In Focus: Mark Shepard's "Sentient City Survival Kit"

Mark Shepard’s “Quick Start Guide for the Sentient City Survival Kit”

This week, Mark Shepard (2009 Emerging Fields) presents the Serendipitor iPhone app in Spontaneous Interventions, the U.S. Pavilion exhibition at the 13th International Venice Architecture Biennale (August 29 – November 25, 2012). Designed for the “near-future,” when finding one’s way from point A to point B will no longer be a problem, Serendipitor is an alternative navigation app that helps you find something by looking for something else. Serendipitor is part of Shepard’s Creative Capital-supported project, Sentient City Survival Kit, a series of prototypes for electronic artifacts that subvert marketing and surveillance technologies encountered in everyday urban life.
Shepard contributed an essay, “Notes on Minor Urbanism,” on how the practice of “parkour” can guide our view of the city, to a special issue of Architect magazine dedicated to the Spontaneous Interventions exhibition. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Notes on Minor Urbanism, by Mark Shepard

Consider the contemporary form of urban mobility known as Le Parkour. Practitioners of Parkour, known as Traceurs, appropriate the space of the city as platform for exercising gymnastic skill. Here, the city becomes an obstacle course through which one moves from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Understood not as a competitive sport but as a form of physical and mental training, Parkour helps one develop a spatial awareness of specific affordances of urban structures and the ability to overcome mental and physical obstacles with speed and efficiency.

In the Traceur we see refracted a lineage of alternative ways of moving through the city. From Walter Benjamin’s Flâneur to the Situationists’ Dériviste, these urban actors perform the city in ways that not so much reflect it (as representation) but enact it (through transduction). Though them, we can read a city and the affordances it proffers, with each enacting a different city and the socio-spatial relations found there. In this context, Parkour becomes a form of urban hacking, a way of appropriating architecture and its attendant fittings for purposes not sanctioned or anticipated by the original design. Architecture becomes an obstacle that must be overcome as quickly and efficiently as possible, albeit with poise and grace.

Now consider the spatial topology described in The Catalogue (2004), a video by British artist Chris Oakley. The clip simulates a shopping mall somewhere in the north of England from the point of view of a surveillance system.  Yet we soon see that this system is doing more than just watching. Shoppers are tagged, tracked and monitored as they go about their shopping routines. Transaction histories are mined, personal inventories are matched against products for sale, and recommendations are made. Prescriptions for eyeglasses are facilitated though the retrieval of a recent eye exam report. The purchase and consumption of food and beverage items at a conveyor sushi bar is matched against a person’s medical records and a health prognosis is made based on what s/he is eating. (Fortunately for the subject of interest, the UK provides national health care – one can only speculate what would happen in the US when this information is shared an insurance company.) While this video is a simulation, the technologies depicted are readily available today, and one can imagine such systems becoming standard in shopping center design and management in the near future.

“Minor urbanism” involves transposing the practice of Parkour to the space illustrated by The Catalogue. As with minor literature, minor urbanism involves speaking in a major language from a minor position. Contrary to major architecture and urban planning approaches that dominate contemporary urban development, minor urbanism examines local, networked and distributed approaches to shaping the experience of the city and the choices we make there. As computing leaves the desktop and spills out into the world around us, technology increasingly becomes entangled with everyday urban life. From crowdsourced, geo-located datasets of popular locations in the city produced through social media apps such as Foursquare; to advertising displays on bus shelters that determine our age and gender using machine vision systems in order to customize the products presented to our particular market demographic; to contactless payment systems for paying tolls on bridges tunnels such as EZ-Pass that store our mobility patterns in remote databases accessible by law enforcement agencies: these systems are designed and programmed to remember, correlate and anticipate our movements, transactions and desires. What happens when parkour becomes a conceptual vehicle by which not the material city but this immaterial, informatic city is appropriated as a performative platform for alternative mobilities? What new urban actor might emerge? How might s/he develop a spatial awareness of the affordances latent in these systems and infrastructures and their entanglements with everyday life? How might s/he subsequently recircuit, reconfigure and redirect the flows of people, goods and data in these hybrid environments?

Mark Shepard’s Serendipitor, part of the Sentient City Survival Kit, is included in Spontaneous Interventions, the U.S. Pavilion exhibition at the 13th International Venice Architecture Biennale, August 29 – November 25, 2012.

More News & Stories