THE AUGURS OF SLAVE ISLAND

AA INTERMEDIATE 3 (2015)

Tutors: Ricardo deOstos and Nannette Jackowski

 

Slave Island. It is a peculiar place. At one particular intersection of roads a mosque, a church and a kovil sit at three of the four corners. Beside them street stalls selling spices, cheap clothes and iPhone cases wedge themselves into gaps between dusty colonial facades and half built, concrete houses. The main streets buzz with commerce; a symphony of tuk tuk horns, motorcycle engines, phone conversations and street haggling is the soundtrack. Behind the main street are thin avenues between houses, barely wide enough for two people to pass. The houses are small - the type with one window and one door. Mostly they are made from concrete, but each has been painted a bright colour, and all manner of adornments on doors and under eaves mark the boundaries between one family and the next. Children race past a mother wringing out the day's washing on her back steps, and a group of men lounge in singlets on chairs brought from their houses to line a small intersection. On the next street a young group of boys play cricket. Two girls giggle as they take a selfie with a bewildered pair of tourists who have wandered further from the historical fort than they had anticipated.

Quite suddenly, the darkness of back avenues becomes a blinding brightness of white sunlight reflected from dusty earth. The junction between these two environments is marked with a single house - halfway through deconstruction. Bricks are scattered on the floor and an old wicker chair stands somehow unscathed in the middle of a collapsed roof. A digger rests for now nearby, watched by a soldier in uniform in a make-shift guard box. Behind him a fence plastered with large signs separates this newly created dust plain from a large construction site, where machines 10 meters high are driving piles into the ground. The signs say: 'Colombo Waterfront Towers, a planning initiative of the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development'. A great project is underway. Six years after the end of the civil war, the value of this land has been noticed. Current plans indicate that 250,000 people are to be forcibly evicted to make way for new developments.

Simultaneously, all over the world, urban centres are being increasingly defined by digital networks. Photos, Tweets and geotags are starting to build up a collective consciousness of memory, emotion and interpretation. The flow of information, the transfer of money, the socialisations of family, and even the co-ordination of terror are invisibly enhanced through the wireless waves that fill the air. We already live in an Augmented Reality.

 

The context is real. The following project is not. But it's agenda certainly is. It seeks to wonder whether the digital tools of collective consciousness could be used to augur the future, and give agency to the dispossessed minorities of the city.

Set in the near future, 'The Augury' is a speculative fiction imagining an alternate development path for Slave Island. In the time of 'The Augury' a new young profession has emerged - the Future Surveyor. Part town planner, part community mediator, and part technology specialist, the Future Surveyors manage and encode an Augmented Reality environment within the city called 'The Augury' - a visualisation of the city's future, and a real time way to mediate between the interests of local land owners, foreign investors, local town planning authorities and the government.

The Augury is experienced as a virtual city in the sky, whose form and organisation creates a 1:1 map of Slave Island's urban future. Constructed from data sent directly from the residents and investors of Slave Island itself, 'The Augury' is a city of gold, whose coherence and clarity directly reflects public sentiment toward existing and proposed land, becoming an aspirational vision, a measure of land value, and an urban planning device. In this world, the markers required to map an Augmented Reality environment the city serve as totems of land ownership - the marker replaces a land deed. Owners of totems have the right to encode futures for plots of land into The Augury. The security of these futures is controlled by public opinion. Residents show positive or negative support for buildings in The Augury through text messages, with strong public support solidifying images in The Augury, and negative reactions fragmenting it - making The Augury a literal representation of the clarity of a land plot's future.

At the centre of this society is a Watchtower. It is aspirational and foreboding, referencing both the limitless potentials of this digital city, but also constantly reminding us of the culture of self-surveillance it unconsciously imposes. In a market under the Watchtower totems are negotiated for and traded. Future Surveyors mediate between all the contesting parties vying for a piece of Slave Island's increasingly valuable future. This is a world where anyone with a mobile phone can be an Augur - a visible component of a collective consciousness mediating between society, technology and mythology.