Urbanautical Interventions is a temporary installation in Washington Square Park, designed with Joselyn McDonald. We set out to create an intervention designed for a specific public space that gave participants an opportunity to interact with the space in a different way.
The installation consists of a large number of used, unlabeled bottles of various shapes and materials placed around the vicinity of the park’s central feature, the fountain. Each bottle is illuminated from within, glowing green or blue. Passer-by are invited to take a piece of paper from a supplied pad and write a message of some sort, ‘to the world’ or otherwise, then throw it into the fountain. The glowing bottles, carried by the movement of the fountain’s waters, gradually accumulate until no empty bottles remain.
We were drawn to Washington Square Park in lower Manhattan in order to take advantage of its nature as a gathering place, where visitors and locals would congregate with no expectations other than to observe or to socialize. Research in the space itself confirmed our intuitions that the park was already an area of major public creative interactions, with the element of performance being particularly consistent.
We had been immediately drawn to the idea of a project in which participants created or contributed content in some way; a two-way street where they created some aspect of the work. The concept of a message in a bottle seemed to be a compelling possibility, potentially evoking senses of longing, desperation, the ocean, mystery, love lost, anonymity, isolation, or even a more subtle connectedness.
The internet has enabled anonymous message-writing for decades. How would participants treat anonymity in the context of an anachronistic and mythologized practice?
We decided to remove as much as we could from the instruction-giving aspect of the piece, hoping people would draw from their own instinctive reactions to the context, not attempting to manufacture some idealized drama. Thus no instructions were given other than to “write your message.”
Surprisingly, the messages were nearly universally positive in tone. This may have been partially due to the specific space and thus audience we chose, as much as any attachments participants brought to the idea of messages in bottles.
More surprising still was the eagerness for participation that we witnessed. We barely had time to install the initial bottles in position before we were practically overwhelmed by the interest the glowing bottles generated.
The behavior of participants around the act of throwing the bottle in the fountain seemed to evoke the semi-ritualistic cultural practices surrounding fountains in public spaces. Throwing the bottle for some seemed a powerful act, more personal than wishing on a coin before tossing it in. The bottles contained their words, whatever their worth, and they had spent time crafting them. The glow seemed to amplify the seemingly weighty nature of this ‘release.’
We had wondered about the connotations with garbage that used plastic bottles normally evoke - plastic bottles en masse remind us more of garbage collectors or recycling bins than any more resonant meanings. This didn’t seem to inhibit participants’ eagerness to participate - and we ran out of bottles rather quickly.
Whether or not the “garbage” effect would have been amplified if we had managed to carry off the installation at our initially imagined scale is debatable. Unfortunately we were only able to carry out the piece as a small micro-experiment, and the aesthetic effect of the glowing bottles in the fountain left something to be desired.
Some additional polish for a future iteration would be ideal, particularly in the set-up and break-down logistics, higher volume, less possibility for breaking glass, a method for diffusing each bottles’ light, a more sophisticated online ‘part two’ of the installation post-collection, greater intra-audience interaction, and ideally less direct participation and communication with the installers themselves.
Despite the lack of some polish, participants continually surprised us with their enthusiasm and heartfelt messages.
Only one of us got wet, and no one was arrested.
"Urban living has always tended to produce a sentimental view of nature. Nature is thought of as a garden, or a view framed by a window, or as an arena of freedom. It is what exists without any promise. If it can be thought of by man as an arena, a setting, it has to be thought of as one which lends itself as much to evil as to good. Its energy is fearsomely indifferent. The first necessity of life is shelter. Shelter against nature. The first prayer is for protection. The first sign of life is pain. If the Creation was purposeful, its purpose is a hidden one which can only be discovered intangibly within signs, never by the evidence of what happens.
It is within this bleak natural context that beauty is encountered, and the encounter itself is by its nature sudden and unpredictable. … However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception, always, in despite of. This is why it moves us.
… The aesthetic emotion we feel before a man-made object … is a derivative of the emotion we feel before nature. … All the languages of art have been developed as an attempt to transform the instantaneous into the permanent. Art supposes that beauty is not an exception - is not in despite of - but is the basis for an order.
there’s a trend among people involved in games - not just academics or game designers, but anyone who has constructed their lives and identities through videogames, of looking towards those systems to legitimize their own emotions and experiences above all else. the world of technology is, after all, what they know. they may want to make deeply personal or expressive or transformative videogames because they understand how videogames work, but they don’t usually have an interest in taking the time to become engaged with other forms of art or to understand how those work, or how they’ve changed over time. another side-effect is a lot of people involved in game spaces are automatically more interested in things when presented in a game-like manner, because they feel so disconnected from everything else.
Eric Zimmerman’s “The Ludic Century” more or less embodies this trend. i don’t consider the statement that the 21st century will be defined by games to be particularly controversial, nor is this the first kind of manifesto that’s been made about the future of games. the problem here is what does a manifesto like this mean if it can’t be related in any substantial or meaningful way to movements that are happening around the world? there’s a disinterest among game people in actually taking the time understand the heart of issues affecting the world outside of videogames. instead they substitute that fora more attractive proposition of worlds or experiences which can be escaped into readily and mediated through in a logical fashion. there’s also very little interest in intersectionality with other kinds of media - visual art, film, music, literature, etc. those media are more or less declared dead, or past their time, and videogames become the new, exciting, all-encompassing art form to end all art forms.
but i’d go further, and say the fetishization of play divorced of all meaningful cultural context isn’t at all engaged with social movements because it is fundamentally at odds with, or at the very least completely blind to the goals of those movements. its real purpose is to be part of the next frontier for technology to heavily mediate and supposedly augment human interaction. play can happen outside of the context of technology, and has happened for many years. but this particular obsession with techologically-aided play often manifests itself as an obession with a displaced fantasy reality of systems that people in positions of privilege, especially academics, have the time and resources to spend their lives and careers indulging in. this is becoming more and more the case as game studies is becoming a fast growing field.
it’s a selfishness we in the so-called “first world” are heavily encouraged to practice. we build a system, then we worship that system, readily forgetting we were the ones who built it and maintain it. we expect the systems to provide the answers for us, and then become furious when they can’t.
All of the seriousness of regular play, or of regular play rhetoric or regular play theory, is susceptible to being made ludicrous by this inversively playful person, who trivializes all things most devastatingly, including trivialization itself. The true trickster is so frivolous he can invert frivolity. While in modern society one can still find the “official” fool in various places on the fringe of society, there have been times and there still are places where the fool has almost the position of the wisest person.
Given their likely acquaintance with such a cognitively rich world of work, it is hardly surprising that when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913, workers simply walked out. One of Ford’s biographers wrote, “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.”
This would seem to be a crucial moment in the history of political economy. Evidently, the new system provoked natural revulsion. Yet, at some point, workers became habituated to it. How did this happen? One might be tempted to inquire in a typological mode: What sort of men were these first, the 100 out of 963 who stuck it out on the new assembly line? Perhaps it was the men who felt less revulsion because they had less pride in their own powers, and were therefore more tractable. Less republican, we might say. But if there was initially such a self-selection process, it quickly gave way to something less deliberate, more systemic.
In a temporary suspension of the Taylorist logic, Ford was forced to double the daily wage of his workers to keep the line staffed. As Braverman writes, this “opened up new possibilities for the intensification of labor within the plants, where workers were now anxious to keep their jobs.” These anxious workers were more productive. Indeed, Ford himself later recognized his wage increase as “one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made,” as he was able to double, and then triple, the rate at which cars were assembled by simply speeding up the conveyors. By doing so he destroyed his competitors, and thereby destroyed the possibility of an alternative way of working. (It also removed the wage pressure that comes from the existence of more enjoyable jobs.) At the Columbian World Expo held in Chicago in 1893, no fewer than seven large-scale carriage builders from Cincinnati alone presented their wares. Adopting Ford’s methods, the industry would soon be reduced to the Big Three. So workers eventually became habituated to the abstraction of the assembly line. Evidently, it inspires revulsion only if one is acquainted with more satisfying modes of work.
Here the concept of wages as compensation achieves its fullest meaning, and its central place in modern economy.