Traces of an ongoing memory, 2018
Mikael Lundberg
Mats Nordahl

Media | video | text |
”I want to follow our traces over time, and make the dissonance between control and chance visible. Measuring human flow in a chosen place can be perceived as temporary. But the life of a human collective has a direction and acquires a meaning which also creates the place — traces of an ongoing memory?” M.L. (2012)

Background and artistic motivation

The project explores how collected data from life in a public space can be filtered, organized and given form with artistic methods to serve as a collective memory platform. The artistic process explores questions such as: When using a place as a starting point to create a memory, what memory is created? Does it represent the place? What associations can be developed between the collected data and the final artistic presentation?

The ambition is to be documentary in the sense of doing the data justice. The complexity will not be reduced, nor will the perspective be restricted in other ways than to make clear evident patterns and tendencies. In a way, the work is similar to scientific practice. The question of the meaning of the form of representation is vital both in science and the arts. It does not only influence the method of working but also the orientation by establishing a kind of filter that makes some conditions emerge and others fade away. There is a tendency to use the methods for what they are useful, as pointed out, e.g., by Latour.

In this project the concern is the creation of memory in a place, in the midst of an ongoing flow of events. Earlier, historic courses of events will not be an influence, other than through the spatial relations they have generated, and the effect that people’s awareness of history may have on their actions in the place.

The work is interactive in the sense that the work itself is to a large extent created by the collective contributions from more than ten million people passing the space in the course of a year. Future versions of the work may make the interactivity more immediate through real-time processing.

The work relates to earlier collaborations between Mikael Lundberg, Mats Nordahl and other researchers at Chalmers University of Technology. For a period of 506 days during 2002-2003, Lundberg continuously recorded his own movements wearing a GPS recorder. This was then still a cumbersome technology, which led to a symbiotic relationship between artist and the technology. The resulting video work, Lifeline (2004), gradually constructed a personal geography based on the recorded data. It has been shown in numerous exhibitions and is part of the collection of Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

Other work by Mikael Lundberg has been concerned with time, entropy, and with exploring and revealing very slow processes, for example in the form of large bitumen cube sculptures that imperceptibly slowly flow out over a period of months. The revelation of invisible slow and large scale patterns, physical or societal, is revisited in this study of collective memory.

Another dimension of societal relevance of the work is that it documents the actions of people in the Slussen area in Stockholm, which has been the source of considerable public controversy for almost 20 years. The process of rebuilding the area has passed through at least two architectural competitions and a lengthy political debate. There has been considerable public opposition to the rebuilding of the area, rooted partially in opposition to the demolition of an iconic piece of 1930s modernist architecture. Slussen has also been a focal point for collective travel in the city, and an important cognitive landmark for many people in the city.

After the recording of data in the project was completed, the demolition of Slussen was actually started in 2016, and the project itself has turned into a memory of a now vanished space.

Description of the work

The project created three related representations from data on the motion of people in a public space at Slussen in Stockholm collected continuously over a time period of one year.

1. A site specific large scale print built up of trajectories of human motion in the space.
2. A high resolution video that shows the movement in time over the entire year.
3. A robotic sculpture that gradually builds up a 3D representation of the data out of common salt.

In addition, a large number of low resolution video fragments of events in the space were extracted through an extensive search of the data. This created a contrasting representation of the space and its memory traces built up by human activites. The fragments were shown in an installation consisting of 100 individual video screens, each randomly showing different fragments from its own set of data. Larger video projections were also created where further video processing was used to enhance different aspects of traces left by human motion in space and time.

Technical realization

The work is the result of a five year artistic research project supported by the Swedish Research Council during 2012-2017, and also by Liljevalchs konsthall. Initially, the project went through a lengthy approval process for camera recording with the local authorities. A video camera and a computer for logging data was installed at the top of Katarinahissen, an old 40 meter tall elevator tower overlooking the chosen space. The outside installation was exposed to the elements, in particular strong winds in winter, and the process of climbing the tower to supervise the installation created a physical challenge for the artists.

More than one year of uninterrupted video data (approximately 50 TB) was recorded. Humans moving in the video were identified and tracked using special purpose image processing algorithms of our own development. Different versions of the algorithms were used to trace flying birds and moving vehicles (the latter were removed from the data). Bézier splines were fit to each trajectory and stored as vector graphics (.eps files) together with time data of the motion. From this data structure, several representations were derived.

Large scale prints including all trajectories from a selected time period were made. Printed versions are site specific, and can be adapted to any exhibition space. The first exhibited version covered three months of data, and was rasterized to approximately 30 gigapixels and printed at 10 x 5 meters. The printing process involved substantial development in order to be able to print very large .eps files.

A video representation of the entire one year period was also created. Time was compressed by superposing trajectories traversed at their actual speed. In this way, time was compressed by a factor of 100, resulting in an approximately 90 hour long video. The video representation is calculated from the mathematical representation of the trajectories, and can be generated in any desired resolution. The existing version is created in 8k resolution (7680x4320), and for practical reasons shown on four large 4k displays. The video is divided into 8 hour segments, each corresponding to one month of calendar time.

A third representation of the data is a robotic sculpture that gradually builds up a three dimensional representation during the exhibition. A thin robot arm traces trajectories from the data one by one. Saturated salt solution slowly drops from the tip of the arm. The drops of salt solution fall onto a heated aluminum surface, which is kept at approximately 200 degrees C. Drops evaporate rapidly, and leave grains of salt that gradually build up a three dimensional structure over the course of the exhibition. Eventually, each person that passed through the space during the year will have left a few grains of salt as a trace. The structure that emerges is not only a simple 3D model of the movement density - the interplay between randomness and control also results in emergent pattern formation similar to diffusion limited aggregation.

Exhibition at Lijevalchs 2017

The final work was created during 2017 and first exhibited at Liljevalchs in Stockholm in November and December 2017. Liljevalchs konsthall, which operates under the authority of the city of Stockholm, was the first independent public museum of contemporary art in Sweden when it opened in 1916. It has been closed for renovation for almost two years, and this exhibition was the first after reopening.
© Mikael Lundberg