DCRC produced one of its more unusual events on Saturday June 4th when artists YoHa presented 'Invisible Airs' to an audience in Bristol City Councils debating chamber. The event was beautiful exemplification of our mission to be creative, critical and applied when it comes to understanding the digital.
The 'Pneumatic Database Soiree' was the end of a year long commission for YoHa to work with the City Council's B-Open project that seeks to make Council data open and accessible to the public. YoHa's approach was to focus on engagement, creating events and assemblages that offer the public the opportunity to playfully engage with the Council's expenditure data base. Artists Harwood, Yokokijo and Fortune constructed a series of small machines driven by compressed air; Harwood had become very excited by the Thomas Beddoes' work in Bristol founding the 'Bristol Pneumatic Institution' in the late 18th Century.
Each machine is driven by quantities in the expenditure database. The Public Expenditure Riding machine, for instance, is a saddle that rises on compressed air to a height determined by the amount of spend on each database item. The Spending Potato Cannon is a massive spud gun whose velocity is determined by the database. YoHa took these crazed machines to a number of locations in Bristol in May (Create Centre, Knowle West Media Centre, Arnolfini & People's Republic of Stokescroft) and invited the public to play; in so doing each user had a direct experience of the database, the abstractions of digital power were rendered palpable. Video documentation of Matsuko explaining to small children that their sudden elevation on the saddle was caused by the council paying a £5000 bill for social care was a great illustration of openess in action.
On Saturday attendees were greeted by a long trestle table right in the midst of the chamber adorned with all manner of rack mounted compressed air machines, pipes, tubes, tupperware boxes concealing arduino circuitry and laptops. The databases running in the laptop sends signals to the Tupperware that then controls the flows of compressed air to the machines. The whole contraption makes an unholy racket and when finally turned on drew the audience into some very bemused and entertaining interactions. This was preceded by Harwood's contextiual performance lecture in which he made a Foucauldian analysis of the power of the relational machine. Stephen Fortune followed with a user's guide to what databases actually look like and what they actually do.
I was struck throughout by the powerful resonance of being able to pull off this event in this location - Bristol City Council deserve the utmost credit for going with a risky project that actually allowed artists to stand up in the middle of the city machine and criticise its operation. The whole extravaganza was webcast and UWE Film Maker Alistair Oldham is working on a documentary inspired by project to be completed in the autumn. We really hope we can also find a space to install the machines for a sustained period next year. Massive credits to Mark Newman and Kat Anderson for delivering the event.