Hello Lamp Post Journeys to Texas
by Catherine Zinser
“When was the last time you saw your best friend?”
This simple question says that two people are having a conversation, that one person has formed a strong enough bond with another that he/she remembers the exact moment they were last together, and that these two people want to share stories and learn about each other. Nothing revolutionary here— humans are social creatures. We form and break bonds throughout our entire lives. We write about it, sing about it and make movies about it. In fictional settings we even assign personalities and forge relationships with and between inanimate objects. Remember how brave that little toaster was and the unwavering friendship between WALL-E and his loyal pet roach? Even though small appliances have pulled on our heartstrings, we’d take a short pause if, in the real world, a lamp post were to ask when last we’d seen our best friend.
With simple technology and an open mind, Art Alliance Austin and Austin Art in Public Places (AIPP) brings fiction like this into reality with Hello Lamp Post—an immersive and interactive platform that enables the entire city to come alive. Yes, Austin wants to get to know you, but the goal of the project is to encourage users to consider their surroundings and, ultimately, their place within them.
“This project is tongue-in-cheek and extraordinarily clever.”
Winner of the aptly named Playable City Award of 2013, Hello Lamp Post was developed by the UK-based design firm PAN Studio and debuted in Bristol, England that summer. The project makes its second stop in Austin from February 12 to April 30, 2015 and will launch in Tokyo on April 25, 2015. In a world where complex inner workings are the norm, the tech side of the project is surprisingly simple. The system functions through texting on a mobile device and requires an inventory or registry number present on all city-owned street furniture. To expand the experience, the creators also identified “gateway” objects across Austin like the Willie Nelson statue and Treaty Oak, assigning identifiers like willie#1933 and treatyoak#T500.
When you text the phone number, you’ll get an immediate response. How the conversation goes from there is up to you! A telephone pole may ask “What is the strangest thing you’ve overheard?” The Capitol asks “If you were governor of Texas for a day, what would you do?” Bartonsprings#7665 wonders about the infamous salamander, and some objects even ask about this year’s allergy season. Conversations start off casual, but if you return to the same object more than once, the questions become more intimate. You can follow questions and responses from others on the official website hellolamppostaustin.com.
The project falls under the descriptor “locative media” (location-based media), where a geographic point of interest is fundamental to the overall experience. A prime example of locative gaming is global treasure hunting, called geocaching, in which players search for objects marked with GPS coordinates. Locative art projects like Hello Lamp Post explore the relationships between people, places, and objects. Because users text a unique inventory or registry number, Hello Lamp Post amasses a body of material to refer to when future users converse with the same object. A similar project based in Toronto, called [murmur], records people’s personal stories and replays them on site via a mobile device. Listening to a story, even that of a stranger, in the place where the memory was forged is incredibly intimate and affixes new meaning to an otherwise insignificant place. In short, exchanges fostered by [murmur] and Hello Lamp Post help to launch a larger conversation with an entire city full of people with rich histories.
Art Alliance and AIPP take particular care when choosing artwork that is presented in the public sphere. Public art certainly does not need to appeal to everyone, but it’s vital that the audience is taken into account. Austin is an established tech hub, dubbed “Silicon Hills” in the 1990s. Forbes says South by Southwest Interactive is the “not to be missed” event for the tech industry.1 AIPP and Art Alliance brought Hello Lamp Post to Austin, because this city has a rapt audience, hungry for innovation across all fields, including the arts. The project was an official event at SXSW and will be featured at Fusebox—an annual festival that showcases artists and artwork across all media.
At the start of SXSW Interactive, Hello Lamp Post was less than halfway through its Austin run. The project was wildly received as an official SXSW event and the main art project for the festival. By the end of week two, 14,578 individual messages were sent, 5,411 conversations were conducted, and 1,550 objects were “woken up” by 1,982 unique players. Bristol attracted over 3,000 players, but Austin has already exceeded Bristol in individual messages. This definitively proves that Texans will talk to just about anything that’ll listen. PAN sorts the data as it comes in, pinpointing what objects are receiving the most messages and which words or phrases are being sent. While the data will not be used in any official capacity, it gives a sense of what the community is conscious about at any given time. For instance, in Bristol, the city had increased the rate of street parking just before the project launched. Even though the city didn’t receive a substantial number of complaints, disgruntled citizens used the project to give the parking meters an earful! Not a shocking discovery, in Austin, “BBQ” and “traffic” were trending after the first week.
When dealing with ephemeral works in the public domain an unavoidable question is, “What’s the point?” Art Alliance Austin Director Asa Hursh explains, “This project is tongue-in-cheek and extraordinarily clever. It’s called Hello Lamp Post, but it really encourages people to interact with others in their city: to tell jokes, share memories, and share desires. In a society that is filled with auto-drafted journalism, computer-generated tweets and Facebook posts, maybe talking to a lamp post isn’t the craziest thing that we’re doing.”
And what’s wrong with saying a quick hello to the objects that play a vital role in making Austin a wonderful place to live and visit?
1. Walter, Ekaterina. “The ROI Of Attending SXSW Interactive.” Forbes. March 22, 2015. Accessed March 25, 2015. http://www.forbes. com/sites/ekaterinawalter/2015/03/22/the-roi-of-attending-sxsw- interactive/.
All graphics courtesy of Landmarks.