A publishing house that does not publish any books, but, rather, transforms places, buildings, bodies and objects into opportunities for publication
Yesterday I received the notice for the de-activation of the domain of one of the projects I have loved the most in my career: FakePress.
Not many of you know that in 2009 we had a small publishing house of a peculiar kind.
FakePress was “A publishing house that does not make any books, but, rather, transforms bodies, objects, buildings and spaces into opportunities for ubiquitous publishing.”
Those were peculiar times: the crisis of the publishing industry (if by publishing you mean books and newspapers) was already clear. And it still is.
The enormous amounts of content in the world, under the form of books, magazines, news outlets, information etc brings on many problems: finding content that is relevant, important, on-time, trustworthy, with your style, etc, is a hard task. It was at the time, and it is now, more than ever.
Furthermore, our constantly transforming knowledge, information, entertainment and content diets posed a series of serious questions about the future evolution of narrative and informative media. Questions that, again, are far from being solved even now.
How can different media adapt to the new expectations for relevance, personalization, ubiquitousness in time and space, interactivity, limited attention…
It was a tough spot for books, at the time.
A next-generation publishing house
We did not publish books. Or… well… almost.
The first time we appeared anywhere was at the 2009 edition of Frontiers of Interaction conference, organized in Rome by our friends Leandro Agrò and Matteo Penzo, together with people such as Daniele Galiffa, Adam Greenfield, David Orban, Liam Bannon, Andrea Gaggioli and more.
Me and Luca climbed up on stage at the wonderful Acquario Romano full of boxes of dishwasher soap and other household products, showing how we could actually publish additional information and narratives directly onto the box, using augmented reality.
It was a huge success: at the time, it seemed as a magical thing to do. Even if smartphones were a fraction as powerful as today, there it was: when you framed the object’s logo in the camera viewfinder, interfaces, information and visualizations started popping up.
Sometimes before that, me and Oriana had started the Squatting Supermarket project.
Squatting Supermarkets: Products become ubiquitous publishing surfaces through augmented reality. What happens when brands can loose control? When you can take their physical manifestations in the world and you can squat them, using them to communicate whatever you want?
Here is an article which explains the background, research and objectives of the project.
Squattting Supermarkets, again, used computer vision and location based techniques (such as augmented reality and GPS-based publishing) to transform virtually anything into a space for publication.
This idea was a major breakthrough for us. We could transform anything into a place to tell a story, provide an information, establish a relationship, give assistance, explain a thing.
We were starting to find interesting answers to questions like:
- how can you transform a supermarket into a classroom?
- how can you know, directly from the store, where the parts of thi appliance come from, or how it is sustainable or not?
- how can you create a social network across all the boxes of this product, where the brand and customers, activists, storytellers and researchers can publish their data, stories, reviews, research and more?
- how can you create accessible visual interactions and relations onto objects, bodies, buildings and territories, that engage people across space and time?
At the 2009 edition of the ToShare Festival in Turin, we presented an installation that brought an entire section of a supermarket in Science Museum, to show how labels, products and corporate logos could be “squatted”, using them for art, poetry, visuals, information, data visualizations, activisms and human relations.
We even went out into the city with students for an innovative practice of shop-dropping: while in shopllifing you steal from commercial venues, shopdropping is a novel activist practice in which you introduce products that are alien to the store, to create a discontinuity, a chasm, a bug. In this case these objects were the products prepared for Squatting Supermarkets, so that other random people could try the new experiences.
Bodies and bio-publishing
It was then the time for bodies.
At the 2009 edition of the Consciousness Reframed conference in Munich, the people at our presentation would have experienced a peculiar process: they could use a web interface to express their emotions about the talk.
These emotions were, then, instantaneously published onto the body of the presenter — litte old me — under the form of light, sound and electrical stimulations.
This was a very interesting thing from the point of view of a publishing house like FakePress, because it meant that you could publish data, narratives and information onto someone’s body under the form of some type of bio-feedback that the person could receive and interpret: a new tactility.
Conference Biofeedback’s site stated:
A war on boring conference, and an experment on constructive biofeedback. A wearable conference shirt is connected to emotions of the audience. Bore them too much and phisical effects will stat appearing onto your body.
But, of course, it was more than that. It was about interconnecting teachers and students, public speakers and audiences, talkers and listeners. What if presenters could feel people’s emotions on their bodies while they speak? Conference Biofeedback was an augmented sense, a way to publish the emotions of the audience onto the body of the presenters and, in general, to create the possibility for a more flexible reality, in which multiple types of sensibilities could find their space for expression: you just needed to publish them.
An Atlas of the City
In 2010, we tried to understand if we could transform an entire city into a space for publication. At Rome’s Festival dell’Architettura / Index Urbis, we produced a 30 meters wide, large scale, interactive installation curated by Paolo Valente, which visualized the visions about the future developments of the city of Rome, as it emerged from a massive, constant stream of data from newspapers, blogs, social media and from the websites of institutions of the city, and of organizations and professionals worldwide.
This practice was very important for us, for what then became Human Ecosystems, our next venture, in search of what we now call the Third Infoscape: the possibility to visualize and develop new forms of sensibilities towards the myriads of micro-histories in the city, with positive effects on administrations, policy making, participation and diffused empathy. We call this approach: Digital Urban Acupuncture.
Learning about the transformation of knowledge and education was, of course, among the principal objectives at FakePress.
The scenario was rapidly changing. Education was not something you did only when you are young, but, rather, a continous process that lasted your entire life.
On top of that, each object, whether it was in a museum of on the shelf of some store, was starting to have an informational charge that extends well beyond the mere object itself. Thus, it seemed fair and open to opportunities to reconnect the material and informational essence of objects.
For this, we started to produce a series of experiences:
Toys++ was composed by a series of toys that used augmented reality to connect them to tutorials, how-tos, documentaries ect.
In Minkisi++, from the name of these powerful ritual statues from Congo, the magical, spiritual “super powers” of these artifacts were highlighted directly on the figures using computer vision techniques.
Phisical objects and places were becoming our playground, as we started to understand how to systematicallly publish onto them through digital technologies, computation, computer vision and data.
This also had very strong political implications, because in this way spaces and objects could easily become informationally open source, thus allowing a poliphony of voices to be expressed and represented through and onto them.
We also published a book.
But it was no ordinary book.
REFF — Romaeuropa FakeFactory was «a fake cultural institution enacting real policies for arts, creativity and freedoms of expression all over the world.»
The REFF project was huge, brought together hundreds of people and also managed to get a couple of really hardcore things done, such as real innovative cultural policies as well as tangibe impacts on real, public, education processes.
It also produced two interesting products.
The first is a book which uses AR and computer vision techniques to create digital overlays, which alter reality, show videos directly from the surface of the book, and 3D objects that float over it, and with which you can interact.
This is also the only self updating book that I know of: by using AI and Google search, it automatically finds new content that is relevant for the book (eg: for example some things that its authors have done) and makes it available directly from the book’s pages.
The second product was an Augmented Reality Drug. :)
In the spirit of FakePress, the AR Drug was an open source toolkit which you could use to “alter you reality” through technologies such as AR and computer vision.
And, of course, we went to offer it for free outside schools to teens, dressed as pushers. :)
Nature and the built environment
At FakePress we focused on rurality just as well as on urban spaces.
In Leaf++, you could use plants as a publishing surface.
A software would use computer vision techniques to recognise plants, and you could publish things on them: research about them, images, maps of where they can be found, artworks, poetry, recipes and social-network-like interactions.
Some people even used it as a plant-based messaging infrastructure: you leave a message on some type of leaf, and that message becomes available on all leaves of that type in the world. :)
For Marshall McLuhan’s centennial, which we were celebrating together with our friend Derrick de Kerckhove, at FakePress we created the Electronic Man, a global performance which finds its roots in the canadian mediologist’s theories.
From AOS website:
The nervous system of human beings extends beyond the physial boundaries of their bodies: an augmented sense through which it is possible to feel the emotional state of the people connected to it. The Electranic Man was created as an homage to McLuhan in occasion of his centennial.
Thousands of stickers around the world are connected to a mobile applications. When people scan them, they are called to expressing their current emotional states, and this makes the phones of the people who have installed the Electronic Man’s application vibrate accordingly.
A new extended sense: a new tactility that is sensible to the emotions in the planet.
FakePress and its future
We have done many other things with FakePress, our weird publishing house.
All of us has learned many things from all these things, and we have brought them with us in what has been our careers, actions and relations ever since.
Many of the questions that were at the base of this experience still have no definite (or single, or widely accepted) anwer.
On the contrary, we feel that FakePress was an important experience that was able to highlight both the opportunities and the negative implications of what was about to come with digital technologies. Among these last ones, for example, are the problematic rise of attention economies, the algorithmic mediation of reality, the roles of data, information and of their representations in our psychology, relations and society.
We have always tried to approach these issues with an open mind, cultivating the opportunities, but with a critical eye to the implications. I’m sure that you will be able to find both in this many links.
I have written this short narrative about FakePresse’s life hoping that it will be helpful to everyone researching along these lines: in design, technology, art, culture, and other sciences and humanities.
It is important to be able to place these experiences and experimentations in the history of the relationship between human beings and technology.