If you’re trying to discern the direction of the wind, these headless chickens won’t be much help. They will, however, tell you how much the people of Folkestone, England, have to fear at any given moment. Instead of responding to gusts of air, these weather vanes are driven by troubling news.
The Whithervanes are part of the Folkestone Triennal, and until November 2 they’re decorating the rooftops of a pub, a restaurant, an education center, a theater, and a Napoleonic-era lookout tower. Each roof rooster is powered by a Raspberry Pi computer. Cézanne Charles and John Marshall, who masterminded Whithervanes and together comprise design studio Rootoftwo, programmed the Pis to parse Reuters news reports from around the world. The vanes read the location of a report and spin in the opposite direction of those GPS coordinates, as if the news is a gust of wind.
Each rooster also can respond the severity of the threat based on keywords the Department of Homeland Security uses to monitor social media for terrorist threats, and additional keywords that came up during workshops Roofoftwo held with Folkestone residents (they came up with words like race riots, gastro-tourists, unemployment, and dog poo). To create a customized threat level, the Pis consider demographic information, gleaned from census data, about each specific neighborhood’s cultural values. As Reuters stories come in, it spins one to five times, based upon the severity of the threat, and lights up from green (the least threatening) to red (Danger!). Each one always will be slightly different than the other four.
To back up a bit: Folkestone’s municipal identity is heavily defined by its geography. The port town is where the Eurostar from Paris first enters the United Kingdom, so “it’s right on the edge to what people would consider Europe,” Charles says. “It’s the first point of call for people migrating and was a strategic place since the Napoleonic area, and for World War I and World War II.” That sense of duality—a town always on the cusp—inspired the Triennal curator to recruit work based on the theme “Look Out,” playing with the idea of looking out onto a horizon.
The curator reached out to Detroit’s Roofoftwo duo. They’d been sitting on the idea for Whithervanes since 2010, because working in the Midwest brought them face to face with the burgeoning neo-agriculture movement, and because “our starting point is usually things that annoy us,” Marshall says. “Particularly the right wing news media and the blatant lies and feeling disempowered to do anything about that.”
They wanted to build an installation that would give people agency over how the news affects their community, so they added another layer to Whithervanes: by signing onto the project’s site, people in the neighborhood can view the current news item in big, bold type, and then tweet at their local chicken saying either, “#keepcalm” or “#skyfalling.” That collective input will increase or decrease the threat level of the nearest roof chicken. “If you think about if a human being blew at it, it wouldn’t move, but if 22 people blew at a weathervane they’ve definitely got enough force to move it,” Charles says. “They’ve created a localized weather. We wanted people to create a localized weathervane.” Once they’ve tweeted, users can also watch a real time animation of all five chickens.
In this way too, fear—and what incites fear—gets visualized. The founders believe that by touring the public art project, or even just walking from the east to west side of town, people will become aware of this when they notice how neighborhoods respond to threat alerts differently. Neighborhoods with a larger retired demographic will surely see things differently than the more bohemian areas, or the blocks with higher percentages of immigrant families. “You see this ebb and flow sequence of the news, and see that in a way the news is constructed,” Marshall says. “We choose our own news and we choose what network to pay attention to. We listen to the news we want to hear. That’s an echo chamber effect where you get constantly reinforced.”
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