Chris Woebken and Elliott Montgomery practice together as The Extrapolation Factory here in NYC. They often stage shows, workshops and teach a blend of speculative design provocation, storytelling, and making.
I first met them both at the RCA, and so I was thrilled when they asked me in late summer to be part of their show at ApexArt that would be based on the premise of designing future systems or objects for New York City’s Office of Emergency Management.
The show is on now until December 19th 2015 at ApexArt, but I thought I’d write up a little bit of the project I submitted to the group show along with my fantastic collaborators Isaac Blankensmith and Matt Delbridge
Chris and Elliott’s first recruit was writer Tim Maughan who based on the initial briefing with the OEM created a scenario that we as designers and artists would respond to, and create props for a group of improvisational actors to use in a disaster training simulation. More of that later!
Here’s what we got early on from Tim by way of stimulus…
NYC has been hit by a major pandemic (the exact nature of which is still to be decided – something new/fictitious). The city has been battling against it for several weeks now, with research showing that it may spread easily via the transit system. The city, in association with the public transport and the police are enforcing a strict regime of control, monitoring, and – where necessary – quarantining. By constant monitoring of infection data (using medical reports, air monitoring/sampling, social media data mining etc) they are attempting to watch, predict, and hopefully limit spread. Using mobile ‘pop-up’ checkpoints they are monitoring and controlling use of buses and the subway, and in extreme cases closing off parts of the city completely from mass transit. Although it seems to be largely working, and fatalities have been relatively low so far, it has created an understandable sense of paranoia and distrust amongst NYC citizens.
The Canal street subway station, late evening.
Our characters are two individuals heading home to Brooklyn after leaving a show at apexart. They are surprised to find that the streets seem fairly empty. Just as they reach Canal station they are alerted (via Wireless Emergency Alert) that quarantine and checkpoint procedures have been activated in the neighbourhood, and a pop-up infection checkpoint has been set up at the entrance to the subway. They’ve never encountered one of these before, but in order to get home they must pass through it by proving they do not pose an infection.
I submitted two pieces with Isaac and Matt for the show.
The first concept “Citibikefrastructure” was built out into a prop which features in the gallery, the second concept “Bodyclocks” featured in the catalog and briefly in the final performed scenario.
This first concept uses the NYC citibike bike share program as a widely installed base of checkpoints / support points in the city that have data and power, plus very secure locking mechanisms connected to the network.
The essential thought behind this project was this: What if these were used in times of emergency with modular systems of mobile equipment that plugged into them?
I started to think of both top-down and bottom-up uses for this system.
Top-down uses would be to assist in ‘command and control’ type situations and mainly by the OEM and other emergency services in the city.
- e.g. Command post
- Loudhailer system
- Solar panels
- Space heaters
- Shelter / lights / air-conditioning
- Wireless mesh networking
- Refrigerator for medicine / perishable materials
- Water purification
But perhaps more promising to me seemed ‘bottom-up’ uses
- USB charging stations
- Inspiration: after Hurricane Sandy many people who still had electricity offered it up via running powerstrips and extension cords into the streets so people could charge their mobile devices and alert loved ones, keep up with the news etc.
- Wireless mesh networking – p2p store/forward text across the citibike network.
- Information display / FAQomputer
- e-ink low power signs connected to mesh
- LE bluetooth connection to smartphones with ‘take-away’ data
- PDF maps
- emergency guides
- Bluetooth p2p Noticeboard for citizens
- Blockchain-certified emergency local currency dispenser!
- Barter/volunteer ‘cash’ infrastructure for self-organising relief orgs a la Occupy Sandy
1:1 Sketch proto
After making some surreptitious measurements of the Citibike docking stations, I started to build a very simple 1:1 model of one of these ‘bottom-up’ modules for the show at the fantastic Bien Hecho woodworking academy in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard.
Detail design and renderings
Meanwhile, Isaac had both taken my crappy sketches far beyond into a wonderfully-realised modular system and created some lovely renders to communicate it.
Initial sketch by Isaac Blankensmith
Isaac then started to flesh out a modular system that could accommodate the majority of the use-cases we had brainstormed.
Some final adjustments were made to the sketch model on the days of installation in the gallery – notably the inclusion of a flashing emergency light, and functioning cellphone charger cables which I hopd would prove popular with gallery visitors if nothing else!
This one is definitely more in the realm of ‘speculative design’ and perhaps flirts with the dystopian a little more than I usually like to!
Bodyclocks riffs off the “clocks-for-robots” concept we sketched out at BERG that created computer-readable objects sync’d to time and place.
Bodyclocks extends this idea to some kind of time-reactive dye, inkjet-squirted onto skin by connected terminals in order to verify and control the movements of individuals in a quarantined city / city district…
I’d deliberated chosen to ‘parasite’ this onto the familiar and mundane design of the ‘sanitation spray’ stations that proliferated suddenly in public/private spaces at the time of the H1N1 scare of 2009…
When you think about it, a new thing appeared in our semi-public realm – a new ritual, with it.
People would quickly habituate such objects and give themselves new temporary tracking ‘tattoos’ every time they crossed a threshold…
So, the dystopian angle is pretty obvious here. It doesn’t tend to reflect well on societies when they start to force people to identifying marks after all…
We definitely all talked about that a lot and under what circumstances people would tolerate or even elect to have a bodyclock tattoo. Matt Delbridge started creating some fantastic visuals and material to support the scenario.
For the purposes of the show and the performances, Matt D. even made a stamp that the actors could use to give each other bodyclocks…
Would the ritual of applying it in order to travel through the city be seen as something of a necessary evil, much like the security theatre of modern air travel? Or could a visible sign of how far you needed to travel spur assistance from strangers in a city at times of crisis? This proposal aimed to provoke those discussions.
The show and performance
One of the most interesting and exciting parts of being involved in this was that Chris and Elliott wanted to use actors to improvise with our designs as props and Tim’s script and prompt cards as context.
I thought this was a brilliant and brave move – unreliable narrators and guides taking us on as designers and interpreting the work for the audience – and perhaps exposing any emperor’s new clothes or problematic assumptions as they go…
Well – there’s a workshop happening with the OEM based around the show on December 11th. I’m not going to be able to attend but I actually hope that the citibike idea might get some serious discussion and perhaps folks from the bikesharing companies that use such system might entertain a further prototype…