Last year London’s Barbican, a wonderful, airy grade II-listed public building built in the Brutalist style and one of the city’s most well known arts spaces, celebrated its 31st birthday.
2013 is also the first year the building opened its doors to a motley crew consisting primarily of artists and technologists during the month of August, a period when the Barbican experiences a summer lull and a temporary break in its otherwise relentless and fantastic year-long arts and culture programme. This group of talented people – ‘theatre performers, computer scientists, sculptors, hardware hackers, teachers, musicians and everything in between’ as the website says – were brought to the Barbican through a programme called Hack the Barbican.
The genesis of Hack the Barbican lies in a conversation that happened towards the end of 2012 between representatives of the Barbican and entrepreneur and sociologist Charles Armstrong, founder of the Trampery, a London-based social enterprise that designs and manages social workspaces for multi-disciplinary communities in east London. The Barbican team wanted to put the building’s cavernous open area to better use in August, and Mr. Armstrong’s recommendation was for the task to be handed to a self-organising group of passionate volunteers rather than one or two people.
It was the right time for something like this to happen. With the city’s Silicon Roundabout getting more attention and investment over the last few years, Hack the Barbican was envisioned as a showcase of the best of London’s art and technology community, cementing the city’s relationship with creativity further. The idea was to be a community-generated project, though what was unsaid and yet to be determined when it started was whether it would be more along the lines of the unstructured unconference (anyone who’s attended a BarCamp knows what this is like) or a more structured festival (such as Le Web or SXSW).
One of the core members of Hack the Barbican’s self-organising committee, Lloyd Davis, was kind enough to sit down with me and chat about his experience with the project in the peaceful surroundings of the Barbican’s public terrace as the month-long event wound to a close. It was fascinating to hear about the self-organising process and its challenges. When close to 50 people decide to take it upon themselves to give some sort of shape to a programme of this scale (there were more than 300 participants), all sorts of issues rear their head. No one person was really ‘managing’ the show, but a representative was needed to channel communication between the Barbican’s team and the volunteers, for example. And as anyone who’s worked with a big organization, whether corporate or non-corporate, might expect, rules and regulations – practical ones, most of the time – did make an appearance. Open yet firm communication became a skill; the rules had to be dealt with patiently and delicately to ensure that they were not completely at a tangent to what the programme’s ‘hacking’ ethos was hooked on.
Listening to Lloyd I got the feeling that the ‘how’ was much more of an accomplishment than the ‘what’, though the ‘what’ – the hundreds of art and technology installations and activities that happened over 4 weeks – were very impressive indeed.
I spent a very engrossing afternoon at the Barbican wandering around the different installations, chatting to some of the creators who were on hand, even participating in a crowdsourced project. The event ran for a month so I barely got to scrape the surface of it all, but it was inspiring to see such different kinds of creativity on display. Here are some of them.
Carolyn Defrin and a group of fellow student collaborators from Central St.Martin’s put on a performance of ‘The Balloon’, which brought together live performance, small-scale puppetry, live video feed and pre-recorded green-screened film (a technique for combining two video frames). The story of a grieving pilot who had to journey through his former family life in order to take flight again, it was a bittersweet narrative that had me hooked for the ten minutes that it was performed – I’d never seen anything like it before. The Kinect is used here to great effect to create the illusion of depth, as one of the technologists on the team mentioned after the show, and Carolyn spoke about how the genesis of the show was a long-held desire to bring a hot-air balloon on stage, which was accomplished in an unusual manner using the projection techniques that were part of the story.
Contemporary artist Liz Barile-Page explained how her showcased project, a two-day collaboration with designer-technologist Stef Lewandowski, was built during the Digital Sizzle Art Hackathon in July 2013 (it won second place). Cryptographics encrypts sensitive information like passwords in physical works of art. Liz, for example, stitched a beautiful patterned quilt in 12 hours that was displayed in the foyer of the Barbican – except that it hid a personal secret of hers, and only she could decode the pattern. Stef used his bank PIN in a graphic poster, a poster that looked like any well-designed piece of artwork to everyone except Stef, to whom it means much more. The pair invite anyone to create a cryptographic of their own online at cryptographics.io.
The Citizen’s Office of Communications Safety
Christoph Sassenberg and Mark Durrant won first place at the Digital Sizzle Art Hackathon for their project, a digital screen that featured a live feed of devices accessing public WiFi in the area and the sites they were visiting – the idea was to highlight the boundaries between private and public information in a public space. It was (and was intended to be) rather disconcerting: ‘Charlotte’s MacBook Pro accessed github.com’, ‘Tom’s iPhone accessed reddit.com’ – you get the idea.
Check it out here.
Mashifesto, which won third place at the Digital Sizzle Hackathon, took people’s Twitter feeds and pulled words together in a random manner to form sentences which were exhibited as Russian propaganda.
The Barbican’s cloakroom literally brought out the child in me – the floor in front of the long coat racks was rigged up with RFID chips and divided into squares with tapes. As I jumped from one to another, musical notes emanated from the cloakroom itself – joyful!
This project aims to create a crowdsourced memory of the Barbican. Visitors were asked to imagine that London had been submerged by waves or hit by an asteroid and that the Barbican was destroyed. How would we let our future generations know what it was like? Plenty of people, including myself, shot 60 seconds of footage on their smartphones as they wandered around the building and submitted it to be made into a documentary.
I could go on and on about the projects I saw and others that were staged through the month, but I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the range of activities Hack the Barbican encompassed. A huge game of table Pong? Check. A story created from pictures of objects tweeted? Check – it was called Shelf Story. Discussions on sex and desire? Check – Intimacy Lab was in fact something that Lloyd Davis mentioned as trying to do something very different, working with the community. Bikes whose riders could listen to the same music depending on how far they were cycling from each other? Check – artist Gloria Chang was on hand to talk through how her project Tandem worked, and was even modifying her installation in real-time at the venue.
An online window that showcases the imagined journey of the Barbican as a building, driven by the wind? Check – Unmoored by James Bridle is an extension of his weather-focussed technology experiment first seen in A Ship Adrift, which reimagined the whole of the internet as an ocean.
Melissa Bliss, a researcher from Queen Mary University of London, also invited young people from the local community to talk about how they’d like to use the space, making it more of a participative project.
In the end, Hack the Barbican succeeded in going where it hadn’t gone before; I don’t mean that as an allegorical manifestation of Bridle’s project (!) but an example of what the Barbican could achieve when it stepped outside its comfort zone. It wasn’t easy by any account – one person’s definition of hacking is very different from another’s (no doubt an issue that cropped up with the organizing team) – and there was always going to be only so much time and energy a group of people could invest. Without sounding patronizing however, a journey of a thousand miles does begin with one step – and Hack the Barbican was a huge, ambitious and positive step for the building indeed, in every way.
A huge thank you to Lloyd Davis for his time in August 2013.