20 20 Revision

This semester will be hard to forget. Much of our lives changed in a few weeks, and until this day I can still feel the uncertainty and confusion. It seems like with the passing of time we learnt how to deal with the situation, or how to completely ignore it. While adapting to the changes here in the Netherlands, things were going much worse in Brazil, my home country, where COVID-19 cases and deaths are still on the rise and political turmoil expands by the minute. But in the first week of March, when country-wide restrictions started being applied in the Netherlands, one thing was clear to me: the only way out was through. And so began our special program for the semester, in which we'd follow weekly themes and build our work on them.

Before moving to Arnhem, the cities where I lived were big metropolises with millions of inhabitants. I felt a drastic difference in the rhythm of the city: how fast people walk, how late they stay out, how they behave in the supermarket queue, and so many little aspects of our daily lives. But one thing is common wherever you are. Occasionally, the entire place will turn into a ghost town, due to an important football game, a holiday, or sometimes a pandemic crisis. The eerie feeling is the same in bucolic towns of 200 inhabitants or vertical concrete jungles that sprawl beyond the horizon. All the sound is gone. The silence is deafening. Where is everybody?

I only get this feeling of solitude because I know who was there before. I see their footprints, in the form of constructions, drawings on the wall, plastic bags floating in the wind and, well, footprints. There seems to be a vacuum in space, before occupied by moving and breathing masses. I explored this idea further with my project Esquerda Atrás (Fig. 1) by creating humanesque shapes in 3D and texturing/morphing them through the materiality of things people leave behind, like plastic, construction materials, art, and positioning them in ghost town scenarios. I try to make the connection that you can leave, but your effect on your surroundings is long lasting and will be felt by those who come after.

Fig. 1 – Esquerda Atrás 13

At this point, the doubt and strangeness was replaced by the need to keep on going. School, work and personal life couldn't wait for me to figure out what was happening, and this overwhelmed me. I dealt with the situation by shifting my attention every couple of hours, progressing in small, manageable steps, which felt like shuffling through a playlist and skipping a song after the first five seconds, waiting for the right one to come up. I abstracted this feeling into a composition featuring contrasting sounds that  replace one another, in juxtaposition with shapes animated in rhythmic repetition. I try to provoke the same feeling of uneasiness I get when thoughts pile up, followed by bursts of bliss and relief for the moments when I recenter my concentration. Bass-heavy distorted drums and resonant arpeggios hit the listener from different directions, and the cloud of thoughts appears visually as a volatile and unstable particle system, symbolizing a constant flow of successive ideas that overlap and mix with each other. Sound plays a big role in realizing immersion, and having it react with and to the visual elements in repetitive crescendo arrangement helps bring forward the idea of sensorial and cognitive overload.

We started the next week by making a list with over 60 "frustrations", which I did by walking around the city and letting it trigger thoughts and feelings. This was a moment of peace and reflection, but in hindsight, the things I observed felt more like annoyances than frustrations. The things that actually frustrate me are much more personal, and thus difficult to deal with and resolve. I'm frustrated and disappointed by the past and its lost opportunities, could-have-beens and should-have-beens.

Instead of focusing on what frustrated me, I thought maybe I could frustrate others. The sprawl of easily accessible, ready-made software provokes an uniformization of digital design, with apps and websites seemingly following a clear pattern. We've been using a platform based on the Ghost CMS for collecting and sharing our work throughout the semester. The layout of this platform is unassuming: what you see is what you get. Seeing how a big part of the department was now relying on this hub, it felt to me like a proper route for provoking frustration. By getting access to the codebase of the platform, I could insert my own styles and scripts into its front-end, allowing me to manipulate how the site's information is shown without touching the underlying data. My project inverts the process of uniformization I previously described and takes the internet back to its very beginnings, where content was accessed through command prompts. I made a terminal version of the website, where all the navigation must be done through UNIX-like commands in a folder structure. The visitor can still access every image and post, but I imagine such a backwards-looking interface will be quite frustrating for some. The project had a somewhat comic twist to it, which I was not able to replicate for the following themes.

In less than a decade, data collection was ramped up to a massive scale. In combination with ever-lasting political and social dispute, we live in dystopic times of surveillance and manipulation. Our growingly extensive use of connected devices means that more aspects of our life can be parameterized, and by accepting terms and conditions, we agree to have this data recorded, analyzed and shared to different companies. Not all is bad, as technology has greatly developed in beneficial ways, but I see a problem on how the same systems that are made to help us are also targeting us, and they can do so with unprecedented effectiveness.

This is almost impossible to resist, we have virtually no control over our data once it's out there. The new GDPR legislation says that companies that handle user data must delete or anonymize it on request, but we can't know if they really do so with the tools we have at our disposal. We don't know who is watching, or when, so if you really care about this you have to assume that they're always behind you. If you want privacy without moving to a cave in the mountains, you need ad blockers, anti trackers, script blockers, VPNs, cookie blockers, PGP encryption, exclusive use of cryptocurrencies, covers on webcams (don't forget smartphone cameras), an anti facial recognition mask, and to self-host every online service you intend on using. And even then, you can't escape the government. Which brings me to my project. How can we try to resist?

I believe that transparency and accountability are essential for assuming control and agency over something that belongs to us, but is alienated by external systems. One of the most blatant and astounding ways this manifests is the way police forces throughout the world are put in a position where the population is the enemy. I come from Brazil, a country with one of the most violent police forces in the world. The Military Police branch, which does most of the security operations, has training programs with deep origins in the army and military dictatorship that governed for over 20 years and it shows: it's one of the most corrupt institutions in the country, using its power to protect their own, corrupt, dominate and make money. They don't identify themselves, and when they commit crimes they investigate themselves, which leads to nothing. I explored ways of enhancing public oversight over their actions in a speculative design project. My goal was to make it harder for public agents to hide their identities while on duty. Name tags and badges are easily manipulated, so I designed an encoding system which allows for identification tags to be embedded into the fabrics of the uniforms. This way, with a recording or photo from phones or security cameras the population can place and name officers independently from governmental bureaucracy. The fabric imprint is generated in a simplified blockchain system, meaning that none of its sections are repeated. Of course, there are many ways of bypassing this system, but the point is to have as many layers as we can to ensure responsibility in these corporations. We resist by keeping them in check.

These are times of dissent and consent. On one hand, the betrayal of the people by institutions that ought to protect them seems to never reach its apogee. This is recently exemplified by the gross public health mismanagement in face of the COVID-19 pandemic in countries such as Brazil and the United States, the inability of political powers to address the racist rot which runs through police corporations throughout the world, or the menace to democracies by the means of mass misinformation and attacks to overseeing agencies. On the other hand, manifestations of indignation have emerged, with people leaving their homes and getting together with demands of change. The streets are a place of combat, be it by marching, occupying public areas, or using the walls as a canvas, with people assuming their place and importance in the collective sphere.

Fig. 3 Speculative embedding of data in fabric pattern, to be decoded with computer vision

The streets are a forum, a battlefield, a history book, with each and every person to ever walk them leaving their mark, intentionally or not. This experience is hardly mediated, as you deal directly with others or their artefacts, with no filters in between. I was curious to see how this would play out in a different type of public space, the internet. It is public, since it is equally accessible and in open view. But there is a fundamental difference to real-world public space: if both people access the same public location on the internet, for example a website, they are virtually on the same location, but there is no direct interaction between them, whereas in the streets the contact is unavoidable. The most obvious ways of conversing are mediated by the owners of the location, like forums or review and comment sections. To have an unmediated exchange, you have to leave the public space and enter a private one, such as  a chat room. I wanted to occupy those areas. With my Netti extension, the internet public space is a bit more public, with users being able to leave their mark by manipulating web pages visually. Everyone who uses the extension can see the same web graffiti by going to where it is located, a specific webpage. And there, they can leave their own artefacts for others to see and interact with (fig. 3). I see this as a connection to real-life graffiti, which evolves with the city and with every new layer of paint added on or around it. The social aspect was very important for me as well, as with graffiti the object is made to be seen freely and openly, in contrast with all the art that is locked up in museum displays and archives.

Fig. 4 Some Netti interventions left at wikipedia.org and designarttechnology.nl

Until recently, I believed this would be a lost semester. Now I'm not so sure. Personally, I feel it's positive to have lived through this while being at school. I saw how effectively groups can reorganize to fit new circumstances, and how the only thing needed for making it work is good will. We will experience the impact of these few months for many years to come, and some changes will be permanent. But at the same time I feel like nothing has changed. I doubt we will be better prepared next time this happens, or when a new crisis emerges. I definitely feel like I found new ways of working and my efforts to make this valuable, or at least fun, weren't in vain. But with everything else that is going on, I hardly feel like my personal outcome matters.