Squatting Supermarkets – reports and next steps

Just recovering from the enormous effort put in setting up, performing and taking down the Squatting Supermarkets at the Piemonte Share Festival 2009, “Market Forces”.

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Several thousands visitors, hundreds of customized food cans, hundreds of QRCodes printed to link products’ stories, dozens of hours of live Shoptivist TV, 3 workshops, a ShopDropping action in the city centre of Turin, an augmented reality tour at Eataly (a big shopping centre focused on organic foods), hundreds of questions and the relative answers.

These are the numbers. Read on for the details…

Equilibrium. Squatting Supermarkets focuses on the possibility to reinvent reality.

We are all immersed in complex dynamics: simple, daily gestures hide global effects, complex consequences, and we all are the target of planetary strategies that are never clear enough. Turn a light switch on, buy a can of tomatoes, watch TV, drive your car. We constantly are part of global interests producing information that is far from complete.

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Squatting Supermarkets enters the supermarket with this idea in mind. Shopping, buying, paying, choosing products are common tasks. When we enter supermarkets we instantly become the center of multiple interests: labels, signs, sounds, voices, aisles, shelves all tell messages suggesting our choices and hiding the whole story.

The Installation

Three experiences.

First.

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An iPhone is held in front of a package of coffee, its viewfinder framing its logo and showing a microdocumentary creating a 3 minute narrative on the global situation of coffee production. Percentages, stories of distribution, revenue, profit, communication, social responsibility, sustainability. Recipes for your eco-sustainable cup of coffee. This is just one of the informations that shoppers can experience while choosing their buys at the supermarket. The idea is centered around the iSee application by FakePress.

Take a picture of a logo using your mobile phone and, if it has already been added to the database, the logo gets recognized (about 80% accuracy for this operation, if you have a steady hand… and getting better): information sources are shown on the device’s screen, allowing you to choose from social responsibility, sustainability, ecology, finance.

Attention is towards producers, and to the global policies and strategies that are designed and enacted through the products filling our daily lives.The objective is to show the part of the story that is seldom told, and to tell it right there, just-in-time, when you are there, choosing your product.

Second.

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An Oracle. A big eye watches you, awaiting. Products sit on their shelves, ready to be bought.

The first experience told stories about manufacturers, distributors, marketers.

The second one tells the stories of people, of families, of individuals making choices, producing food, objects.

Grabbing products and placing them in the Oracle revealed stories that will never be written on the labels: an anonymous package of olives told the tale of a man from Palestine, cultivating olive trees under the bombs of Israeli warfare; a transparent bag of salt allowed you to enter a deep valley among the mountains of South America, where people dig, dry, carry enormous quantities of salt in the most incredible manners; a pack of multicoloured candy brought you to a peculiar assembly chain in Bangladesh, in an industrial complex that is barely more than a straw barrack, and people live their daily lives among flies, heat and humidity, wore-down machinery, hazards and a few coins in their pockets.

The other part of the story. Embedded into the products.

Third.

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First there were the companies, then it was the people. The third experience is all about the shoppers.

The supermarket is a process. Its architecture, its sound, its shape and volumes are designed for people to enter, choose their merchandise, proceed to the cashiers, pay and leave as fast as they can.

No space for expression, for sharing informations and points of view. Only the marketable survives.

We thought we could change that. We tried with the third experience.

Shoptivism TV is a digital TV channel designed to be recorded and viewed inside supermarkets. It is produced by the people. Grab your mobile phone, scan a product and start recording: happy people telling recipes, angry people telling unsatisfaction, informed people telling how things are, creative people telling stories.

Augmented Reality

Stepping aside frm the hype, Augmented Rality (AR) can mean many things. It can mean dinosaurs walking down your favourite street. But it can also mean to augment ordinary reality with new possibilities and opportunities.

We wanted to do just that: have a chance to reinvent the present, the real, adding new sensorial spaces, new sensibilities that can be achieved through digital media and contemporary devices.

Computer vision, location-based media, wearable and pocketable technologies, gestural and natural interfaces can turn complex tasks into simple ones.

Squatting Supermarkets is just that: augment ordinary reality with new possibilities; invade, squat, occupy time and space with expression and different voices; recontextualize, reappropriate, redesign strategies. Squatting Supermarkets’ intent is to recode the present.

Installation Setup

The three parts of the installation have been built with the fundamental help of many students from the Albertina Arts Academy of Turin and from the MultiDAMS. Arts, Crafts and scenographic support,  as well as an incredible deal of conceptual and dialogic exchange, were the key factors that brought to the definition of the final installation. Choosing materials, lighting, assemblage strategies and space design was really fun and it was a chance to dig into the themes of the installation. While our fingernails were breaking and our clothes getting dirtier, we had a chance to tell and discuss stories, bulding an augmented reality of our own.

On the technical side, the three experiences were built using software components implemented using multiple technologies.

The iSee iPhone application was built using Objective-C and Apple’s standard SDK. Some peculiar technologies were used as well, causing the application to be rejected from distribution on the Apple Store: this is the effect of an incredibly harassing strategy Apple is using against its international community of developers. But this is another story that will be told in just a few days.

The image recognition engine is built in two stages. Captured images of logos and products are first pre-processed on the iPhone (image colour adjustment, thresholding and basic feature recognition algorithms are applied in this phase) and the result is sent to a server for comparison with the items already added to the database (a feature comparison process is applied, where the presence of angles, straight lines, regular curves, areas of solid colors or juxtaposition of them all become parameters that are used to compare images coming from mobile phones with the ones of the stored logos and products). Once a logo is eventually recognized, standard SQL procedures allow for association of various information sources.

We currently are integrating:

Custom contents are also progressively being produced and used, such as microdocumentaries, interviews, researches.

The Oracle is completely done using Processing. Many parts of the processing framework have been used. Efficient and error-free functionalities could not have been achieved without the help of Rolf van Gelder whose enhancements to our little QRCode library for Processing were of fundamental importance.

Two pieces of software were used on the third part of the installation. The main one was a webTV application integrating the streams coming from the LiveStream account we created to distribute the contents live (well.. almost live :) ) to the audience of the Share Festival with the streams coming from the interviews and visitors interactions with the installation.

The second component of this part of the installation was, again, made using Processing. An infovisualization gathered in realtime the communications arising in social networks (on Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook) about the products we used in the other parts of the installation. This visualization was used whenever nothing was going on in the Shoptivism TV channel.

All was coordinated through a simple software layer built using Processing that took care of the generation of the sound environment (featuring triggered hypnotic loops of pure supermarket sound-madness) and the automatic live direction of the various software components, handled through locally networked control messages.

Workshops

Three workshops were performed.

The first one was done with the students of the MultiDAMS in Turin. Here we explained the mechanisms running the Shoptivist TV: how is a TV channel made for supermarkets structured? What technologies can be used? What does it mean to direct, edit and manage a multi author, free access, distributed, ubiquitous TV channel? What are the legal implications of letting people freely record a TV channel inside commercial spaces?

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The students were wonderful and immediately activated, learning to use interfaces and grabbing visitors explaining them the wonders of free expression.

The second workshop saw me together with Luca Simeone and Federico Ruberti from FakePress detailing the multiples perspectives involved in Squatting Supermarkets. I introduced the artistic concept, Luca did a beautiful presentation of the anthropologic and interaction design strategies we are researching on to build FakePress and Federico thoroughly presented and explained impressive data collected with the collaboration of Cary Hendrickson on the economic, financial, social and ecological opportunities brought on by these practices.

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The third was a continuous state of workshopping we happily embraced with the groups of MultiDAMS students coming in with professor Giulio Lughi. He brought in wave after wave of students, providing us a wonderful and enthusiastic audience to deal with and also allowing us to face questions, doubts and unthought perspectives in a wonderful way (many thanks professor!).

A more peculiar form of workshop was also performed, but it deserves a specific section.

So here comes:

ShopDropping!

Possibly the most exciting and replenishing thing happening for us during the Share Festival, we got several students involved in a creatively subversive action.

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Starting from the concepts explained in the Squatting Supermarkets project, we decided that it would be of fundamental importance to get bodies involved in the critical assertions we were making: let bodies reclaim spaces and possibilites through creativity and action!

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On Friday morning we gathered the students in front of the Museo Regionale delle Scienze Naturali. After a short explanation we were off for the action.

Three supermarkets, the FNAC and La Rinascente stores in Turin city centre were invaded with narratives and detournments.

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The action included two parts.

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1) invasion

The cans coming from the Squatting Supermarkets installation were placed among regular supermarket products. These out-of-place products proved to be quite powerful: their aesthetics, together with the fact that they were not part of the shops’ information systems, created multiple bugs in the processes of the commercial premises. The unexpected and unaccounted for turned into a tool for breaking down the daily processes ruling our lives.

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2) free narratives

Microstories were distributed to the students under the form of stickers with urban haikus printed on them. They were to be attached on commercial products, over the barcode defining their prices and inventory identification. When people eventually bought the “processed” products none of them would pass the barcode reader, forcing both the clerk and the consumer into reading our little stories. Free form expressions telling tales of ecology, of carelessness, of reconsidering our lives, of applying critiques to our daily gestures.

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This was a fantastic experience, both for us and for the students. The possibility to create our own narrative spaces in the places where no such thing is usually allowed was a powerful experience. We had to actually pull students out of FNAC, as they were enjoying the process too much :)

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Connections

During the festival we leveraged the TV Channel to connect to other interesting events and people, further promoting the possibility for innovative forms of expression in symbolic spaces.

We first connected to San Francisco with Jonathon Keats. Jonathon told the audience the story of his incredible artworks, and in the clever ways in which the constantly manage to break down the schemes of markets and other complex global forces we are surrounded by. The audience particularily enjoyed the story of the Antimatter Bank Jonathon is bringing up in San Francisco: antimatter against global crisis!

We then connected with the inauguration party of the Hub in Rome. The Hub started in Egland and it turned out to be a really good idea: accessible spaces all over the world to start dialogues, actions, enterprises, between technology, culture, sustainability, social strategies. The Hub Roma just opened up its premises and, if the attitude and excitement they show in what they’re doing don’t lie, we’re set to see some truly interesting things going on over there.

Squatting Supermarkets @ Eataly

We’ll tell you more in the next post about this, so this is just a starter.

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We agreed with the management of Eataly to create an event in which the people from the Share festival could have enjoyed visiting the beautiful supermarket dedicated to organic, local, sustainable foods, using Augmented reality techniques. We had an incredible time doing it, and people were delighted to see stories coming directly out of the producst they bought daily. The experience has been both interesting and critical, as people were truly enlightened by the possibility to learn more about the things they eat and drink, in such a direct way.

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More on this and on its evolutions in the next post.

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The Prize

On the last day of the Share Festival we also had a truly nice surprise.

Squatting Supermarkets won the “Green Prize” offered by Turin’s Environment Park for the most ecologic approach.

Thanks to everyone!

We really need to thank a lot of people. We couldn’t have made it without all of you. So here go the credits:

for the Squatting Supermarkets installation:
Concept, software and artistic direction: Salvatore Iaconesi (aka xDxD.vs.xDxD)
Arts, Crafts & Scenography: a fantastic group of students of the Accademia Albertina of Turin with the direction of Oriana Persico

the iSee application was produced by
Fake Press

for the “Squatting Supermarkets: introduzione pratica e teorica allo Shoptivism” workshop
Concept & Direction: Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico
The group of participants: Silvia Aimone, Roberto Brogi, Eleonora Cappai, Federico Manassero, Barbara Raimondi, Riccardo Rea, Federico Trovarelli, Salvatore Tuscolano.

for the “Complex Shopping Narratives” workshop
Artistic Statement: Salvatore Iaconesi
Antropological introduction & Interaction Design Theory: Luca Simeone
Strategic Marketing & Communication Research: Federico Ruberti
Eco-sustainability & Alternative Economic Models Research: Cary Hendrickson

for the Shopdropping action
Salvatore Iaconesi, Oriana Persico, an incredible group of students from Multi Damd and Accademia Albertina, Collettivo Aut Art (Milan), a student from Accademia of Venice

Photography & video:
Gianfranco Mura and Maya

Augmented Reality Tour @ Eataly
Concept & Direction: Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico
Contact & Coordination: Simona Milvo (Eataly)
Interview: Dino Burri (Eataly)

Special Thanks to
Tone and is dog, Maria, Davich, prof. Giulio Lughi, Massimo Melotti, Gadda, Lo|bo, Aut Art, Les Liens Invisibles, Maya, Gianfranco Mura, Stefan, Mirella, Marie, Franca Formenti, Dario Carrera, Conny Neri, Ivan Fadini, Jonaton Keats, Anna Masera, Dario Migliardi, Roberta Bosco, Alessio Oggioni, Filippo Giannetta, Kathryn Weir, Luca Giuliani, Pete Ippel, Stefano Sburlati, Rolf van Gelder, Silvia and the team of students of Multi D@MS and the all organisation of Piemonte Share Festival (Simona Lodi, Chiara Garibaldi, Luca Barbeni, Chiara Ciociola and the guest curator Andy Cameron) for the beautiful hospitality and work.

All the people that spent time with us during the Festival

7 thoughts on “Squatting Supermarkets – reports and next steps

  1. :) well thanks a lot!

    if everything goes as we plan you will be able to squat you supermarket as well in no time at all!

    ciao!
    xDxD

  2. Siamo orgogliosi di avere un cugino così scenziato!Yahoooooo!!!!!!
    Alex e Sergio by Palmi

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