Monday, February 23, 2009

To Scale: Slow and Fast 1.2

“How ill-equipped we are to observe this moving, changing world! Our range of detection is so narrow that we are nearly blind and must use ingenuity to extend our sight. A plant appears unconscious to us but if we visually speed up its movements by time-lapse photography, the plant seems to become a perceiving, reacting animal. Edward Steichen is currently filming the changes of a rosebush. At the other pole with still photography and extremely slow movies, Hans Jenney makes visible the rich, strange world of very rapid vibratory motions. In these previously invisible brief shudderings, we now see complex rhythms, elaborate circulations, fantastic growths, violent disturbances. Is it possible to extend our perceptual reach new artificial means, in order to sense environmental changes that are now beyond that unaided reach? A film compresses twenty-four hours of city changes into three minutes, and a new world is revealed…” Kevin Lynch In Change Made Visible. What Time is this Place? Kevin Lynch, MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England 1972 p. 187

In the case of Gordon’s harvester ants as Johnson points out, what was not understood, what was still invisible was how the ants’ colonies, the global picture of this system, developed over time. This was a problem of scales. The “phenomenon had gone unobserved because people had been thinking about ants – and watching ants in the wrong scale.” Entomologists had been studying the ants “at the scale of weeks and months” but to really understand the cycles of this system they needed to observe them at “the scale of decades”. Gordon who had been observing ant colonies year after year for fifteen years, in about five years began to see what was really happening; “like a stop-motion film of a vine winding its way around a branch, Gordon’s research transformed the way we think of ants by transforming the temporal scale with which we perceived them”. (35)

The footage that was collected in New York City along the length of Broadway Street in the NY A/V mapping project was taken back to the city four years later. This continuous zoom, CT-scan, played at three different speeds within a moving container traveling north on the same axis of the original CT-scan of Manhattan as the inhabitants entered “this encapsulated moment in time” to observe their city from afar (four years later). As they went about their daily activities, the passerby examined and reflected on their city while their presence and activity was “overlapped onto the other speeds of activity previously collected”. (36) New York resident Lorissa Clevenger noted; “this is a great reminder of time and how things seem to never change, and yet how quickly what we have seen changes”. (37) What phenomena will become evident once this document is looked at another scale? What will we see and understand about the cycles of this city in 10 years?

In speaking about the ants, Johnson continues “that larger patterns can emerge out of uncoordinated local actions” and he compares this to the city of Manchester which have “patterns of human movement and decision-making that have been etched into the texture of the city blocks” and that a dialogue that emerges between the city residents and this pattern affects “subsequent decisions”. (38) Like the ants in the Myth of the Ant Queen, he says; “All you need is a thousand of individuals and a few simple rules of interactions…. There’s no need for a Baron Haussmann in this world, just a few repeating patterns of movement, amplified into larger shapes that last for lifetimes…” (39)

35 Johnson, Steven. Emergence, The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software Scribner, New York 2001 p. 80
36 Skinner, Martha. South to North: Zoom/Section Seven Day Trajectory on Broadway Street. In South edited by Ronald Rael, 30-39. Clemson School of Architecture, 2005, p.38
37 see NY A/V guest book, day 1 Bowling Green, May 30 2005
38 Johnson, Steven. Emergence, The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software Scribner, New York 2001 p. 40
39 Johnson, Steven. Emergence, The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software Scribner, New York 2001 p. 41

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