The Digital and/as Public Space initiative explores the interaction between digital and physical space in order to re-examine public space, overcome access barriers, promote civic engagement, and support community resilience in online, offline, and hybrid contexts.
To help steer the development of this initiative, The Bentway has partnered with Toronto-based studio, From Later, a transdisciplinary team whose work focuses on understanding change and building possible futures.
What is the Digital and/as Public Space initiative?
The Digital and/as Public Space Initiative is an effort to think through what publicness means in the context of pervasive digital technologies. It’s both how physical space is transformed by the digital, such as how the little pocket supercomputers called smartphones in our pockets change how we move, see, and hear in physical space, but equally, it’s about how the digital is shaped by our pervasive use of spatial metaphors and modes of understanding. How do we understand ‘public space’ or the lack of it online – what does it mean to gather, to exchange, to speak, and to listen when we can’t be present physically? So looking at the relation of public space to digitality from both these angles we’re interested in seeing glimpses of our post-COVID futures and how we might engage more meaningfully with the potential of digital/physical hybridity.
Who is From Later?
From Later is a foresight studio from Toronto that brings together a range of poetic misfits, abandoned lawyers, redeemed bohemians, lost artists, and disillusioned strategists. It’s a network of collaboration that engages art, strategy, engineering, and design for building other futures. We pride ourselves on a judicious approach to research and material gathering that helps us frame problems and solutions in ways that get to the core of an issue. We don’t always succeed but we discover a whole lot more through that kind of approach. Otherwise, if you succeed all the time you’re stuck thinking through problems that already have answers.
What are you hoping to achieve in the role of Digital Facilitator?
We view technology as community – to consider the community of users when adopting tools, and to promote resilient and sustainable practices that empower and build networked capacity. We aim to leverage the use of open source and peer-to-peer technologies towards finding new ways of collaborating outside of capitalist assumptions and addressing precarity through resource-sharing. Our hope is for the last output of this initiative to be the co-creation of a conceptual “canvas” and “palette” of digital-public art – novel ideas of repeatable and impactful civic/public art engagement that can be tailored to specific spaces and occasions.
What excites you most about physical-digital hybrids?
The obvious tech people employ when thinking about digital-physical interactions is AR/VR, which are already on smartphones. The problem is that the obvious uses are just skeuomorphic copies — doing digitally what we could already do in real life. We recreate a white cube gallery for a VR, for example, and then walk around and look at the art on the walls. Ok, but so what? The next most obvious answer is that we can ‘do things we never imagined’ in real life, but this too kicks the can down the road – like what? Fly? Is that that interesting? We don’t really want to buy into the ‘do anything’ fantasies of VR. So instead, we looked at a deeper history of what the digital might even be, and how our realities have always been augmented. When we use the word tree, for instance, we immediately evoke a virtual reality for you. It’s not present, it’s not actually there, but likely, if you understand the word, you’re already being taken to another reality. That’s because language is a technology and we’ve just forgotten it is. The same thing is going to happen to our digital experiences. Right now, they seem odd, new, maybe even morally questionable. But they’ll probably become a part of us just as deep as language was. So the question then is – given how deep this goes, what kinds of choices do we want to make about how these technologies and techniques are designed? Who has a say? And what might they enable us to do that we couldn’t already? We think, in the last decade, you’ve already seen on a planetary scale what happens when you compress space and time with these little connected devices in our pockets. Our research tries to set questions of publicness in that broader frame.
Can you tell us more about strategic foresight? (If possible, perhaps provide some examples for people to explore?)
For us, it’s a mixed bag of methods, ways of thinking, tools, and tricks for creating useful conversations about possible futures. Being a foresight studio, our work is about monitoring and making sense of change, speculating on what’s possible, and engaging people in the activity of thinking deliberately about the kind of worlds they’d like to live in and leave behind. We often use arts practices and works as ways of interpreting 0ur research and imagining what kinds of things and feelings might exist, later.
Some examples of our studio practice are here: http://fromlater.com/views
Why is futures thinking so important in times of uncertainty?
No one is great at handling uncertainty. If you think you are, what you’re uncertain about isn’t meaningful enough to you. Radical uncertainty can be terrifying. What foresight does is help array the possibilities of that uncertain future in one place. It helps you make sense of the range of potentials that exist in the present. It helps you feel change, and not just unconsciously live it. It’s a bit like learning to drive a car. We can explain to you the pedals, the steering wheel, the shift system, the behaviour of other drivers, but until you do it, you can’t really know how to drive. It’s the same with exploring the future. We can think about it, talk about it, and research it, but until we test things out, however small, however imaginatively, we can’t really know what it’s like. So we test drive the future.
How has your understanding of public space changed during the pandemic?
For most of us, one of the most immediate effects of the pandemic and the rolling lockdowns that have been common in many parts of the world during it have brought to light just how deeply tied our senses are to each other. The sights, the feels, the scents, the temperature of other bodies in space all have a kind of energy that has suddenly gone mute in our mostly remote interactions. There’s a richness to being sensorially present to others – it’s a much bigger form of ‘data’, if we want to call it that, than what travels across our fibre optic cables, phone lines, and satellites. There’s so much more information in a few seconds in public space than there is in an hour on zoom. We think it just reveals what was always already there – that being together is a high information density activity, and a lot more goes on physically than we can consciously articulate.
How can people follow the work you are doing and this project as it develops?
Here are some examples of initial signals we noticed that informed the framing of this initiative. People can continue to follow our process in the project’s Public Notebook and contribute to the research we’re doing for a ‘Field Guide to the Digital Real’ on Are.na.
For more on the Digital and/as Public Space initiative, click here.