Vivid Sydney

Here in Sydney at the moment we are in the middle of Vivid Sydney, a festival of “light, music and ideas”. As part of the festival, a number of historic buildings are being “augmented” with projected animations telling their history in an intervention called Macquarie Visions:

Macquarie Visions casts a new light onto Sydney’s ceremonial street, celebrating in stunning and immersive light displays, the 200th anniversary and story of two great visionary leaders, Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his wife Elizabeth.

The Macquaries’ innovations are revealed with illuminating, theatrical and contemporary light displays in a family friendly free night…

These projections are effectively an analogue version of the sort of Augmented Reality applications we should expect to see in the next few years. (In fact, the AusWiki AR layer does a similar job of pulling up Wikipedia entries associated with important Sydney buildings.) Here, the City has a vested interest in presenting a specific version of history, for the sake of promoting Sydney. The “family friendly” narrative of Sydney space excludes a great deal from its account of history.



So we have one account of Sydney, from The Man himself, but how do we challenge this particular constructed representation of the city and its history?

Competing for Legitimate World View

We could challenge the authoritative representation of the world with our own. Present an alternative history of Sydney, that goes into the dark side of a major colonial invasion.

Where the infrastructure and investment of putting this data out there is in the hands of those with particular vested interests (everyone has vested interests), the landscape becomes awash with conflicting (yet authoritative) messages. The Nike True City iPhone app presents you with the one, “true” account of the real nitty-gritty, sub-culture-icious city, while the Mastercard app tells of a city made for shopping.

This is the idea behind feedback sections and comments to blogs posts and online news articles. These are polemic and partisan: they encourage competing (for legitimacy and for the last word) versions of history/truth. People only comment when they feel motivated to by either strong disagreement or agreement.

In the context of modern news, this is suggested as a “balanced view” and an acknowledgement of a post-modern awareness of differing viewpoints, but it does not help radically open up thinking on a subject. In fact, for every conflicting answer, the question becomes more rigidly, implicitly accepted as in the case of “Do you still beat your wife?” or “Would you give up freedom for security?”.

As I have discussed before, when talking about the meaning of urban space, these conflicting maps of the city are all guilty of the same violent removal from context, and insertion into a system of commodities and productive logic. This is no more true than when arguing, for example, that Skating is a sport and/or legitimate form of transport. Elements of the city are swapped out for a signifier of their standing-reserve – shopping, housing, or a fun night out. What is implicitly accepted here is a denial of the psychological landscape of the city, and the lived experience within it, in favour of an overarching strategic logic.

The Poetic City

While the Macquarie Visions event is definitely a fairly engineered, sanitised (“family-friendly”) and biased account of Sydney’s history, I am not arguing against such a history from a purely ideological point. I’m not totally embracing post-modernism and suggesting a single coherent narrative is without use. My critique concentrates on the relationship to lived experience. Context is lost in abstraction. The official line is a view which (fundamentally) removes the emotional complexity, and tends to fit into a productive/political logic that can’t handle these ambiguities.

I am looking to encourage a “tactical” engagement with space, which resists the mandated official line without directly countering it. This acknowledges the social constitution of a space; how a park is transformed by its use; how night streets can be sinister or inviting not based on a label on a map, but on the sounds of others’ practice of the space.

This emotionally-invested, “lived” engagement with the city was explored by the politio-art group Situationists International through Psychogeography. Psychogeography offered

a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities[…] just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into new awareness of the urban landscape…

Joseph Hart, 2004

that challenged the assumed dominance of a functional model of the city.

Psychogeographical map by Guy Debord

How can we encourage the writing of complementary “poetics of space”, that evocatively sketch a rich emotive landscape to challenge the spatial politics of commerce?

Emerging location-aware, networked devices seem like the perfect way to generate and share these playful paths through the city, after all aren’t they the acme of human communication? The problem is that the rational logic that was used to develop them is also ingrained in their operation. These are devices for harnessing, controlling, and observing the world; they are extremely good at ordering and creating inventories, and at enframing the ambiguousness of everyday life into something succinct and readable (Facebook tells us that “Josh Harle is late for work and feeling sad :(” ).

Currently Augmented Reality applications utilise the familiar listing, searching and ordering mechanisms for navigating through a representation of space. These mechanisms allow us to “direct and optimize” our experiences like the production processes they were originally created to support.1 Not that this isn’t useful, but it is far removed from an emotional space.

Instead of making a statement, ask a question: what does this site mean to you? Attempt to geared away from simply a response to conflicting opinions. We could build an interconnected mind-map from different nodes of locations and ideas, that allows for the free association between concepts. Like hitotoki‘s snippets of located literature, building up from vignettes of experience to form a field of intensity that forms the site. It is also important to keep the author as connected to the thoughts. It is disingenuous to remove the context of the viewpoint from what is being created.

Snippets from the Hitotoki website

Augmented Reality seems to offer a great tool for presenting an Inventory of Places that stakes its claim to truth. In looking to use AR to explore tactical space, this mind-map system seems like a fertile area of research.


1. In critique of the Situationists, they could be accused of contriving “situations” for new experiences in a way similar to this directed process.