Report from FutureSonic 2004

Report from Futuresonic 2004
Mobile Connections
April 30-May 1, 2004

by Jonah Brucker-Cohen (

Held in the oblong shaped, glass-surfaced, URBIS center in
Manchester, UK, the Futuresonic festival began with a conference
focused on the theme of "Mobile Connections", or the role of mobile
technology and location-based media in creative arts practice.
Covering everything from mixed reality mobile gaming to mobile ad-hoc
networking to biometric recording devices, the conference and
accompanying exhibition provided a concise overview and impressive
showcase of emerging mobile media projects.

Media theorist Sadie Plant opened the event with a keynote address on
the history of technology-mediated communication and the social
ramifications of this phenomenon on our daily lives. She outlined how
human behavior shifts when communication is siphoned through
different mediums. For instance, when using the Internet a typical
question asked among users is "Who are you?" since anonymity of
identity remains important. In contrast, the fixed telephone causes
people to ask "How are you?" since in most cases you already know who
you are calling and it being a specific location. Finally, the mobile
telephone sees people asking "Where are you?" since their location
plays a key role in determining the type and duration of the
conversation. These subtle clues attest to how people adapt to
shifting contexts of interaction and how these nuances play out
within the corresponding spaces of each device.

Following this discussion was the "Network Commons" panel, moderated
by Armin Mendosch, which brought up some interesting debate and
arguments centering around the use and deployment of community
wireless networks in urban areas. I presented my Wifi-Hog project as
an example of a device that challenges the claim of ownership over
public wireless spaces by corporate nodes looking to populate urban
centers with their pay-per-use networks. Although the project has
received numerous negative reactions from proponents of free
networks, its main point is to examine both the positive and negative
effects of territorialism with networks that seep from private spaces
into public areas. Also on the panel, Adam Burns from London's outlined a plan for ways community groups could overthrow
the mobile carriers by building home-spun GSM access points. However,
this approach still requires centralized access points, placing
control in the hands of few. In contrast, an ad-hoc network approach
would allow everyone to be a router and pass information directly to
each other without the need for a central relay.

The second day featured a keynote by Matt Adams of Blast Theory, the
artist group responsible for launching a wave of pervasive gaming
projects, most notably "Can You See Me Now?" and "Uncle Roy All
Around You". These games pit online players against "runners" on the
street who try to chase each aother down in both spaces
simultaneously through the use of mobile digital devices and wireless
technology. Adam's speech outlined a remake of Hakim Bey's "Temporary
Autonomous Zones", where instead of merely occupying a space in
physical proximity and association, technology mediated spaces affect
our actions and thus produce "Temporary Performative Zones". For
instance, when receiving a call on a mobile phone we must "perform"
to separate ourselves from people in our immediate area or mask our
discussions if they become too personal. Halfway through Adams' talk,
he received strong opposition from the audience who accused him of
"selling out" to corporate sponsors since his emphasis on the growing
mobile communications industry seemed to overshadow his artistic
intent with Blast Theory's work. Although the idea of pure art might
seem utopian, Adams was quick to point out that it is "naive to think
that this cultural form is independent from the capitalist economy
that these devices are coming from." In a sense, these games and
project comment on the current and future uses of these devices as
they gain ubiquity.

The exhibition featured a wide range of work focusing on both the
negative and positive effects of mobile technology in physical
spaces. One of my favorites was "Mobile Clubbing", a flash-mob-like
urban performance where participants with portable MP3 players and
headphones show up in public spaces like train stations and party
down. Reactions caught on video by onlookers were amusing. Playing
off the health risks of mobile phones was Rupert Griffith's
"Telenono", a sealed phone booth that supposedly blocks out all
radiation from devices such as mobile phones, televisions, radios,
and Bluetooth signals. When inside, the booth forces others to
physically find you to communicate. Around the URBIS grounds, several
projects were on demo that allowed visitors to traverse the urban
landscape of Manchester. "InterUrban", by Naomi Spellman, Jeremy
Hight, and Jeff Knowlton, consisted of an interactive narrative that
constructed itself based on a person's movement around the physical
grounds such as time of day, distance traveled, and actual direction.
Going for abstraction was the Japan-based artist Akitsugu
Maebayashi's "Sonic Interface", a wearable sonic re-sampler that
inputted live audio, remixed it, and spit it back out to the wearer's
headphones. The exhibition traded slick production value for proof of
concept and rapid deployment to gain feedback from the attentive

As the conference ended, a prevalent theme seemed to form around the
concept of "minimal aesthetics" and social potential. The most
successful projects were realized with little technological overhead
and simultaneously created a space for collaborative intervention
among members of the public or a specific location. Mobile
Connections was meant to highlight the rift between location-based
media and everyday experience, where technology takes a backseat to
human and critical engagement. This was felt at the event, but the
question remains if theses devices should maintain a foreground or
background role in our everyday lives. Does the effort to interact
with a technology overshadow the result of the interaction? Since the
inclusion of digital technology in social situations creates tension
over accessibility, perhaps increased transparency will help to
relieve this conflict. Futuresonic initiated a debate on these
questions and provides a good starting point to examine the
sociological and personal effect of mobile technology on society at

-Jonah Brucker-Cohen (