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Hack the City, in the Gallery

Posted Jul 22 2012 5:50am

A pile of seed bombs gradually spreads across the floor of Science Gallery Dublin , hands shaping mud, clay, and seeds in the culmination of a project to sow plants into the gaps of top-down city planning. A helicopter drone lazily swings from the ceiling upstairs, next to a video of the footage it collected when flying around the often-unseen airspaces of the city, a melancholy, poetic vision of our usual exclusion from the gaze of the CCTV camera and police helicopter.

These are two of the projects from Science Gallery’s Hack the City , which invites people to debate the future of the city via tinkering with its present structures and possible futures. The form of Hack the City reflects its theme: as computer hackers from the late 1970s argued for making code open for anyone to retool, and as DIY punk aesthetics argued for taking control of production, Science Gallery has made an array of materials available for creative assembling by local people, scientists, artists, designers, schools, programmers, activists, business leaders, inventors, and city councils.

The exhibition, open until the 7th of September, was built on an open call, and offers a range of opportunities to engage with the exhibits and the chatty mediators who mill around them. This structural openness – core to Science Gallery’s model – has been surrounded by an impressive fourteen-week program of events, performances, hacker labs, and Interactivos projects developed from idea to implementation by frenetically diverse international groups, and funded under the EU Studiolab project in which Medical Museion is a partner ( our Studiolab project also evokes a hacking ethos in our development of an open biology lab in the museum).

The Hack the City cornucopia also hacks the notion of what galleries or museums ought to do and where – it’s not quite an exhibition, not quite an events programme, not quite an innovation project. And as such it lives a life dispersed across city spaces, across the time that the projects developed, and across a range of people’s experiences.

This hybridity and dispersion poses difficulties for description, as reflected in the tendency of the exhibition catalogue (and this blog post!) to describe the project and its participants with long, comma-strewn litanies. It also poses a problem for display, which I’ve been thinking about recently in terms of how our open biology lab will display the maker space Labitat that it sprouts from, and how we can record and share periodic flurries of event activity to make the space interesting even when ‘nothing’s going on’.

Science Gallery has handled this dilemma in part through archive-like display, presenting objects or laptops running computer programs alongside video footage or other documentation of their use in events or trials, and sometimes invitations to contribute. This enlivens the objects, whose display might otherwise risk feeling like an industrial trade-show.

I think the use of video here is particularly key, in its immediate evocation of the spaces outside the gallery that the exhibition is fundamentally concerned with. Filmic depictions of the projects in action, often subtly evoking sci-fi fears and fantasises, also provide a springboard for the leaps of imagination required to stretch the prototypes on display out in scale, or into an imagined future that takes the threads of today’s digital fears and weaves them into an oppressively mastered information landscape.

The flip-side of this filmic evocation is that it might lead to projects being read as artists’ simulacra, rather than playful engagements with the city that intend to be ‘made real’. For me, the exhibition largely avoids this tendency – whilst also allowing the pieces that do tip more towards the artist’s pointed whimsy to be read as such.

Crucial to this is the fact that the archive is not static. First, many of the pieces have been out-and-about in Dublin, as indicated through text, video, the catalogue, and media coverage. Second, stuff entering archive life is also being made on-site, in public – on the ground floor sits an enticing, honeycomb-walled hive of activity, used for developing the Interactivos projects, a blackboard and comment-bunting bedeck the cafe, and the street-facing windows of the gallery are spotted with postits and flipcharts inviting in passers-by.

Too often interactive exhibits and comment tools feel dry, unused, calcified. Here, the interactive spaces are seeded with groups using them as primary rather than representational tools, and attention to design supports engagement through a combination of aesthetic appeal and slightly chaotic approachability.

I have the impression that Science Gallery’s location on a main street in Dublin and its almost achingly open glass-walled frontage has been key for its success as a community space. For Hack the City, the glass frontage also provides a vista of the city spaces that the projects captured behind glass gesture towards. As I prowled the gallery, my eyes grazed beautiful Georgian frontages, concrete housing blocks, piles of rubble for new building projects, pubs, railway bridges, rubbish blowing in the breeze, vehicles wheezing past, and a row of hire bicycles in perky dialogue with an exhibit showing the paths their brethren take around the city, aiming to inform future expansions.

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