Centre for Internet & Society

Akhila Seetharaman finds out why a group of artists and researchers are preoccupied with chasing shadows. This article was published in Time Out Bengaluru, Vol. 3, Issue 20, April 15 - 28, 2011.

The New Bharat Brass Band from Kalasipalayam performed an unusual ditty at the Chitrakala Parishat last month. In a typical concert, the band plays raucous renditions of the latest hit Hindi film songs, but the music at this gig had its origin in a database of photographs of the city. These images had been taken by a group of student-artists, who converted the visual data into binary codes of 0s and 1s, and then transcribed the codes into musical notation, which they asked the band to perform. The result: strange, random, almost robotic music which represented a uniquely distilled experience of the city, peppered with the band’s characteristic filmy flourishes.

This performance was one among the several experimental art projects developed by participants as part of the Space the Final Frontier project, an initiative by the Dutch Art Institute and Centre for Experimental Media Arts at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology to get students to – as described in a introduction to the project – articulate “spaces of flux” and “index the shadow worlds” of the city.

“When we speak about mapping the city, we immediately think in terms of physical geography. We don’t usually approach it in an aesthetic or theoretical way,” said Deepak DL, an art student from Chitrakala Parishat who participated in the two-week programme. His group chose to map shadow sounds – birds, buses on the street, sounds from a bar, and pressure cookers whistling in homes – piecing together an aural landscape of the city. “This project was about mapping the non-spaces. For instance when you go to a restaurant, you rarely see what’s going on behind the wall in the kitchen. We tried to do just that using sound,” said Deepak.

“Wherever there is light, there is also shadow. For all the spaces getting attention, there are many more spaces not getting attention, but surviving and often thriving,” said Prayas Abhinav, faculty member and researcher at CEMA and one of the organisers of Space the Final Frontier. In collaboration with Renée Ridgeway, founder of an online platform for art activities called n.e.w.s., and a third collaborator Stephen Wright, Abhinav is currently working on a book which examines the distribution of human attention in the art world, based on a concept known as “attention economy”.

The trio’s fascination with the theme also led them to hunt for shadow art activities on the internet. In the course of their search they found themselves wondering how to find art online without necessarily limiting themselves to work that described itself as “art”. For Abhinav and his colleagues this became more than a technical problem, since search engines assume that users are looking for what others are looking for and throw up the most popular or valid entries first, leaving the vast majority of less popular entries in the shadow. “Lesser known artists don’t refer to themselves as ‘lesser known artists’, so finding them online via Google isn’t all that easy,” said Abhinav. “Everyone is operating in the same space with established hierarchies. Shadows exist, but how do we look for them?”

“In the 1990s we used to have a culture of community web sites that looked really bad, but were thriving hubs,” said Abhinav. He pointed out that over the decade, with the advent of search engines, the larger databases gained priority among users. To democratise search results, Abhinav and Ridgeway, along with the Centre for Internet and Society, launched the Shadow Search Project with an open call for entries in early 2010 to find an algorithm that could bring up entries that otherwise exist under the radar, through search.

“If the new currency is attention – that is, if users are supposed to pay not money but time –, certain kinds of priorities are set up and vast amounts of information will always remain invisible,” said Nishant Shah, researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society. The Shadow Search Project is intended to serve as a platform to look for these shadows and give them visibility.

The winning entry, a search engine called Narcissus, which will be demonstrated this fortnight, takes the search results of a regular search engine like Google and reverses it, such that the user gets the last page first. “The least popular results come up first, and as those become more popular, the new least popular results come up. This continues in a cyclical manner,” said Ridgeway.

Data gathered and indexed by students during the Space the Final Frontier programme will be used to test the Narcissus algorithm. “If one of the strengths of the Internet is serendipity – stumbling upon a small, but great find by chance – the idea of a search engine plug in like Narcissus that scrambles Google results and presents it in a democratic manner, definitely has appeal,” said Shah. 

Read the original in Time Out Bengaluru here

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