Last summer, Anjali Ramachandran visited London's Barbican Centre for a hack event with a difference.
In 2013, 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 – celebrates its 31st birthday.
The building opened its doors to artists and technologists for the whole of August, a period when the Barbican experiences a summer lull and a temporary break in its relentless year-long arts and culture programme. A group of talented people described on the website as ‘theatre performers, computer scientists, sculptors, hardware hackers, teachers, musicians and everything in between’ were brought in through a programme called Hack the Barbican.
The idea started as 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.
One of the core members of Hack the Barbican’s self-organising committee, Lloyd Davis, sat 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.
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 four 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. 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 just a few 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 her 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’ conceals sensitive information like passwords in physical works of art. In Liz’s case, she stitched a beautiful patterned quilt in 12 hours that was displayed in the foyer of the Barbican – an amazing accomplishment in itself, but hidden in its glorious weft was a personal secret of hers, and only she could decode the pattern.
Stef used his bank PIN in a graphic poster, an image that looked like any well-designed piece of artwork to everyone except Stef. 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.
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. Tweet @mashifesto to get yours.
The Barbican’s cloakroom brought out the child in me – the floor in front of the long coat racks were rigged 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 Talk. 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? 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.
In the end, Hack the Barbican succeeded as an example of what the space 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, which might be different from mine – and there was always going to be a limited amount of time and energy to invest. A journey of a thousand miles does begin with one step, and I felt that Hack the Barbican was a huge, ambitious and positive step for the building.