Using wearables to light up the politics of Manchester

Next month people will take to the streets of Manchester, clad in sensors and LED lights, holding their fists in the air. These people will be participants in a public performance, and each gesture a vote cast about the city’s future.  

The project, called Supergestures, is the result of a series of workshops with young people who have collectively mapped questions about Manchester onto the city’s streets. 30 participants will be guided by audio headsets, directed to certain locations, and provoked to respond to sentiments with specific body gestures.

“I feel unsafe and claustrophobic on public transport in busy periods,” a voice may say in the headphones. “I envision a future with more options for transport… support me by horizontally opening your arms out wide.”

The resulting movements will be captured by sensors in the suits, compiled to glean which issues people agreed or disagreed with. It’s a highly visual, tangible take on democracy, purposefully foregrounding the body. Ling Tan, the designer and artist behind the project, references everything from black power salutes to the arms-crossed gestures of the 2014 Umbrella protests in Hong Kong – all examples of how collective body movements can be a powerful tool for protest.

“A visual protest”

“When people are doing gestures on the streets it’s almost like a visual protest,” she tells me. “They’re enabling other people on the streets to realise something is happening.”

In a previous project, WearAQ, Tan worked with school children in Tower Hamlets London to measure air quality in their area, both empirically and subjectively. Decked in sensors, the children were told to pinch their noses if they found a place that smelt bad or they found it hard to breathe.

“One of the reason was for them to collect data based on their perceptions,” Tan explains. “But the other reason was to have this visual performance protest on the streets, which enables people to start asking questions about what they’re doing.”

Another project involved working with local residents in Johannesburg, once again using wearable technology. If the participants felt unsafe as they walked through a neighbourhood, they were told to put their hands over their chest. It is an intuitive action, Tan tells me; a signal for other people about how they feel in that space, but also a signal that – thanks to sensors capturing hand movements and mapping this data – can be boiled down to maps and spreadsheets to show to policy makers.

In the case of Supergestures, participants’ body language will be heightened by the use of the LED suits that respond to various movements. While sensors will be capturing information about what participants do and don’t react to, the emphasis on the night will also be on the spectacle of bodies gesturing together: “The fact a lot of people will be performing something at the same time at specific locations, is a really quite powerful message to send,” says Tan.

Bodies in the streets

Supergestures has been commissioned as part of Manchester’s smart city CityVerve programme, and started out as a means to investigate the city’s future approach to the Internet of Things (IoT). Once the workshops started, however, Tan found that the young people were much more interested in their relationships with governance than some nebulous concept of a smart city.

“A lot of people were talking about the rise in university fees, the issue of homelessness, safety on the streets,” she says, adding that it became apparent that any questions about technology should be anchored to these pertinent issues. Technology shouldn’t be framed as a utopian solution, she argues, but as something that’s knitted into the fabric of larger questions about community and citizenship.

“The struggle I’m trying to figure out now is: trying to tell people that technology isn’t utopian, but then using technology as a way to attract people,” she admits. “It is a weird dilemma. I’m not sure of the answer, but I realise that there is a conflict happening.”

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The role of technology is described by Tan as “icing on the cake”. Collectively raising fists in the air doesn’t need LED suits or smart sensors, but these things do augment the protest of those actions, heightening visibility and translating bodily expressions into quantifiable data. What’s ultimately important, however, is translating this spectacle into action.

Tan emphasises that her long term aim is to make sure authorities listen to the collective decisions, and to start having a conversation about the future of the city – even if it begins with hands instead of words.

The Supergestures premier performance will take place on 3 March across Manchester, and will be part of FUTURE SESSIONS on 21 March, at Whitworth Gallery. More information on those events can be found on the project’s website.

Image credits: Ling Tan

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