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Urban Dream Brokerage epic new installation

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Wellingtonians will be given the chance to explore an unseen side of their city through a pop-up exhibition Electromagnetic Geographies presented by Urban Dream Brokerage. The first of a series of commissions in 2021, it builds on artist workshops led by Julian Oliver to reveal how the local radio spectrum is used from cell towers, to WiFi, to the radio networks of public transport and commerce.

Letting Space curator Sophie Jerram says that the exhibition "will reveal how debates over public space also play out in the spectral domain as a fight for the Spectral Commons and our basic rights of broadcast. This affects community autonomy when communities depend on digital networks to affirm, organise and express themselves."

Participating artists have used a mix of home-built tech and electronics know-how to discover how the invisible radio spectrum of our city is controlled and apportioned. Using tools and techniques known to telcos, spies and network engineers, participants have engaged in ‘electromagnetic walks’ around the city, employing data capture, wireless forensics and signal analysis to discover their city’s unseen infrastructure and topics such as ‘data commons’, surveillance capitalism, networked control, digital sovereignty and privacy.

"The workshops have allowed artists to explore the electromagnetic spectrum as territory, and our right to read and write in it. We set up our own cell phone tower in the lab and sent text messages to each other. I could set up a tower in a community so people could connect with each other for free - but it’s illegal. Very quickly in the history of radio, laws were passed to stop people transmitting, and now corporations pay huge sums for a slice of the spectrum," asks Oliver. "The workshops have given a hands-on insight into how the same rights of privacy and anonymity we uphold in public life can so often be covertly undermined by corporations (and in some cases governments) exploiting our ‘consumer-grade’ technical ignorance."

Using the materials and skills they have gathered, workshop participants are developing artworks such as sketches, sculptures and urban interventions. This will culminate with the opening of a public exhibition, the launch of a website documenting the outcomes, and an online discussion forum for post-event co-learning, debate and contribution.

"We hope the exhibition will get people to look at the commons - or rather lack thereof - in the spectrum. On a brighter note, we look to reclamation and a sense of creative and political play in this space. Imagine if it were configured like the upper spectrum of visible light and colours - it could be just as open, available and plastic for artists. And we could learn not to rely so much on foreign infrastructure owners," says Oliver.

"We believe this critical techno-political debate should be incorporated by schools and universities into their curriculum. The conversations we are having now about radio are similar to those around important topics like genetics and the internet. It’s important to have this critical conversation sooner rather than later," adds Oliver.

Electromagnetic Geographies runs from 25 to 30 May at 106 Cuba Street, open 10-6pm.

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