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John Marshall: Whithervanes

John Marshall's latest project (with rootoftwo) is a weather vane built for the 21st Century: a headless chicken that tracks and responds to Internet “fear levels”. Five of these Whithervanes are installed on the highest points of five buildings in Folkestone, UK for the 2014 Folkestone Triennial (30 August – 2 November).

You just installed five headless chickens at the Folkestone Triennial in the U.K. How do they work and… why chickens?

A weather vane is an important information device for agricultural age societies, indicating to farmers when it is good to plant and tend to crops. We wanted to make weather vanes for the information age - devices that indicate the rhythm of news information and to make us aware of our ability to make decisions in spite of it. If you look at a traditional weather vane it has the cardinal directions of North, East, South, and West on it - from the right perspective it spells out N-E-W-S. Our Whithervanes are a Neurotic-Early-Worrying-System that questions where we are going, since collectively we seem to be running around like headless chickens.

The reason we chose headless chickens is multi-layered. If you act like a headless chicken, you do it very quickly and without thinking about what you are doing. It struck us that this is how some people are behaving in response to the news media. It also refers to the children's story of Chicken Little who always thought the sky was falling.


How are the chickens made and how do they get their newsfeed?

The chickens are four feet tall and made of polyurethane foam coated in polyester resin. Each is controlled by a credit-card sized computer that connects to the Internet and listens in real-time to news reports uploaded by journalists from around the world.

When a report comes in, the computer reads it and works out the GPS coordinates where the event happened. It then calculates the direction and distance of the event from Folkestone. The computer then reads the rest of the report, cross-checking the text with the list of keywords and phrases the Department of Homeland Security uses to monitor social networking sites for terrorist threats. The computer also looks for keywords and phrases gathered in a series of workshops we did with the people of Folkestone about what they are afraid of. The keyword list includes threats as diverse as: race riots, gastro tourists, unemployment and dog poo.

The intensity of fear is indicated by changing colored lighting and the number of spins each chicken makes. There are five levels of fear: 1. Low (Green), 2. Guarded (Blue), 3. Elevated (Yellow), 4. High (Orange) and 5. Severe (Red) - the same as the Homeland Security National Terrorism Advisory System. The five chickens revolve away from the location of each news story.


Do all the chickens reflect the same news sources?

Every Whithervane has the same list of keywords and phrases, but each has a unique "score" associated with the terms that reflect the aggregate values of the people that live in each neighborhood where the chickens are located. The "scores" have been weighted using marketing tools based on UK census data that are typically used for targeting junk mail. The computer does a calculation that considers the level of fear in the story for the local population and the distance of the event from Folkestone. For example, the same story about immigration from the European Union will have a different level of fear for different neighborhoods. Folkestone is the first point of entry in the UK for visitors arriving via the Channel Tunnel - this makes for some very complicated local opinions.

The public can also influence the individual Whithervanes by Tweeting to @whithervanes #keepcalm (to reduce) or #skyfalling (to increase) the ambient fear level in the system. If they don't have a Twitter account we have built a website where you can submit a Tweet by clicking a button. There are public access terminals in the Triennial visitor's center in Folkestone.

Public art can be complicated enough, but responding to Twitter, hashtags, and news feeds from the Internet... sounds like a fairly complex coding problem. Can you describe the technology involved in making and installing this kind of sculpture?

We've spent four years on this project. In the course of doing this, we've had to tackle the Linux operating system, the Python programming language, and the DMX512 communications protocol for the first time. We've hired a lawyer, a structural engineer, a computer scientist and a crane.

I've never really thought about the Whithervanes as sculptures. rootoftwo always starts working at the level of systems - the chicken-shaped, physical objects are just a small part of that. There are hardware, software, mechanics and electronics.

People are part of it too - the journalists in the field, people on the street in Folkestone, and the people that simply find the website and press the #keepcalm or #skyfalling buttons. To me, it is an informatic system - a network of sensors and actuators that responds to data. The chickens are like a blinking light on the dashboard of your car - they are there to let you know that something, somewhere is not quite as it should be and it needs your attention.

Any plans for these chickens after Folkestone?

One will stay there permanently. As for the others? It's too soon to say. Next year we plan to launch the Whithervane system as an open-source hardware kit - to put the entire software and mechanical systems we have developed in the hands of different groups as a platform to be modified and re-purposed for different locations and for different streams of data.

"Big data" really isn't visible unless you are looking for it. However, it is hard to ignore a headless chicken (or some other totem) that is being 'blown around' by an invisible hand and changing color. We imagine any number of other groups and individuals could build on this system to make evident a variety of concerns.

John Marshall is the director of the new MDes program in Integrative Design at Stamps, a unique two year, project-based program which brings together designers and stakeholders from a range of professions to address "wicked problems."