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Things and Times

The bus turns left,
the film is screening,
someone starts their shift,
a cat disappears and it is raining

Author: Naho Matsuda


Lead image by Jack Storey

In Every Thing Every Time, a city describes itself through a narrative formatted as poems, which are based on a variety of urban data. The poems are displayed on a mechanical screen with turning letter flaps, reminiscent of old display-technologies.

Every Thing Every Time was one of three ideas that I submitted to the CityVerve public art brief, when part of Fault Lines – FutureEverything’s artist development programme. Now, two years later I’m working on the third iteration of the piece. This time it will be shown at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas and shortly after at Nesta Creative Economy 2019: Alternative Futures in Bristol. Each time we had finished one show, the next one was already on the horizon (I know, lucky me!), and my last two years were preoccupied with either preparing or working on a new iteration of Every Thing Every Time. The venues and size of events seem to have grown exponentially. I fluctuate between feeling stressed, a bit overwhelmed and excited, and I am constantly surprised that the idea hasn’t grown old yet.

I developed the concept for Every Thing Every Time after researching the objectives of the ‘smart city’ and binging on YouTube smart city TV commercials (especially those from technology companies that advertise ‘smart cities’ and ‘smart homes’ to the general public). The concept is rather simple: to abstract data by stripping them from any purpose or numeric value, and investigate if that which remains carries any interesting stories or narratives. What happens if you get informed about a late bus, but don’t know where it’s going, when and how late it is? To be informed that just a bus is late?

With this kind of radical abstraction of data and juxtaposition of various data streams from air quality to local football club schedules I wanted to question the values, uses and ownership of certain urban data. I wanted to explore what data becomes when it is a lot more useless; when systems that are built for functional, efficient purposes are dragged into the chaos from which they originally came. I’m only critically interested in ‘smart city’ concepts; I find the possibilities of sensing technology interesting, but ‘smart city’ plans, especially those proposed by the private tech sector, I find mainly worrisome.

How does it work?

Through adding a wide range of types of data to the algorithm, I set up a system that tells about as many different entities, things, happenings, schedules, shifts, infrastructure and lives in the city as possible. During the process, the types of data were divided in broadly three categories, the first category being data with real-time APIs that we found on various digital platforms.

In Newcastle, we had around 250 data points. For many of these we worked with the Urban Observatory, an urban data research platform where the API’s of various data streams are published for open use. The sensors that the Urban Observatory have deployed and added to their network span from air-quality sensors to river-level sensors to sensors that monitor the activities in bee hives. In addition to this measurable, real-time data, I added a second category – static data of schedules and shifts – that were manually added to the database.

Part of my research process was unstructured fieldwork; strolling through the city (a contemporary data derive?), chatting to locals about the best restaurants, bars, important shops, communities, institutions, local scenes, and so on. A third category of data is what we call ‘fluff data’. These are data points that I wrote to reflect human and animal behaviour in the data stream. The intention was to include streams that represent typical urban scenes and that, theoretically, would be detectable by smart CCTV cameras and video analytic programmes (‘a woman walks down the street’) as well as pointing to systems that exist in data form but which we didn’t have access to (‘the driver is on the way’). Fluff data is not based on a schedule or an API, but on my understanding of the city and its citizens, seen through the lens of sensing technology. Due to privacy laws we had no access to this type of data; neither CCTV streams nor the backboard of Uber, Deliveroo or other similar platforms. To write the fluff data I sat outside or in cafe’s and observed interactions in the street, very much inspired by George Perec’s ‘Exhausting a Place in Paris’.

Once we had the data, I had to ‘translate’ it into a form that would make sense in the context of a sentence. All the sentences are pre-written by me for each possible status: the bus is late, the bus is on time, the bus is standing still. Additionally, each status is written in various ways: the bus is late, people are waiting for the bus, someone is waiting for the bus. Through this manual conversion of data transmission, I created a database of vague and generic information. Each statement is as simple as possible. My baseline rule for writing was to keep it as simple and reduced as possible. Keeping the writing abstract leaves more room to read and imagine what’s happening. Through this process, the data moves away from the purely machine world of computation, into a human body (mine), where I translate and transform it into something that is then played back to the city.

In Newcastle, I had the opportunity to design a podcast about the various themes of the work and interview artists, technologists, curators, designers and educators about their city and the history of technology and innovation of Newcastle and Gateshead.

Human stories from the city

Beyond working with code and data, Every Thing Every Time led me to engage with many people. In Manchester and Newcastle, we developed a public engagement programme which, for my practice and my background in design, was an interesting challenge. Exploring the city and interacting with different creative professionals was a great opportunity. In Manchester, with the support of a historian, we curated a city tour that contrasted the CityVerve smart city demonstrator programme with the history of technology of Manchester. Christopher Stacheys, a computer pioneer and colleague of Alan Turing, wrote the first programme of digital writing in 1951, a ‘love letter writing programme’ that ran on the first commercial computer (a Ferranti Mark I). The programme chose randomly romantic words for a love letter, each signed with M.U.C. Manchester University Computer.

In Newcastle, I had the opportunity to produce a podcast about the various themes of the work and interview artists, technologists, curators, designers and educators about their city and the history of technology and innovation of Newcastle and Gateshead.

What next for Every Thing Every Time?

In not too long I will be off to Austin, Texas to show the third commission of Every Thing Every Time at SXSW. At the moment I’m researching data sources and writing poem lines that will be fed into the Austin API. As I wasn’t able to visit Austin beforehand, my strategy of strolling and urban encounters to generate data sources happens digitally instead. Meanwhile, RASKL, the fabrication studio that I’ve worked with on each iteration, is packing up the new screen – a big, split-flap display that can be broken down and reassembled with minimal work. This latest iteration of the work  is in a new colour scheme, with a fresh typeface. The piece consists of 120 split-flap units, and a few hundred thousand moving pieces. Each part of the project is custom built and very complex, from the mechanics of the screen to the technology that converts real-time poems to letters on the display to the ‘pre-written’ poetry lines. But what the audience reads on the display remains very simple and is hopefully food for thought.

The poems can be humorous, beautiful at times, but also eerie and uncanny. I hope that with this abstraction, the uncommon treatment of data and the mesmerising mechanical screen, passersby start to ask more questions about the increasingly complex technology, that is sensing their cities, as well as their lives.

Every Thing Every Time is on tour throughout March 2019 at the following international events:

SXSW, Austin, Texas
8 – 14th March

Nesta Creative Economy 2019: Alternative Futures, Bristol
26th March

Every Thing Every Time is an artwork by Naho Matsuda, produced by FutureEverything. Industrial design and assembly by RASKL using software by Paul Angus and Dan Hett.

For 2019, the work is part of the Future Art and Culture programme at SXSW, presented by British Underground and supported by Arts Council England. This presentation is also supported by British Council and features in their Anyone//Anywhere: the web at 30 season.

After SXSW, the work will briefly tour to M-Shed, Bristol with Nesta.

every thing every time was first commissioned in Manchester by CityVerve – a project creating a blueprint for smarter cities worldwide.

The second iteration, EVERY THING EVERY TIME was commissioned for Great Exhibition of the North 2018, Newcastle.