Published August 30, 2012
The Venice Architecture Biennale is the most prestigious architecture event in the world, and when the 13th biennale opens on Aug. 29, UB innovator Mark Shepard will be there with bells on.
Shepard, associate professor of architecture and media study, will present two intriguing projects at the biennale as part of the American exhibition “Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good,” organized for the U.S. Pavilion by the Institute for Urban Design.
The theme represents the compelling contemporary urban trend of individuals like Shepard who create projects that expand the amenities, comfort, functionality, inclusiveness, safety and sustainability of cities.
In the first instance, he will conduct intriguing, head-scratching walks through the city directed by Serendipitor, his alternative navigation iPhone app that injects a fun, gaming layer into city travel.
In the second, Shepard and two collaborators will present the Venice Mussel Choir, which will use data from water-quality sensors made of live mussels to generate music from synthetized voices vocalizing changes in water quality in a Venice canal. In other words, the system will “sing” daily water-quality readings.
Serendipitor combines directions generated by a routing service—in this case, the Google Maps API, or application programming interface—with instructions for action and movement inspired by Fluxus artists such as Yoko Ono, American designer-landscape architect-performance-artist Vito Acconci and others. It is, like these artists, avant-garde, challenging and witty.
This is how it works: A user enters an origin and destination into the phone app, which, in turn, maps a route of varying complexity between the two sites. So far, it’s like a typical GPS system.
However, it is designed to provoke serendipity. As the user navigates the route, the phone offers step-by-step directions for possible actions he or she can take at a given location on the map. (“Turn left at Pearse Street.” “Walk in the shade until there is no more shade.” “Turn right.” “When you reach a one-way street, walk down it the wrong way.” “Look for something square and photograph it.” “Ask someone for directions to the nearest park and invite him or her to join you.”)
Shepard says the suggestions are designed to introduce a number of small missteps and minor displacements in the otherwise optimized route. It is an unsettling process that enhances the users’ consciousness of place by nudging them out of ordinary experience and into a fluky new realm.
The Venice Mussel Choir is a public workshop that introduces issues and challenges related to water-quality monitoring and demonstrates how to build a water-quality sensor using living mussels.
Shepard’s collaborators on the project are Natalie Jeremijenko, director of the Environmental Health Clinic at New York University, and David Benjamin, director of the Living Architecture Lab in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University.
The project employs a type of mussel widely distributed in the Venice lagoon that has been proven in a number of studies to alter the gape in its shell in response to the accumulation of organic pollutants and trace minerals in the water in which it lives.
“The choir is a prototype system that will use an array of these mussels,” Shepard says. “A Hall sensor and a rare-earth magnet will be attached to the mussels’ shells before they are submerged in a canal near the Riva dei Partigiani pedestrian bridge.
“The sensors will detect changes in the shell gape over time and extrapolate those responses to local water conditions in situ,” he says.
“The data from the sensors will be used to generate a song performed by synthesized voices (the choir)—vocalizations that reflect changes in the water quality of the canal.”
Shepard, who joined the UB faculty in 2005, directs the MArch/MFA dual degree program in Media, Architecture and Computing, and co-directs the Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies.
His work has been exhibited at many museums, galleries and festivals in the U.S. and abroad. His recent publications include “Sentient City: ubiquitous computing, architecture and the future of urban space,” published by the Architectural League of New York and MIT Press.
Serendipitor was developed by Shepard at the V2 Institute for the Unstable Media as part of a joint artist residency with Eyebeam Art+Technology Center. The application is available for free download at iPhone and iPod touch from the App Store. Examples of maps and directed actions can be found on the Serendipitor website.