In August 2018, Yo-Yo Ma embarked on the Bach Project, a global tour exploring how ‘culture connects us’. In each of the 36 locations, he played a concert of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six cello suites. Alongside each concert, a day of action was organised with local artists, resulting in performances, meetings and exhibitions.
“For Yo-Yo, Bach’s 300-hundred-year-old music is one extraordinary example of how culture connects us and can help us to imagine and build a better future, but he believes there are many, many more. And for Yo-Yo, culture includes not just the arts, but everything that helps us to understand our environment, each other, and ourselves, from music and literature to science and food. The Bach Project explores and celebrates all the ways that culture makes us stronger as individuals, as communities, as a society, and as a planet.” Bach Project Website
I was invited to join the day of action in Montreal after a producer from Ma’s team attended a talk I gave on a project exploring digital agency over physical action. Titled www.grindruberairbnb.exposed (GUA), the project gives participants precise gestural instructions, guiding a group to move in sync, as an expression of the power platforms hold, and the possibility for collective action to occur through them.
Two days before the performance, I met with Yo-Yo Ma and his team for dinner at a hotel in Montreal. Walking from the hotel to a nearby bar, I explained the operation of the project; how the system delivers a series of instructions that enable a group of people to move together in sync. Hearing this, he enthusiastically asked whether the system might be used to arrange hundreds of thousands of people all across the midwestern United States, to make a heart that would be visible from space!
Yo-Yo took the most optimistic read of GUA I could imagine and expanded it to the scale of a continent, and in the months following our meeting, Yo-Yo’s question continued to resonate. The idea of arranging hundreds of thousands of people was far beyond my organizational capacities, but I began to build a system that would allow a smaller group of people to collectively create a heart together.
The system draws the GPS location of each user to a shared map and links all the points with a red line. This design held the assumption that given this shared view, a group would be able to self-organize as a sort of emergent system into the shape of a heart.
Schools of fish or murmurations of starlings are examples of emergent behaviour in nature; each individual in the group keeps track of only a few neighbours, and these webs of awareness overlap to enable the group to move together. This behaviour can be seen in humans as well, as computer graphics pioneer Loren Carpenter’s 1991 experiment demonstrated.
In his experiment, he brought an audience into a theatre and gave each person a paddle with red reflector on one side, a green on the other. Cameras in the theatre tracked the colour being displayed on the paddles, and with no instruction, the video game Pong was projected onto the screen.
The audience was split in two, each half controlling one of Pong bats. For the bat to move all the way to the top, the group would have to all show green, and to arrive at a position in the middle would require half the group show red and the others to show green.
That the audience managed to play the game as a collective entity demonstrates, according to Carpenter, that a sort of collective subconscious was at work; each individual acted autonomously yet the each group managed to maintain relative control over the bat and play successfully.
In A Heart from Space, each participant sees the same shared perspective on their phone, and through it the group negotiates their positions. While the cycles of feedback are slower than in the Carpenter experiment, groups do success in forming and holding shapes.
Each heart created is unique; the same group performing the work multiple times will create wildly varying shapes. The vagaries of GPS accuracy contribute to this, but also the social dynamics of the group, and the myriad different ideas each user has about what constitutes an ideal heart.
During the development process, many versions of the system were created and tested. The change that seemed to hold the greatest impact on outcome was the logic behind the line drawing system.
Early versions of the system would draw the line between the users in the order they had joined the website. The group would first have to untangle the line before creating their shape, which created a conceptually interesting moment of physically negotiating the digital logic of drawing system, but ultimately proved to be a distraction from the core aim.
A second version drew lines between each user and their nearest two neighbours, removing the need for untangling. This presented a new challenge, though, as users now needed to be aware of their proximity to the other points, as well as their location in the shape. The tests for this version took a long time to resolve, and small shifts in GPS reading could result in big changes to the shape.
The current system calculates an outer line for the group each time a new user joins, and then keeps this line order fixed. This removes most of the untangling challenges while providing a system that will not change with small shifts in GPS. This approach also limits the range of motion for each user, as they are bounded in one axis by the location of their neighbours.
That the logic of the drawing code is so core to the experience speaks to the conceptual messages of A Heart from Space; that behind the software we use are a series of design decisions, which make certain actions easy, others difficult and some impossible.
The vision of hundreds of thousands of people gathering together to create a heart visible from space, is also a dream of people coming together to address the deep divides and existential issues humanity is facing. A Heart from Space creates an embodied experience of collectivity through the network, and through this asks what we might achieve if the connections between us were made clear.