“Tell me a story” is a simple sentence, an immediately comprehensible request, which leads to an action which is not as simple as the request itself. Telling a story, indeed, is the practice that always involves an “I” which can be told which is never autonomous and confident but which is constructed by an interweaving of stories and relationships with others. According to Adriana Cavarero narration provides each subjectivity with what they lack: unity, uniqueness and stability. Unity is provided by the interweaving of all the experiences where the ‘I’ is intended as the nucleus. I want to experience as a protagonist what becomes my way of acting through the story.
But every story is unique, unrepeatable, and necessarily requires a point of view, a uniqueness whose stability is provided by the structure of the story that gives the self an approximate direction, a coherence which is also imperfect. The Italian philosopher and feminist writes: “Everyone is looking for the unity of identity in the story, be it told by others or by himself, a unity which, far from being a substantial reality, instead belongs only to his or her desire.
It directs both his expectations and the subject of the story and the work of the narrator “(A. Cavarero,” You look at me, you tell me a story. Philosophy of narration “, Feltrinelli, Milan, 1997, p. 59). Telling a story takes the shape of a political action capable of describing the complexity of reality and coping with its problems.
“Telling the other side of the story” is the goal that Squatting Supermarkets is aiming at, an installation, a performance, a work of net art, some short stories (and one could use many more words to describe it), a coproduction FakePress / Art is Open Source, presented for the first time in November 2009 during the Piemonte Share Festival. It won the Special Project Award at this same festival and the Green Award for ”0” impact technology of the Environmental Park in Turin.
The installation for the festival was made up of three blocks. On a white cube inside a Plexiglas case there was an iPhone framing a logo of a brand of coffee, while on the screen next to it a micro-documentary film describing the ecological and environmental impacts of coffee production on the countries which import it was broadcast in loop. A demonstration of what one might tell a consumer in a supermarket by using a mobile phone and scrambling different sources from the internet.
In front of the case, a normal supermarket shelf was filled with about 300 cans with Squatting Supermarkets labels in five different colors (red, fuchsia, yellow, blue and green). On one side of the shelf there was a technological version of an oracle, a revised version of the application iSee of the iPhone. A large screen projected an eye on a black background and asked to be consulted. Around it there was a series of anonymous products placed inside some plastic bags which were marked only by a Qrcode.
By placing a product on the shelf below, thanks to a webcam framing the code, the eye-oracle revealed its hidden story. Opposite there was Shoptivism TV, a live webTV broadcasting live from the Museum, which involved the festival audience in a dialogue about issues regarding this installation.
The information seemed to be the core of the whole operation with the aim, however, of going beyond the vision of the world given by the globalizing powers and, above all, declined in a very specific context. The installation Squatting Supermarkets was proposed as an interactive supermarket in “augmented reality”. A situation perfectly described in the last two novels by William Gibson, “Academy of Dreams,” and especially “Guerreros”. A reality that is not only imagined but which belongs to everyday life.
On the one hand we are surrounded by new applications of mobile phones and devices of various types which allow us to add to and stratify levels of meaning to our surroundings. Software capable of providing information just by framing buildings, places, objects or codes are published every day. But the information we are provided with usually comes from a single source capable of directing our action. On the other hand, the development of social networks has prompted large companies to exploit the enthusiasm of consumers for the development of a positive image given by comments and contributions from users. A virtual and multiple image of these companies has thus been built, however, it seems to be at the same time uncontrollable.
Squatting Supermarkets blends these two aspects by conveying other information, not in an oppositional perspective to large multinationals but by developing other interwoven stories, nomads, which come from different users, so unmanageable and resistant to the logic of power. The action undermines the virtual image that companies are building of themselves, remembering to bring everything to reality and actively involving the bodies in the daily area the supermarket represents.
The performance component becomes a place of ideal resistance. This was the case during a workshop held in Turin during the festival, where the authors explained the theoretical and practical aspects of “Shoptivism” and invited the participants to a Shoppdropping action in the malls of the city. The goal was to add micro-narratives or urban haiku using adhesive labels to be stuck onto the shelf goods.
There were small printed words on these labels. They tried to get people to reflect on how consumers behave: “70% of the time you use this product you forget to dispose of the packaging properly” “You’ll never know the history of this product” Be happy! You are part of a small global elite. Only 7% of all the people in the world can buy this product“.
The unpredictability of narration was fully expressed, however, during a particular version, an entire performance of Squatting Supermarkets. It was held on January 24, 2010 at the Circolo Arci Scighera Milan. The action was presented as an interactive banquet in augmented reality.
Access to a rich banquet was barred by an unusual pair of waiters dressed in white shirts and overalls, their face covered by a mask. To every request they answered as follows: “Tell us a story.” The only available evidence was two monitors projecting the logo-eye-oracle iSee, two webcams above the screens and a transparent bowl containing the Fiducial Markers, some special symbols cut out some squares of white cardboard. Each dish was associated to a story. Putting one of the Fiducial Markers in front of the webcam a small video appeared on the screen.
Access to the banquet was simple, you had to tell the story you had just heard from the oracle to the two waiters. Once the mechanism was understood, the public began to consult the eye using the Fiducial Markers. To get a complete meal the participants had to tell the stories related to different dishes but what came from the monitors were only small fragments of videos, sounds or images. After an initial phase of confusion, the public begun to understand that what the two waiters wanted was that the guests tell their stories intertwining them with the suggestions coming from the digital databases.
They told stories about their relationship with food, of improbable situations in which the narrator was himself the protagonist. They watched the sharing and the staging of their desires in a plot between the real and the virtual which tended to make them think about the food we eat every day and the mechanisms of consumption. This is because an actual performance as a site of resistance should use recombinant inter-related scenes that oscillate between virtual life and everyday life” (Critical Art Ensemble, “electronic sabotage” Castelvecchi, Rome, 1995, p.58)
For this and for many other reasons, it was interesting to interview the authors of Squatting Supermarkets on the issues of their actions.
Loretta Borrelli: The decade just past has often been called the NOLOGO one. Within political criticism there has often been a strange identification with logos which concealed large profits, in the value of daily life the enemy. It is usual to run into artistic actions or policies that use these logos in terms of opposition. In this work instead these logos are not the enemy but great material to use for giving new meanings.
Squatting Supermarket: There is an interesting episode which happened during the Piemonte Share Festival. A woman of 50 years more or less came by the installation. She kept interrupting so many times that we were forced to ask her to wait in silence. The mood of the woman (in absolute good faith) was the result of a dialogical interpretation of Squatting Supermarket: in her scheme corporations were the enemy to deal with and we were giving to her a virile (and new) instrument in the fight to be used “against” them. But Squatting Supermarkets and iSee are not an “informational stone” at least not in a unidirectional sense.
An attitude of this kind would not take us far. We know perfectly well that our generation can not afford to have a ” big enemy” to fight against. First of all because the enemy has disappeared. Secondly because there is an element, the existential level of relationship with power, which is more difficult to analyze and resolve. Reproducing the mechanisms of the “enemy”, even in terms of opposition, conceals a desire for recognition and identification purposes and often to be “in his place”.
The great revolutions are the most striking historical example of this: breaking the old order means imposing the new ruler, while the relationship with power remains virtually unchanged (in this the experiences of feminism and ecology are still entirely valid tools of analysis and criticism, and we still have much to learn).
Turning to logos and brands, corporations derive direct benefit from the opposition. So much so that fakes are often created ad hoc and are in effect incorporated into marketing strategies: in the media they remain the center of communication, while in terms of who does the campaign, efforts are concentrated on the negation of the opponent rather than on building an alternative, with the implied consequences explained before.
Another constant is sub-sumption: dress code and emerging trends in pockets of resistance and youth cultures are studied, codified, standardized, ready to become fashion trends on the catwalk. (We do not think it is necessary to discuss further a topic which is well known and widely documented).
What happens then to conflict in such a picture? How should it be acted out? And above all, will it disappear? Certainly not. Conflict is projected in a permanent state, taking on possibilist dimension in many ways and opportunities for value creation, while in a ultra-coded space (physical and intangible) the only effective action is “between” the codes: squatting is something strategic in the contemporary conflict.
Squatting Supermarkets in fact explicitly speaks of infrastructural squatting applied in this case to the immaterial physical space of consumption: the logo and the shop. The logo is a resource that is recognizable, you wear it, you carry things with it, it stands out on shelves, in newspapers, on urban surfaces, on Web sites. Rather than taking on new meaning, its function is redesigned, just as happens with technologies when applying reverse engineering.
From a communication resource of the corporation it becomes a place of open communication, capable of delivering a polyphony of voices, an emerging narrative. As if suddenly the pieces of the world behind the brand left in the dark bursts onto the scene: consumers, workers, the other manufacturers, the object themselves. Here again the logic is not oppositional: the corporation, like others, is part of the mechanism of publication. Except that it loses its exclusive monopoly.
Similarly, the point of sale. Mobile technology, what the vast majority of consumers carry in their pockets, makes it possible to make a detour from the physical experience of shopping, to stop and add new informative layers and possibilities within the most performance-related (and decisive) moment of consumption: choosing the product, putting it in your trolley, paying for it.
Certainly the narrative of squatting is wonderful: the fact that the brand is easily recognizable, its being designed with simple and essential forms, makes it possible to process the image easily using visual recognition software. The strength of the brand is also its bug: the same way from where we enter. Just as we enter a store transforming it into a potential showcase for the products of others.
Loretta Borrelli: Big corporations are now aware of the enormous potential given by groups of users who seek to exchange ideas and opinions about brands or even to define its own membership. In Squatting Supermarket user intervention is required to develop a critical awareness and to exchange information about products and objects that surround them. What do you think are the substantial differences that may push users to use this system differently from that promoted by large corporations? What could be the result in both cases, also in a negative sense?
Squatting Supermarket: The initial thoughts and questions you are asking are an integral part of this research. The companies know they cannot control communication. It is no longer possible to think of an exclusivity of information sources. To establish this, is a simple search on Google is enough. We could simply discover, for example, that among the first 10 results by typing “Apple” there are links to Wikipedia and autonomous blog users who exchange information, news and opinions on products and company policies about the brand.
Driven by necessity, firms and corporations land massively on social networks to capture slices of relational capital (good reputation), but the result of such operations is not obvious nor predictable: there is a percentage of unavoidable risk, where green washing operations can become dangerous boomerangs in the hands of users.
Consumers, meanwhile, show a significant predisposition to discuss the goods and the choices that guide their purchases: according to a study by Eurisco about 30% of Europeans would be willing to become an active boycotter if he had adequate information, trusting more the information on the social network than those listed on product labels. Briefly, a large group of consumers get informed online, selecting sources from other users or other third parties before buying.
We do not want to describe an idyllic photograph but an emerging reality a profound change and a possibility. We are also fully aware of the following factors:
- corporations, companies and global players have resources available (financial, of communication and of imagination) which are not comparable to those of users;
- the iSee infrastructure can be manipulated to their advantage, just like on social networks: from viral marketing campaigns to specific professional personnel, we know that there are thousands of people paid to have 50 profiles (fake) at a time, posing as real users, befriending, commenting, spinning the news and so on;
- the potential of Squatting Supermarkets and iSee could express itself if it becomes a widespread practice and if it is adopted and becomes a tool of action for existing communities (whether associations of producers, activist or institutional organizations) and processes.
Finally, there are third parties with respect to the producers / consumers who enter into the mechanism of publication: sources of authoritative information that offer information on products / brands for which data are integrated into the platform. ISee currently integrates data from SourceMap (the open source supply chain of the MIT), EarthWatch (NASA, UN), Corporate Watch.
For example: with projects like EarthWatch it is possible, by going back to the chemical composition of products, to establish the real connections between these and various kinds of pollution in various parts of the world. So we can take our favorite shampoos and know, for example, how it affects the degradation of the Atlantic Ocean coastline and so on. We are working hard on this with ambitious expansion plans. Everything has to be analyzed also legally, we would like to create a “peer to peer authority” : the potential of an organism of this kind would be really far-reaching, something like this does not exist currently.
There is not, obviously, a way to predict what people or companies will do with technologies and activities like the iSee and Squatting Supermarkets. Neither is this prediction one of our priorities. Our aims are creating practice, the implementation of a new space and the creation of a new possibility. What interests us is to observe the world, analyze processes and imagination, and give them free rein, free expression. Ours is an ethnographic approach, in this sense.
And also in the sense that the study of human practices, desire, imagination, relationships and the emotions of people also concerns us, of course. Let us become a voice like any other: we are not interested in taking a position of advantage “only” because we designed an action / practice / technology.
Nor in this hypothetical advantageous position are we interested in the opportunity to make predictions and estimates. It is indeed interesting to go beyond sociology, prediction marketing, or even easy politics. We are interested in gathering tensions, desires, imagination and existing emotions and working among existing codes which the world packaged in order to open up to those which allow free and autonomous expression and therefore create practices/technologies/actions that let them express themselves.
We do not want to give directions, we create spaces in which directions are chosen by people who intend to select them. Once a practice / technology has been established, then it will be released and made available, and we too will become part of this group of people.
At this point we can act independently and there, of course, we can create our interference by adding contents, which are related to broad concepts of sustainability, tolerance, responsibility and social criticism, ecology of the environment and the mind.To do that we act in different fields, science, design, art, politics, engineering. But we are one voice among many. So: how will people and companies use Squatting Supermarkets?
What will be the positive / negative results? The answer is: all those they want. We will make our own, using this space / opportunity just as we would like others to do. We are interested in reinventing reality, in creating new spaces, in escaping from the default configurations and in creating tools available and accessible to their autonomy and freedom of expression and communication, we are not interested in distributing ideologies.
Therefore, at a certain point, we will start talking about contents, by which everyone could take his own “direction” in this new space, in this “growth” of reality available. We ourselves, as publishers / performers / artivists will express our own set of directions, initially letting the system live and finding mechanisms for its sustainability, trying to diffuse the existing social networks, creating reports, communicating.
As far as producers are concerned, Squatting Supermarkets is still an embryo reality: the reactions of firms are not entirely predictable. Actually it is possible that they would not like the fact that a platform could connect their favorite shampoo with pollution in a given territory. To return to the example made before, we have to pay attention also to the legal issues that are sensitive and controversial ones. Fortunately we always collaborate with several lawyers, in this sense priceless.
Loretta Borrelli: Squatting Supermarkets starts from there, from where the label ends. The process you put in place is that of the layering of meanings, but it is not only digital but also a performance action that involves physical spaces and tends to begin a process of awareness in individual consumers. In an era when the informational factor rules, where the exchange of information becomes a performance, do you add more information?
Squatting Supermarket: “The next big thing,” The Internet of things. Since 2007 we used to call it Virtual Neorealism. It is about the opportunity to of post information about bodies, buildings and objects which are something real, with all the ensuing consequences. Squatting Supermarkets does not want to “evangelize” consumers to a critical consumption, and perhaps even spur a form of awareness. Its essence is firstly that of enabling infrastructure, secondly of disseminating practices.Moral aspirations are absent. The focus is perhaps more visible on the complexity of the ecosystem in which we are immersed (in this case, shopping, the consumer, the market place) and of the instruments that enable the possibility to exist, to express our identity.
What we have is an infrastructure, a public space that is inherently neutral and its value is mainly explained here below: the function of a road is to allow people to circulate, not to control who goes there (This function is delegated to other entities fortunately), a square is an open place where anyone can theoretically interact, meet, congregate. The same can be applied to infrastructures such as the iSee.
Regarding how to stratify and add information, it goes towards reinventing the real (an “augmented reality”, therefore, in a possibilist sense and emerging with a meaning not only technological) and simultaneously adding and removing complexity: to dig, the emergence of data and intrinsically multiple viewpoints and, at the same time, to make everything accessible, natural, gestural, physical and simple.
The action on the body is a piece of reflection and publishing model: we produce hybrid media, as are the technologies we use. But there’s more. With Squatting Supermarkets at Share we coined the term Shoptivism (shopping + activism). Declined in two ways, primarily: a web TV carried on a facade of the installation to affirm the possibility of a dialogue inside the supermarket and the active search for this dialogue, and an action of Shopdropping. All this was part of a workshop for students of Multimedia DAMS. With them we went shopping in the city. We had some stickers to stick on the bar codes of products. There were urban micro-narratives regarding consumption on the labels.Short sentences like the haiku.
Essentially the same mechanism, the same mode of publication that Fake Press proposes, but analog and oriented to action on the bodies in this case intentional: a performance intended to stop the flow of consumption.And this has a meaning and a specific value especially in terms of who does the action: to prepare, to imagine, to take risks (even if very small), to take time. The experience of bodies has a specific value simply because a body is a “device”, a technology we use that provides valuable information which is not replaceable, so far, by other technologies.
A body gives back finiteness, pain, death, the consequences of actions, it gives us our sense of being in the world. Some time ago we made a suit to wear. It connected the body with its avatar (or vice versa), OneAvatar: the promo work was the suicide of XDXD on SL. An actual suicide, which involved physical death: his avatar threw itself from a cliff but an electrical circuit connected to the body gave it electrical shocks. And the suit does exactly that, only at low voltage, of course.
Loretta Borrelli: The Art is Open Source website says “Each product creates a chain reaction constructed of environmental, social, political, economic, technological, relational and emotional rings. These connections, so complex and ramified, are not very explicit: too often only the experiential message is reserved for people: “buy this item / service, it was made especially for you, for how you want to be.”
Not only the subjectivities are valued but also relationships. Each purchase has an emotional and sentimental aspect which seems to emerge from this sentence. For this reason a political critique which does not take into consideration this may seem inadequate. In your work it seems another meaning of the word consumerism is revealed.
Squatting Supermarket: The Homo oeconomicus theorized from political economy (Smith, but also Marx) does not exist today and has never existed. Consumption is clearly a complex act that involves culture, emotions, anthropology, psychology. Already in the “Passage”, Benjamin was fully aware that the consumer loves and identifies himself with goods (including assembly line workers, those who should hate the goods which represent the symbol of their exploitation; but it was not always exactly so).
The display of foodstuff, and therefore visual consumption, is not a trivial and passive act. The act of consumption always implies a level of subjective reworking by the consumer, from which the product is in turn modified. Now all this is taken to extremes: technology enters the private sphere and inside our bodies. Through it we can increase our performance to a level and we can be put to work at full speed, Just think of some contact lenses or a PC.
Under these conditions, even a primitive Luddism (destroying technology was the first rudimentary form of subversion in relation to machines: the organized labor movement came much later, but it would be difficult to imagine it without these conditions) is weak or unenforceable for obvious reasons: there is no rebellion against technology which is rather a object of desire and a symbol of emancipation (let us leave out the possible drift of the superman, who through technological mutation adapts himself to a nature always in danger of survival).
It is impossible to ignore these elements, especially consumption; e are immersed in a consumerist ecosystem where even our mental and intimate feelings are activated through products and services. The exodus is not a practical way and not attractive neither …
It is difficult, however, to say that our work reveals a new definition of consumerism: even more relevant here is the ability to activate emerging practices, new ones if you like, which deform, expand, and redesign experience and the mechanisms of consumption, making submerged realities explicit, as is declared in the artistic statement. Moreover, as Bill Gates said in a letter to Seboeck: “power is making things easy”. Reality however is complex. Reflecting, perhaps what varies substantially is the definition of profit, which has to incorporate cultural, ecological, environmental, social as well as strictly “economic” elements.
Squatting Supermarkets creates tension in this sense, a pressure in other words, on companies starting not from claims to be moral, but from survival. What is envisaged, if put into effect, is a state of radical competition, where the survival of businesses is increasingly linked to their effective action, not to their image, a green image, a human and charitable image made up by an advertiser…
Loretta Borrelli: In Squatting Supermarkets you try to let bodies act in a physical space but you also use the network to weave different stories. You do that using the mechanisms of social networks. What do you think has been crucial for the success of social networks?
Squatting Supermarket: The situation of social networks is complex and keeps evolving. Presumably we have not yet seen the last evolution of Web 2.0. There will be a “passage” to 3.0, defined as a sudden change to a different paradigm. There are now several overlapping stages and different levels of maturity which are mixed with each other. The situation is unclear. The success of social networks is not due to a single factor. It is linked to an emerging situation. There is certainly venture capital and the desire of large traders to understand post-modern tensions which in fact are characterizing and, in some funny way, “decorating” the collapse of the traditional economic mechanisms, but there are also other elements.
For example, in a long early phase social networks were losing investments without business models easy to be understood where the only ones who could make money did it by applying seasoned models such as advertising rejuvenated by technology – for example by the contextualization of advertising. Now we are facing a completely different situation. The money keeps coming from advertising but, at the same time, a whole series of other accessory models aimed at other forms of profit are becoming widespread. It is interesting to observe the whole process from the standpoint of design, mainly from that of the “interaction design” when dealing with the evolution of its approaches in various stages of the adoption of technology.
The description by David Liddle of the phases of the adoption of technology and the evolution of design approaches throughout their sequence is really interesting. In particular, the main beneficiaries of technology turn out to be firstly the “enthusiasts” then the “professionals” and the “consumers”. This sequence describes some completely different methods in the design of products / services / experiences. Initially everything is “non standard”, incredibly expressive and free form.
In the second phase the standardization of commands and the representations of interfaces, is paired with the focus on reliability. In the third phase the analysis goes even further: the focus on the reliability of functions increases excessively going beyond the standardization of controls, introducing automation. Once the consumer phase is reached the most important functions of technology are automated processes. It is obvious for cars (think about automated devices relating to safety, such as airbags, braking devices …) and cameras.
But what happens when the automation, as well as standardization, is applied to social networks, on its arrival at the “consumer” stage? What happens when it is applied to relationships, communication, interconnection? Exactly the same: we become part of the algorithm.
This is a process that is systematically applied to Web 2.0 and all its evolutions, so attention, respect, privacy, public space, the private one, emotions and the desire of individuals are becoming (have become) part of a distributed algorithm, where the infrastructure (the social network) has as its sole purpose the activation of these automation devices.
Why? It can be assumed that several purposes coexist. It is certain that economic actors are implementing this process for profit. And yet, they are groping in the dark, following flocks of “strategic” consultants clumsily attempting to guide them among predictions of marketing, marketing attention, the exploration of the social graph, expert systems and artificial intelligences which can observe the user- algorithm and derive information and opportunities for intervention from this.
But some people are putting in place more complex strategies, based on a more advanced analysis which can be compared to the one that led to the concepts of “flat” rates that we offered more and more frequently when purchasing services, products and energy. These perspectives have disruptive impacts because they eliminate the critical phase: an “object” which was once far-off and desired then becomes close and accessible, without restrictions, by paying a fixed fee. The effect is that the “object “disappears, it becomes embedded in our perception of reality, a piece of our everyday life. So much so that it disappears along with the choice.
At that point, something incredible happens, because we become entities participating in something that is difficult not to interpret as a “strange” evolution of nations and institutions. The “tax” (flat) with which we hoard connectivity and energy makes its value “disappear” and turns consumers into citizens-of-a-thing , that the provider (of power and connectivity, but examples on food, water, transport already abound) defines laws and regulations of new nations stratified on an ordinary, global, immaterial reality.
This other perspective, then, does not describe the success of one or more websites, but the intake of a variety of nationalities where a few players define the spaces of freedom for its citizens. In doing this, they are opaque and the “tax” is cheap and cognitive.
This is happening simultaneously on multiple levels in various stages of adoption. So it is already possible to talk about “classical social networks” and “new frontiers”, where the network comes out from the screen and becomes more embedded in the space of our everyday life, in architecture and the body, increasing even more the metaphor of the new “nation”, the new public space.
It is a kind of invasion, or squatting of reality, in other words. Applied by a variety of subjects that are colonizing the new analog / digital spaces, according to a more comprehensive and multidisciplinary definition of “augmented reality”.