Public Art Reveals a City’s Hidden Desires

Posted by Nataly Gattegno, Jason Kelly Johnson, Aug 16, 2016 0 comments

For the 16th anniversary of the Public Art Network Year in Review, we offered the selected applicants and artists the opportunity to tell us the stories behind their works. This week's blog salon features the stories behind some of the most compelling public art projects completed in 2015.

What will the city around us be thinking, seeing, and feeling in the near future? How will its desires and fears manifest? How can the static buildings and infrastructure of the city become active in creating spaces of engagement to tackle these issues?

These were questions on our mind as we developed Murmur Wall. We responded to an open RFQ process for a public artwork in downtown San Francisco, on the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts entry plaza, bound by the Yerba Buena Gardens, Moscone Center, and Mission Street. This was a space caught in the circulation flows of the area, as people crisscross the park to their various destinations. A number of tourists and visitors to the city also traverse this space, as it is on the main circulation route to the convention center. The call was for an artwork in the public plaza, but we envisaged something that was much more contextual, anchoring the space and engaging people passing by. This is why we placed the artwork on the wall that typically divides circulation flows, in a deliberate attempt to connect them and relate them to one another. Rather than a free-standing piece, we embedded the work in the site and engaged the way people move through the space.

Murmur Wall installation. Photo by Peter Prato.

Murmur Wall is a two-year experimental installation that offers a glimpse into the immediate future. It is an artificially intelligent, anticipatory architecture that reveals what the city is whispering, thinking, and feeling in real-time. The installation anticipates what will soon matter most to the city by harvesting local on-line activity via search engines and social media. The Murmur Wall’s algorithm pulls current search terms trending across the internet from the Google Trends API and correlates them to Twitter searches to reveal their related terms. These related terms create data packets that appear as swirling lights streaming through LED embedded acrylic tubing. As they reach one of six 3D printed pods, the light streams become illuminated text “murmurs,” slowly floating by until they once again become streaks of light that flow out towards Mission Street, back into the city. By transmitting these related search terms into the public plaza, viewers develop an increased awareness of the local zeitgeist, an uncanny premonition of topics they did not realize were important—or perhaps could not admit they were searching for themselves.

For us, it was important that Murmur Wall also allow individual expression to override the continuous data flowing through the piece with “whispers,” direct messages sent by anyone to the wall through a live web application at murmurwall.net. These momentary whispers rapidly flow through the lattice in white, appearing only once. The whispers become temporary urban graffiti, never to be collected, reused, or reshared.

We designed and constructed Murmur Wall utilizing advanced digital fabrication techniques while also innovating traditional ones. As a two-year installation, the artwork could not permanently attach to the entry wall. Our solution was to fabricate the stainless steel and acrylic lattices in discrete sections and sit them on top of a steel support structure. We did this in our own workshop space in San Francisco, slowly engulfing our work space in the artwork! Murmur Wall was designed, fabricated and assembled entirely by us, all the digital fabrication, 3D printing, hardware and software completed in-house.

The six 3D printed pods are weatherproof enclosures housing the LED matrices that display the “murmurs” and “whispers” as text. All together the pods required over one thousand hours of PLA printing, each one a set of 45 assembled prints.

Murmur Wall assembly. Photo by Jeff Maeshiro.

Murmur Wall has become a gathering space, an urban theater, a site to observe the usually ethereal social media data. For us, Murmur Wall exists in a state of perpetual flux, constantly responding and adapting to stimuli from the city. It is a proposition for an ecology of autonomous yet intelligent infrastructures that can begin to converse and exchange information. Rather than buildings acting like isolated islands, Murmur Wall explores the possibility of designing our buildings to respond to the city, re-shaping our urban experiences. Murmur Wall can be grafted onto any existing wall, an example of a new infrastructural layer on the city that can be interwoven with future layers of our built environment with the potential to be updated and reprogrammed in real time. Murmur Wall is also a space of discussion or even protest—a digitally enhanced whispering wall; a social-media infused urban forum. The project site is San Francisco, but if placed in Athens, Turkey, or Rio de Janeiro, Murmur Wall would have much different data and impact. 

As a continuously evolving interface, Murmur Wall provides a place for the city to share, indulge, and reflect on the real-time desires—and anxieties—of its citizens.

For more of our work, please visit us at www.future-cities-lab.net. For a look at Murmur Wall’s interactivity, check out this video

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