Gentrification and datafication come together in Beach Umbrella, one of the projects by design research group Aesthetics of Exclusion. Taking the project’s location in Seoul as an example, founder Sjoerd ter Borg explains how computer vision becomes a kind of fortune-teller.
In 2018 I founded a small collective of artists, designers, coders and scientists called Aesthetics of Exclusion. We set out to answer the following question: how can we use computer vision techniques and machine learning to explore and analyse the aesthetical styles most often associated with gentrification in Street View archives?
Today, digital mapping, street view, and machine learning technologies enable us to navigate cities over time. Seen in sequence, this makes clear the aesthetic changes common to so many cities across the globe. Since 2005, several companies such as Google, Microsoft, Baidu, and Kakao (Daum) started to develop systems to digitally map urban and rural areas. For example, wandering through a city in a Street View environment, users can now explore the different visual documentation of streets through the years.
New technologies enable us to do more than just “look back”. Computer vision, a field used to gain a high-level understanding of images can now detect, but also generate new images based on existing datasets that make it possible to speculate on, and visualize, the future of urban growth or decline.
Aesthetics of Exclusion studies the visual signals and patterns of gentrification: an urban phenomenon that entails a decrease of diversity in classes, ethnicities, races, sexualities, languages, and points of view from central city neighbourhoods; and their replacement by more affluent and homogeneous groups. While a lot of research has focused on the socio-economic causes and effects of this process, we view gentrification also a cultural phenomenon: its aesthetics are not only a reflection of, but also a central component in this sort of processes.
In the summer of 2018, Mark Jan van Tellingen (one of the collective’s partners who I made the project with) and I physically walked through Seoul in South Korea as well as digitally with Daum Street View. When walking or navigating through a digital street view archive of Seoul, street vendors, markets, and pojangmachas [temporary food carts] fill the streets, forming an integral part of the urban fabric. These specific typologies are linked to the informal economy, which has decreased significantly over the last decade and will continue to grow smaller. Several socio-economic processes, such as gentrification, strict law enforcement and rapid cultural change, make it hard for vendors to survive.(1) In the future, will we only be able to remember Seoul’s informal economy through the lens of visual archives?
The beach umbrellas used by vendors provide shelter from rain, create shadow in Seoul’s humid climate and also operate as temporary spaces of exchange. We found them to be an interesting symbol of Seoul’s informal economy, and a phenomenon often overlooked. We trained object recognition software to detect umbrellas across Seoul through images and street view, making it possible to experience their movement and evolution through time.
In our film Beach Umbrella (파라솔), the narrator reads a slightly adapted version of the words and question posed by Jean Baudrillard in Le Système des objets: “Should I classify the luxuriant growth of objects as we do a flora or fauna, complete with tropical and glacial species, sudden mutations, and varieties threatened by extinction?”
By tracing these peculiar objects with object recognition, the film questions how computer vision becomes a kind of fortune-teller, predicting the future of urban growth in the city. The resulting montage affords an entrancing glimpse into a complex ecology of datafication, consumption and surveillance on Seoul’s streets. By using the projection of the city in the form of Google Maps not as a static representation, we have a cinematic model: a repository archive of the past, an operational diagram of the present and a potential simulation platform for the future.(2)
As both image archives and the methods we can use to dissect objects, patterns and development within them grow rapidly, we can only imagine we are at the very beginning of a new research territory with its very own opportunities and dangers embedded within.
→ Text by Sjoerd ter Borg