Autonomous Zone: The Work-as-Art of Yury Gitman

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 11 August 2004

How mobile gaming energizes the spirit – and technology – of the networked society.

Yury Gitman might best be described as an activist. Not just in the political sense of that word (though he is certainly an innovator for those who need voice) but for his ability to put so many people and ideas into action.

This Minsk-born (he immigrated when he was five) graduate of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program made his name developing the Magicbike, a roving hotspot that creates mobile hotzones for special events and just for fun. What made the project so interesting was not just the technology solution Gitman provided, but the almost Rorschachian quality of the work: it has been alternatively described as an art project, a business utility, an activism catalyst, an emergency device, a protest tool and, in my own bias, a means of breaking the digital divide by bringing free Wi-Fi access to impoverished areas.

As a teacher of a course called “Wireless Art” at Parsons School of Design, and director of the Arts Group at municipal infrastructure NYCWireless, Gitman has emerged as a visionary and effective innovator in bringing an artist’s sensibility to the public wireless arena. In doing so, he’s helping demonstrate that it isn’t an arena, at all, but world we live in.

Last year, Gitman thrilled wireless fans with a game he created along with with Carlos J. Gomez de Llarena, called Noderunner, in which teams compete in a hunt for Wi-Fi spots, uploading photos of themselves at each node that they find. The pair won an Ars Electronica prize in the process.

But like all of the projects in which Gitman is involved, Noderunner meant more than the sum of its parts. Here’s a few fragments from the conversation I had with Yury last week.

TheFeature: What is it you are hoping to communicate with Noderunner?

Gitman: The game advances the notion that sharing bandwidth with your wireless router is an altruistic act. We wanted to show how much of New York is doing just that. There is a distributed, grassroots, bottom-up network made by the residents of New York. When we discovered this phenomenon in the summer of 2002 we found it moving. By creating Noderunner we hoped others would become aware of the phenomenon too.

As artists, we combined game design with the existing culture of the open wireless movement. Instead of creating an artificial game environment, we tapped into the revolution that was already happening around us, the wireless community phenomenon. We used play and gaming to engage people with the issues and causes fueling the community wireless movement. Our goal was to contribute to a new genre of public art, and in so doing to engage the general public in a vital cultural and technological transformation. In a nutshell, the game is an entrance point to the political and social movements behind open wireless.

TheFeature: Games are things traditionally played on boards, or in arenas. You know, Huizinga’s “sacred space.” What does it mean when the game board is reality itself?

Gitman: Computer and network games involve joysticks and people in seated positions. The key to Noderunner and Magicbike is a visceral experience in the most tangible physical reality, i.e. running or biking.

When things are visceral, thoughts and memories stick. It’s a moment when people are open to persuasion. But it’s also a moment when we can become hyper-creative. A type of learning constantly happens whenever we play, no matter how many times we play. Usually, technology is used to access a new level of gaming. But we can also use gaming or play to develop new levels of technology.

Noderunner and Magicbike contribute to technological advancement in this way, but you have to shift your thinking a bit to see it. Among other things, the two projects show how asininely immobile our mobile technology is.

TheFeature: So does engagement with your games and inventions force a certain amount of change in a person’s perspective?

Gitman: That’s the idea. These projects are engaged in a battle of ideas. They are designed to play in the space of popular consciousness and popular imagination. I think that’s the scale on which public art works. Public art is not just art that is outside the museum, it’s art that can be accessed, digested and have relevance to the general public.

TheFeature: Do you see this playful period as temporary, or the shape of a more playful society to come?

Gitman: I think emerging technology, as long as it is accessible by the public in some fashion, will always have a playful area. Like the crest of a wave in the ocean. The top of the wave is always there, even though the actual water particles that compose the wave are constantly coming in and out.

There is this interesting moment with emerging technology where it’s malleable, where there is still room for play. It’s a moment when our imaginations sprouts wings and our actions and choices can have lasting effects. We are in this malleable period in regards to Wi-Fi and mobile technology. Individuals, small research labs, university students and wireless community organizations can all still have an effect on the formation and development of wireless Internet networks and applications. They can have an effect on something that will solidify soon and possibly start redefining our lifestyles – that’s fairly exhilarating. That’s the “high” early adopters pay for. That’s the high that keeps community wireless organizations pulsing.

TheFeature: This play also supports the development of “high adrenaline” interfaces. What does that mean?

Gitman: I’m talking about communication and computing interfaces for firefighters at a scene, for surfers riding their boards and for bicyclists dodging cars across the city. Let’s start by making viable interfaces for high-adrenaline and high-risk situations and activities, and then apply them to everyday mobile interfaces.

Our current interfaces are still clumsy, slow, distracting, and not safe for people physically in motion. High-risk, high-adrenaline and high-stress situations offer designers a wealth of entry points, vernaculars, highly evolved gestures, and precedents for creating responsive applications and interfaces.