13220810_10154170173550645_3317564543737697155_n Museo Jasmina

 

When we first began the “Casa Jasmina” project, we imagined three functions for the space.  It would be a laboratory, where we experimented with Maker Culture for housing.  Also, it would be a guest house, where our visitors could eat and sleep.

The third aspect would be Casa Jasmina as a showplace for the public.  In May 2016 we managed to transform the space from a “house” to a “museum.”  In this essay I’ll describe a few of the lessons-learned from our “Museo Jasmina” experience.

First: becoming “public” requires work in public relations.  Even if the Internet’s windows seem to yawn wide open to every spy and ad-man alive, the  conceptual walls between public and private are still tall, strong and stout.   The public will never walk inside a private home without compelling reasons.

Words aren’t enough.   You might loudly declare that your “house” has become a “museum,” but the public will still shy away.   It takes social tact to attract a public.

Raw numbers of people aren’t enough, either.   A thousand scattered individuals using your social media platform are not the same phenomenon as a thousand people living in your city.  Even if these thousand people are gathered in two big crowds in two auditoriums, they will regard themselves differently and behave differently because of the reasons why they gathered.

When and how  do the “friends” in your  social network  become “the public”?    That problem is subtle, like trying to turn factions and  interest groups into a political coalition.    People need rather a lot of motivation to coalesce into a “public.”  You can’t just push a function-button and tell people to unite and be as one.

For instance, let’s take our own case: the people in the large Via Egeo post-industrial fortress in south Torino, Italy.   Casa Jasmina is just one part of this huge, half-derelict ex-factory.  Via Egeo also houses Toolbox Co-Working, Torino Fab Lab, Print Club and Officine Arduino.    These interest groups and activists are in the same locale and they have plenty in common, yet they don’t add up to a “public.”

On the contrary: most everybody inside the Via Egeo building is busy on the Internet with  colleagues and clients hundreds of kilometers away.

So at Via Egeo, we’re not a building with some networks.  Basically, we’re networks within one building.   This may seem like an arcane distinction, but you can see it from the way people behave.

Via Egeo gets plenty of foot traffic, there a lot of in-and-out, but they’re never the kind of public one sees entering a  traditionally public building such as a museum, theater or library.   We do get some “public” tour groups in Via Egeo, but they always have the look-and-feel of educational class tours.  People are led around and told about the things they see, but they don’t settle in and participate.

Via Egeo lacks the right look-and-feel for the public life of Torino, Italy.   People are apt at noticing these social cues within a building.  People conform to the architecture.  And Via Egeo has some rather strange environments.

Fab Labs are fascinating places.  Fab Labs pride themselves on lowering the barriers-to-entry, so that, in theory, “anybody” can go right in and fabricate.   But in practice, people don’t do that.  Because Fab Labs frankly scare the public.  The public is physically intimidated by machinery it doesn’t understand.  The noise, the industrial smells and the piles of scrap in Fab Labs are disconcerting.  People wisely fear injury in Fab Labs, especially to their rambunctious kids.  And yet a public without any children isn’t really much of a “public.”

The people at work in a Fab Lab — no matter how personally friendly they are — have an an abstracted, hackerly air about them.  Fab Labbers are not unconditionally supportive on principle, like, say, the guys attending Alcoholics Anonymous.  No,  Fab Lab denizens attend their Fab Lab because they grapple with grave personal creative problems.  So they tend to be deep in their “zone,” and they can’t drop their tangled chains of inventive thought to indulge the ardent curiosity of some random ten-year-old.

So the Torino Fab Lab is not very “public,” and neither is its close pal upstairs, the  Torino Arduino Office.   The workers in this busy office are all open-source people, but their intellectual generosity and their democratic tendencies are a part of their daily labor.   They do have their social platforms, and even a nice new Arduino Cloud, but they have no physical interface with which to meet-and-greet the walk-in public from off the street.

Their modest electronics office lacks a gift-shop or even a receptionist.  Therefore, whenever a stranger somehow blunders into this crowd of activist geeks hunched over their computers, everyone reacts with a mild embarrassment.

The Toolbox Co-Working space, by sharp contrast, is the most civilized area in Via Egeo.  Toolbox features genuine amenities.  Receptionists are on duty.  There are elegant places for strangers to sit.  If you have some pocket-change you can even get yourself a coffee from a vending machine.

However, Toolbox is a design office designed for  the use of designers.  In short, it’s a business area.

The Print Club is downstairs in the obscure Via Egeo basement.  These graphic designers are into typography and analog presses.  Print Club are a club of dedicated people into doing arty stuff with colored ink on paper.   I wouldn’t call them exclusive or snobby, but the public almost never encounters them.

So the public of Turin just doesn’t much mingle with Toolbox, Arduino Office, Fab Lab or Print Club.  These four groups inside Via Egeo rarely visit each other, even, except for seminars, training lectures, show-and-tell meet-ups, and the occasional nice barbecue up on the roof.

They do have a clubhouse of sorts, though, which is “Casa Jasmina.”   Casa Jasmina changes the social atmosphere inside Via Egeo because it is presented as a “house” rather than as a “lab,” “office,” “club” or “toolbox.”   What’s more, these distinctions of space are much more than verbal labels: people genuinely change how they behave.  You can see that in their posture, tone of voice, how they move, sit, eat and even what topics they choose to talk about.  In physical reality they’re merely differently decorated rooms in one old factory, but in social reality, they function as a lab, office, club, toolbox and also a house.

I wouldn’t have believed that two years ago, but having seen it at first hand, now I do.

At Casa Jasmina, it’s important for us to test the boundaries of what a “house” can be and do in a networked society.    As an “internet-of-things” house, we’re concerned about the changing boundaries of public and private space and their effects on people’s well-being.  Many and various electronic holes are being blasted through our previous habits of behavior.  We need good ways to become more attentive to what this means and how it feels.  We also need to raise public awareness of what is happening.

Casa Jasmina is a house as a social experiment.  As an experiment, it mostly interests certain groups of specialists in interaction design, electronics, and Maker culture.   Yet it’s also a house, and it might even be called a “famous” house.  We get general press attention in Turin and elsewhere, but there is something narrow and cultish about our “fame.”

Commonly, with other, more conventionally “famous houses,” there are periodic “open house” situations where the public is encouraged to walk in and look around.   But not us —  our guests almost always show up in small groups from appointments made on the Internet.  A public relations guy might call this our brand and identity problem.

To prepare “Casa Jasmina” for its public role as “Museo Jasmina,” we had to change some public perceptions.  Somehow our cult lab for connected Maker Geeks had to become a place where normal people from Torino could appear and bring a cousin, a kid or a date.

So, we decided to host our favorite local art event, “Piemonte Share Festival,” inside the house.  Share Festival is an annual art show in Torino that publicly displays six works of interactive media art, device art or kinetic art.  Normally, the public Share Festival is held in one of Torino’s numerous public museums.   But, since Jasmina Tesanovic and Bruce Sterling are both on Share Festival’s board of directors, we were able to persuade our Share colleagues to give Via Egeo a try as their new venue for 2016.

The chosen theme for Share Festival 2016 was “House Guests,” and this theme naturally centered on device art, kinetic art or interactive media art meant for a house.   Electronic art for the connected home is quite an interesting topic.  I wrote a nifty essay about that in our beautiful Share Festival 2016 “House Guests” brochure, but sadly, my dazzling art-critical eloquence is not entirely to the point in the blogpost here.

Suffice to say that we had acquired a “public festival” to feature in our  “house.”  We knew that we could physically jam the one into the other, but then how could we persuade people that a “house” was a “public museum”?

Well, I wish I could say that we solved this issue all by ourselves, but no.  We didn’t.   We had a clever hack.  To make ourselves look more public, we brought in some  public celebrities.

Samantha Cristoforetti is an Italian astronaut.   Paola Antonelli is the design curator for the New York Museum of Modern Art.   These two distinguished Italian women are  public figures, and, better yet, they were sympathetic to our aims.    So Samantha and Paola both served on our jury for Share Festival, where they help us pick out our six art-exhibits.

Their wisdom as  art-event jurors was  obviously handy, but their star-power was huge.  Samantha and Paola are charismatic and famous, so we simply assembled some Turinese public (who were burningly eager to see them), and these two public figures then told the public that something public would happen.

Simple as that.  Everybody instantly believed them.  The mere fact that famous people said it was public made true.

There were fewer than 200 people in that room when Samantha and Paola appeared in public together at Via Egeo, but in short order the whole town knew about it.  Casa Jasmina would be the public’s Museo Jasmina.

At this point, the  reader might naturally object, “Hey wait a minute, you can’t solve your publicity problems just by hauling in some famous people!  That’s not even fair!”  And that’s true: we might have done otherwise, something more standard for contacting the public in 2016.  For instance, a demographically targeted grass-roots campaign where we hired big-data analysts and deliberately targeted possibly-sympathetic Facebook users.

However, that approach costs a lot and takes patience and also has something creepy about it.  Basically, we needed our “house” to come across like a “museum”  in an Italian town.  One kindly visit from a globally-known professional museum curator will really change that tone.

Plus, there’s the raw power of the human element.   The living presence of Samantha and Paola had a lasting effect on the Via Egeo assemblage.  Their intelligent expression of sympathy for our doings was a tonic for the general morale.   It was quite an honor to have an astronaut and curator appear in Via Egeo, to speak up, press the flesh, take questions and all that.

People who are honored take themselves more seriously afterward.   They know that their efforts are noticed, so they feel more consequential.

This is especially true in Italy, a very honor-centric society.  In Italy, the famous are constantly on-call for ceremonial ribbon-cutting, intro-giving and general head-patting activities.   Deploying famous Italian people is a public legitimation tool.

But although fame can seem like a short-cut or magic trick, fame exacts a price.  If you re-frame good-old-fashioned “public fame” as “social capital in a network society,” then you’ll get a better sense of the modern difficulties there.  Captain  Samantha Cristoforetti is quite a famous astronaut, but she’s famous in a modern way, mostly through her rambling horde of social media followers. Boy, does she ever get hit-on for selfies.

If you’re  dealing with famous people, it’s wise to offer them some shade from the full-on public glare.  We had a lunch and dinner house-party inside Casa Jasmina for Samantha and Paola.  These were two semi-public closed-door situations where guests could gather to share food and drink.    Paola and Samantha were certainly the lionesses of these two little banquets, but at least they were able to eat in peace.

Catered parties are troublesome.  They cost money and need  awkward juggling with portable plates and glasses.  The number of people present to eat was rather small, too.  But these were truly public groups, a genuine cross-section of Turinese society.  Everybody in the public knows how to eat.  So people cheerfully arrived from way outside our standard cliques of  techies, coders, artists and  open-source hard ware fans.

Instead — much like fauns, nymphs, centaurs and other shy mythical creatures — we were hosting poets, musicians, academics, industrialists, politicians, aerospace engineers, society hostesses, and even lawyers and bankers.  These people, who were happily munching their grissini breadsticks, actually looked and acted Turinese.  Because they really were the locals, the neighbors.

These house-parties were the crucial dress-rehearsals for “Museo Jasmina.”  They were informal gatherings, but the little public munching their chow was enthusiastic.  Clearly it seemed refreshing, even cathartic for these Turinese influencer-types to find themselves inside a local “house” which is a former car factory-space full of Maker furniture and implausible 3DPrinted gizmos.  They had plenty of opinions to share about everything they saw around them. As a plus, they were truly socializing rather than just social-networking.

The Turinese are a cautious and somber lot.  But as the prosecco flowed, you could witness them getting into their situation, house of the future style.    They left, well-fed, pleased with themselves and with a larger sense of their town’s potential.  Everybody felt validated.

They were nice parties.  When we bade Samantha and Paola a fond farewell, we felt perky about our prospects.   Then came hard word of physically changing the space —   from casa to museo.

That was laborious.   If you choose to do a public event inside a space of your own, I would strongly suggest finding event designers.  When you yourself are at home in a space, and you have an established, comfortable routine in there, it’s hard to see it with an objective eye.

Share Festival has done thirteen Share events in Torino, so we backed away, put our hands over our eyes and ears and let them have at it.    They tore into Casa Jasmina with a will.  They installed new public-friendly lighting.  They removed all the doors from their hinges and hauled them out of the way.  They repainted the walls and re-designed the terrace.  They  bored holes in the ceilings and installed media projectors.  They even built fake walls in the bedroom and kitchen to hide the art machinery.

They moved the furniture to facilitate the flow of foot-traffic, and they put proper signage everywhere to guide people through the doors and up and down the stairs.  Since some of them are trained architects, they even did all this according to city code.

For the Casa Jasmina staffers — the “jasmini” — this “improvement” was well-nigh traumatic.   However, it was the right thing to do.  The public has legitimate needs and interests.  The public deserves respect from activists.  The public should not be dismissed or demeaned as newbies, intruders, the masses, the great unwashed, freeloaders, takers, the proletariate.  Those are insults.  The public aren’t “users” or “customers,” but they are an entity that fully deserves designed attention.

Our network-society tends to aggressively design “at” the public rather than “for” the public.   This is problematic,  because we’re all “the public” sometime or somewhere, and therefore we’re basically working to hamper and damage ourselves.

The public doesn’t need endless striped barriers,  strident warning signs, nagware scoldings, security vidcams and screechy, unappeasable, algorithmic IoT alarm systems.    The public already has plenty of paranoid smart-city War on Terror hassle on its back.  The public needs more sympathetic attention nowadays.  Even an individual person can give it at least some.

With our “House Guests” theme, Share Festival was more kindly and hospitable than usual in 2016.   As an Italian cyberculture event, Share Festival rather prides itself on sarcastic network-politics interventions and big, motor-driven works of awesome device-art than can easily kill you.  Share tends to go for the weird, subversive and brainy, and  when we chose to seclude Share Festival from the general Turinese art public by entering Via Egeo, we became  more obscure rather than less.

Our Share Festival regulars and loyalists took the trouble to seek us out in Via Egeo.   The artists also enjoyed the unusual venue, where they could hang out on the living-room couch paging through art books, sipping wine and eating excellent Piedmontese sausage.   However, we were well outside the normal venues of the usual Turin museum system. We got no walk-ins by the usual foreign tourists, who rarely dream of venturing outside Turin’s downtown cappucino-and-gelato zone.

So we had a few lonely moments — but Via Egeo is also the headquarters of the Torino Mini Maker Faire.  On the last day of our event a huge swarm of Makers showed up, fabbers, Turinese steampunks, coders, students, kids, grannies, whomever.  Our attendance skyrocketed.  We made a lot of new friends.

For Share Festival as a cultural event, the daring decision to cram a museum into a house was a qualified success.  I doubt Share Festival will try that stunt again soon, but they can rightly brag that they pulled it off.

I won’t say much about the Share Festival artworks here, except to remark that the Share Prize winner for 2016 was Christoph Laimer with his Swiss, 3DPrinted, Tourbillon clock.  This bizarre yet artful open-source gizmo really compelled the interest of the engineer-astronaut and the design curator.  Christoph deserved his victory.

The “House Guests” edition of Share Festival also featured one especial “house guest,” which was “Seditionart.com.”   Seditionart is a commercial gallery which is a marketing platform for digital media-art.  Basically, SeditionArt are a website declaring themselves to be a “gallery,” in much the bold way that Casa Jasmina is a post-industrial networked space that declares itself to be a “house.”

SeditionArt are a London-based “gallery” with 50,000 patrons while we are a Turinese “house” with a swarm of Makers, but we share many similar design problems.

To list a few of our issues:   we both have odd divisions between public and private, ownership issues with digital works, weirdly diffuse identities as lab/house/museum and gallery/website/art-market, the home ownership and home display of “artworks” that actually originate in Internet clouds…  At Casa Jasmina we’re grateful for the bold example, and really, the leadership of SeditionArt.  If they ever resolve their problems we can probably resolve a lot of ours.  In the meantime we’re happy to declare that we are a “house” where works of “SeditionArt” have a home.

So that concludes the saga of “Museo Jasmina,” an effort that we had to undertake in order to prove that we could.  We did it, and it’s over now, thank goodness.  It was hard work.  Except for building and furnishing the house itself — “Museo Jasmina” was the largest project that Casa Jasmina has yet carried out.

Onward!

 

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