Shadowing – Five years on

Shadowing, a magical piece of playable street art, is installed in two locations near the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris until) 2 Jan, 2020. 

Paris marks the seventh city for the project over five years, and Jonathan Chomko, one of the project designers, takes a moment to look back at how the project has evolved, and what that has meant for their trajectory as artists. 

Shadowing started as a response to the 2014 Playable City Award. Watershed were looking to present a counterpoint to the technology infiltrating cities under the guise of the ‘smart city’. Playable City instead asked us to imagine how technology in cities can be used as a conversation starter; for fun, for play, for art. 

From this brief, Matthew Rosier and I set out on a process of exploration. We began from the conceptual position that the city is interesting because of its inhabitants; and that our intervention should augment the presence of the people that make up a city. Early in the process we chose the human silhouette as a visual representation of this presence, as it provided a wide range of possible expression but did not require the moderation that a text-based system might. 

From this position, the explorations of form began; there was discussion of LCD panels blocking sunlight, LED strips embedded in walls. Streetlamps presented a perfect solution for the urban environment; their ubiquity meant that we could choose from any range of locations in a city, and their height provided a degree of protection from vandalism. 

Combining the two, our proposal became a streetlamp that would record and play back the shadows of those who pass underneath. I like to say that it compresses time in a fixed location; allowing encounters between people who share the same space, but are separated by time. 

This proposal was also subversive in it’s revealing of the gaze of the thousands of cameras that capture our every move through a city. While many projects raise the issue of the CCTV gaze, Shadowing is interesting in it’s regurgitation back onto the location of capture, creating a very clear representation of the capture of one’s movements and actions. 

And due to the calibration between camera and projector, movements are inherently mapped to the surface of the street, creating images that read as disembodied shadows more than projections – at one point in the development process, someone asked how we managed to “project black”,  and I think that this question reveals the effectiveness of our approach. 

Shadowing became a reality in September 2014, with eight locations around Bristol. This first showing was the most broad we have done, with locations all throughout the city, and was up for two months. The response was amazing, with over 100,000 interactions recorded – and we still meet people from Bristol who remember coming across the project on their evening walks.

After Bristol, the project was nominated as a Design of the Year and exhibited in the accompanying show at  the London Design Museum. After a year in the design museum, it went on to show in York (UK), Tokyo, London, Tel Aviv, Austin (USA), and now Paris. 

Looking back at all these cities, what strikes me is an incredible gratitude towards all the organizers and supporters of the project; as each of these presentations have required the belief and support of curators and organizers and city lighting authorities, and this support has helped us grow our ideas about our practices, and further develop Shadowing. 

The project’s critical reading has only become more relevant as public opinion of ‘big tech’ trends downward; as it is a visceral reminder that every movement we make leaves a trace; captured not only in images but also in wifi fingerprints, geolocation data and behavioural information. CCTV cameras are not only capturing our silhouettes, but our faces now serve as visual fingerprints, allowing movements through a city to be tracked and traced. 

Matthew and I now work independently after collaborating for some years post Shadowing as Chomko & Rosier, and I find it very interesting to see how we have set off in different directions from Shadowing. 

Matthew has been working on a body of projection-based work, where images are captured and then re-played on the site of capture; a sort of in-situ projection mapping. This work is deeply concerned with the layered stories of a place, and he engages in researching and interviewing those who feel ownership of a space as a way of creating a portrait of a space. 

108 Steps from Matthew Rosier on Vimeo.

For my part, Shadowing has shown me how the affordances of interactive experiences dictate what is possible inside them; in all the cities we’ve been to, a similar range of behaviour appears. This insight has led me to explore a body of work using interactive systems to generate gestures in their participants. This work continues the critical perspectives that Shadowing embodied, turning an eye to the hand-held digital devices that live in our pockets. at White Wall Studios from Jonathan Chomko on Vimeo.

We continue to develop and tour the projects we’ve created together, and we’re excited to announce that we are developing a permanent version of Shadowing. The aim for this process is to work with a streetlamp manufacturer to create a durable version of the work that can be installed for years at a time across a city.  

When we launched Shadowing in Bristol, I remember saying something about how it ‘takes a village’ to raise a project, and I still stand by that; the project’s continued success would not be possible without much support, and much credit is due to the work of the Watershed team – Verity McIntosh, Clare Reddington, Hilary O’Shaughnessy, David Haylock for making the project a continued success. For this version of the work we’re very grateful to Katherine Jewkes, Ruth Mackenzie, Anne McDougall and Jérôme Chaumond at the Chatelet for bringing the project to Paris. 

Shadowing Paris is up from Nov 28th 2019 to Jan 2nd 2020, in three locations near the Theatre du Chatelet, and is supported by the Theatre du Chalet, the City of Paris, and produced by Watershed.