I was in Berlin when I last thought of Tarkovsky. The crisp February cold gripped my bones and made mincemeat of the coat and scarf I’d brought from London. The buildings looked like photographs already filtered through nostalgia apps and lens flare. Berlin is a city built for thinking about cities.
Tarkovsky, in particular Stalker, had been mentioned by several speakers at the conference I was in town for. His vision of guides navigating physics-defying Zones had a romantic allure for young designers and developers in the audience, desperate to find a path through the strange landscape that new design principles and opportunities are offering them. But while most of them treated that metaphorically there was one film on show that fit the mood of exploration and alien physics just beautifully.
Immaterials: Light Painting Wi-Fi is a material exploration conducted by Timo Arnall, Jørn Knutsen and Einar Sneve Martinussen for the Institute of Design at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design in Norway. It’s a three-minute film featuring strange lights and maps of things that don’t exist, burning light into long-exposure photography through several long winter nights.
What the team are doing involves hooking up LED lights to a computer programme that senses where the fields generated by Wi-Fi networks are active. The LEDs glow when there is a signal to receive. These LEDs are attached to a four-metre high staff, which they carry through the streets to map the fields in the city.
To most people, Wi-Fi feels like magic. So as the team trace a landscape of signals through the streets of Oslo there is the sense that they’re mapping something close to ley lines. The streaks of light in the darkness are what provide homes with the means of Skyping far-flung grandparents, or offering students the bandwidth to download the complete works of Shakespeare. Where black spots appear in the signal you concoct strange explanations, reasoning that some terrible power has punched a hole in the field, preventing the people from connecting to one another.
And while the network is the primary component on display in the film other things become apparent. The lines traversed in the dark leave traces of human footprints in the snowdrifts, markers of human input that hammer home the industry necessary to realise the film. The staff themselves look heavy and awkward, and Martinussen hauls the camera through the streets with a stoicism that betrays how important the whole process seems. And when we cut away to the production of this strange spectacle every inherited assumption about research and design is brushed aside in a montage of wiring, testing, screwing and examination.
The fundamental idea we take away from this is that where we assume a computer must already be able to map this field we are shown, repeatedly, that it takes effort and sweat. We are shown that it takes commitment to show people things that aren’t there.
The light painting film is one of several projects that the Oslo-based team have conducted and documented under the umbrella term of Immaterial exploration. The Ghost in the Field, produced in 2009, captures the field generated by RFID readers – the things you tap your Oyster Card on – and the reciprocal field it triggers in the counterpart chip – the little component in your Oyster card that tells Transport for London who you are.
The infinite peace and patience etched into Arnall’s face during the interview segments allow this film to exist in two spaces; the infomercial and the aspirational. As he and Jack Schulze describe the process and the findings, they wear teacher-like expressions, their hand gestures similar to what one might have seen on Tomorrow’s World or Blue Peter. Their willingness to communicate and gentle eloquence simplify complexity and engender trust in the viewer, boiling the ‘magic’ down into something that can be articulated in crude and simple shapes. This helps to place the technology in the same all-pervasive context within which we already situate power cables and satellite dishes.
Instead of the romantic visual language of a city at night, they use a locked camera and a mid-shot from a documentary to demonstrate just how painstakingly slow and detailed the research process was; every pin-prick of light took a steady hand and a chunk of determination. Here we see fluctuating fields and careful attention to the finest of details, in the name of generating not just research data but also, crucially, a logo. That’s the biggest marker of the film’s second purpose; this isn’t just about the scientific exploration, but about showcasing products and offering space to imagine applications.
Both Immaterial films carry the professionalism and the deft focus changes of commercial filmmaking, and sell the ideas being discussed. They create exactly enough product that you can invent a use for this new map of Wi-Fi, or to work out how this human-scale visualisation of it can benefit us.
Like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, these films guide us through the immateriality of the Zone, but offer us the choice of what to do with the power at the heart of it.