JAMES COUPE
art projects
Watchtower (A Machine for Living)
Categories: Art

Commission: Commissioned by FACT
Created with support from DXARTS. Original tower design by Paul Aiello.
Exhibition: Exhibited at FACT, 88 Wood Street, Liverpool
June 22 – October 1, 2017
Materials: Wood, monitors, computers, code
Description: Watchtower (A Machine for Living) is a four-storey wooden tower, modeled after the fire lookout towers found in the rural areas surrounding the artist’s home in Seattle. Most of these towers are now tourist attractions, a signal of the shifting nature of observation. Today, the apparatus of observation is not architectural, but networked, a series of cameras, sensors, and algorithms that have replaced the watchtower and its human occupants. Surveillance is no longer an external mechanism, but a domesticated one, seamlessly integrated into the rituals and environments of home, work and leisure.

A hybrid of architectural and networked surveillance, the cabin at the top of Watchtower contains a bank of computers that are programmed to manage an Amazon Mechanical Turk (mTurk) account. MTurk is an on-demand task management service (or system) that allows account holders to hire human workers to complete small-scale tasks (surveys, captcha identification, basic image analysis) that computers cannot successfully perform (or at least, not yet); Amazon refers this service as “artificial artificial intelligence,” since the workers remain isolated, invisible and anonymous, like proletarianized ghosts in the machine.

Watchtower’s computers are programmed to request mTurk workers to upload videos, to pay the workers, and then to process the videos it receives. The workers were asked to film themselves engaging in activities that hover between work and leisure – for instance, describing the view from their windows, praying, or predicting the future. Other videos mimic social media conventions, and document the workers’ meals, exercise routines, even narrating last night’s dreams.

The tower is flanked by sixteen monitors displaying the resulting videos, selected from an expanding database of thousands, which are continuously uploaded by the workers. Documenting the daily lives of mTurk’s invisible workforce, Watchtower transforms into a kind of clock, organizing the work day according to a ritualized set of mundane activities.

Credits: Programming: James Coupe and Zhebin Zhang
Tower design: Paul Aiello
With thanks to the Center for Digital Art and Experimental Media (DXARTS), University of Washington
Wood sponsorship from the American Hardwood Export Council.
Photography: Gareth Jones, Louise Robson, Carl Davies.
Technical: Watchtower (A Machine for Living) uses Python, Raspberry Pi and MySQL.
Reviews/News: Furtherfield:The New Observatory at FACT
Bido Lito: The New Observatory
State of the Arts: The New Observatory @ FACT

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IMAGES: Watchtower Watchtower Watchtower Watchtower
IMAGES: Watchtower Watchtower Watchtower Watchtower
VIDEO:  Watchtower

Categories: Art -