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Tweeting About #Homelessness Tonight Will Change The Color Of This Building

The inspiring "In The Air, Tonight" calls attention to social issues both physically and digitally

When it comes to discussing social issues and human strife on social media, things can quickly turn into a platform for competitive mourning, thinly-veiled narcissism, or even a place of ignorance (read: trolling). This isn't always the case, though, and some savvy individuals recognize this.

If cleverly navigated, Twitter can be used to spark grassroots mobilization, collective intelligence, and even enact change. Tonight, in specific, we will literally be able to see a cause and effect relationship between social media and real life. Toronto-based artists Patricio Davila and Dave Colangelo are unveiling a project titled In The Air, Tonight where tweets about homelessness will change the color of the LED facade at the Ryerson School of Image Arts and Ryerson Image Center in Toronto from blue to red. 

Blue animations on the building will be controlled by the speed and direction of the wind and red pulses will be triggered by fluctuations in the use of the hashtag #homelessness on Twitter. That means when it's really cold out (and people on the streets have serious health risks) you can see it on the building. 

There are over 5,000 people who are homeless in Toronto right now. Although changing the LED facade of a building may not eradicate this huge problem, it is an act that calls direct attention to an issue through more than one avenue (digital, physical; online, in real life). The Creators Project spoke to Dave Colangelo about his admirable project, and he pointed us to older projects that combine social media and art to bolster awareness about pertinent social issues.

The Creators Project: What inspired you and Patricio to create In The Air, Tonight? What were your goals in creating this project? It seems like a very nuanced attempt to encourage conversations about homelessness. 

Dave Colangelo: Both Patricio and I are interested in creating works that we call Public Data Visualizations. Basically, the goal is to find interesting and important connections between information, people, and space, and then think of ways we can make them more compelling and/or beautiful. For us that usually means making really big projections or taking over a building with an LED façade; some kind of expressive, architectural surface that we can hook networks and data streams up to.

Overall, scale is important because scale means visibility, and visibility is an important physical fact that conveys power and meaning. Scale and physicality give a new shape, form, and context to data. At the same time, data can give a new shape, form, and context to space when it’s mixed together properly. When that happens, data then becomes something your body can feel because you can measure your body in relation to it, and that’s an interesting and powerful sensation. There’s something about seeing something at that scale, at the same time as lots of other people that you can and can’t see around you. In that way, these things are like the digital-era update to things like lighthouses, weather beacons, eternal flames, crosses on hills, etc…except of course the possibilities expand almost exponentially when digital tools and networks are involved.

From this, we decided to create a web-based interface that would collect these tweets in one place where people could read, retweet, or compose their own, and each tweet would launch a bright red pulse on the LED façade of the building. In between those pulses, we took local wind speed and direction data from a weather station we installed on the roof to create a blue wave on the building that responded to its surroundings. The idea there was to accentuate the feeling of being outside, of being over-exposed to the harsh Toronto climate in the winter, something that the homeless are constantly battling against.

When people come to see the building, or even if they just visit the site from wherever they are, we hope that they’ll learn something about the issue that they didn’t know before, or appreciate how difficult and complex the issue is, or see that lots of people care about it and want to do something about it or learn about ways they can help. At the very least, anyone that retweets a message will contribute to a really important societal function: witnessing and participating in public debate.

Can you tell me a little more about the technology that connects the tweets and wind chill to the LEDs in the building facade? How does the information travel from one source to another? 

We installed a weather station on the roof of the building to give us real-time weather data at the site. For the Twitter data, we’re using the Twitter API to scrape all tweets that reference #homelessness. Mixing all of this together is the hard part, and that’s something our programmer Robert Tu figured out, using a combination of PHP script and processing to create the responsive animations (with some help from our designer Maggie Chan). All of that gets communicated through VVVV (a programming environment that interfaces with the LED façade of the building) using OSC (open sound control) commands.

Feasibly, could the building facade turn entirely red if enough people tweeted about homelessness? 

Yes! It happens a lot. It only takes one person, anywhere in the world, to tweet once about homelessness for the building to turn red. Every tweet with the #homelessness triggers a pulse. It’s really a beautiful effect when you’re standing in front of the building and you see it pulse over and over again, even, and maybe especially, when you’re not the one sending the tweets.

Also, our website has a responsive background that mimics the animations on the building, so you can see just how often the building is pulsing at any time. It even pulses when the buildings lights are off during the day, so it kind of acts like an extension of the building at those times.

Have you seen other innovative projects that combined art and technology to encourage conversations about social issues? Is your project particularly unique in its integration of twitter? 

One of our favorite artists is Alfredo Jaar. Way back in 1999 he did a piece called Lights in the City for a festival in Montreal where buttons in homeless shelters would trigger a set of red floodlights that he had installed in the copula of a building downtown. In a lot of ways, In the Air, Tonight is a kind of homage and an update in a way.

We liked what he did with that project, amplifying the issue to the scale of the city and doing so in such a simple and effective way. At the same time the technology just wasn’t there for people to respond, share information, contact one another, or do anything other than be poignantly stunned by what they saw, and that’s something we’re trying to tap into with our installation.

This is the first time we’ve used Twitter, but probably not the last. You have to go where the people are when it comes to social issues, but you also have to draw people towards the issue you’re concerned with. On and offline environments have their own powers to draw people in and make connections. We’re trying to harness a bit of both with projects like this. Instead of choosing near or far, big or small, detailed or abstract, we’re saying why not both? In the end we’re trying to create a compelling interface so that there are lots of pathways into the piece and experiences you can have with it.

We can see ourselves replicating this model in another place with another issue. We’d have to do the research of course, to find something crucial at that place and time to draw attention to in this way. 

Images and video by Maggie Chan

For more information, visit In The Air, Tonight's website.

And see more of Dave Colangelo's work here, and Patricio Davila's here.

@zachsokol