Exhausting a Crowd was inspired by the classic 60-page piece of experimental literature from Georges Perec, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, written from a bench over three days in 1974, and automates the task of completely describing the events of 12 hours in a busy public spacePiccadilly Circus in London. This work speaks of the potential of a perfectly automated future of surveillance, enabled by a distributed combination of machine and human intelligence. A beautiful record of the energy present in shared space, as well as a disturbing look into the potential for control in a dystopian environment of persistent mass surveillance.
On the Exhausting a Crowd website, visitors are presented with a video loop and an onslaught of commentary that has accumulated since the piece's launch. Now running over a year, nearly fifty thousand comments have been collected. Some provide narration for complex multi-character stories, others catalogue every single selfie.
Exhausting a Crowd draws on previous work such as Keytweeter (2009–2010), where I tweeted everything I typed for one year in 140-character chunks, People Staring at Computers (2011), where I surreptitiously took photos in the Apple Store, which led to a Secret Service investigation, and Conversnitch (2013-2014) with Brian House, where we deployed a device that recorded conversations, crowdsourcing their transcription and automatically posting to Twitter.
The primary location inspiring this piece was 14th Street Union Square in NYC, as viewed from the south side of the park. At any moment, there may be anywhere from 10 people at midnight, to 100 people on a cold afternoon, to 500 people at lunch, or thousands for a protest. People are engaged in a variety of activities from playing chess, to dancing, singing, chanting, panhandling, eating, kissing, walking through, or just waiting.
Working with the Victoria and Albert Museum to develop the piece, we decided to shoot in London to engage with the long history of surveillance in the United Kingdom. Two other major decisions were made during development: One was about whether to present a live stream or a pre-recorded stream, and the other was about whether to use computer-assisted tags or even computer-assisted targets based on pedestrian detection. The pre-recorded stream was essential to get the effect of an abundance of notes at any moment, and we tried to create the feeling of it being "live" by removing almost all user interface elements that suggested otherwise. The computer-assisted tags were dropped, because it felt more disturbing to know that all the notes left behind were left there by a real human clicking and typing.
With such high resolution footage there was some concern about privacy. Legally, there are no privacy restrictions on filming and broadcasting people in public spaces in the UK (with the exception of a few places like The Royal Square, Trafalgar Square, the London Underground). But this piece is about the crowd, not any specific individual, I wanted to avoid making any person’s face clearly recognizable. In practice, almost all individuals appear at enough of a distance, and most internet connections cannot support the full 4k video bandwidth required to make out faces in the nearest foreground.
Kyle McDonald (US) is an artist who works in the open with code. He is a contributor to arts-engineering toolkits like openFrameworks, and builds tools that allow artists to use new computational techniques in their practice. Kyle has formerly been a member of F.A.T. Lab and community manager for openFrameworks, adjunct professor at ITP, and resident at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon, at YCAM in Japan, and in corporate residencies like Autodesk and Spotify. His work is commissioned by and shown at events around the world, including: Ars Electronica, Sonar/OFFF, Eyebeam, Anyang Public Art Project, Cinekid, CLICK Festival, NODE Festival, and many others.
by Kyle McDonald with Jonas Jongejan
Site development by Jonas Jongejan
Commissioned by Victoria and Albert Museum for All of This Belongs to You
Video by Nico Turner
Special thanks to Corinna Gardner, Dan Joyce, Hellicar & Lewis