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Squatting Supermarkets

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Buying, wearing, eating, using. Our lives are full of objects of which we know very little about.

Shop’s and supermarket’s shelves only tell partial stories made from companies, efficient productions, happy farmworkers laying down coffee boxes on trucks with the logo of Nestlè, solar panels amidst fields and atop the roofs of factories who seem to have really stopped vomiting their foul toxic wastes in rivers and air, replacing them with new by-products of production that smell like straw and wheat.

All this happens if we look in one direction. And if we look in the other we see the aisles of the supermarkets spreading messages telling the tale of happy families (politically correct ones: a man, a woman, possibly mixing races and continents, with children, with the only possible alternative to be found in the images of career boys&girls, replacing family with business and fitness) buying things using credit cards, placing sincere trust in the ear of wheat almost protruding from the box of the product X that they throw into their shopping cart. Just as they trust the words biological, sustainable, ecologic showing up in products of all kinds.

Great commercial distribution points take narratives to an architectural level, designing our experiences up to the deepest levels of detail: the sequence of racks, shelves, themes, suggestions, colors, turns, tight spots; the reassuring sound announcing incredibly special offers; social, ecologic and economic themes, by which all bread is that of the old times, every shampoo has low ecologic impact, every automobile reduces polluting emissions, and any pack of coffee is produced by locals living on cheerful mountains upon which everyone peacefully smiles.

Visions that are partial, designed, mono-directional. Not all of the time. We must say that: luckily we can choose among many producers that have made the transition towards sustainability, ecology and the respect of diversities and of fragile populations. What we need to state is that for everything concerning these issues the possibility to access knowledge and information is an element of primary importance.

Art and creativity often confronted these points of view. The Supermarché Ferraille comes to mind with their improvised store displays, their surreal advertisements, their distorted products. Or the AdBusters, their subversive and detourned communication campaigns. Or the performances by Banksy, National Cynical Network.Or, in Italy, the ones by Candida TV, Serpica Naro, Anna Adamolo, Luther Blissett, Liens Invisibles. (… and loads of others. So much that it would be truly interesting to list and map all f the actions of this kind)

Squatting Supermarkets combines several platforms: iSee, an iPhone application used to create information and communication systems localized on logos and symbols; Ubiquitous Publishing, a set of open technologies that can be used to create location and architecture based contents, accessible directly from the places tht we walk through by using mobile phones and devices, together with simple, affordable augmented reality techniques; architettura rel:attiva, DpSdC and OneAvatar, a series of technological platforms that connect bodies and architectures to the internet and to virtual worlds.


Turning the corner of the aisle. Cold. Frozen products. Sounds of shopping carts, bottles, plastics, bags, cardboard, rolling pasta and cereals. Light completely white. Reds disappear or flatten completely, leaving out the reflections on the shiny plastic of serial packages of standard food items wih geometrically acceptable shapes.

Cold and words, in front and behind. Requests for information, calls to other aisles, requests for consensus, children getting lost.

A small accident takes place behind me, just as I lift a package taken randomly among others: two shopping carts collide, pouring out cardboard boxes, synthetic fibers holding together oranges that look all the same, bottles labeled in geometrically psichoactive ways. The fast bureaucracy of the accident ends and everything orderly starts back up : people start following their directional vectors, dictated bi habit and special offers.
I grab the pack back up, simultaneously extracting a smartphone from my pocket: a rapid automatic swipe of my thumb on the touchscreen unblocks it.

Colored icons in one hand, a cold, wobbly package in the other. I run through the icons, finding one with an eye insistently staring back at me, white on black. I activate the application and immediatly frame the package in the viewfinder: red, white, blu contour, thick typeface, readable. A short wait: “Product recognized: XYZ”. Options on the screen “Available information: ecological footprint, social responsibility and sustainability, alternative products. Or you can access the public discussion”.

Two goals.

On one side, to systematyze practices and technologies, creating an open framework that can be used and evolved to instantiate augmented reality (or, berret, Virtual NeoRealist) spaces, connecting bodies and information, implementing accessible, relational and natural interaction schemes.

On the other side, to act, starting multi-author, diffused, emergent narratives.


8 years, 7 months ago

This project has a great performative matrix that can playfully add to a more general cognitive mapping of database politics. Not so much what the information received-but instead why one must start with a gesture that focuses on the "politics of the question." iSee is about the question, the process of the question machine (app), and what relations can be made between product and consumer-beyond good and bad consumption.

Project details

Author(s):Salvatore, Oriana, Luca, Federico, Cary




How does project benefit the client (if there is a client)?
A narrative layer was added to ordinary reality in all of these actions, creating liberated spaces, free for personal interpretation. Fakes, detournments, distorsion, surealism and noise become tools that can be used to create opportunity for information, reflection and involvement for bodies and subjectivities that finally become aware of the naked king, with a laugh or with a sincere astonishment, opening up to the possibilities offered by doubt, discussion and the sharing of information, dialogue, knowledge and experience.

How does project benefit the people you are speaking to with your communication?
Squat! What/Where/When/Why. We live in a world that is filled with codes, images and symbols that power dresses in meanings, visions, expectations, desires, politics, strategies. Power owns codes, languages and practices, aiming to extend control and to provide people with packaged interpretations, boxed desires, synthetic ethics, and plastic ambitions. Turning from menace to ex-menace, digital technologies and communications are being transformed into further space fr codification. Creating new public spaces, limiting private ones, defining access policies by offering services and infrastructures. And, most of all, formalizing acceptable critical practices: from call centers to twitter: “stop speaking to operator 428! From now you can speak directly to our CEO! You have 140 characters for it! Think about it, he even answers….”

How does project benefit the wider society?
Reality++ We can add elements to reality. And interpret others. Mobile technologies, SPIMES, computer vision techniques allow creating connections between physical and information worlds. These techniques have been used in the past by commercial and military industries, and allow taking information directly onto bodies, objects and architectural spaces. Pattern and image recognition, augmented reality, GPS, sensors, smart tags can be used to tag things and places, creating bridges with the data and communications we want to associate to them. Through ubiquitous applications implemented on mobile phones and devices we can have experience of these connections, we can see them through these devices, creating new sensorialities, new added senses that are not sensible to light, sounds or tastes, but to information, communication, correlation. It is possible to write in space, above it, creating a new context that coexists with the ordinary world. Living outside of any control, due to its immateriality. I can write anywhere, read anywhere. I can reclaim the buildings of power. I can criticize the places of commerce. I can whisper in urban spaces, directly to the ears of the people. I can scream in places that I am not allowed to enter.

How did/does this project benefit author (authors/makers of the project)?
Critique must move on. Changing languages, places, methodologies, practices. It must go back into space, bodies, objects, inside architectures, along the paths that we walk along in our daily lives. It must disseminate codes and symbols, touching visceral, behavoural and reflexive domains. Fortunately, the world cannot just be reduced into rigid and predefined codes, and there will always be spaces, cracks, interstices between a code and the other. It has been true with architecture, in the buildings of abandoned industries. Psychologically, with the TAZ. Physically, with squats, raves, occupations. And in contents, with subvertising, detournements, surrealism, fakes. Action must take place in between the codes and create signs, words, shapes, flows. Recontextualizing everything, superimposing meanings, interpretations and spaces to add further ones, out of control. Losing the desire to establish dialogic dynamics with power, and speaking over, beside and below it. Technology offers opportunities to generalize squatting approaches, making them accessible and diffused. To adopt squat as a methodology: identifying un-coded spaces, make them accessible, use them as a communication, action and expression platform.

Tell us something about your view on communication. What is your / your organisation's / initiative's (visual) communication philosophy?
Observing corporations is truly interesting. A brand that can afford to avoid curating its network presence and reputation does not exist anymore, internationally. Digital reputation and presence builders and curators. Creators of non conventional communication campaigns. Crowdsourcers, viral marketers, SEOs, product placers, aggregators, creators of false crowds of digital workers disguising themselves as ordinary digital people infiltrating social graphs, discussion forums, streams, feeds, twits, disseminating messages and suggestions. These are becoming common practices for large economic and political organizations and are already well established as tools that can be used to obtain strategic margin in the battles for communication and marketing among the large and not-so-large. Scandals born on the web and transforms on the web in promotion and profit. Theatrical pieces digitally hosted on user generated content websites, in which false individuals (or even real ones… what is the difference?) expressing false claims about true companies using fake videos, followed by real denials, fake facts, false promises and changes in attitude by real corporations. Corporations constantly use the practices of adoption and assumption. The free practices of the internet become a territory for seizure by corporations suddenly becoming promoters and supporters of open licenses, of the freedom of speech and expression for people (users, really), of the possibilities to communicate, participate, share. It is an explosion of twits, posts, comments, competitions, causes and events. It is a dizzy progression of terms passing through to the other side. Corporate managers were once well willing to breaking the legs of anyone having the nerve to commenting on their actions. As of today, corporations provide at least half a dozen digital location in which to relate to them, telling what you think about their work, what colour you would like the next packaging of their product, what hairdo and dress code you appreciate in their managers and, most of all, they ask you to state how much you love the Internet, giving you the possibility of communicating in a oh-so-free way with your favorite corporation. This is obviously only a purely narrative dimension used to operate further control, not to adopt truly open practices. Governance and strategies are never shared, and the web and other digital communication channels become a lounge in which the story of the positivist corporation can be told, a place in which to completely eliminate the possibility for real critique, confined in maximum 140 characters of space. Furthermore, their strongholds are more than granted by the fact that corporations communicate the positivistic and possibilistic philosophies that are typical of their online presence and that are shared with the languages of entrepreneurship. Reinterpreted in a wave of california-ness, they suggest imaginaries that are far from the embraced ones ones, built on control and power. Everything gets encompassed in corporate languages, and stuffed with innovation, change and openness. Nothing changes. What’s up?!? A desperate situation? Yes, a little. Obviously. Corporations can still access capital and resources, even if surrounded by the paradoxes of the continuous global ecosystematic crisis. Attack is systematic, and sees corporations invading cities with technological aperitifs, meetings for creativity, parties for innovation. Centres for creativity are built, and foundations for young entrepreneurs, incubators for the geniuses coming straight out of Twitter. Local administrations and true culture and innovation producers abide, trying and hoping to tap into the resources. They do this even in bona fide , imagining to eventually being able to promote critical or cultural point of view. Nothing of this obviously happens and everything gets facilitated by the languages and processes of the corporation. Young entrepreneurs become incubated, cultural producers become innovators, scientific researchers turn into R&D, philosophers become strategists, anthropologists become market strategists, artists become creatives.. etcetera, etcetera, etcetera It’s the corporate magic: margins drift further apart but with internet they can communicate more.

What about the process of creating this work? Please describe it.
Squatting Supermarkets is a platform. Mental and technological. It is an attitude suggesting the use of several technologies to create added spaces to reality: for critique, expression, action. The idea was born when different paths merged. Some of them were extremely physical, such as the Superfluo,(Superfluous, but also super-fluorescent), a supermarket in Rome we used to go to because its first floor had been squatted with a joyful action built on music, useless things and queer performances, rediscovering human relations and creative and sustainable forms of economy, while on the other floors amazed people went about their regular shopping. Other paths were extremely immaterial, and featured technologies that had been used to reinterpret the web, search engines, information flows offered by governments a social networks. Other ones were designed to invade bodies and minds with new forms of sensation and communication, creating brand new forms of identity , or bringing back old ones, reimagined in the surreal worlds of virtual realities. It is NeoRealismo Virtuale, (NeRVi,Virtual NeoRealism), the creation of digital immaterial spaces superimposed on bodies and architectures. Places for narratives, performance, conscience and knowledge flows. Squatting Supermarkets was first presented at the Piemonte Share Festival, as the special project of the “Market Forces” exhibit, in Turin 3rd – 8th November 2009. A permanent installation and an experiential workshop showed the many faces of the concepts and practices described in Squatting Supermarkets. A narrative line told the backstage story of the market, the life of products, of their producers, their movements, links, aggregations. The objective is to go beyond the view of the world offered by global powers and to tell the other side of the story, made by people, cities, natural environments, energy resources, poverty, richness, differences. Here the three steps of the narration: 1) The Environment. An iPhone is placed so that people can look at a supermarket shelf through its visor. By touching on the screen the products visible on the shelf, visitors can visualize information on their environmental impacts, on the ecologic and social responsibilities of manufacturers, on statistics for global production, assembly, transport. The sounds of the supermarket mix to the voices telling the stories, statistics and information. 2) The Stories. A supermarket shelf comes to life. When people approach the products the sounds, voices and images of their producers animate, creating a relationship with them, telling their stories and the ones of their families, habits, cultures, of the conditions in which they produce those products that ended up being there on the shelves, after traveling thousands of miles. 3) Bodies. After having granted expression to the products, the third part of the installation is dedicated to the expression of people traversing supermarket spaces. The paths, hand movements, sounds of voices and words, of shopping carts, all become a generative video and audio soundtrack.

Anything else you would like to say about this work?
Open and accessible possibilities are available, but we are still hard put to defining or discovering their grammars, practices and strategies. Networks bring with them a series of strategies and practices that potentially allow for reconsideration of several fundamental issues. Creating information in virtuous and collaborative fashion. Producing and disseminating knowledge. Becoming aware of the progressive de-materialization of commodities and taking advantage of it creating new peer to peer production tools and infrastructures. Invading spaces that were untouchable, thanks to ubiquitous technologies, and opening to pluralized, emergent views. Creating spaces for discussion and collaboration everywhere and anytime. Synthesizing intelligence, competence, knowledge and opportunities using technologies in contemporary ways. Moving away from the languages of corporations and technocracies, and bringing back technologies and protocols to destinations that are more human, corporal, physical. Artificial intelligence is not to be found in the monstrous automatic responders that cinema and some science fiction has constantly shown us, but more in the possibility to synthesize content using networks and the possibility to participate to processes and reasoning. Robots move away from those things that try to replicate human behavior, becoming invisible presences integrated into the environment, thought for an artificially-natural use on bodies and relational domains. Interfaces themselves disappear, replaced by gestures, manipulations, traversals, gazes. Technology disappears and becomes a consolidated part of the world, a kind of Third Landscape in which information, communication, digital emotions and sensations stand side by side with spontaneous vegetation growing along the cracks of the concrete blocks, augmenting space and reality. Augmenting reality. Adding spaces for interpretation, expression, critique, using technologies. We are already doing it: on social networks, on blogs, on mobile phones on SPIMEs.

Other projects by the author

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