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?
This week’s find. An interactive art installation about ocean plastics and bodies. You wave at this waste, and it waves back. Can a reflection of our bodies in floating waste plastic make us feel like we’re turning into plastic? How does this work? Discuss.
‘When plastic material sits in our ocean for long enough it starts to degrade into nano plastics, a type of microplastic material that can traverse cell walls into fat and muscle tissue. This is a dynamic that Dutch designer Thijs Biersteker recently explored in his latest installation Plastic Reflectic, an interactive mirror that uses motion tracking technology to turn the spectator’s reflection into a silhouette made from hundreds pieces of real trash. “Turning us…slowly into plastic,” the artist explains’ (Ainley 2016 np).
How it works
‘Plastic Reflectic is an installation equipped with an interactive mirror that uses motion tracking technology to transform spectators’ reflections into silhouettes made of plastic trash. To make these silhouettes, Biersteker’s installation is comprised of a horizontal pixel grid housed with 601 real pieces of plastic trash, which move via 601 mini waterproof engines hidden beneath a pool of black biobased water’ (Waste360 Staff 2016 np).
Find out more on the Plastic Reflectic website.
Greenpeace convincingly argue why it’s important to own a metal spoon and to wash it.
Our latest guest blog is by Joe Thorogood, a former student in the ‘Geographies of material culture’ module at Exeter University who is in the early stages of a ‘follow the things’ PhD in the Department of Geography at University College London. His research is on poppies. In the post below, he outlines what he’s found out so far about the Remembrance Day variety. As usual with following research, you may be surprised by what he finds.
The Remembrance poppy is a symbol of memorial. In the couple of weeks before November 11th – Remembrance Day – these poppies are available in exchange for a charitable donation to the Royal British Legion, a UK charity that provides services for ex-military personnel and their dependents. It is worn in the UK in memory of service personnel who died in the First World War and in wars since then. It’s a symbol for personal grief and reflection, but also of national loss. Many countries have poppies shipped out to expatriates and families who have relatives who fought on behalf of the British Empire and British army in campaigns abroad.
I’m researching Remembrance poppies for my PhD, using a methodology that studies the lives and issues that are connected through their travels and transformations as things.
It wasn’t hard to find out about how and where Remembrance poppies are made. You could do it yourself by simply visiting the Poppy Factory in Richmond, Surrey, where they make about 500,000 of the poppies the public wear. Ex-service personnel and their dependents are crucial to this effort, as they often work in the factory or are supported by factory to find employment after leaving the armed forces. Continue reading
Greenpeace & Lego
Greenpeace want Lego to end its links with Shell, and are currently campaigning through the medium of imaginative Lego re-creation. This video is one of a number of examples, whose aim is to encourage people to sign this petition. In the wake of the hugely successful Lego Movie (whose stars make a cameo appearance) this campaign is becoming perhaps the most lavish and high-profile example of Lego activism to date.
followthethings.com & Lego
On a much smaller budget, we’ve been making, photographing and posting online re-creations in Lego of (imagined) scenes from trade justice films, art and activism for a while now. See, for example, our recreations from and around the BBC Panorama documentary ‘Primark on the rack’. Continue reading