Anna Ådahl


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Predicting crowds. The aesthetics and politics of today´s digitised crowds and crowd simulations.

Predicting Crowds. 

The aesthetics and politics of digitised and simulated crowds.

Anna Ådahl

 

On a daily basis, billions of people from different social and economic backgrounds circulate in urban, supervised infrastructures, acting together in a coordinated manner. These synchronised, system-operated crowds initially emerged alongside industrialism, with machines and technologies being developed to accelerate our production modes and systematise our existence. 

 

Today these crowds also operate in the virtual realm when surfing on their smart devices. Online they become atomised and fragmented, a disembodied yet connected crowd. 

 

The systematisation and the digitisation of the surveillance and tracking of crowds have been even more intensified with our online existence, where mapping and the ‘quantification of the self[1]’ have enhanced the potentiality of predicting and monitoring our collective behaviour.

 

The dissimulation by manufacturers of the complexity of these technologies and their networked infrastructure positions us on a superficial level which makes it difficult to grasp how these systems ‘operate’ us and hence how they map and archive our behaviour into big data.

 

These new technologies use algorithms to think us mathematically as crowds. 

Following this: How does an algorithmically-operated body and crowd articulate itself?

 

To access a visualisation of a collective programmed body, this research turned to crowd simulation software (e.g. Golaem and Massive) as it provides a computer-generated image of a systematised/-organised crowd. Used for managing our collective movement or illustrating massive crowd formations in films (a phenomenon which emerged when the cost of extras to perform these crowds became too expensive), these crowd simulations are a digital visualisation of a crowd composed of mathematically-programmed digital agents/corpuses proposing a choreography of mute bodies, programmed intelligently using AI and multi-agent systems to act collectively according to each other and the given environment.

 

These simulations predominantly represent people on the periphery, populating a milieu, or instrumental bodies in crowd management strategies, shaped as an entity seen from afar. Today the agents constituting these crowds are of limited capacity and aesthetics with simplified gestures and physical characteristics for a better homogenous appearance, a background crowd which should not interfere with the main characters acting in the forefront.

 

 

These simulated coordinated crowds moving as a homogenous mass (as seen also in tutorials and show reels online) can be seen as a faceless bound materia, which links back to the early theory of the crowd as a mob in which individuality is lost. A mob aka an unruly crowd disturbing the authority in place: this image of a crowd as a revolutionary mob is violent and is what is presented in most of the imagery produced today in crowd simulations. Autonomous digital crowd agents essentially emerged in creating a warrior, a destructive force. An interesting example is that the software Massive created by Peter Jackson, to enable the visualisation of epic battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings film series, was later adapted for crowd management and safety, the crowd's identity being inverted to mimic the crowd as population, fragile and civilian.

 

When managing crowds and in the programming of crowd simulations, the notion of flow is recurrent. The behaviour of the crowd needs to be fluid to ideally operate in the given environment and act homogenously as an entity. The agents are hence programmed to avoid collision, not only in terms of objects but also each other.  

The vocabulary and notion of flow is also central in our current economics as well as in today’s flows of human refugees. Can the joint use of the notion and vocabulary of flow in these different fields inform us of any common politics? (se chapter Flow of Power, the Power of Flow)

 

From the early crowd formations during the October celebrations to today´s crowd simulations, the systematised organisation of the physical crowd into seductive configurations transpires a gesture of power and control over the crowd members.

It is important to note here that the characteristics of these mathematically-calculated crowd simulations reminisce a totalitarian aesthetic.

 

Thus when creating and programming a crowd, even if it is a simulation or 'mise en scène' it becomes a political act or image. 

 

I explore the ways in which the pre-programmed default settings, in our digital systems such as softwares and apps, impact upon the aesthetics and politics of modelling and predicting crowd behaviours.

 

A study which challenges the traditional depiction of the crowds we can identify in the social sciences as well as in the arts according to which the crowd is received as one unified entity—a representation of the crowd that is drawn from afar, and thus distances the disinterested spectator from those who are part of a crowd. 

A perception linked to the notion, proposed by Lebon and Freud, of the crowd as mob.

 

Drawing upon Benjamin´s perception of the crowd as an assembly of singulars my analysis of crowd simulations is aiming to be from within these crowds, from the virtual agent/crowd subject´s perspective

 

The practice-based projects/artworks are key in the progression and development of this research and have resulted in artworks in various formats. 

 

The essay films Default Characterfrom 2016 and Di-Simulated Crowdsfrom 2018 uses an associative analysis where the juxtaposition of various modes and technics of digitising and simulating the crowds behaviour is studied and observed.  Addressing the political and aesthetic role of default settings within crowd simulation software as well as the aesthetics of today’s multi-target tracking systems and harvesting of data on our online and urban behaviour. 

 

Another angle of approach, which articulated itself in a performative analytical investigation, used the human body as a tool and reference in staging and enacting digitally simulated crowds. This analysis resulted in a live choreographed performance, And or Or, (2018) (see under works: Default Characters exhibition), in which a group of dancers enacted the behavioural characteristics and patterns of digital crowd agents. The performing physical bodies materialised and visualised the simulated crowd in a physical environment (the first performance took place on the 4thof May this year at Marabouparken Art Gallery in Stockholm). The purpose here was to provide insight, an embodied understanding, of how the characteristics of a digital crowd simulation differ from a physical crowd and how the simplified characteristics of the default agents propose a standardisation and limited capacity of the crowd agent.  

Offering an articulated physical understanding of the virtual crowd and to raise greater awareness of the full complexity of our identification with our evolving embodied self in relation to the virtual crowd agent. 

 

The critical underlying drive of my research is to raise awareness that we belong to a collective, an atomised crowd bound together through the network of our smart devices. A crowd which less and less physically interact but which members increases everyday. We are increasingly part of a crowd navigating an invisible web of intelligent multi-agent systems, woven together through our mobile devices and the continuous archiving of our meta and big data, which, in turn, is used to map and capitalise on us, and to predict and model (programme) our collective behaviour.

 

The infrastructures and devices that operate us as crowds apply new computational technologies, which, in a globalised, online and rapidly-evolving era, have become less and less cognisable.

Fredric Jameson argues that there is a gap between our local experience, the proximities in which we operate and the structural conditions of the system as a whole and that we navigate a world we do not apprehend, creating a sense of alienation, a phenomenon which increases the possibility and rise of polarisation and division, reinforced by our atomised existence online.

A need to grasp and visualise these computational systems that operate our lives has become more and more urgent in our online and 24/7 existence and accelerated production modes.

 

The aim of this research is thus to study and analyse the computational tools of representation and supervision of today’s organised crowds to identify their political agenda and the impact they will have on us and our future collective behaviour/co-existence. How the progressive obliteration of our bodies online atomizes us and distances us from one another while the illusion of connection is enhanced. 

A sens of togethereness and belonging is replaced by ‘likes‘ and false appearances of collective mobilizations. None of the real political and juridicional change have been made online but in the streets or in the new lawmakings. The net, social media platforms act as modes of communication but not of action. 

Could a simulated interactive alternative world propose a new virtual platform for action?

Or is the presence of our body/physicality necessary in its truth and vulnerablity to produce a change and progress. How will this body then be incorporated into today´s and tomorrows digital platforms. How will this new connected crowd articulate itself together with the physical crowd?

 

This research seeks to identify the political aspect of programming a crowd. How the mathematically standardised behaviours proposed by the digital simulations in concordance with the default settings we use when operating softwares or surfing online, can influence us politically in how we behave within collective structures, act towards each other in the physical space in correlation with our online existence.

Shedding light on how we understand our organically self  in relation to the digital crowd agent and our online existence.Defining the politics and aesthetics of the collective digital body in relation to our physical body.

Fredric Jameson’s notion of ‘cognitive mapping’, Eugene Mozorov’s comment on democratisation of big data and Adam Greenfield´s study of today´s ‘radical technologies’ identify the increasing difficulty in finding adequate representational and conceptual tools to help us visualise and navigate today’s new digital systems that track and determine our collective behaviour. 

 

Using various mediums including  new visual technologies but also film, performance, sculpture and collage my aim is to establish a multi-faceted analysis of today’s digital and simulated crowds. Addressing the urgency of a phenomenon where the digital tools used for monitoring today´s crowd flows and behaviour are becoming increasingly political while facing ethical dilemmas.

 



[1]Quantification of the self’ is the possibility, through the apps available on our mobile devices, to upload and track our bodies organic performances, such as daily walked steps, sleep modes and so forth.