Redefining the city through social software: Two examples of open source locative art in Italian urban space

Pubblicato su First Monday, 24 nov 2013

di Federica Timeto

In this paper, I compare the work of the Guerrilla Spam collective (GS), which works mainly with analog technologies such as b/w manifestos that they stick up on urban walls, and the work of Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico (Art is Open Source, aka AOS), who work with digital platforms and open source software production. I show how space can be localized and mobilized at the same time, and how space is conceived as situated and generative by different technologies which share a bottom–up approach that creates new forms of experience of the urban, resignifying its everyday codes. For this reason, I adopt an analytical framework that, drawing on actor-network theory and non–representational theory, underlines the performative aspects of both space and information and helps redefine concepts such as location and software in a processual and performative way. Comparing the actions of GS and AOS brings to the fore the importance of horizontal social practices and sociotechnical associations without which cities could not be intelligent nor could technologies be smart. Through their artistic interventions, urban space is recontextualized and activated by means of multi–authorial performances in which ordinary codes acquire shared meanings that allow for collaborative and open source practices.


Introduction: Tracing the social, transducing space
1. Social software and the computational ecology of contemporary code/spaces
2. Tuning places: Open source locative practices in the city

Introduction: Tracing the social, transducing space

There has been much discussion of smart technologies and ubiquitous computing in the last two decades (Crang and Graham, 2007; Dourish and Bell, 2007; Farman, 2012; Foth, 2009; Gordon and de Souza e Silva, 2011; Greenfield, 2006; Kitchin and Dodge, 2011; Thrift, 2008; Weiser, 1991). However, if we compare earlier accounts with more recent ones, we notice how the issue of the invisibility of ubiquitous technologies, “vanish[ing] into the background” and reconnecting people without barriers to interaction or community formation — an argument which parallels that of the “return” to places allowed by locative media (Weiser, 1991) — has been replaced by a more mediated notion of a recombination of technological and social infrastructures (Gordon and de Souza e Silva, 2011; Graham, 1998). It is not that ubiquitous computing suddenly and deterministically activates automatic, even unconscious responses on the part of users (Weiser, 1991). It is rather that both users and technologies now share a sort of “anteconscious” [1] common ground of possible correlations and encounters, what Nigel Thrift calls a “second wave of second nature” [2] which requires some shifts in our understanding of what is human or natural and what is not, and of where agency can be located.

Just as technologies do not work autonomously in a more or less (apparently more) invisible background, but relate to the socio–material production of software (Kitchin and Dodge, 2011), neither can we deal with augmented environments through a perspective that considers the social as an autonomous force informing the meanings of technological artifacts without any consideration of the agential properties of the latter (Graham, 1998; Latour, 2005). Undoubtedly, more and more our experience of media involves a naturalization of its technological aspects that makes it seems closer to “real” life, as innovations such as user–friendly transparent interfaces and touch devices demonstrate. However, the idea of a homogeneous connectivity granted by the increasing seamlessness of ubiquitous technologies disguises the continuous loops of sociotechnological agents as well as the fragmentations of “augmented relationality” [3]. A loop, a term borrowed from cybernetics, here indicates the simultaneous activity and recursive circulation of the technical and the social, which were previously considered as separate planes. Whereas agency has traditionally been conflated with autonomy (Suchman, 2007), the expansion and diffusion of ubiquitous technologies instead requires a more supportive network of interconnected elements to work, which means that the more technologies ramify, the more their presumed autonomy, as the possibility of isolating their technicity from their context of usage and application, is called into question [4].

In fact, one of the great advantages of talking about the social from the perspective of science and technology is that the ubiquitous extension of their material infrastructures that we are experiencing today “render social ties physically traceable,” offering more sites in which their making can be observed [5]. According to the perspective of actor–network theory (ANT), we cannot locate the activity of the social in society considered as a static and closed realm, but we rather need to start tracing the ways in which the social assembles, following its associations involving human and non–human actors together. Such chains of associations, then, not only have a constitutive power, but also a transformative one, since the way actors are associated can also make other actors act according to new, unexpected relations: this happens when actors act as “mediators,” that is, not merely as vehicles transporting a force that remains the same during transport, but as agents of transformation along networks of traceable associations [6]. Thus, adopting this perspective means assuming a performative and contingent definition of society as well as dis–locating agency in a dispersed web of mediations, where different forces come together and the activities of (technological) objects do not recede into the background at all [7]. But this also means, as we will see below, understanding that every social construction, precisely because of its constructed character, can always be constructed otherwise.

Looking at the materiality of information on one hand, and at the informational quality of space on the other, authors such as Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge (2011) have recently pointed to the importance of software studies for media studies and the social sciences in general, highlighting the “etiology of code” [8] in the coming into being of urban space, which they call code/space. From the perspective of software studies, technologies are considered not for what they are but for what they do through the executions of code. Although, technically speaking, code indicates “the instructions and rules of software” [9], code is also “bound up in, and contributes to, complex discursive and material practices, relating both to living and nonliving humans and technology, which work across scales and time” [10]. The augmented environments of contemporary “smart” cities, in fact, are privileged places where the socio–material production of software can be observed at different levels, producing coded objects, infrastructures, processes and assemblages [11] that transform many spheres of activity and interaction, from work to leisure, from transport to the household. Every space can, in principle, be augmented by means of several kinds of signs, even though the theories of ubiquitous computing consider “augmented space” to be the space in which the “added” pieces of information can change dynamically in real time [12]. This notion, however, apart from underlining a more dynamic conception of communication regarding digital technologies, still relies on the idea of a layered space — and the corresponding transmissive model of information being transported from one point to another without modifications — in which territory is the material, static ground on which various layers of (supposedly immaterial) information are progressively superimposed (see Dourish and Bell, 2007). Nor does the notion of “enactive space” suffice to show the coimplications among actors as it relocates agency in the world but does not sufficiently foreground their relations. Thus, considering the circular addressability (Mitchell, 2008; Timeto, 2012), that is, the feedback loops, between the effects of code and the practices they afford in contemporary code/spaces, both Dodge and Kitchin (2005) and Crang and Graham (2007) prefer the notion of “transducted space.” The latter, differently from the notions of augmented and enacted space, not only foregrounds a distributed idea of agency between subjects and objects in space, but also the generative and temporal quality of spatial formations, in a word, their performativity: “coding is about making places happening” [13].

The notion of transducted space relies on the concept of “transduction” elaborated by Adrian Mackenzie (2003), drawing on the philosophy of Gilbert Simondon, in his non–representational account of technologies. For Mackenzie, technologies are events happening together with people encountering their affordances on the basis of situated practices, rather than objects possessing fixed properties. This is to say that the efficacy of a certain technology is not the same for everyone, but is made to work contingently depending on a series of variables, such as personal histories, intentions, desires, competencies, as well as more complex contextual constraints. So, according to Mackenzie, “from the transductive standpoint, the status of technologies is less important than the capacity of a technical ensemble for further reticulations or individuations in which new relations materialise” [14]. “Transduction,” here, refers to a “register of operationality” [15], to the modulation of forces that in–form the contingent operations of the network [16], that is, the way a network changes and stabilizes continuously according to a modulation of its relations. When seen as transductive, then, technologies are not only conceived with consideration for the generativity of their effects, but also their relationality, the possibility of individuation through relations that is the same condition of existence for sociotechnical assemblages, and that always provisionally allows for couplings between a system and its environment (the terms used by Mackenzie, in this respect, are domain and milieu).

Space is transducted, occurring as code/space, “when software and the spatiality of everyday life become mutually constituted, that is, produced through one another” write Kitchin and Dodge [17]. The transductions that transduce space are thus “more than the sum of its parts” [18]. If we consider the experience of infrastructure in its double aspect of social embeddedness and social structuring [19], not all experiences of code/spaces appear identical; rather, software is experienced “differentially” [20] depending on many factors — such as cultural contexts, symbolic meanings or routines — that make spatiality negotiable even in the more pervasive code/spaces. Moreover, since code/spaces rely on partial human/machine relationships, and their transductive processes of structuring are topologically as well as temporally distributed [21], they are characterized by contingent and relational practices that are open to continuous change and “rupture” [22]. This means that software only provisionally mediates the relational problems of code/spaces, and that their contingent and negotiated character renders them potentially “open to subversion” [23], producing gaps and fissures even in the most ubiquitous systems (Iaconesi and Persico, 2009).


1. Social software and the computational ecology of contemporary code/spaces

Being contingent and processual, transduction is never final or complete. Whereas top–down models of intelligent cities ultimately propose closed systems of invisible technologies which prevent exchange and dialogue and foreclose any form of intervention in their networks, according to Saskia Sassen (2011), cities have different degrees of openness that talk back and ask for the intervention of social actors in their incomplete spaces. Such interventions are made possible by what Sassen calls the “software of people’s practices,” provided that, for software, we intend something more complex than a meaningful series of numbers and signs, including in the definition the outcomes and negotiations of its different executions as well. Thus, Sassen’s appeal to urbanize technology, which she illustrates with several examples, from the proliferation of farmers’ markets to various other initiatives to take back the city — phenomena such as guerrilla gardening, flash mobs and urban games, to name but a few — is an appeal to make the mediations of code/space more traceable as if, all of a sudden, the walls concealing technological networks and systems became transparent, and the way they work publicly was rendered visible. Urbanists and artists have already started to work in this direction, “enabling new social performances” [24] at different levels and by means of different registers as shown, for example, in the experience of the SENSEable City Lab at MIT [25]. For Sassen, however, the urbanization of technology is possible only when a horizontal intervention of appropriation and collaborative sharing intervenes. Sassen calls this “an urban Wikileaks” and “open source urbanism” whose DNA, indeed, is open source software.

Although Sassen’s definition of “open source urbanism” is not fully deployed in her text, we can deduce that what she is referring to are the interrelationships among different infrastructures which do not keep the social and the technical separate, but consider their coimplications; thus, she intends the way an open circulation of information and the interactions and relations of sociospatial formations reciprocally mediate (in) urban contexts. Sassen, therefore, is pointing to a set of enabling conditions of the contemporary urban environment rather than to a set of technical properties as causes of change per se. Accordingly, the case studies I compare in this essay are two artistic modes of locative intervention in the urban sphere, the actions of the anonymous Guerrilla Spam (GS), a collective based in Tuscany, and the performances of Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico, a couple of artists based in Rome working under the acronym AOS (Art is Open Source) [26] which, I believe, equally rely on the “software of people’s practices,” without which cities could not be intelligent nor could technologies be smart. Although in their interventions very different technologies are employed, mostly analog in the case of GS and digital in the case of AOS, urban spaces are nonetheless similarly transduced through their multi–authorial performances in which ordinary codes are collaboratively activated and translated into open source practices. This confirms the idea that technologies cannot be considered independently from the chain of mediations that they enhance in the sociospatial environment, creating new senses of place while taking place at the same time. This also requires a different definition of locative media which, drawing on a non–representational approach (Mackenzie, 2003; Thrift, 2008), does not exclusively refer to the technical properties or relative novelty of the devices employed, but to the the transductive performances of information that is always grounded in spaces that, in turn, are not passive surfaces of inscription.

As Keller Easterling (2012) notes in a paper about the performativity of architectural forms, the ubiquity of digital technologies has made it increasingly difficult to see those technologies and spatial networks that exist independently from the digital ones, and whose organization nonetheless creates and circulates information at the very moment that it reveals the agency of different spatial arrangements. Drawing on a theatrical notion of performativity, he affirms that action produces information and changes, that action is the matter used for creating things and meanings. But activity in space does not depend on digital infrastructure alone — which would also imply a deterministic approach — since “a spatial software or protocol can be any platform that establishes variables for space as information.” With this, Easterling does not misrecognize the importance and implications of a renewed awareness of spatialized information, but foregrounds the complex sociotechnical character of spatial networks and locative media, while at the same time refusing any deterministic interpretation of them. Easterling’s paper further clarifies that we cannot merely intend software as computer code, unless we deprive code of agency and interpret it only as a tool. If we follow Mackenzie, a piece of software is both a “social object and process” [27], which finds articulation in practice. What matters are the executions of computational software on the one hand, and the ways such executions circulate, are performed and modified, according to different actualizable possibilities on the other. Thus, we could more broadly define locative media so as to encompass those sociotechnical practices whose shared agency and distributed relationality performatively and jointly redefine space and information.

The executions and practices of software, taken together, produce differences that are not merely quantitative, but qualitative. In order to highlight the qualitative modifications of contemporary code/spaces, Thrift (2008) significantly uses the neologism “qualculation.” With this term, he indicates a new qualculative sense redefining the correlations between the sensorium, sociospatial bodies, and the informational environment. But this term also refers to the informational environment itself, as the plane outlined by a recursive redefinition of our spatio–temporal coordinates:

in contrast to the temporality and spatiality of the narrative, playing once and for all, we find a progression based on a shuffling between loops which are all active simultaneously, which are constantly changing their character in response to new events, and which can communicate with each other in a kind of continuously diffracting spatial montage. There are no longer calculations with definite beginnings and ends. Rather there is a plane of endless calculation and recalculation, across which intensities continually build and fade. [28]

Analogously, when Adam Greenfield (2006) uses the neologism “everyware” while talking about contemporary spatiality, he is not only addressing the diffusion of new positioning and mobile technologies — given that the presence of everyware is not a sufficient condition per se to define a change in paradigm — but above all a new computational ecology, very similar to Thrift’s qualculation, which implies a different experience of space. This is why Greenfield defines everyware as “information processing dissolving in behavior,” that is, not “so much a particular kind of hardware or software as […] a situation” or a set of situations (theses 5, 7).


2. Tuning places: Open source locative practices in the city

We live in an informational continuum in which distinguishing between physical and media environments has become extremely difficult, and in which the sites of message production and representation increasingly blur. Locative media permeate places, and yet places have stopped determining social experiences. Of course, this is not to say that physical places have disappeared, since the mobility of information and communication flows still combines with the various forms of symbolic and material mobility of social actors; however, the continuous interfacing among different informational situations enhanced by ubiquitous media make it more difficult to isolate the “nature” of places, given that real and virtual, distant and near, personal and public are now perceived as more and more reversible. Places are increasingly accessed and signified through information, which means that their boundaries are mediated and can thus be erased and redrawn by the different positioning of sociotechnical assemblages; this phenomenon is not exclusively attributable to locative media, though, if we consider, for example, the function of broadcast media during the Sixties and Seventies and the ways they were used by minorities and countercultural movements to access places whose sense of belonging was gained by means of information in the first instance (Meyrowitz, 1985).

Both GS and AOS, in this respect, work with locative media along distributed contexts in which hybrid experiences emerge that continuously mobilize and transform our senses of place, “turning the world into an essentially read/write, ubiquitous publishing surface,” as AOS puts it [29]. However, although AOS prefers disseminating their contents through digital platforms whereas the GS collective primarily works with more traditional methods, such as leafleting and posting drawings and prints on public walls and which are also publicly distributed on request, the performances of both are made with the aim of openly sharing the technology used with the participants, who become actively involved at various levels in the transduction of the space in which they act. This ranges from different forms of consciousness raising regarding current events to direct participation in open source artwork, which becomes collaborative and replicable, subtracting the authors from the role of producers of meaning and instead making communication a horizontal and recursive series of performances. If traditional models of art and design position the author as a storyteller who owns the story of the created products and communicates it to his/her audience, the emergence of a non–linear model of communication on a plane of qualculation (Thrift, 2008) makes objects assume conversational capabilities that distance them from a broadcast narrative model (with obvious exceptions depending on a more commercial logic). Objects establish horizontal conversations with the users inside an open system in which recursive and reciprocal social experiences are created that do not rely on a unilinear logic anymore (Vinh, 2011). Communication does not only happen among the users inside a system, but also between the users of a system and the system itself. And yet, while locative media and ubiquitous technologies undoubtedly enhance all these aspects, they cannot be said to determine them; they only create the conditions of a different ecology of communication that lets the software of sociospatial practices become more visible.

Recently, Richard Coyne (2010) has employed the musical metaphor of “tuning” to define the micropractices of collaborative design emerging in contemporary media environments. For Coyne, “the tuning of place is a set of practices by which people use devices, willfully or unwittingly, to influence their interactions with one another in places” [30]. As we have seen, given that software is both an object and a social process, a hybrid which always needs contextualization, we can consider “any platform that establishes variables for space as information” as spatial software (Easterling, 2012). Even if they do not have a particular expertise, users can nonetheless tune these instruments; they, in turn, will allow users to tune themselves in the media environment (which is, for example, what quasi–objects do according to ANT) [31]. It is this tuning aspect that, according to Coyne, characterizes a device as locative: a smartphone is locative, says Coyne, because, differently from a watch, which usually works according to standard synchronization, it requires a syntonization based on continuous practices of adjustment and negotiation depending on social interaction [32]. Analogously, we can affirm that a poster that is pasted on a wall can work as locative media with tuning properties, provided that peer–to–peer relational practices emerge around it which are based on a distribution of knowledges, know-hows and instruments creating new senses for the places they occupy.

I want to start the analysis of my case studies from two works of GS and AOS that show many similarities, beginning with their titles. They are GS’ Come in cielo così in terra (2012) action and AOS’ installation and performance this.astro (2012), accompanied by the workshop Come in cielo così in terra. GS’ work was an urban attack planned in Rome for 18 February 2012, during which the members of the collective disseminated some fake “santini” [33] in 20 churches (See Figure 1), including St. Peter’s Basilica, after eluding surveillance cameras and staff. On the front, each fake santino shows a picture of the famous Italian writer Pier Paolo Pasolini at the moment when his brutalized corpse was found and, on the back, an invocation in the form of a prayer made to Pasolini as if he were a martyred saint; in it, the “believer” asks the writer for the strength to resist the corruption and consumerism of contemporary life and to acquire the awareness of their freedom.

Guerrilla Spam
Figure 1: Guerrilla Spam, Come in cielo così in terra, Rome, 2012.

Choosing Pasolini as an emblem of freedom [34], and using his santino to “hack” the actual piles of santini already present on the church benches to be purchased by believers in exchange for a symbolic offering, goes well beyond a provocative, though subtle, gesture of physical irruption into a place of worship. It aims to question the hierarchy of values and exclusions upon which the Catholic religious system is established. It infiltrates, so to speak, a highly institutionalized place like the church with images of an extremely anti–institutional figure like Pasolini, hybridizing the space by means of an iconoclastic, though minimal, gesture. The action is quickly and covertly performed, the GS santini are left near the real santini, so as to be found by the visitors almost by chance, their words asking those who pick them up to learn a different truth.

AOS’ this.astro was a real time installation created at the MACRO Museum in Rome on 28 April 2012 for the occasion of Global Astronomy Month, in which a star–filled sky was generated with each star representing an interaction of social networks, so that the image of the sky evolved depending on the amount and density of online conversations. As AOS has affirmed (Iaconesi and Persico, 2012b), the intent was to invert the top–down direction according to which the stars and the sky have determined our destiny in the common social imaginary by means of such things as oracles, horoscopes, and religious beliefs. Actually, the installation proposes a horizontal approach that puts the vertical and the horizontal dimension in contact, enmeshing the distant infinity above — with all its virtual implications — with the buzzes of ordinary life, represented by the flows of online conversations — with all their real implications. The result is the creation of what AOS calls a “user–generated horoscope” in which social relations map the destinies of social actors. Following this.astro, a workshop in the form of a participatory performance Come in cielo così in terra literally mapped the sky onto the streets of Rome: the participants, divided in groups, chose a constellation and tried to reach the position of the stars in it by following the application they had downloaded onto their smartphones; in so doing, AOS (Iaconesi and Persico, 2012b) created a “a city–wide GPS–based drawing performed collaboratively,” with people literally walking through it. The app and the sources used for its creation can be downloaded from the AOS Web site for free and, as a follow–up of the workshop, AOS also offers a basic online tutorial on how to make an HTML application which can track users’ positions. As usual, AOS creates and releases their tools in a completely open modality. Being a hacker himself, Iaconesi strongly believes that information needs to be not only disseminated but also easily accessed by anyone, for which reason AOS has created a dedicated publishing house, FakePress [35], as well as a fake cultural Institution called REFF (RomaEuropaFakeFactory) [36], also distributing an augmented reality “drug” during its workshops which is actually an open source tool of ubiquitous publishing based on MACME (MultiAuthorCrossMediaEcosystem).

A mash–up of institutionalized places with the intent of differently executing their spatial software forms the basis of most of GS and AOS’ interventions. So, for example, in one of its 2011 attacks, GS put up some posters with the sign Divieto di non affissione (Please post) attached to a headless torso right over the plates that fill many urban walls indicating a legal prohibition to post.

Guerrilla Spam
Figure 2: Guerrilla Spam, Divieto di non affissione, Florence, 2011.

GS’ semantic détournement — somehow mindful of Duchamp’s cover Prière de Toucher for the surrealist exhibition catalog of 1947 — while proposing an alternative meaning for institutional spatial signs, at the same time also rewrites the codes of prohibition and denial that they propose. Let us think about the recent hijacking of the Americans for Prosperity rally, an ultraconservative group, at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan on 20 September 2012, in which almost half of the crowd was composed of Occupy Wall Street protesters who had infiltrated the event, elegantly dressed and parodying the rally’s message with their signs (Gabbatt, 2012).

Similarly, during its action Squatting Supermarkets (2009–), along the lines of hacktivist groups such as Adbusters or The Yes Men, AOS employs different digital platforms, such as iSee for the iPhone and ubiquitous publishing technologies, to intervene in product labels, literally squatting in them, occupying them with new coded meanings. Using augmented reality fiducial markers, new contents are added to what consumers receive as the “institutionalized” message about a given product (See Figure 3). An application on consumers’ smartphones allows them to identify a logo or label and access additional information about it as well as a related area of public discussion. Among the augmented information, the artists add the ecological footprint, the sustainability, and existing alternatives to the available products. As AOS affirms: “Squatting Supermarkets is a platform. Mental and technological. It is an attitude suggesting the use of several technologies to create added spaces to reality: for critique, expression, action” (Iaconesi and Persico, 2009). Logos become wikis, and the conventionally broadcast oriented communication of a place like the supermarket is replaced by a circulation of read/write practices between humans, objects, and machines.

Squatting Supermarkets
Figure 3: Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico, Squatting Supermarkets, Mondovì, 2010.

And again, when GS set up its first unauthorized retrospective in 2011, it did it en plein air, employing the urban walls of a narrow alley near the well–known touristic area of Ponte Vecchio in Florence, with the intent of stimulating the viewers’ spontaneous responses in the form of comments, additions, or even refusals. Notwithstanding the removable glue that GS always uses to paste its manifestos so as to avoid damaging the surfaces on which they are glued, the public administration of the city decided to remove them only four days after their appearance. Here, the institutional intervention caused an interruption in the dialogue that the open access GS retrospective intended to launch, eventually showing a failure in the employment of top–down, proprietary policies on urban space. Many other of GS’ attacks also focus on the dialectics of public vs. private accessibility: for example, Bevimi! (Drink me!), in which one hundred paper sardines, whose bones actually looked like antennas and whose eyes had “100% oil” written on them, were thrown into the fountain near the station of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, to highlight the water pollution and privatization of what should be drinkable free water; or the attack Saldi di fine Repubblica (End of the Republic Sales), made during the Italian Republic celebration on 2 June 2011, in which GS’ manifestos, mimicking the fluorescent sale signs in shops, were pasted onto some of the most important historical monuments of Florence, to remind the passer–by about the clearance sale policies that the Italian government is adopting regarding its public heritage.

Specifically focusing on the mapping of urban life, ConnectiCity is an ongoing AOS project (2008–) which comprises many steps, foregrounding the information and communication awareness of citizens and the possibilities of intervention that they have to transform the urban space by means of ubiquitous publishing tools. As AOS comments describing the project,

these methodologies for real–time observation of cities can be described as a form of “ubiquitous anthropology”, based on the idea that we can take part in a networked structure shaped as a diffused expert system, capturing disseminated intelligence to coagulate it into a framework for the real–time processing of urban information. […] In this context infoaesthetic representations become enablers to enact radical strategies to maximize the accessibility and usability of this information. [37]

Beginning with a video–projection prototype mapping the sound environment of the Mexico City neighborhood where the cloister of the Italian Cultural Institute is located, and showing images describing the changes in this area over time, ConnectiCity was subsequently launched at the Festa dell’Architettura in Rome in 2010. Here, AOS has created an enormous Atlas of Rome as an interactive multi–touch installation in which people explore semantic, emotional, and temporal geographies, depending on their navigational paths. ConnectiCity has been continuing with real–time visualizations of specific moments and events of the Italian present, as in the case of VersuS–Rome.

Figure 4: Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico, VersuS–Rome, 2011.

In this work, AOS visualizes the peaks of intensity of social network communications (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare) — within the limits imposed by the API’s (Application programming Interface) access policies and the geo–referenced messages — during the riots of 15 October 2011 between 3 and 8 p.m. What emerges from the collected data is that the violent protest, upon which most online conversations as well as mainstream media focused, almost completely conceals the peaceful one. In fact, the animation showing the geo–referenced intensity of messages for each 30–minute time slot, superimposed onto a map of Rome, appears to be more intense in those areas where the violent riots took place. This means that those messages trying to communicate alternative information about peaceful pathways and coordination outside of dangerous zones had lower propagation; had they had more resonance, they could have been used by common people as well as by institutions to monitor the risky situations from their flashpoints and to diminish their impact. ConnectiCity has also been used to emotionally map the urban sphere, as in the case of VersuS: love VS Turin (2011), or to propose models of p2p urban planning based on geo–referenced user–generated contents on the Web, as in Maps of Babel (2012).



In this paper, drawing on ANT (Latour, 2005) and non–representational theory (Mackenzie, 2003; Thrift, 2008), I have looked at the contemporary media environment as the space where the relational and performative aspects of sociotechnical assemblages become paramount, allowing for horizontal and hybrid relations between human and machines which take place along the recursive transductions of space and information. Adopting an expanded definition of locative media, one which does not strictly depend on the tools employed but rather encompasses the qualitative changes of the contemporary media ecology (Easterling, 2001; Greenfield, 2006; Thrift, 2008), I have thus taken into consideration the work of the artistic groups GS and AOS as examples of open source urbanism (Sassen, 2011) in which the executions of codes and the practices of social software converge, enabling new socio–spatial performances. Locative arts transduce the codes of urban space in many different ways. According to Crang and Graham (2007), for example, artists can problematize existing uses of codes by making them transparent, create their “multi–authored overcoding,” and “pluralize the authorship” [38], or promote new relations and forms of collaboration. Both GS and AOS work accordingly, acting as mediators which allow people, even if they do not possess a particular expertise, to “tune” themselves (Coyne, 2010) inside a distributed system of openly accessible and shared knowledges and practices.

What it means that art can act as a mediator is better explained by Antoine Hennion and Bruno Latour (1993) when, discussing the objects of art and the objects of science, they show how art, not being necessarily dependent on the tyranny of truth and encompassing a world of assemblages between humans and objects, has a privileged role in tracing the constitution of the social along its chains of mediations and mediators. This, of course, does not mean that art can better “represent” or “express” the state of the social, but that art can let the mediations that perform the social emerge, disclosing how it works. Which means that, given that the social is not a given but an assemblage as well, it can always be differently mediated. In this respect, open source locative art in urban space not only foregrounds the dynamics of the constitution of sociality through code/space, it also allows those who take part in its distributed practices to understand and have the opportunity to engage with the ways relationships change inside a sociotechnical environment to whose experimental, ongoing composition hybrid human–machine agencies together contribute. End of article

About the author

Federica Timeto, Università di Urbino “Carlo Bo” (Urbino, Italy).
E–mail: ftimeto [at] gmail [dot] com


1. Thrift, 2008, p. 10.

2. Thrift, 2008, p. 91.

3. Thrift, 2008, pp. 163 ff.; Dourish and Bell, 2007, p. 428.

4. Thrift, 2008, p. 9.

5. Latour, 2005, p. 119.

6. Latour, 2005, pp. 106 ff.

7. Latour, 2005, pp. 79–80.

8. Kitchin and Dodge, 2011, p. 13.

9. Dodge and Kitchin, 2005, p. 163.

10. Dodge and Kitchin, 2005, p. 169.

11. Kitchin and Dodge, 2011, p. 5.

12. Crang and Graham, 2007, p. 793.

13. Crang and Graham, 2007, p. 794.

14. Mackenzie, 2003, p. 19.

15. Mackenzie, 2003, p. 9.

16. Mackenzie, 2003, p. 10.

17. Kitchin and Dodge, 2011, p. 16.

18. Kitchin and Dodge, 2011, p. 76.

19. Dourish and Bell, 2007, p. 418.

20. Kitchin and Dodge, 2011, p. 74.

21. Mackenzie, 2003, p. 14.

22. Kitchin and Dodge, 2011, p. 73.

23. Kitchin and Dodge, 2011, p. 75.

24. Crang and Graham, 2007, p. 806.

25. The SENSEable City Lab was founded by Carlo Ratti at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004 to study the transformation of code/space and devise creative and sustainable solutions for living in and planning the contemporary city. For more information see

26. Descriptions, images, and video documentation of all of GS’ works are available on their blog, at Visual documentation, detailed descriptions and statements about all of AOS’ works are available on their Web site, at

27. Mackenzie, 2006, p. 7.

28. Thrift, 2008, p. 97.

29. Iaconesi and Persico, 2012a, p. 63.

30. Coyne, 2010, p. xvi.

31. For a clear description of how quasi–objects work according to ANT, see Parikka, 2011.

32. Coyne, 2010, pp. 78 ff.

33. Santini is the Italian name for the devotional cards with images of saints printed on them usually accompanied by little formulas or prayers whose diffusion and commercialization in Europe dates back to the birth of printing.

34. Pasolini, an Italian writer and director who was considered a political and intellectual “heretic” in respects to many aspects of the Italian cultural panorama from the Fifties to the early Seventies, was also prosecuted and condemned, among other things, for public insulting the Catholic religion in his 1963 film La ricotta.



37. Iaconesi and Persico, 2012a, p. 65.

38. Crang and Graham, 2007, p. 806.


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Editorial history

Received 20 October 2013; accepted 27 October 2013.

“Redefining the city through social software” di Federica Timeto è distribuito con Licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione — Non commerciale — Non opere derivate 3.0 Unported.

Redefining the city through social software: Two examples of open source locative art in Italian urban space
by Federica Timeto.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 11 – 4 November 2013
doi: 10.5210/fm.v18i11.4952.