Thanks to this week’s protests of the Republican convention, the streets of Manhattan have become an outdoor gallery for the latest trends in the fusion of art and digital technology.
A loose network of tech-savvy activists has been working for months—in some cases years—to construct intriguingly bizarre electronic contraptions for creative resistance. This new breed of wireless activists is moving the Internet’s power off the screen and into the streets.
“Why should I be inside, staring at a monitor?” says Yury Gitman, a 28-year-old Brooklynite and inventor of the MagicBike, a bicycle that’s been hacked to double as a free wireless Internet hot spot. Yury, a quiet, soft-spoken sort of guy who cites Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and the scientist Nikolai Tesla as his heroes— “because they were working with the emerging media of their times”—envisions himself as the ice cream man of the wireless age.
Using MagicBike, Yury sent what he believes to be the first documented e-mail in the New York subway. He addressed it to Mayor Bloomberg, and sent it from deep in the recesses of the Union Square subway station. “He never wrote me back,” says Yury with a laugh. But the e-mail was sent, and a point was made—his bike could enable things that were not possible before. MagicBike is the secret weapon behind much of the Internet-enabled activist art happening at the RNC protests.
For instance, Yury’s MagicBike is helping 25-year-old activist Josh Kinberg’s quirky bicycle-powered chalk-printer to blog about the RNC protests. (Yes, even bicycles have blogs now. Welcome to the future.)
“I made a New Year’s resolution that I would do everything in my ability as an artist to stop Bush from being re-elected,” says Josh, explaining why he dedicated the last full year of his life to building the world’s first wireless bicycle that receives and broadcasts anti-Bush text messages.
Here’s how Josh’s project, Bikes Against Bush, is working at the protests: Internet users worldwide are sending messages to the souped-up bike through Josh’s website, Bikes Against Bush. A cell phone tied to the bike’s handlebars receives the incoming text messages, and the bike automatically sprays the messages on the street behind it in big chalk letters. The effect is stunning: The bike looks like it’s writing the messages magically. It lasts longer than a picket sign—the chalk takes about five days to rub off—and it’s faster, flashier, smarter, and sexier. Using a webcam, the bike takes snapshots of the messages it writes and then automatically blogs about
them on the website, so that users around the world can follow the bike’s progress as it roams the streets of Manhattan.
Yury’s MagicBike is also furnishing Internet access to Operation Urban Terrain, or OUT, a citywide video installation that also happens to be a networked live-action video game. The project is the brainchild of Anne-Marie Schleiner and other creators of the popular game Velvet-Strike. Featured at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, Velvet-Strike was a version of the popular shoot-’em-up Counterstrike, hacked to have an anti-war message. OUT trades on similar themes, but it goes one step further, connecting an online team of five players around the world to the game happening in Manhattan. The result is projected onto walls of various buildings throughout the city.
Throughout the RNC demonstrations, protesters are blogging, sending photos, and text messaging each other. The Screensavers, a group of video DJs and like-minded artists, are remixing all this raw data, creating video performances from random images, sounds, and text culled from RSS feeds of the day’s blogging activity. And a contraption called CoDeck, installed until September 3 in Avenue A’s alt.coffee café, will function as a platform for people to share and discuss video footage of the protests.
Other wireless activists, worried about the inaccurate crowd counts that so often accompany media and police reports at big protests, have engineered an answer: the “Bureau of Inverse Technology.” They’re tying wireless video cameras to helium balloons, and setting them afloat above the crowds. A guy on skates blazes through the crowd with the balloon, while the camera bounces data to laptops, to create a composite photo— and count—of the crowd.
If you’re looking for an easy way to join in the techie shenanigans, look no further than MoPort.Taking the popular trend of cell phone blogging, or “moblogging,” one step further, MoPort allows the masses to contribute real-time pictures of the RNC protests. The goal is to join the disparate streams into a collective reporting effort. It’s an ambitious idea, even you can’t always tell the good guys from bad ones in the photos.