I believe that the most potent social practice in the 21st century is interactivism, i.e. the intentional design and implementation of narrative feedback loops between the material and virtual worlds. I have written about several such feedback loops in previous posts on this blog, including: Array of Words and the Manilla Street Kid Digital Gift Economy, A Better Way to Occupy and Digital Bridges to a Sustainable Future.
Today I want to describe another such interactivist loop that I came across in this article called The Outlaw Instagrammers of New York City. It documents an emerging artistic subculture that mashes up digital photography, extreme urban exploration and social networks to produce a rapidly expanding community of artist-explorers and their fans via the instantaneous sharing of visceral media experiences.
Have a look at these pictures and you’ll get the idea pretty quick. Take note of the figures beneath each photo. That is a lot of likes.
Firstly, it is obvious to anyone who has ever loaded film into a camera or waited a week for their prints to be ready that digital technologies have revolutionized photography. Where once photography was a mechanical process with costs associated with the production (camera and film) and distribution (developing and printing) of every single shot (with far higher costs for higher resolutions), digital cameras now allow an unlimited number of ultra-high resolution images to be produced by anyone at anytime. Basically, everyone is now walking around with state-of-the-art photographic equipment (that twenty years ago would have cost tens of thousands of dollars) in their pocket.
Secondly, there has been an extreme urban exploration subculture sometimes known as infiltration or for a good twenty years now. Thrill-seekers have been secretly exploring the hundreds and hundreds of miles of catacombs beneath Paris, for example, while others have made a hobby of entering disused nuclear missile silos or infiltrating off-limits areas in famous hotels. At first they shared their conquests in obscure zines traded via smail mail. And when the web came along they began posting pictures on equally obscure websites. But with the introduction of social networks, the clandestine character of these infiltrations has changed.
Today, as the article about the Outlaw Instragrammers of New York makes clear, the real-world secrecy of urban exploration is now being complemented by a massive public dissemination of these infiltration events in the virtual sphere. And it is precisely the marrying of the magnetic intensity of the real-world exploration with the unprecedented scalability of social networks via the visual narrative of the digital photography that has catapulted the impact of this new practice into a new dimension of creative meaning.
Because the immediate and relational nature of digital networks means that people who are not climbing bridges and cranes can nonetheless participate in that urban exploration in real time, connecting with the intrepid explorer-artists through conversations that take the form of comments, follows and likes. The degree of participation stretches beyond simple vicariousness and begins to approach co-operation, mediated by an open-ended invitation to engage.
As an artistic practice, it becomes less about the image and more about the shared experience of urban exploration; less about ‘it’ or ‘them’ and more about ‘us’ and how we navigate ‘our city’. The contemporary phrase ‘place-hacking’ is an apt descriptor, as is the broader term ‘psycho-geography’, which in its current usage (informed but not limited by its original meaning as coined by Guy Debord in the 1950s) refers to a range of urban reimagination practices that include flash mobs, algorithmic walking tours, pop-up events, parkour, networked urban games and many more. What these events have in common with each other – and with these outlaw Instagrammers – is that they connect participatory real world events with participatory networked narratives, amplifying the impact of each and creating open-ended feedback loops with the ability to reach, engage and transform far greater numbers of people than ever before.
Welcome to the 21st century, and to our interactivist world.