Architecture Configuration Movement: Surprising the system

The PATH in downtown Toronto

The PATH in downtown Toronto

This article aims to provide an overview of a project named ‘Configure PATH: surprise the system’, developed at the Interaction and Architectural Space workshop at CHI 2014. Written under the fug of jet-lag, and with memories already fading…here goes…

The intent of the two-day CHI workshop was to bring together multi-disciplinary expertise from architecture and human computer interaction to foreground the role of interactive technologies in spatial settings.  The group of five that developed the ‘Configure PATH’ project was led by the Mixed Reality Lab’s Holger Schnadelbach, and the Bartlett’s Tasos Varoudis – co-organisers of the workshop. Along with three other teams, we were asked to create an interactive intervention in a space near to the Toronto Convention Centre, which would then be presented and analysed with all participants.

As ELO’s Mr Blue Sky emanated from another session, our group started to discuss some of the possible spaces we might explore. Of particular interest was the PATH. Some people had heard about Toronto’s PATH, others had been in the PATH, and others such as myself, knew nothing of it. However, an interesting part of the creative process started at this point as collective speculation informed a set of imaginary narratives about the space. Initially, layers of descriptive information were revealed/shared, such as its low-ceilings, multi-corporate ownership, maze of tunnels and so forth: followed by a wealth of speculative ideas such as the ‘possibly intense sounds’, ‘probably lots of media facades’, and thoughts about the supposed difficulty of navigation, through to connections beyond the PATH space to psychological maps of Paris, a film set in Toronto called ‘Last Night’ and another Canadian film, ‘Wrong Turn.’ As a result of this fluid and tangential discussion, a collective sense of the space developed, as did a sense of anticipation about visiting the location.

Last Night film poster from 1998 film set in Toronto

‘Last Night’ poster from 1998 film set in Toronto – about people’s last wishes on earth

PATH is a 20km network of pedestrian tunnels that lie beneath downtown Toronto, containing myriad businesses, subway stations and eateries. Before setting off to explore and research the PATH, we created a methodology that embraced the collective gathering of information, of stories, fictions, histories, and imagination. We planned to document the space through video, photography, audio and interviews with people we encountered – maybe asking them about the PATH, or what they would like to be at the end of a corridor. Having done so we would regroup in the workshop to interrogate the data and our experiences, before selecting our form of creative intervention. Hence, our very first group discussion provided us with sensitising concepts we took to our first physical experience of the PATH [i.e. revealing, uncovering, imagining, developing, opening, making visible, encouraging participatory and creative engagement].

Upon entering the tunnel, at the Food Court, we were all surprised by the emptiness. There were only a handful of people, it was a seemingly dislocated, ambiguous and uncertain place underground – with a very muffled sound. Objects such as orange cones were randomly placed about the PATH, it all seemed suspended, with the technology and machinery moving in some form of anticipatory loop. We moved around the location, mostly puzzled and sometimes fascinated. When we went back up to street level we were immediately aware of the noise, of the mass movement of bodies going to watch the Blue Jays at the local stadium, of cars – of the downtown soundscape. At that point we opted to submerge ourselves again in order to see where another exit point would take us. This time we resurfaced in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) foyer and atrium, with a mass of screens showing mostly synced programmes – including Coronation St. Here, we were surprised again by the lack of people, and the amount of the building’s infrastructure on show – cables, sockets, switching systems, plugs, banks of power – usually hidden from sight, were unexpectedly open and revealed, and easy to access.

 

System revealed

System revealed

Once we regrouped back at the workshop venue we discussed the PATH and our experiences of it, we documented our discussion on A1 paper and shared images and videos. Some of the notes are as follows:

  • Ad-hoc objects influencing behaviours
  • Re-configure space
  • Randomness linked the objects
  • System in anticipation
  • Performative aspect of technology in motion, and objects
  • Surprise at the lack of security of the infrastructure
  • Hackable opportunities, Hackable securities
  • Opportunity to inhabit sockets – small radio receivers and transmitters
  • Space mapped through audio delay of multiple radio transmitters
  • How do we make the space perceptible to others?
  • How do we make the system open?
  • How do we make it more legible and visible so that you can reconfigure public space?
  • How far would the owner of a business go to reconfigure the space?
  • Create boundary markers for space
  • If not an artist can you still make an intervention? Why not?
  • Explore the hackable nature of the system
  • Grey doors, soundscapes, smellscapes
  • Closed loop system, interesting points and bland links, repetitive, randomness
  • Hidden spaces, dead ends, inventing, re-mapping
  • Is our intervention about revealing what exists?

 

Within minutes of the end of the first day, we agreed to opt for an intervention that supports the creative reclaiming of public space by people, and does so through the production of a freely available online kit that includes prompts and maps. People would be made aware of the system – physical and digital – for instance, the sockets available to power their devices, or to insert a radio transmitter, or a USB port on a public screen to adopt and publish their own content, or a set of barriers to use as a setting for a playful game…and so on… We named our group the Architecture Configuration Movement*.

 

Chris and Thomas playing the system

Chris and Thomas playing the system

On day two we met at the PATH, and gathered images, audio and ideas that we could use to produce the online kit. We also enacted some of our ideas, filmed them and in doing so had our very own interactions with the system – namely with security guards in the flesh, security guards disembodied, and the lovely Maria who is operations manager for the PATH. These moments when we surprised the system through our interactions with it were intruiging – previously unseen actors in the network presented themselves once we agitated the system.

 

An ad hoc banquet with Maria

An ad hoc banquet with Maria in a PATH Food Court

Disembodied security at CBC, akin to Carlton the Doorman from 70's Rhoda

Disembodied security at CBC, akin to Carlton the Doorman from 70’s Rhoda

Hacking a hotel

Hacking a hotel

We were working/disrupting in a playful conceptual way, through facilitating creative participatory inquiry for people to reclaim public space. Our idea was realised by the production of the following elements:

  • A website
  • A map of the PATH with suggested interventions
  • An image of The Configurator: styled to surprise
  • Examples of the selected interaction themes: Playing; Probing; Staging; Exhibiting; Plugging
  • A set of printable QR code stickers linked to the interaction themes above.

 

Path Master Map

PATH Master Map: intervention

Mickael probing the system in the Convention Centre

Mikael probing the system in the Convention Centre

At the final workshop presentations session the Configure PATH project was showcased for the first time – but in the Conference Centre as the idea itself is playable in any urban space. There are a number of things worth noting, which I haven’t had time to do here, but I was particularly interested in the process we adopted, and how our initial collective discussion ended up providing the thematic scope within which we operated, and whilst the initial research methods changed through necessity, the sensitising concepts seem to have remained [i.e. revealing, uncovering, imagining, developing, opening, making visible, encouraging participatory and creative engagement].

We experienced PATH at the weekend, hence it seemed abandoned. Three days later, one of the team, Chris, had lunch with friends at the Food Court shown above, and reported that it was crazy and inundated with people. A completely different space.

 

*The Architecture Configuration Movement are: Bess Krietemeyer, Tasos Varoudis, Thomas Laureyssens, Christoph Lueg, Jo Morrison, Holger Schnädelbach and Katharine Willis.

To get a sense of the ‘Configure Path: surprise the system’ project, go to http://goo.gl/wLhLLP

ACM Configure PATH screen grab

ACM Configure PATH screen grab

 

Interesting Links

Configure PATH: surprise the system: website  http://goo.gl/wLhLLP

Configure PATH: surprise the system: website  http://www.mrl.nott.ac.uk/~hms/ACM/ACM/ACM.html

Configure PATH: surprise the system: master map  http://www.mrl.nott.ac.uk/~hms/ACM/MasterMap.png

Video about the PATH  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxICSISX3JI