Speakers Corner – making art as software

One of the things I commissioned in my old job was Speakers Corner, an interactive art project that links a 15m LED screen with the web, the street and text messaging. The artist who developed the idea was the fantastic Jaap De Jonge, who is not only one of the most interesting digital public artists around at the moment, but was also incredibly patient during the projects extended gestation period.

It was first commissioned at the end of 1998, and almost immediately I was asked to step into another role in the organisation, so had to put development of the project on the back burner. Jaap was very patient during this time, and also put up with a curator (me) that kept asking for more things to be added (like SMS functionality). In the end, though, it rocked. The opening night in June 2001, when groups of people stood on a Huddersfield street corner and battered the thing with SMSes, was fantastic.

Then genius artist/coder dorian mcfarland was roped in to totally re-write the back-end to make it more flexible, but I buggered off to a new job before he got a chance to do it. I only found out a few weeks ago that he’s been struggling with it for the last 2 years. I’m *really* sorry Dorian… 😉

But now its back up, and looks 100 times better than it did when I left it. And the new Creative Director, Tom Holley, is commissioning more work for it, so hopefully they’ll be able to use the project for all sorts of experiments around digital networks, public space, and social writing. The one thing that I really wanted when commissioning the project (and that Jaap was the only artist to understand) was to create a digital public artwork that was a flexible, configurable *interface*, rather than a shiny badge that doesn’t change for 5 years and just looks increasingly out of date.

The fact that its now in version 2.0 is a good sign that its more like an on-going software project than a static, white-cube object. And like software, the initial release was the product of lots of delays, late-nighters and last minute fixes that we promised ourselves we’d fix in the next version, then went through all the same problems all over again.

Most artists wouldn’t be able to let go enough to be able to treat an artwork like a software project. They feel that too much of themselves is contained in the details of the work, and any suggestion that it might have to change or adapt over time threatens their ego. Jaap was confident enough about himself and his practise to want to work hard to make it flexible, and to realise that it was more powerful it could adapt and change. Almost every other artist on the shortlist we had wanted to take a ‘signature’ piece and drop it on site (actually, SODA came up with a fantastic idea, but it wasn’t quite as good as Jaap’s).

All in all, I think the curatorial policy for this project would have echoed Wiliam Gibson’s quote – “the street finds its own use for things”. I wanted to find a way of creating something that had that kind of flexibility. The measure of success came one morning, about 3/4 months after the project launch, when I was walking down the street towards the sign. There, immortalised in 15m red LED, was a scrolling message, repeating over and over again:


I don’t know who boothy was, or who was questioning his gender preference, but it obvioulsy needed saying, and it marked the point at which a few thousand pounds worth of technology became just another surface of the city, and all the more interesting for that.

One comment

  1. dorian

    Hey Matt,
    just read this and laughed! We haven’t *really* launched yet. Just as I was finishing the code the sign broke so they had to get a new one. I swear I will be re-coding that thing until I die. How’s things with you?

    You still owe me something enormous for that ;o)

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