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Spotlight: Bike Box Creators Sabine Gruffat and Bill Brown - The LAMP

Spotlight: Bike Box Creators Sabine Gruffat and Bill Brown

By August 3, 2010 News No Comments

Bike Box takes to the street

For this month’s Spotlight, The LAMP’s own Sarah Brown sat down with Sabine Gruffat and Bill Brown, creators of Bike Box. Check out Sarah’s previous article about Bike Box, and read on to learn more about why they made Bike Box and how they brought their vision to life.

Can you talk a little about the technology you used to create this project? SG: We have outfitted bicycles with iPhones and speakers and we have developed an iPhone application that allows users to record and geotag audio as well as play back geolocated audio.

What effect does the work have on the way you perceive or use such technology? For example, does creating or participating in bike box change the way you look at what an iPhone can do? SG: Developing an application on a cell phone presented some difficulties. In many ways, we felt limited by the off-the shelf technologies out there. For example, it is virtually impossible to create an application that works on more than one type of cell phone. Initially we were much more interested in developing an application on the Android, but we made a connection with David Gagnon of the Games Learning Society at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and he had already developed an open source software called Aris for the iPhone that we used as a blueprint for Bike Box.

During this process we have learned that there are a lot of people trying to capitalize on these types of mobile media applications. The competition in this industry restricts software developers because there is no standard operating system. Also, the learning curve is such that it reinforces boundaries between creators and users.

BB:This project came out of our shared interest in mobile media, and how GPS and wireless technologies can be used to enhance or complicate the experience of the spaces we encounter. When we began building the Bike Box iPhone app, we were constantly pushing back against the technology. An iPhone can do just about everything, and this is very seductive. But we didn’t want it to do everything. We wanted it to do just enough.

Though we’re excited to have discovered a technology that allows our project to work, we always hoped that the technology would be secondary to the project. That is to say, we’re far more interested in the audio content, and in how the audio relates to specific spaces. Although Bike Box is a screen-based application, we made it so that there is very little to interact with onscreen. We want people looking at the world, not the screen.

Why bikes? Do you see a relationship between bicycle travel and open source software or the practice of aural archival? SG: We were thinking of the bicycles as mobile recording and playback machines, creating a space for participation and discovery.

BB: We both like to ride bikes. We commute on our bikes, and we’ve gone on a couple long distance bike tours. But bikes are also a good technology for navigating through urban space. You can cover a lot of ground on a bike, but at the same time, it’s also easy to pull over and have a fine-grained experience of a place. Bikes also neatly straddle the public and the private, allowing for the autonomy and freedom of private transit without sealing your body in the private space of a car. On a bike, you still have a public body and a public presence, and you still have access to public space. Since the bikes are wired with speakers, even the act of listening to audio has been made public. Passers-by can eavesdrop on the same audio you’re listening to. So bikes allow for a physical exploration of the public sphere, and the app allows for a conceptual or intellectual or poetic exploration of the public sphere.

Can you give me an idea about some of what I might hear en route? Is there a contribution that particularly alters the landscape? BB: There are a lot of great audio contributions. Stephanie Rothenberg and Joan Linder contributed a series of audio tags they call “Brooklyn Beijing Babel.” Stephanie and Joan are Brooklynites currently working in Beijing, and they found a number of sites in Beijing that are in some sense analagous to sites in Brooklyn. For instance, they recorded street sounds from a hip, happening district of Beijing that they “placed” along a hip, happening stretch of Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. Listening to the audio, you experience both spatial displacement and continuity.

SG: Paul Lloyd Sargent‘s “Hydronym: Erie Basin Meets Erie Basin” traces the network of historic waterways connecting New York’s Erie Basin in Red Hook to the Great lakes region while leading you through the newly constructed shopping destinations there. His project collapses Erie canal history and the physical remnants of the shipping industry in a way that alters our contemporary experience of Red Hook.

What do you feel bike box might offer to student who is learning about creating and understanding the types of technology used for the project? BB: Bike Box hopes to model a relationship to technology that is interactive, investigatory, and productive. We hope it will also encourage an engaged relationship to space, and an interest in the geographical extension of our lives, our histories, and our memories. Given the current tendency toward virtualized human contact, we hope Bike Box will bring bodies into the street, that shared space of community and collision.