While I was in Austin recently, I happened to see an article in Endgadget about a data poetry installation that was part of the Future Art and Culture programme of SXSW 2019. Jack Cochran and I were intrigued, so we grabbed Outlier’s camera and went out to take a look, which resulted in this short film that briefly documents the event:
What you see is a public installation of a 18×6 split flip mechanical board, which generates lines of text separated by commas and ending with a period, one set each minute, twenty-four hours a day. The installation does not ask you to figure out what it is: there is an informational plaque in front of it that you can read for yourself, and, at least at times, a SXSW attendee who, if not distracted by trying to unstick malfunctioning letters or texting on a smartphone, will offer you a brochure about it, should you seem sufficiently interested. I got one, but I did not see anyone else handed one while we were setting up and filming, which took under three hours (the maximum time on our metered parking space).
In the brochure, the North American premiere of Every Thing Every Time is described as a public realm artwork that “processes data typically captured and published by ‘smart city’ technologies, consumer devices, private and public institutions, and various media. The piece uses this data to create poetry based on your interaction with the urban environment.” The credits include the artist, Naho Matsuda; the producer, FutureEverything; industrial design and assembly by RASKL; and software by Paul Angus and Dan Hett. This is big time poetry as art, presented by British Underground, supported by Arts Council England and the British Council, part of their Anyone//Anywhere: the web at 30 season, first commissioned in Manchester (UK) as part of CityVerve — “a project creating a blueprint for smarter cities worldwide.” Every Thing Every Time is also a growing enterprise: the brochure invites “City Leaders, Cultural Organisations, Festivals, Conferences, and Digital Businesses” to commission the touring partnership of Matsuda and FutureEverything to present the installation in a new city for its next international tour date by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
The inaugural installation of Every Thing Every Time was in Manchester, for CityVerve, its smart city demonstrator project. There, flip dot displays, which were installed in four different Manchester locations, displayed one line of text every three seconds. Watch this slick video produced by FutureEverything to hear from the artist and to see how this worked.
The second iteration of Every Thing Every Time was installed in Newcastle, commissioned by the Great Exhibition of the North, a free celebration of Britain’s pioneering spirit in the summer of 2018, with support from FutureEverything. There the poems were generated on a more polished split flip board than at SXSW, enclosed in a transparent housing, which you can see in this short video uploaded to Vimeo by the artist.
The SXSW installation of Every Thing Every Time is the third version, again with a different, more retro industrial design. In our video, the installation’s location seems unpropitious, on a scrap piece of land backed by an unattractive plastic wrapped barrier (which separates the installation from a small park set aside as a private area for artists). In fact, the location is opposite the convention center where everyone must register/pick up badges and wristbands, and where most of the interactive events and the big tech trade show are located. It’s also right downtown and opposite the metro train stop, so there is always a lot of foot traffic.
The videos I’ve seen of the Manchester and Newcastle installations do not focus on spectator interaction with the displays, whereas our video does provide a sample, albeit small, of how people engage with the project. To that, I can add what we saw while we filmed over the course of a couple of hours: a few people walk over to the exhibit description or the poetry display itself. Most of those watch one poem or just a part of a poem. A few take a smartphone photo. A very few watch more than one poem. Occasionally, someone sits down and takes a break in front of the display. A few of those sit facing the display; more sit with their backs to it and converse with friends or watch the parade of people and traffic. The vast majority are either oblivious to the installation or give it just a passing glance as they walk by.
The reviews I’ve read of Every Thing Every Time have been uniformly positive. Some of this may be due to the context that supporting materials provided by the artist, FutureEverything, and the presenting institutions create for the installation. The SXSW brochure, in its “why data poetry” section, states,
Harnessing public art to explore the ‘Smart City,’ Naho Matsuda’s EVERY THING EVERY TIME broadcasts poetry on a mesmerizing mechanical display, urging a broader discussion on the role of data in our lives, personal privacy and our place in future cities.
The Great Exhibition of the North on their website pronounces, “the work of Naho Matsuda questions the role of data in our lives as well as its use and value.” The FutureEverything online announcement for Every Thing Every Time in Austin declares,
Through careful curation of data that describes events, from the mundane to the marvelous, life in Austin will be expressed as poetry on a mechanical split-flap display resembling the destination boards once found in railway stations. Delving into the expanding scope of data collection and the ‘smart city’, the work invites audiences to reflect on our increasingly complex relationship with technology and the global phenomenon of ‘surveillance capitalism.’
In a press release for the Manchester commission, the artist Naho Matsuda offered,
every thing every time is a piece of real-time digital writing, which is drawing from the many ‘things’ and ‘events’ and changes of ‘status’ that are constantly happening in Manchester … I have turned these data streams into narratives formatted as poems, that are stripped from their location information and any data transmitting purpose. Smart information becomes impractical poetry.
In this context, perhaps it’s no surprise that the Engadget article that led me to film the installation concluded,
As in other artist commentaries on tech, the feelings of interconnectedness compete with an unavoidable critique of surveillance — in this case, where data comes from, what little things it notices, how it encourages us to monitor each other. There’s an uneasy cognizance that outside Matsuda’s project there are smart city systems that process us as data points, and not usually just to craft poetry.
Maybe so, but I didn’t see too many signs that the audience for Every Thing Every Time was undertaking a critique of “surveillance capitalism.” Moreover, while I might respond favorably to an urgent call to consider the dangers of a world constructed according to unconsidered patterns of data collection, what I was thinking about while filming the installation was much more quotidian: Why wasn’t the integrity of words respected rather than carrying over from one line to another? Would I have guessed that the displayed lines of text were supposed to be poems if I hadn’t known in advance? Was it the commas at the end of all but the last line of each display (which ended in a period) that signified that each board of text was a single poem? How do I know that I’m reading individual poems and not one big text? How should I understand the mechanical failures that resulted in occasional misspellings and incomplete poems? When most of the poems are so banal, why should I pay attention?
The installation did make me think, but my conclusions are that I’d like to compare poems about data surveillance written by poets with the data poetry produced by Every Thing Every Time, and that I’d like Jack to write a poem commenting on the Every Thing Every Time installation that we could make into a poetry film. Maybe other poetry filmmakers should do the same. But I bet we can’t create one poem per minute!