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Re-making space with cellphones July 12, 2007

Posted by François in appropriation, baroque, boost, space.
4 comments

Brett Stalbaum, who had brought Boost’s cheap GPS-enabled internet-connected phones to my attention, has been using them in two of his classes at UC San Diego this past quarter. The result is “antinormalizer”, a project in which his students used the phones to re-make public spaces around campus. As Brett explains in the video, cell phones are increasingly scripting our behavior in public spaces, so why not use them to “change the script of already programmed spaces”? The result is a fascinating baroque layering of unexpected behaviors onto existing space.

“Antinormalizer is a project of VIS 141B (Advanced Computer Programming in the Arts) and CAT 124 (Sixth College Practicum) at the University of California San Diego, Spring 2007. In it, a location aware mobile phone application helps students do things that are antinormal. And, it is also all of the antinormal performance that happened as a result.”

Baroquize this! June 25, 2007

Posted by François in baroque, cultural references, language, re-make, writing process.
4 comments

Suppliers yearn for user appropriation, but not just any kind of appropriation. Designers lay out careful scripts for users to re-make the products they adopt into something that is uniquely theirs. Phone makers want customers not simply to adopt a handset, but to personalize it with distinctive covers and straps, to program its short-cut keys, to inscribe its memory with their own address-book or calendar. Take Boost mobile, abaporu’s favorite MVNO: once you have bought their phone, the Boost brochure invites you to “make it your own” with call-tones, ring-tones, and wallpapers (yet omits to mention that you can personalize it further by installing mologogo, a free alternative to Boost’s own fee-based location service.) Suppliers thus intentionally carve out blank spaces within their designs, then invite users to infiltrate these spaces with their own data and decorations.

This particular appropriation mode, in which users follow the script laid out for them by suppliers, echoes a well-trodden cultural appropriation practice: baroque infiltration. During the colonization of Latin America, the Roman Catholic church was eager for local people to make the Catholic religion their own. To nurture the process, repeating a strategy used in Europe during the counter-reformation, Rome left spaces open on its monuments and in its ceremonies. Thus, the invaders set forth opportunities for the invaded to state their presence, infiltrate their messages, suggest their cosmovisions. Such “baroque infiltration”, Rome reasoned, would allow indigenous people to appropriate European culture and religion, but to do so safely, according to Rome’s own blueprint. In The Buried Mirror, Carlos Fuentes describes the results of this appropriation practice in the creations of José Kondori, the Quechua architect who built “the magnificent churches of Potosí, undoubtedly the most brilliant illustration of the meaning of the baroque in Latin America”.

“Among the angels and the vines of the façade of San Lorenzo, an Indian princess appears, and all the symbols of the defeated Incan culture are given a new lease on life. The Indian half-moon disturbs the traditional serenity of the Corinthian vine. American jungle leaves and Mediterranean clover intertwine. The sirens of Ulysses play the Peruvian guitar. And the flora, the fauna, the music, and even the sun of the ancient Indian world are forcefully asserted. There shall be no European culture in the New World unless all of these, our native symbols, are admitted on an equal footing.”
Carlos Fuentes (1999) The Buried Mirror – Reflections on Spain and the New World, Houghton Mifflin. p.196 (*)

Of course, Rome was perhaps naïve to think the locals would remain docile and stop there. Fuentes, along with others such as José Lezama Lima, go on to describe how baroque practices can overtake the very objects they infiltrate. Natives, Africans and criollos in Latin America learned to create a baroque within the baroque, appropriating the process itself into an art of contraconquista. This is a story for another day…

For the moment, we simply want to point out the striking parallel between “baroque infiltration” and the business strategies through which technology suppliers lay out a script for users to re-make their products. There is no good verb in English to describe the resulting user practice – personalize, fill-in, infiltrate, decorate, layer… each captures a dimension of the process but not its essence. So, we need to coin a new verb:

to baroquize (v.t.) = to re-make into one’s own, following an appropriation script proposed by the provider.

While “baroquize” doesn’t yet exist in English, we feel encouraged to proceed by our readers’ comments, who point out that barroquisar, barroquizar, and baroquiser do exist in Portuguese, Spanish and French. It must have been an oversight.

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(*) “Pues entre los ángeles y las viñas de la fachada de San Lorenzo, aparece una princesa incásica, con todos los símbolos de su cultura derrotada animados por una nueva promesa de vida. La media luna indígena agota la tradicional serenidad de la viña corintia, el follaje de la selva americana y el trébol mediterráneo se entrelazan. Las sirenas de Ulises tocan la guitarra peruana. Y la flora, la fauna, la música e incluso el sol del antiguo mundo indígena, se reafirman con fuerza. No habría cultura europea en el Nuevo Mundo a menos que éstos, nuestros símbolos nativos, sean admitidos en pie de igualdad.” (Carlos Fuentes, El Espejo Enterrado p. 282)

“we use it different, different” June 12, 2007

Posted by François in baroque, reachability.
3 comments

Araba Sey opened her presentation a few weeks ago at the ICA conference with this story:
“Wofa is a fisherman in Prampram, a village just outside the capital of Ghana. His home does not have an official address, but he has his mobile phone number written over the doorway so that he is always reachable. He wishes he could do more than just make and receive calls on his phone, but he cannot read or write in English. He bought his phone in 2005 mainly because he believed it would help him with his work. There is some evidence that mobile phones have become an important business resource for fishermen in Ghana. However, trying to associate particular poverty reduction benefits with use of mobile phones by poor people is likely to lead to some surprises, and even disappointment. Because, as Wofa said to me when I asked how he and his fellow fishermen use mobile phones, “We use it different, different”. Meaning we use it in many different ways.”

It is fascinating how Wofa has re-made his phone into a doorbell (a few days ago, I would have said “appropriated his phone as a doorbell,” but I thought I’d test-drive the new labels Pierre suggested.) It very nicely underscores that a key feature of mobile phones is to provide reacheability. That often seems much more important than the ability to reach out.

(a copy of Araba’s presentation is available on the ARNIC site [PDF-174Kb])

Technology appropriation in a distant mirror May 14, 2007

Posted by François in baroque, cannibalism, creolization, theory.
7 comments

The ideas we plan to explore in this blog are laid out in “Mobile technology appropriation in a distant mirror: baroque infiltration, creolization and cannibalism”, by François Bar, Francis Pisani and Matthew Weber (April 07) [PDF – draft]. The paper was presented on April 12th as part of the Annenberg Center’s DIY speaker series, and on April 20th in Buenos Aires at the Seminario sobre Desarrollo Económico, Desarrollo Social y Comunicaciones Móviles en América Latina hosted by Fundación Telefónica [PPT slides]. Howard Rheingold covered the Annenberg Center presentation in the DIY blog: part1 and part2.

We welcome comments on this draft.