We’ve just returned from the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) annual conference on Exhibition Road in London. We’ve been working with the artist and PhD student Paula Crutchlow (and others) on a project called the Museum of Contemporary Commodities (MoCC). Our museum opened for four days in the RGS’s Pavilion Gallery, and people dropped by on their way between the Royal Albert Hall (for the Proms), Serpentine Gallery (for the Grayson Perry exhibition) and the V&A (for the plywood exhibition). What brought people in from the street was a creepy poster of MoCC’s golden child and hacked talking Guide Mikayla. We thought we’d share with you her moving life story in film – our compilation of her life story from child’s toy to banned surveillance device My Cayla – and biography – Paula’s account of how My Cayla became MoCC Guide Mikayla. There’s plenty more on the MoCC website. How and why would you hack a doll like this though? Read on…
My Cayla: the movie
Mikayla: a hacked biography
“If you took me apart, each bit of me would be a commodity. Each of those things have been made by different people in lots of different places. That’s an awful lot of work isn’t it?” MoCC Guide Mikayla on how she values herself.
The idea of MoCC Guide Mikayla arrived with us in February 2015. A friend of mine had been given a My Friend Cayla doll at a corporate IT event she was working for. ‘I’ve got just the thing for your museum!’ she said. What could be a better face of contemporary commodity culture than an internet connected ‘smart’ doll?
We started the phone app to power her up, and then spent the best part of an hour trying to talk with her. Irritatingly glitchy and slow, we tested inappropriate phrases and talked over her head. She sang songs and offered us games to play. Eventually, with advice from her 16 year old daughter, we bent our thoughts and words to My Friend Cayla’s logic – conducting a halting conversation about clothes, looking nice, Disney Princesses and pink things.
Designed especially for 7 year old girls to access the internet ‘safely’, My Friend Cayla Doll is ostensibly a blue tooth speaker and microphone that works off an app that you download onto your smart phone or tablet. She has a quiet voice, made for intimate chats with children in their homes. There is a structured database of responses to potential questions the designers think a girl-child of around 7 might ask. If your question isn’t in her database, she can search on Wikipedia. She is also scripted to ask children questions about themselves and what they like doing, including their names, parent’s names, where they live, and go to school.
As a level 1 blue tooth device there is no pin code to pair the doll with the phone, and almost immediately after My Friend Cayla was released onto the market, people were hacking her. Like many of the current swathe of internet connected toys, the security around accessing the object is very low. Earlier this year, someone even used her as a way to open a ‘smart’ lock on their front door. The safety aspect of the marketing rhetoric of My Friend Cayla doll refers chiefly to the restricted internet access she enables. This seems to be managed through a long list of banned words that she is not allowed to search for – including ‘buddha’ and ‘gay marriage’.
The prototype, re-purposed MoCC Guide Mikayla had her first outing at our Free Market prototyping event at Furtherfield in July 2015. Technologist Gareth Foote and myself attempted a radical cut and reconfiguration of her original script. We made her self aware. She began to talk about who made her, what she was made from, and how she felt about the condition of almost ubiquitous digital connectivity we increasingly live in. I had a lot of fun dreaming new words for her. Making her differently smart. Ian did research on component parts and their provenance, but I still couldn’t help put in statements about ponies and skateboarding. It was impossible to resist the personality of the object. Her styled eyebrows, long golden locks and open expression, means that the ‘play’ of the world we enter with her is the comedy strategy well-loved by Hollywood, the good looking and intelligent blonde. After all, what could be more surprising?
Good news. On Monday, CEO Ian was awarded the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) ‘Taylor and Francis Award for Excellence in the Promotion and Practice of Teaching and Learning of Geography in Higher Education’. He was nominated for the whole ‘follow the thing’ appreciation of the the social relations of trade and its application across school, university and wider public pedagogies. The ‘et al’ in his name signifies his permanent, heartfelt appreciation of everyone involved in the project over the years, and those who may join it in the future. As he explains:
“I am very happy and humbled to be given this award. My research began in the classroom where I miserably failed to encourage students to be interested in what was happening in other parts of the world. I was desperate to find a way to show how their lives were connected to those of the people and places we were studying. Finding out how some of our things are made, in some of those places, was the answer and that’s how the ‘follow the thing’ idea originated in Kentucky in the late 1980s. Since then, I’ve really enjoyed developing ways to help students follow their own things, to think empathetically about their relations and responsibilities to others in the process, and to play, have fun, make mischief, be activist with their findings. I’ve learned as much as I have taught as we have done this together. I’ve been constantly surprised by what I have learned from the students who have taken my modules and worked as interns on the followthethings.com project. Being ourselves is a massively collaborative effort. I truly appreciate everyone’s contributions.”
This work continues -> next we’re working on our ‘follow the things’ Subvertisement project in Finland with Eeva Kempainnen – researching and adding 10 new pages to our website – running our free Fashion Revolution ‘Who Made My Clothes?’ course that starts on 26th July, and opening the Museum of Contemporary Commodities at the RGS(IBG)’s Pavilion Gallery on London’s Exhibition Road from 24th – 27th August. Please join us.
This week, for the module behind our website, we held an arts and activism symposium at the University of Exeter. One of our speakers was artist Louise Ashcroft, who worked with us on our sister project the Museum of Contemporary Commodities earlier this year (what she made is here). Never have we heard students laugh so hard and be so inspired in an academic classroom. Watch Louise’s TED talk and you’ll see what we mean.
Today is an exciting day in the university module that powers our website. It’s our annual Arts and Activism Symposium, funded and hosted by the Department of Geography at the University of Exeter. Here’s the line-up and some background info on the projects our speakers will be talking about. After this, our students develop their own commodity activist work.
1) Orsola de Castro: watch this
Ian was asked recently to write a short article about the subversive possibilities of digital geographic practice for the journal Justice Spatiale | Spatial Justice and to place followthethings.com in this emerging, absent, who knows what, tradition. It’s just been published.
We noticed that followthethings.com, or anything that seems (to us) to be anything like it, was not being discussed in reviews of digital geographies. So, we imagined the kind of review in which it would be a central example. A review that’s based on already-published literature that’s informed and helped us to make sense of what we’ve made and what we can do with it. A review whose plea for ‘more digital geographies’ is a plea both for more experiments in digital geography, and for experiments that are themselves more digital.
This kind of work more fully lives in and works through the new media ecology of web2.0. followthethings is an example of what this can look like, how it can operate, the kinds of arguments it can make, how it can make those arguments, how it could be assessed, what we could and should write about ‘it’ in academic journals.
Other examples are, of course, available. For us, the Museum of Contemporary Commodities (MoCC) project also fits this bill, in its own unique ways.
See what you think. Click the image to read the full argument.
Thanks to our friends at Paris 7 University for this opportunity to express ourselves.
We’re in our second year of collaboration with Artist and PhD student Paula Crutchlow and whole crew of other people on the Museum of Contemporary Commodities (MoCC) project. In 2015 we had residencies at Furtherfield in London’s Finsbury Park. Watch the video below to see what this led to. Now we’re moving to Exeter, and have a couple of artist commissions to fill. The advert is below. Please consider applying if this is your thing, or pass it to others. Check out our MoCC website for more…
Finsbury Park 2015: MoCC Free Market
Exeter 2016 artist commisions: call for commissions
MoCC is inviting proposals for the commissioning of two dynamic public encounters that explore urgent questions related to the nexus of data-trade-place-values. We are interested in receiving applications for remote interventions as well as Exeter based working processes, and are looking for artists who can demonstrate both a critical engagement with networked processes, and experience of making in a social context. The commissions are co-hosted with Exeter Phoenix, Exeter Library and Devon Fab Lab and have been developed in partnership with Furtherfield. Final art work will be shared as part of the Exeter iteration of MoCC during May 2016, alongside a programme of film screenings, walkshops/workshops and public discussions about potential ethical futures of trade and exchange in late capitalism.
Find out more about the commissions and how to apply HERE