between the different maps of the editors, a process that is driven by algorithmic self-organization whose rules are determined by the choices that the editors make. Over several months, the collaborative editorial work in the database generates zones of intensities and zones of tension, which are visualized as force fields and turbulences. The participants can modify and influence these electronic urban movements, force fields and intensities on an abstract, visual level, as well as on a content-based, textual level. The objects in this force field are purely symbolic and conceptual, and the parameters are not spatial or territorial, but relational and depend on the editors' approach to their urban material.

The visualization shows the intensity of relational forces in the data-pool as they are being constructed and transformed by the self-organization. A specially designed interface table makes it possible to experience the zones of intensity not only visually and acoustically, but also as physical force fields by means of a "knob" with a magnetic mechanism which can be dragged and pushed over the projected visualization. The knob also has functions that make it possible to zoom in on and out of the visualization. When zooming in, the keywords referring to specific materials in the database appear. By selecting them, it is possible to see or hear the respective textual, visual or auditory material on a separate monitor. This engagement with the project and its material is fed back into the database and influences the relational forces within the project's digital environment. The networked project facilitates the fusion of reception and construction by several connected translocal users.


The discursive practice of the "IO_dencies" project places itself outside any architectural framework. The urban is construed as a machinic assemblage which consists not so much of built forms and infrastructures, but of a heterogeneous field consisting of lines of forces, lines of action and interaction.

These lines form the coordinates of an urban topology that is not chiefly based on the human body and its movements in space, but on relational acts and events within the urban machine. These can be economic, political, technological or tectonic processes, as well as acts of communication and articulation, or symbolic and expressive acts. This urban field is therefore quite different from the physically defined spaces of events and movements. Rather, we are interested in what the relation between the spaces of movement, the spaces of events and the relational, machinic "spaces" might be. It does not make sense to see the city and the networks as opposites. Knowbotic Research is interested in finding models of agency for and in complex dynamic systems. We see the city not as a representation of the urban forces, but as the interface to these urban forces and processes. Therefore, the city features not as a representation, but as an interface which has to be made and remade all the time.

The interfaces that we build are developed to allow for collaboration -they are open interfaces, i.e. tools that can be changed and improved through use. They are adaptive to both the different participants and the ongoing processes. What is offered on an experiential level through the interfaces is not a representation of the forces and processes themselves. The interfaces attempt to give the users' actions and interventions into the force fields a presence over time. Following Otto Rössler we can say that the world is not "the world in which we live," but the interface, through which we perceive and act. The city is not "the world of urban forces" but the interface through which we interact and negotiate with urban forces. And the electronic tools are not "the world of data and information" in which we now live because the "real world" doesn't function any longer, but the interface to certain symbolic and expressive processes, and thus to existing urban processes. The aim is not so much to insist on the differences between these "worlds," but to articulate the differences and overlaps between the various interfaces. In the interface, certain "distortions" appear because one is surrounded by different processes unfolding on different time scales. These distortions occur through the temporary coupling of these processes in the interface. To allow for such distortions and to make them possible, that's what could make the interface "inflammable."

A typical feature of the forms of agency that evolve in networked environments is the fact that they are neither individualistic nor collective, but rather connective. While individualistic and collective diagrams assume a single vector, a single will that guides the trajectory of the action, the connective diagram is mapped onto a machinic assemblage. Whereas the collective is ideally determined by an intentional and empathetic interaction between its components, the connective is an assemblage which is based on any kind of machinic interaction and is therefore more versatile, more open, and based on the heterogeneity of its members.

A connective interface does not combine functionalities. It creates a possibility for heterogeneous actions and distortions and integrates them without making them functional. It is an open interface that leaves room for turbulences and unpredictable events.

The distortions are not generated by the networks, but they can be given a certain presence and an effective form in the interface, without necessarily becoming visible. Complex working conditions like those in the "IO_dencies" experiment in Sao Paulo can result in a great deal of irritation between the participating local urbanists and the producing institutions, the programmers, the hardware and software, misunderstandings and wrong expectations. These distortions are present in the project without causing it to collapse. On the contrary, they generate new developments. It is vital to become sensitive to the weakness of interfaces and the potential forces that they bring forth. Our aim is to recognize them and turn them into "tendential" forces ("IO_dencies") which may become effective sooner or later. Drawing on Guattari's notion of the machinic, we describe the interface as a machine in a complex aggregate of other machines. Connectivity can, in this context, mean different things: the combination of functionalities; the collapse and opening up in a moment of conflict or rupture; or diversion and repulsion where no interaction can take place. What surprises us is this new, differentiated vocabulary that is emerging in relation to working with electronic networks: the interface ties together, folds, collapses, repulses, extinguishes, weaves, knots. All these activities, which are obviously not germane to our projects, make it necessary to rethink "networking" as a multi-functional, highly differentiated set of possible actions.


The urban is a machine that connects and disconnects, articulates and disarticulates, frames and releases. It gives the impression that it can be channeled and controlled, that it can be ordered and structured. The city is always an attempt at realizing this order, which, however, is nothing but a temporary manifestation of the urban.

The machinic urban is always productive, as opposed to the "anti-production" of a fixed city structure. But its productivity lies in the creation of discontinuities and disruptions, it dislodges a given order and runs against routines and expectations. The urban manifests itself in a mode of immediacy and incidentality, confronting a structure with other potentialities and questioning its given shape. We can clearly observe this tension between the urban and the city wherever the city appears dysfunctional and unproductive. But the urban machine is also productive at invisible levels, e.g. when real estate speculations that disrupt an area within the city, or when a natural catastrophe or political instabilities causes a rapid influx of large numbers of people. In these cases, the "finance machine" and the "tectonic machine" have an impact on a local urban situation.

The human inhabitants of cities are not the victims of such machinic processes, but they are part of them and follow, enhance or divert given urban flows and forces. Contemporary analytical methods of the urban environment no longer distinguish between buildings, traffic and social functions, but describe the urban as a continuously intersecting, n-dimensional field of forces: buildings are flowing, traffic has a transmutating shape, social functions form a multi-layered network. The individual and social groups are co-determining factors within these formations of distributed power.

The machinic character of the urban means that there are multiple modes of intervention, action and production in the urban formation. The relationship between space and action is of crucial importance. There seems to be reluctance on the part of many architects and urban planners to consider "action" as a relevant category. Rather, built spaces are much more closely identified with, and it seems, made for, certain types of behavior. The distinction between behavior and action is a significant one, behavior being guided by a set of given habits, rules, directives and channels, while action denotes a more unchanneled and singular form of moving in and engaging with a given environment. The suggestion here would be to move from thinking about a topology of objects, forms and behavior towards a topology of networks, a topology of agency, of events and of subjectivity.


What is referred to as the global is, in most cases, based on a technical infrastructure rather than on real-life experiences. The electronic networks form a communication structure that allows for a fast and easy exchange of data over large distances. But the way in which people use these networks is strongly determined by the local contexts in which they live, so that, as a social and cultural space, the electronic networks are not so much a global but a translocal structure which connects many local situations and creates a heterogeneous translocal stratum, rather than a homogeneous global stratum. The activities on the networks are the product of multiple social and cultural factors emerging from this connective local-translocal environment. We don't deny the existence of the global but see it as a weaker and less interesting field for developing new forms of agency.

There are local formations in which certain behavioral patterns emerge and translocal connections make it possible to connect such specific local situations to see how the heterogeneities of these localities can be communicated and to determine whether they are maintained or not in a translocal situation. Against the worldwide homogenization of the ideology of globalism one should set translocal actions which are connected but can maintain their multiple local differences.

The "IO_dencies" project is based on local situations, and we are looking for the productivity of the interface in the movement from the local to the translocal. In this continuing process, we test the possibility of translating ideas and cultural content, the local points of friction, and also the heterogeneity of what is often seen as a more or less homogeneous local cultural identity. At the same time, we recognize that globalization is a reality, and that purely local interfaces are insufficient. The global generates circumstances which make it necessary to open up the local to the translocal in order to develop effective forms of agency.

We were intrigued by the polemical hypothesis about the Generic City that Rem Koolhaas formulated in 1994. The Generic City is a city without a history, without the burden of an identity, the suburban nightmares and recent Asian boomtowns viewed through sober, cynical, pragmatic – dare we say Dutch – eyes. Implicit in Koolhaas' suggestion is the relentless growth and unstoppable expansion of the Generic City. In the 21st century, he seems to say, the Generic City will become the norm rather than the exception.

For the project "IO_dencies", the Generic City would be the counter-argument to the necessity to develop tools and interfaces that are locally specific, responding to cultural and social circumstances which distinguish one place from another. In taking the "IO_dencies" project from Tokyo to its next destination, Sao Paulo, the level and quality of difference, i.e. specificity, was at the heart of our concern.
It very quickly became clear to us that cities are or become "generic" only in certain segments. Like many other cities with a colonialist past, Sao Paulo is an intensely segmented city, with social, racial, economic and cultural borders dividing it like the Berlin Wall – a metaphor that we heard quoted quite frequently. This segmentation protects the Generic City, while other quarters, or segments located outside the city boundaries, are decidedly "un-generic," "dirty" and "specific."

The Generic City has no identity. Yet, identity is not something that is the same for a city as a whole. People possess or develop a clear sense of "home," even in the most decrepit neighborhoods. Local people have an intuitive knowledge that allows them to distinguish between a street in Kreuzberg and Mitte, between Manhattan and Brooklyn, between Bras and Pinheiros. The identity that is constructed in such urban environments is a heterogeneous composite of different symbolic matrices, social, cultural, familial, that are local as much as they are translocal. A possible counter-hypothesis to Koolhaas would therefore be that only few places are generic cities, and only a fraction of these will remain generic for longer periods of time. The generic stage is not the final stage, but one of the first characteristics of many human settlements.

The project "IO_dencies" asks how, suspended between local and global activities, urban characteristics are enhanced, transformed or eradicated, and it investigates whether the extension of the urban environment into electronic spaces might allow for changed qualities of urbanity. Is communication technology the catalyst of the Generic City, or is it the motor for another, transformed notion of urbanity and public space?

In Tokyo, the technological permeation of the social space is accepted without the social resistance that we find in Europe. Technology is used especially to make the ritualized social communication even more perfect, smooth and characterless or "generic." Digitization is supposed to prevent any kind of social noise or economic disturbance. In Tokyo, the "IO_dencies" project therefore developed software structures that could create a noisy, irritating network of experimental events between the urban components.
In Sao Paulo, on the other hand, we were confronted with a ruptured, fragmented and exploding urban space (in terms of social/political/economic inequalities and exclusions). Here, there were fewer technological strategies, the public sphere knew a different order and there were different parameters of public forms of agency. For "IO_dencies" Sao Paulo, we created possibilities for the collaborative articulation of urban texts and experiences. The Sao Paulo interface allows the participants and Internet users to express, condense and confront urban experiences on several concrete and intuitive levels.


In a previous Knowbotic Research project, "Anonymous Muttering" (1996), the question of possibilities of collaborative agency and intervention in urban environments was posed from a very intuitive, yet also rather critical point of view. The project confronted the visitors with an experience of high intensity of urban processes, which they could influence without being able to control them. The frustration sparked by the lack of feedback on one's action highlighted the degree to which processes of subjectification rely on the feedback that we receive on our actions.

Contemporary cities are covered with successful and failed attempts at leaving such traces and creating such feedback loops. The noise from roaring cars and ghetto blasters, the ubiquity of graffiti and tags, stickers and other lasting marks, and even temporary and permanent pieces of architecture are clear attempts at creating a lasting visibility and presence in the urban environment. Viewed from a cultural and political perspective, however, this kind of visibility is rather powerless if it is not coupled with opportunities to act and intervene in the public arena.

The aim of the "IO_dencies" project is to find out whether it is possible, to develop electronic interfaces which open up new forms of agency in a situation where the city itself is being deprived of many public functions, and whether network interfaces can become useful in local as well as in global contexts. Yet, how can agency be realized when taking into account the machinic? What would it mean to say that acting is the movement of the subject in the machine? What are the points of friction at which the subject and agency manifest themselves?

Acting is the production of friction, or fraction, in machinic processes. If the interface is the point and the moment of action and experience, it is also the medium that brings forth the subject and shapes its world. An interesting aspect of the connective interface would be that, through its coupling of different single-subject action-universes, it makes it possible to experience the tendential that is realized through the movement in the interface. The model of agency we are trying to realize would then be the building of connective interfaces that are sensitive and reactive to both the actions and the presence of others, as well as to the surrounding processes. There wouldn't have to be a "collective consciousness" but only the possibility of active and responsible cooperation between different people.

© 1998 Knowbotic Research / V2_

"IO_dencies" – Questioning Urbanity, Tokio 1997

Co-produced with Canon ARTLAB. Realization with Detlev Schwabe. Special support by Academy of Media Arts Cologne and Ministery for Research and Higher Education NRW.

IO-dencies – Sao Paulo 1998

Co-produced with ZKM/Institute for Visual Media, in the context of eSCAPE/ESPRIT long term research project 25377. Special support by Goethe Institut Sao Paulo, Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin, V2_, Ars Electronica Center, Linz (A), Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg (D), Academy of Media Arts Cologne (D).
Technical concept & application software development: Andreas Schiffler and Detlev Schwabe, ZKM. CGI Interface: Andreas Weymer. Audio application development: KR+cF.
Urban editors: Fabio Duarte, Artur Lara, Sandro Canavezzi, Polise de Marchi, Renato Cymbalista, Keila Costa, Maria Elvira, Marcos Godoi, Maurício Ribeiro da Silva, Reinaldo de Jesus Cônsoli.

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