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New Tech Tools For Art and Politics

by Laura Forlano, Aug 27, 2004
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It has been four years since Gabriela Jaksa saw her younger brother Attila. She lives in the Bronx now; he remained in Hungary.

But, the two met - in a way -- on the street in the East Village on a Sunday afternoon in early August and talked for two hours.

"It was very touching," Jaksa said. "I'm going to remember it forever."

The long-awaited rendezvous took place over a live public video conference created by a team of artists and technologists in New York and Budapest. The project allowed concertgoers at one of Europe's largest music and arts events, the Sziget Festival, to see, hear and interact in real-time with passersby in New York's East Village for five hours a day for nearly a week.

"Exchanges between New Yorkers and Hungarians ranged from the raunchy to the sentimental to the avant garde and super sweet. There were tense, sexist and racist moments as well as hilarious ones," said Mathieu Borysevicz of Vizual Works Contemporary Art Association in Budapest.

One local musician serenaded the Hungarians with a tribute song about Budapest, another sang a Jamaican hip hop song.

Constant questions about the time difference and the weather seemed to convince participants in New York that the sounds and images were really coming from Hungary and not just somewhere in Upper Manhattan.

"What we learned from this project is that there is an inherent novelty of the technology. Once the novelty wears off, people might begin to interact on a more meaningful level," said Josh Tonsfeldt of Harvestworks, one of the New York sponsors. For example, several regulars who visited the live video daily began to build relationships with their Hungarian counterpart.

"One of the most profound aspects of the project was that for many people in Hungary it was the first opportunity for them to speak with Americans, or better yet Americans of color," added Borysevicz.

The project illustrates how the use of communication technology in public spaces is transforming our experience of the urban environment in New York City. In the future, such interactions may not be confined to the art world but instead could easily, cheaply and quickly become part of the city's basic infrastructure.

Noemi Pataki, a 30 year-old hotel and tourism student from Hungary, and her boyfriend Andras Miklos, a 30 year-old economist, visited the live public video to talk to his sister Judit, and described it as, "the greatest experience during our two-year stay in the USA.We talked about everything, family, music, life & people in NYC, even about politics (the upcoming election) and a lot more," and say that they would use the service even if it wasn't free.

For a limited cost-the whole project cost under $1000 in donated equipment-New York could set up multiple live public video conferences with cities worldwide. For example, Times Square could be connected to Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo or Trafalgar Square in London. New York already has a number of "sister-city" relationships; why not further enhance these partnerships with live real-time video interaction?

Technology and Politics

Those following the campaign for president lately speak early and often of Swift boats and Abu Ghraib. But to tech-savvy politicos, the more important words for the moment are a bit more obscure - Moport and TxtMob. They are both new mobile phone technologies.

TxtMob was first used at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, allowing users to broadcast messages quickly and easily to groups of cell phones. This enabled more than 200 protesters to get out up-to-the-minute information about direct action and police reaction. TxtMob's creator, the Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA), an art and engineering collective that develops technologies for political dissent, is currently working with activists in preparation for the Republican National Convenion.

Moport, a new mobile phone reporting tool, will allow anyone with a camera phone or a digital camera to cover the protesters and thereby provide an alternative view of the events. The free service will allow people to report collectively about important events in real-time using mobile phones.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

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