Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Katherine Moriwaki

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Umbrella.net, 2005

Technologies: Bluetooth modules, DAWN Mobile Ad-Hoc Networking Stack, iPac Pocket PCs with 802.11b and Bluetooth, microcontrollers, sensors, Umbrellas, UMBRELLA.net software

Keywords: ad-hoc network, data visualization, participation, wireless


Inspired by the sight of multiple umbrellas popping open at random intervals when rain falls on a crowded city street, UMBRELLA.net explores the aesthetics of mobile ad-hoc computer networks that form spontaneously between wireless devices. Part engineering research project, part performance, this work features white umbrellas with hand-held computers attached to their shafts, operated by various participants during art festivals and similar events.

When a participant in UMBRELLA.net opens her umbrella, the computer seeks to establish a wireless network connection with other computer-equipped umbrellas in the area. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) illuminate the umbrella, indicating the connection's status: red when trying to connect and blue when connected. The hand-held computers include a text-messaging application and feature a graphical interface that identifies participants by name. A schematic on-screen diagram of concentric circles indicates each participant's proximity to others in the network.

Although Brucker-Cohen and Moriwaki's interest in network topology stems largely from their extensive technological training (both received Ph.D.s in Engineering at Trinity College in Dublin), they use umbrellas primarily for aesthetic reasons. As they write on the project's Web site: "We believe these transitory networks can add surprise and beauty to our currently fixed communication channels."

This work exemplifies the kind of collaborative effort that is common in New Media art, which often requires a team of technological specialists, similar to a film crew. Brucker-Cohen and Moriwaki worked with a software architect, an electrical engineer, an industrial designer, and a hardware engineer. While UMBRELLA.net originated in an engineering context, its conceptual charm and spectacular quality indicate the artistic intentions of its makers. The absurd nature of the umbrella's enhanced functionality seems to poke fun at the increasing ubiquity of digital technology in the early 2000s, from robotic vacuum cleaners to microwave ovens that utilize live Web data to determine cooking times.

UMBRELLA.net recalls Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Umbrella Project (1984-1991), in which gigantic blue and yellow umbrellas punctuated landscapes in Japan and Southern California. Both projects temporarily transform and aestheticize the public spaces they inhabit by inserting intermittent flashes of color. In addition, both are fundamentally collaborative in nature. The interactive and spontaneous nature of UMBRELLA.net is also reminiscent of the Happenings of the 1960s and 70s, such as those conducted by Allan Kaprow, in which common materials and audience participation blurred the boundaries of art and everyday life.

UMBRELLA.net is an unusual example of data visualization, a genre of new media art that includes John Klima's Ecosystm (2001), which represents real-time stock and weather information as animated creatures and digital landscapes, and Martin Wattenberg's Copernica (2002), which represents works in NASA's art collection as planets in a navigable galaxy. Unlike its screen-based precedents, UMBRELLA.net uses public space as its canvas, painting the cityscape with pulses of color that create an allegory for data in a real-time system, making visible an emerging network and rendering prosaic technology poetic.

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