Alpha-Ville 2011


Seeing that all visions of mankind’s technological future seem to paint the society of tomorrow as a cold and dystopian place, you could be forgiven for coming to Alpha-ville expecting to be terrified about our inevitable fate as slaves to digital overlords. You’d be wrong though.

Taking over various event spaces in East London, the sheer amount of inventiveness and at times even playfulness on display means the reality is actually quite the opposite. Rather than regurgitating the endlessly rehashed ‘machines will eventually kill us all’ motif, this week-long event offers some sideways and often surprising glances of a future of progress and convenience, even if it does suggest some slightly worrying questions about privacy, identity and personal data.

In a nutshell, data is what Alpha-ville is all about. The currency of the ‘post-digital’ age is data; be it the Richter Scale, your name and location, or a literal representation of binary code. Whilst we’ve always existed in the physical world, even the most confirmed Luddite has to admit that we also increasingly inhabit a digital realm. The ever-loosening boundaries between the two has certainly become a fertile ground for the interesting, intriguing and downright amazing, especially when blurred by interactive works such as Be your own Souvenir.

One of the more remarkable elements at Alpha-ville sums this up brilliantly.Hackney Hear mixes GPS-Smartphone technology with social history to produce ‘post-digital’ tours of the borough. Plugging my headphones in and taking it for a test drive around London Fields, I’m immersed in 21st century oral history and folklore. A stroll past the lido gives you a short run through of its history before a song paints a vivid picture of a day there; and a half-hour jaunt round the park introduces you to a history of goose droving, insane asylums and the area’s importance as an early public space. I sit listening on a bench as the London Fields Boys explain the etiquette of being on their turf.

In fact the entire Innovation Space contains many intriguing parts. Nine Point Five maps earthquake magnitudes on a globe, Edits spews forth an unceasing printer stream of every single change to Wikipedia, whilst elsewhere, Bitquid pumps two different coloured liquids through pipes to represent a stream of binary code. But in amongst all the fun, some exhibits have darker undertones. Fbfaces mines a popular social network to produce art from profile pictures, and CELL creates word clouds based on personal data, and reminds us that, though we offer up this information about ourselves freely, it is just as freely manipulated by others.

As thought-provoking as these things are, being a big kid at heart means that it’s the interactive stuff that grabs me most. Pas e pas is a great teaching aid in which kids use animation to learn; whilst Man Bartlett’s Grey Matter is a piece of interactive performance art via a webcam (with tasks were broadcast over the internet and carried out live) that shows the digital realm’s more human face; and The Johnny Cash Project (crowd sourced with no real way for the outcome to be controlled) demonstrates why we should still have faith in the basic goodness of people. The one abiding lesson here is that it’s only when people are removed from the equation that technology becomes dystopian.

A big part of Alpha-ville’s programme explores musical and sonic innovation and night-time sees a further blurring of sensory boundaries through mind-bending audiovisuals and chest-pounding bass. Taking over Hearn Street Car Park, Emptyset are a cacophony of fuzzy images of running horses and warring martial artists suspended in fuzz with only the ear-splitting bass keeping reality in its place.

This is only the warm up. Kangding Ray takes the stage, unprepossessing and a little coy, ‘Odd Sympathy’ rumbles out from the speakers, slowly pummeling us with bass before building into driving rhythms. Ray’s music is a tightly wound place, where shards of melody jut out of storm cloud of bass like the end of some primeval thunder storm. With Ray crouched behind his electronics array, it sometimes feels that Herne Hill Carpark is the scene of some initiation rite into a cult of technology rather than a gig.

If there is one take-away from Alpha-ville it’s definitely that the barrier between technology and people is being pulled down on a daily basis and in many ways, it’s a very good thing. It seems to me that rather than promising a future of people enslaved to cold, emotionless data, technology is evolving to present information, facts and sounds in ways that are deeply and quite profoundly emotional. One thing’s for sure, I’m never going to be able to look at an Excel spreadsheet in the same way again.

This post originally appeared on Spoonfed on 3 October 2011


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