The “Space of Flows” as Social Imaginary: Interpretation and Representation in Digital Artistic Practices (Part II) | MARISA GÓMEZ

Part I

The Spatial Logic of Flows

As we have pointed out, the material practices of the Informational Society are organized according to the virtualization of all types of information that can be produced and broadcasted in real time. Throughout the first volume of his book The Information Age, Castells thoroughly discusses how this permanently interconnected society, this Network Society, is shaped around a logic of flows: resources, information, technology, images, etc.

Accordingly, the material support of these flows –space– adapts and supports the same and makes it materially possible for them to be simultaneously articulated in time. Therefore, the space of flows is “the material organization of time-sharing social practices that work through flows”[1].

Digital ICTs allow a detachment from the rigid spatial-temporal limits and patterns that formerly conditioned daily activities, helping to reduce the importance of the spatial frameworks that are socially accepted for the execution of an activity. For example, e-mails enable a work arrangement that alters the dynamics of a schedule and a location: we can work from home, from the office or from a public square, just as we can alternate leisure activities with these work spaces and times. So, for Castells, the “space of flows” involves the emergence of a “timeless time” that becomes more flexible due the disappearance of temporal sequences and gives rise to randomness.

The de-localisation of production centres, workplaces and capital resources –transformed now into information– or the reorganization of urban form as a result of these factors and the rupture between public and private space, are a consequence of the data virtualisation process, and at the same time, the practices constituting this new model of space characterized by its dynamism and presented to us as a virtual flow. Thus, the spatial dynamics is based on the elimination of geographical distances, both for the transmission of information as for the mobility of individuals[2].

As we have also mentioned, Castells confronts the logic of the “space of flows” to that of the “space of places” as a historically rooted local spatial organisation of human experience. As we have seen, the ICTs have enabled the emergence of de-localized social activities and, therefore, their separation from the “place” [3]; an idea that has originated multiple theories and concepts affirming the place’s loss of relevance [4].Thus, the direct consequence of all these de-localisation processes would be the emergence of de-territorialized and ubiquitous subjects that no longer are where they are; in other words, they exist physically in one place and operate virtually in another, provoking that social relations in and with physical space are weakened [5].

However, as Castells points out, although the “space of flows” is the spatial model where power and social functions are currently organized, people continue to live in places. Thus, the notion of “space of flows” does not imply the “annihilation” of space or place, but only that their spatial logic is deeply influenced, as we have seen, by the logic of information flows, or rephrased, that the structural domain of the flows´ logic essentially alters the places´ meanings and dynamics.

Visualizing the “Space of Flows”

We will now see how the image, representations and the visual discourse play an essential role in altering the meanings and dynamics of places since they are the elements visually regulating the logic of flows and their application to space.

Castells provides many examples of how the logic of flows materialises or produces a new spatial logic that manifests itself in the urban form –which now becomes an informational city with exclusive spaces for the technocrat elites and suburban areas, leading also to the phenomenon of Mega-cities– or in the architectural forms.
Nonetheless, beyond the spatial organization of the city, it is evident how the “space of flows” also alters the urban space in its aesthetic dimension. This spatial logic adopts a visual form thanks to the integration of the ICTs in the urban environment, revealing the city’s inherent dynamics and reinforcing, trough the image, the notion of dynamic flow. The city is arranged according to the different ways in which the information can be visualised and hence becomes what could be considered the aesthetic manifestation of the “space of flows”.

The proliferation of screens, video surveillance cameras, wi-fi or multifunction mobile devices allowing interactions with the environment, are the basis of urban space understood as what André Lemos denominated “informational territories,” areas where the flow of information at the intersection between cyberspace and urban space is digitally controlled [6].

An example of this might be the Media Façades, which incorporate dynamic information onto the facade by means of devices such as LEDs. They are relational architectural structures since they can affect the surrounding urban space and often reflect its transformations in the very façade. Moreover, they are also interactive in many cases: pedestrians can control the same through the use of mobile phones or other devices with Internet access. Some examples of this type of architectural designs are the projects developed by the group Hackitectura or the media façade BIX designed for the Kunsthaus Graz by the group of architects Realities: United [7].
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BIX.

In this sense, recent years have seen the development of many projects which, coming from the realm of artistic practices and urban planning, have tried to express and visually represent the “space of flows” set up by the ICTs. Current City by SENSEable CityLab and Aaron Koblin, developed in 2009, is an example of this. Thanks to the location data generated by mobile phones throughout a single day, this project graphically reconstructs the city contemplating not only its buildings or squares but also those who occupy them. This allows re-creating movement patterns, areas of congestion or the relative concentration of human activities within a given urban environment [8].
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CuurentCity

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Another example of this kind of practices is the artistic installation Corpora in Si(gh)te (2009) by doubleNegatives Architecture, a hybrid work integrating a broad sensor network and an Augmented Reality display system. The sensors are placed around the exhibition site and pick up information from the surrounding environment: humidity, temperature, luminosity, noise, flow of people, etc. This information is processed and represented as a dynamic virtual architecture that grows and adapts to both the inside and outside of the building depending on the real-time incoming information[9].
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Corpora

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These examples show how technologies are used to represent the dynamics of the flows characterising the current urban space. But, at the same time, these types of devices and images that allow capturing and representing the complex intersections between the subjects´ mobility in a physical space, the transformations of space itself and information, generate a set of spatial pictures that affect the imaginary, reinforcing the notion of “space of flows”.

Regarding these data visualisation projects, it is important to highlight the role of artistic projects based on the use of Locative Media. Devices such as the GPS, Bluetooth or satellite have been widely used by artists to create collaborative cartographies in real-time. An example is the project PDPal, created in 2002 under the slogan “write your own city”. This project proposed New York citizens to generate, via mobile phone or Web, a map based on the construction of subjective representations and loaded with sentimental values, exploring the things that made that space either social or personal. For this purpose, participants were encouraged to transform their daily experiences and activities, their urban imaginary made up of the routes between home, the workplace, leisure areas or places brought to memory, trying to associate the same to new personal subjectivities –by means of new paths broadening the circuit– and to those of the other participants.
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Pdpal

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These kind of participative cartographies created in real-time are a new way of representing space. Just as the map had been the main strategy for representing the “space of places”, the “space of flows” needs new representations that allow grasping the dynamics and the flows of space itself. Thanks to the ICTs as tools that expand the production and visualisation possibilities of information at real-time, the map as a representation of places has also become dynamic, being able to reflect the dynamics of what is represented and contributing in its intensification.

Finally, other kinds of practices that ponder over the “space of flows” notion, and specifically, on the elimination of space-time boundaries, ubiquity and de-territorialisation linked to this spatial logic, are those using telepresence as a creative means. A paradigmatic example of such practices –which footsteps have been followed by many other artists- is the work Vectorial Elevation created by Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer to celebrate the year 2000 at the Zocalo Square of Mexico. The work consisted of a series of light beams that could be controlled trough the Internet by users from all over the world. Thus, the work reflected on the possibility of carrying out actions from a distance and at real-time, of having a virtual presence. At the same time it allowed an aesthetic re-definition and the transformation of the real place through the different combinations of the light beams and its movements.
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Vectorial

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From all these examples, we can see how the “space of flows” is more than a concept trying to define the new spatial practices of the Informational Society. It is also the way in which those visual practices are expressed, visually constructing that same idea of a dynamic and changing space, a space adapted to information flows and the mobility of people and objects. But moreover, these forms of reflection posed by the artistic practices and the ways in which the flows have been visually represented, contradict the ideas questioning the importance of the place as scenario for social practices. Despite the importance of a virtual space of communication, of information networks and the use of the ITCs in the construction of these visual discourses, what all these practices demonstrate is that urban space continues to works as a place, as a base for social practices.

The Media Façades and other forms of interactive architecture are, as we’ve pointed out, relational. Like the “space of flows”, façades have stopped being static, stable and still surfaces and have come to reflect the dynamic flows of the environment while transforming it. Projects such as Current City or Corpora Insi(gh)te are visual constructions that try to represent the environmental dynamics, not only with the mere purpose of visualising them but aimed at changing our relationship with space. In this sense, the Locative Media Art projects are not only the literal representation of the “space of flows”. They further propose visualization as a tool for establishing new urban trajectories and ways of relating with the city in its physical dimension.

Finally, telepresence projects, through which we can aesthetically experience ubiquity beyond daily practices, show the logic of flows proving Gidden’s idea that places can be modified by external influences generated far away. However, the alteration of that “other” physical space does not entail the loss of its condition as a locality. We, who interact with the work, are virtually ubiquitous –we are able to alter a distant space in real time–, but we can’t physically experience the effects of our action. Subjects, however, inhabit that “other” physical space, and, by aesthetically reshaping it through our actions, we transform the practices of its inhabitants and alter their perception of that space.

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We have shown how the new spatial logic of flows produced by the ICTs is manifested both visually and materially through these technologies therefore generating a new spatial logic that is not only expressed as an effect of culture virtualization over spatial conceptions, but also as a new way of representing, negotiating and inhabiting that space. The paradigm of the “space of flows” not only emerges from social practices generated by the ICTs or from Cyberspace’s influence on how we perceive the physical space, but is rather configured from the specific ways in which those flows of information are visually and aesthetically integrated in the material space. It is shaped from the new dimensions added to the place by the flows of information, which, far from causing it to debilitate as a place for social practices, it allows it to acquire a new importance based on the reflection made regarding its dynamics and the ways it can be socially occupied. We could say that image in general and artistic practices in particular, force us to become aware of the spatial dynamics of flows, and hence contribute to its imaginary reproduction and allow new aspects of the same to be developed.

Therefore, the “Space of Flows”, the space of Informational Society, becomes a complex space, not only because it is always changing and redefining itself, but also because over it, over its symbolic and imaginary form, many layers of meaning, information, networks and practices are superimposed in which the real and the virtual converge to generate new visual logics that keep expanding its complexity.
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Notes

[1] CASTELLS, Op. Cit, p. 204.

[2] Ídem, p. 453 and followings. Regarding this aspect of spatial dynamism, also worth highlighting is the “Non-Place” notion developed by Marc Augé, as well as other theories such as Bauman’s, who metaphorically relates the spatio-temporal fluidity with a “Liquid Modernity”. The elimination of geographical distnaces also resonates in the process of “Space-Time Compression” described by David Harvey. 

[3] This idea of the separation of space and place has been further developed bu Anthony Giddens, who explains how before the ICTs, these two notions almost always coincided since social relations were dominated by “presence” and how the remote communication not only are based on absentees, but also how local aspects are deeple penetrate by social influences generated far away from them. GIDDENS, Anthony (2008), Consecuencias de la Modernidad. Madrid: Alianza Ed., p. 29-30]. This perspective has originated multiple theories and concepts affirming the place’s loss of relevance.For Giddens, one of Modernity’s consequences –deriving out of the growing trend to accelerate transportation and the development of means of remote communication– is precisely the separation between space and place. Before the ICTs were developed, these two notions almost always coincided since social relations were dominated by “presence.” However, the ICTs foster “relationships between the absentees without the need of a face-to-face interaction”[GIDDENS, Anthony (2008), Consecuencias de la Modernidad. Madrid: Alianza Ed., p. 29-30].

[4] See, for example, Paul Virilio’s notion of “anihilation” of space in a contextex where “real time prevails over real space” [Quoted in: Molinuevo, José Luis (2006), La Vida en Tiempo Real: La Crisis de las Utopías Digitales. Madrid: Ed. Biblioteca Nueva, p. 33-34]. 

[5] In this way, the notions of ubiquity and de-territorialisation, or the widespread idea that space has lost importance in favour of time or in regard to the social activities, are closely related with the Cyberspace’s own spatial imaginary and with a whole series of practices –such as Immersive Virtual Reality- which, throughout the 1990s seemed to reaffirm the idea that physical space and all social processes developed in it would be absorbed by virtual space.

[6] Lemos, André (2008), “Medios Locativos y Territorios Informativos. Comunicación Móvil y Nuevo Sentido de los Lugares. Una Crítica sobre la Espacialización en la Cibercultura”. International Conference Inclusiva-Net: Redes Digitales y Espacio Físico, Madrid, MediaLab-Prado.

[7] BULLIVANT, Lucy (2006), Ag4 – Mediafacades. Cologne: DAAB Architecture and Design.

[8] Catalogue of the exhibition “Habitar. Redibujar el Entramado Urbano”, curated by J. Luis de Vicente, held between May and November at the LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, Gijón.

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