[NB – this text was originally written for a conference in June 2002, when Matt Jones had just launched the idea of warchalking. In fact, Matt was at the conference, getting freaked out by the incredible velocity of the meme as it worked its way up daypop. The fact that this ephemeral meme might now be on its ebb tide is a poetic metaphor in itself…]
Ben Hooker and Shona Kitchen’s Hard Shoulders Soft Verges (Edge Town)
Hard Shoulders Soft Verges is a project about the boundaries of urban space, and about devices that passively map and visualise activity within these boundaries. It invokes the situationist metaphor of the city as a palimpsest – an accretion of unconscious communication in the city, both structured and serendiptious.
Cities are already a forest of signs, but most of these signs are authorised
texts; part of the official story of a city. Public space was already a conflicting narrative of official and unofficial texts before the introduction of mobile communications. Billboards, road signs, street names, shop windows – these are the stories that have fascinated flaneurs since the 19th century.
But the city also has a tradition of writing itself in unauthorised ways, from graffiti tags to the wall paintings marking sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland. These are signs of a city marking its own boundaries, and also a dynamic public discourse about the structure of the city itself. In her book ‘Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England’, Juliet Fleming describes the practice of writing on walls in private and public places as a form of public discourse that has been lost to history, erased both physically and historically in favour of authorised printed texts:
“I imagine the whitewashed domestic wall as being the primary scene of writing in early modern England. That the bulk of early modern writing was written on walls, and was consequently both erasable and, in our own scheme of things, out of place is a proposition with consequences for current assumptions about the constitution of statistics of literacy and schooling in the early modern period.”
Fleming describes a discourse in 16th Century England that has been erased for us. Save for a few etchings in glass windows, on furniture, or on mantelpieces, we have very little evidence of this very vibrant social discourse. There is a similar form of social discourse happening today over SMS – a similarly ephemeral medium to the chalk writing of 16th Century England.
This ephemeral discourse is not part of a city’s official narrative, but can form underground communication network that are critical marginalised communities. A contemporary version of 16th Century wall writing is the ‘Hobo Codes’ that are used by transient communities in the USA. These codes, written on buildings in residential areas, tell stories for other hobos, and offer advice about finding food or shelter. For example, a squiggly line in a black box means “bad tempered owner”, a number of dime and nickel shaped circles means that there is a good chance to get some money, and, one of my favourites, a simple circle with two arrows, meaning get out fast.
Matt Jones recently proposed that we could reform some of these underground symbols to indicate the wireless networks that are starting to open up around our cities. Following on from ‘war dialling’, an old hacker term used to describe random attempts to access closed phone networks, Jones has called this system of ephemeral signs ‘Warchalking’.
Warchalking inscribes invisible communication networks into the physical space of the city, creating an iconic visual language that is deliberately ephemeral. Ben Hooker and Shona Kitchen’s Edge Town is a technological version of these ephemeral icons – a vocabulary of small gestures that tell the city small stories about itself, about what happened, what accrued and what was washed away. Their series of sensors and small displays are a city listening to its own background noise. The patterns that emerge are part of a tradition of ‘edge town’ languages, from 16th Century Graffiti to Hobo languages and Warchalking. Edge Town turns the technological infrastructure of the city in on itself, creating a feedback loop of listening and representation. Will the ephemeral language created by this loop be stories about the technology itself? Or will it create a new vocabulary of icons for the inhabitants of the city? What stories will Edge Town tell us? How many of them will be remembered, and how many forgotten?