Hacking


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My mail the other day included a clipping from Seattle magazine, sent to me by my mother, about a Seattle theatre that plans to stage plays in elevators later this spring. The clipping, in its entirety:

Going up? You are if you’re joining Seattle’s edgy Annex Theatre for its series of Elevator Plays. Held in a yet-to-be-determined high-rise downtown, the series features 30-40 60-second plays calibrated for the tight time and space confines of an elevator ride (claustrophobics beware!). Switching elevators to see different plays, audience members get a visceral experience of the ups and downs of experimental theater.

The performance, unfortunately, has been postponed, (here’s a similar project in Louisville, KY) but there’s something tantalizing about using an elevator as a stage. It is a constricted space—temporally, physically, culturally—and it would be a fascinating project to use those constraints in pursuit of an artistic goal. How do you play off of these constraints? Does an elevator play follow (or have time to follow) Freytag’s pyramid? Do you treat the space as a kind of condensed theatre in the round? And how do you address the cultural proclivities—not speaking, even distribution, avoiding eye contact—that  people carry with them into elevators?

Elevators, because of these constraints, can’t be treated as a normal stage. To perform a thirty-second Hamlet or Waiting for Godot in an elevator, to an audience clustered against the back wall, misses the point: An elevator play should not transpose conventions of theatre into a space not designed for them, it should seek out the incongruities between the theater and the elevator and exploit them. It should find the cracks, force them open, and pour itself into them. The plays become thirty-second conversations overheard by the audience. The smallest gestures—hitting a button, shrugging, shifting weight—are freighted with new meaning. 

In this incarnation, the elevator play is a framing device. This is site-specific theatre at its most subtle. The actors and their conversations don’t appear any different than the people we see and the conversations we overhear everyday. The frame’s the thing: By cloaking their activities in the robes of theatre, by putting the frame of art around the mundane, we are able to direct and channel the attention of the audience, focussing it on a thirty-second snippet and encouraging a search for deeper meaning. (See Joshua Bell’s performance in a DC Metro station for how people respond to frameless art.)

The box of the elevator cab stands empty, ready to receive physical or cultural freight. I’m reminded of Jeff Stark’s I.R.T.: A Tragedy in Three Stations, which staged the history of the New York City subway system inside the New York City subway system, and of Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, a book that uses the rise and fall of the elevator as an extended metaphor for racial uplift. An ideal elevator play would be a sort-of meeting of the two, a work staged in elevators that simultaneously played off of the constraints of the elevator and found deeper meaning in its structure and history.

So this is incredible: What appears to be an ad-hoc theatre company is staging a moving play inside the New York City Subway system. The play is called I.R.T.: A Tragedy In Three Stations, and recounts the history and development of the city’s subway network as the play hopscotches through stations and trains. 

The show is sold out, of course, and reading this article makes me wish I had taken Site-Specific Theatre and Performance this semester. Quoth the New York Times:

“Tonight, these platforms will be our playhouse,” [Actor Jim] Ford, wearing a tuxedo and a handlebar mustache, told an audience gathered on a Brooklyn subway platform during the prologue. “Conductors will manage our stage. The sound designer is a passing train, and these fluorescents light our way.”

This is reminiscent of, but not exactly similar to, the production of Waiting for Godot that was staged in Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Both productions are examples of showing instead of telling, of exhibition rather than exposition. Godot piggybacked on New Orleans to emphasize the themes of the play, and used the play as a lens to focus the trauma of a post-Katrina city.

It drew power from exaptation: Godot was written before Katrina, for an audience in a different time and place. The setting amplified the play’s themes by finding unexpected commonalities between the characters and the residents of New Orleans. (Godot had earlier found similar success at stagings in Sarajevo and in prisons—Does this material universality somehow diminish its power, or does it enhance it?)

 I.R.T. is different. It was purpose-written for the space in which in it is performed, so the moments of serendipitous connection between the text and the space will be different, a little muted, a little planned. Still clever, but with a self-consciousness to this very public performance: It is meant to be watched, the audience and players are clearly defined, and the frame of theatricality circumscribes the entire performance. (Contrast that with Joshua Bell’s performance in a DC Metro station to see how passers-by respond to art without a frame.) Like Godot, I.R.T is gives its audience a lens, but the lens in this case is more like a pair of X-Ray Goggles, allowing the audience to see history and detail in the ordinarily mundane world of New York City public transit.

I’d like for I.R.T. to inspire a whole series of subway plays, each set in a different time or playing at a different theme. You can imagine heritage cars, or entire heritage trains, filled with actors in period dress. A subway moving through history: an eleven-car train, one car for each decade the subway system has been in existence, each car with different seats, different advertisements, different lighting, different people, the past loosed from the tracks of the MTA Transit Museum and forced out into the real world.

Or plays set in the parks and streets New York City, a kind of historic Improv Everywhere, giving life to the stories that lie latent in our surroundings. The stories are already there. We just have to learn how to listen, how to see.

[In the Subway, Moving Theatre, in More Ways Than One via NYTimes. Earl Wilson photo.]

Today’s Times has a piece about a Greek Revival-style house in upstate New York. The catch is that the house isn’t 150 years old, like its neighbors or like it looks: It was built in 1999. The other catch is that the house looks traditional because parts of it are actually old—antique wooden flooring, treated cabinet knobs, 19th century English furnishings.

This all compels the question: How do we determine authenticity? Is the house authentic because of its attention to detail, or inauthentic because of its youth? Would it be more authentic if it had been constructed using mid-19th-century methods? Do the plywood floors beneath its wall-to-wall carpeting diminish its inner truth?

Can theatricality and authenticity coexist?

[A Brand-New Very Old House via NYTimes. Phil Mansfield photo.]

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The relatively young Swindle Magazine (which bills itself as “the definitive pop culture and lifestyle publication” and whose server may be down at the moment) has an article about the history of spray paint, aptly titled “The History of Spray Paint”. The article, while short, reminds us of the that every object trails a history behind it, like the wake that follows a moving boat. The four-dimensional view extends to material culture, too.

Spray paint specifically is interesting because it’s one of a category of objects that allows direct interaction between the user and the built environment, typically for annotation of some sort (benign, artistic, or destructive). Other examples of this category include hand tools (screwdrivers, hammers, etc.) and binding substances (rope, tape, glue, etc.). Maybe someday, cell phones or digital cameras will be able to leave metadata latent in the environment, although you could argue that GPS satellites already do this.

How do we leave our (physical/electronic) mark on the built environment? Possibly related.

[Swindle Magazine via surplus and the mongrel arts.]

Alex Wong/Getty Images via NYTimes

The US Capitol awaits the inauguration. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images via NYTimes

I was having lunch with a friend of mine the other day and he was telling me about a class he’s taking: THST352, Site-Specific Theatre and Performance. This is already looking like one of those classes that I wish I had found a week ago, when I could still register for courses, because I’ve read only the syllabus and the ideas of the course have already started to stick in my proverbial craw. 

Yesterday’s inaugural events were their own kind of theatre, and I’m surprised that none of the built environment blogs I follow have talked about the architectural implications of a presidential inauguration. The most striking, and most literal, example of this is how the face of the US Capitol building was itself remodeled, adding bleachers, bunting, bullet-proof glass. More deeply, and less visibly, the gargantuan task of preparing for the inauguration and the crowds it summoned affected the city’s infrastructure, its very nerves and veins: Metro trains ran more frequently and on altered routes, cellular towers mounted on light trucks augmented the city’s existing telephone network, and the city’s vehicular network was remodeled as streets were closed to traffic, or closed completely. The city removed every single traffic light along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, re-installing, re-wiring, and re-synchronizing them overnight, in time for this morning’s rush hour. 

The capital is almost a once-every-four-years Vacationland, when high-strutting Senate staffers are turned into muttering locals and the DC Metro signs only point towards parade routes. Normal means of circulation are changed or cut off entirely. How do we respond to a once-familiar labyrinth that is now constantly shifting? What are the effects of such a day on the city’s inhabitants? A whole population become strangers in their own home. Kevin Lynch spends the next two months in the capital, interviewing residents about how they navigated the city that day; he publishes his findings in a book, controversially titled “The Trauma of Inauguration.” The MacArthur Foundation awards Lynch a grant to study location-based trauma in everyday America; he studies railroad crossings, drawbridges, and game-day traffic. 

The inauguration is almost an event out of time: trapped in its own local form but produced for a national audience. On a platform 500 meters in front of President Obama, and just above his height, perched pool photographers and videographers, capturing the goings-on that they might be beamed across the nation and around the world. The platform was a concession to the millions who weren’t there, the invisible, necessary, elevation of the media as the people’s eyes and ears. (The above photo was taken from that platform.) Behind the platform, stretching back to the Lincoln Memorial, were layers of fencing, Jumbotrons, police barricades. The capital was never designed to handle this crush; we have coped through exaptation.

Washington, DC, did not exist yesterday. The nation’s capital was remodeled, replaced by a theme park, transformed into a city wholly devoted to the pageantry of a single moment. I’ve written before about temporary landscapes, but the superimposition of the temporary inauguration landscape on top of a city that already exists is something else entirely. The speed, breadth, and depth of what we did to this city—of how deeply we changed it, of how quickly we changed it back—is remarkable.

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Flyers left under windshield-wipers for the car’s owner. This practice assumes a relatively tight correlation between user and object (that is, leaving a flyer on a car is the same as handing it to someone) and a relatively small temporal lag (that a flyer left on a car will be received the same day or so).  Our automobiles as proxy for our selves—a metal body standing in not for our flesh-and-blood incarnations, but for us. The car becomes our body, the windshield wiper no different than a hand. 

In this way, the car is like a part of our data shadow. A data shadow is the mass of information that follows us around—bank records, social security information, voter records, tax returns, phone numbers, email addresses. It is the shorthand for a system too large to process people and which must instead process information. We are not authenticated—at the airport, at the bank, during a credit-card transaction—our data shadow is. The data shadow acts as proxy, and the system assumes a tight (or tight-enough) correlation between us and our data shadow that each may stand in for the other. The system reveals itself in its breakdowns: Minors are able to buy alcohol not because they are 21, but because they can manipulate their data shadow through borrowed or forged ID to say they are 21. The data, not the person, is authenticated. (And even our proxies have data shadows—the car has its VIN, license plate number, automated toll boxes. Or are our proxies’ data shadows a part of our own?)

The more central and integral things become in our day-to-day lives the easier they are able to act as our proxies: murder suspects are exonerated by their MetroCards or their cellphones. How long before these proxy assumptions are hacked, and a bank robber, say, is caught on security camera in Manhattan at the same time his cell phone and MetroCard place him in the Bronx? When do proxies cease to be trustworthy?

Or more directly, what qualities keep proxies trustworthy? Security researchers have proposed all manner of proxy tests, from the “security questions” we have to jump through to get at our bank accounts to the PINs that have been with us since the checking card reared its plastic head. But these rely on the user providing a second set of information—a second key—to authenticate the first, which reduces abuse but does nothing to solve the root problem that information is itself a proxy. One of the more interesting proxy tests does not ask for information but instead asks decision-based questions: Would you do this or that? People can forget information, the system reasons, but they are unlikely to fundamentally change how they make decisions. 

As more and more proxy services converge in a single device—email and telephony on my iPhone, or library, dining, print/copy, and door-access services on my school ID—the value of that device increases. Will we soon realize über-devices—devices that integrate every proxy service, every data shadow link we need? This tightens the data shadow and strengthens its link to the shadow’s owner, but does nothing to solve the critical failing of a data shadow: regardless of how tightly it fits its owner, it is still separate from its owner. The flip of an über-device is a world of ultimate disposability, where we have no proxies and our data becomes a part of us. Might biometrics be the answer?

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A mobile coat rack, deployed in support of a game of boules in a Parisian park. Domesticated space, the park as literal urban living room. Proprietary, appropriateness: The metal chairs “belong” outside, but something meant for soft and fuzzy coats does not. Coats, like their humans, are inside creatures. The places and spaces where things are “supposed” to happen, the invisible rules that guide our existence, the benefits we accrue from occasionally disregarding them. (Some friends of mine buy a sofa at a rummage sale every summer and keep in the back of a pickup as comfortable seating for trips to the drive-in movie theatre.)

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A standard no-parking sign in Paris: The “not” symbol is understood to mean “no parking,” and “jour et nuit” translates to “day and night.” No Parking, Day or Night.

This system relies on interpretation and conscious action. People must follow the rules, must heed the signs, if the signs are to be effective. This is an open-choice system: We may follow the sign’s instructions, or we may not. The physical environment does not constrain us in any way. Contrast this with a constrained-choice no-parking system, which simply prevents users from parking in certain places or certain ways. Open-choice systems are significantly more flexible than constrained-choice systems, leading to their deployment in places like no-parking zones.

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A constrained-choice system is one in which the very structure of the system eliminates certain options. The aims of the system are physically manifest in such a way that the desires of the user, when physically manifest, are simply incompatible. The Paris Metro, for example, provides places to sit, but structures these seats such that they can only act as seats—they are physically unable to act as places to lie down, thereby curbing public sleeping. Note that (a) the aims of the system are not to prevent litter, leading to the newspaper on the second chair, and (b) the system assumes a relatively tight correlation between sleeping and lying down, between the action and the position. That is, people can use these chairs to sleep while sitting up.

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It’s easy to notice the underlying presence of a constrained-choice system in Metro seating because the change from benches to chairs is a relatively recent one, brought about by renovations. The new seating system eliminates an existing loophole or exaptation—something the system was never “designed” to be used for. The seating design in certain Metro stations, like the one above, just misses the point: a constrained-choice system only successfully eliminates choices if it is properly applied. Seating design is an especially powerful example of constrained-choice because it modifies an ongoing action, in a way that keys or security checkpoints don’t. A remarkable example of a constrained-choice system is the Airbus A320, which ignores pilot instructions that would cause the airframe to exceed its design parameters. 

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Orwellian Newspeak is an example of a linguistic constrained-choice system:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘ politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. (George Orwell, 1984, appendix.)

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The really fascinating thing about this is that, to a certain extent, all systems are constrained-choice systems. The difference lies in whether or not the system deliberately seeks to constrain a user’s choices, and in how well or poorly it does so. In most cases, a system either needs to meet the needs of so many different people, is not sufficiently funded, or is so crudely designed that there is plenty of wiggle room and all manner of exaptations are possible. (Dumpster diving is an exaptation; pouring bleach on thrown-out food is an attempt to maintain the integrity of the system.) 

The process of design, of choosing this form over that one, necessarily excludes certain possible choices. The interesting stuff comes when certain choices are deliberately built out of a system, because those design decisions reveal both the mindset of the designer, the aims of the system, and possible weak points. Every system, even constrained-choice systems, can be exploited. It’s just a matter of how or where, and finding a system’s weak points is easier when you can see what the system ‘wants’ its users to do.

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At the Walt Disney Studios Park portion of Disneyland Resort Paris, something’s not quite right. Note the curiously flat column on the left, the shadow over the “1” at the top of the building, and the blockiness of part of the sky. This is not, in fact, a façade—this is a custom-printed cover, hung over scaffolding and set 3-4 feet forward of the actual front of the building. (You can see the scaffolding most clearly at the top of the frame, just to the right of the “1”.) The cover exactly duplicates the façade of the building it’s hiding. This is pure Disney: Renovate, but don’t let anyone know about it. The cover not only masks renovation work, it also protects the public from dust or dropped tools.

The seams of our reality, the messages we convince our buildings to send or mask. The messages we are meant to receive, the details we are meant to notice: In an artificially constructed reality, the commonplace or unremarkable messages become all the more important, because they, too, are fraught with meaning, even if they purport not to be.

Last Disneyland Paris post. Back to the city of lights!

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