Playing with the City

A report by Yvette van Nierop, about the "The City is You and Me" event, which took place during the IFFR 2003.

There are many different ways to view the city. First of all it is a place with houses and other buildings, with buses and cars, with commercial enterprises and endless shopping possibilities. But the city also provides the background against which thousands of lives are being lived and a place where numerous people interact with each other. With the presentation of The City Is You and Me, V2_ chose to stress the part individuals play in the way they perceive their city.

During this event, organized in collaboration with the International Film Festival Rotterdam, three artists were asked to give presentations on recent projects. All three projects were based on interactive processes, mimicking the complex processes of multiple influences that define the city. The three projects approached the city in very different ways. The first, Can You See Me Now?, transformed the city in a multi layered game board. The second, Stadtwirklichkeit, had as its starting point the subjectivity of the personal experience of the city. Face Your World, the last project, offered a vision of the city as a place to build onto and improve instead of a fixed reality simply to take for granted. Besides the differences between them, all three presented the city as something to actively take part in.

The first project, Can You See Me Now? is developed by Blast Theory (GB) with the support of the University of Nottingham Mixed Reality Lab. With the aid of technological devices, Blast Theory has constructed a theatre / game that combines virtual space with real space, creating an interactive multi-leveled game reality. The game was first executed in Sheffield. The game works as follows; the members of Blast Theory are running the streets with devices like mobile phones, Global Positioning Systems and portable computers. With this equipment they are capable of detecting the comparative position of the online players. The players meanwhile, are playing from behind their computers with a maximum of twenty participants at one given time. All the visual information they receive comes from their computer screen. What they see is a two dimensional city-plan of the game area, with moving around it three icons representing the positions of the runners. The players themselves are represented as icons in the game as well. The idea is that the players have to evade the runners while the runners try to catch the players. When the runners manage to 'catch' a player, they make a photograph of the part of the street that corresponds with the place the player would have been in real space.
Of all three projects, Can You See Me Now? engages the daily reality of the city most directly. The 'hard facts' of the city like architectonic structures and traffic movements become inextricable parts of the game. What Blast Theory offers is a different way of experiencing the same old city. Normally, the street is a public space that connects one part of the city with every other part. Most citizens only use the street to move themselves from A to B. In this game, the streets do not play their usual role as part of the urban infrastructure. The players cannot cross the artificial boundaries of the game, which causes a large part of the city to be excluded. On the other hand, players can log in from all over the world, making the game area the focus point of an international network. And while the players cannot see what is happening on the streets, they can listen in on the conversations between the runners. This means they have access to audio information about conditions like traffic and even weather conditions. Players have an advantage if they are acquainted with the area were the game is performed because then they know what the situation in that area is really like. This allows the development of tactics like forcing the runners to go up and down hills and cross busy roads thus forcing the runners to slow down. Non-local players can get access to inside information about the game area by using text messages to communicate with other players. The result is that the formal aspects of the city become part of the tactics of both runners and players.

Of the three projects, Stadtwirklichkeit maintains the biggest distance from the buzz of everyday city life. This also is the only one of the three projects that does not overlap with part of a real existing city. Instead it is a highly conceptual project with an accent on the human imagination in the process of experiencing the city. The creators Sascha Kempe and Michael Wolf (D) based their conceptual approach on a book by Italo Calvino called Invisible Cities. In this book, the young Venetian Marco Polo describes to the emperor of the Tartars, Kublai Khan, different cities that can be found in his empire. The different descriptions generate different visions of cities, but it is by no means clear that Marco Polo is actually describing different places. He may as well be describing one and the same city from different perspectives.
From this vantage point, Kempe and Wolf created an interactive computer program that is meant to give a representation of the complex interactions within the city. Participants are invited to be part of the 'building program'. Everybody can download pictures of buildings and other formal representations of urban areas and fit those into the larger structure of the program. As part of the attempt to create a lively view of the city, sounds can be downloaded as well. Also part of the program is the possibility to react on the contributions of other participants. By means of a voting system, visitors can influence which contributions are worth saving and which might as well disappear. Unfortunately the visual material that was part of this presentation did not really support the lecture Michael Wolf gave. The website he showed did not resemble a living city with intercrossing processes and the busy movements and multiple sound bites that are part of the real city. Instead it offered a rather clinical view of a formal architectural landscape in which nothing happens without the use of control keys. In a real city, movement does not stop when somebody stands still. In all, the idea behind this project sounded much more attractive than the footage that came with the lecture.

The last project was Face Your World. This project is designed especially for children between five and twelve years old. Like "Can You See Me Now?" this art project has a game-like form but with a more serious undertone. It gives kids the opportunity to think about their own environments in ways that differ from their daily reality. Jeanne van Heeswijk (NL) developed the Face Your World project in collaboration with the Greater Columbus Arts Council's Children of the Future program. The project was executed in three different neighborhoods in Columbus Ohio. The children living in these neighborhoods grow up in very poor conditions. They hardly ever leave their own neighborhoods and therefore do not know anything but their daily circumstances. They are so used to their own environment they simply take it for granted. The Face your world project provides those children with the opportunity to interact with the cityscape they live in and recreate their own environment in virtual space according to their own ideas.
The project contains different elements. First of all there is the multi-user computer game. In Columbus Ohio a bus with a remodeled interior provided six computers to work on, since most children in those neighborhoods do not have access to most technological devices. In every participating neighborhood, a 'bus stop' was placed on the street. Part of these bus stops is a screen on which the results of the creative processes are made visible for the whole neighborhood. Finally, participating children are provided with a digital camera to make pictures of their own environment. Those pictures can be downloaded in the bus and then be used in the digital recreation. A digital library of usable images is included in the program. The pictures the children shoot themselves also become part of this expanding library of visual material.
Because all the children are working in the same program, they have to take into account each other's creations. Every child gets some 'personal building space' and there are 'public building spaces' as well where all the children can add images. Just like in the 'real city' the digital version of Columbus Ohio is a mix of personal ideas and interactions between the participants. The end result is a digital view of Columbus Ohio, according to the children's ideals.

At the time of presentation during the International Film Festival Rotterdam, none of the projects were running anymore. Stadtwirklichkeit was already finished and the designers have moved on to different projects. The Face Your World project in Columbus Ohio is finished as well, but the program is currently rewritten for educational purposes. Blast Theory first performed Can You See Me Now? on the streets of Sheffield but the project will be restaged during the Dutch Electronic Art Festival 03. 

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