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Case Study: Spectropolis, New York

In September 2003 and October 2004, NYCwireless produced Spectropolis. This event celebrated the availability of open wireless (Wi-Fi) networks in Lower Manhattan and explored their implications for art, community, and shared space. Spectropolis is the world's first wireless arts festival, and was envisioned as a way to bring the techno-centric nature of Wi-Fi into a more accessible form. The idea was to create a way for average residents and visitors to New York to "see" and "feel" the wireless signals that permeate the city (especially the free Wi-Fi that NYCwireless provides in many city parks) that are otherwise invisible.

The idea for Spectropolis came from a series of discussions in the winter of 2003 between Dana Spiegel, then a member-at-large for NYCwireless, and Brooke Singer, an independent New Media artist and associate professor at SUNY Purchase.

Spectropolis took place at City Hall Park, a well-known free wireless hotspot in New York City, New York. The festival featured works of art from 12 international artists. Each art piece integrated and made use of one or more forms of wireless technology, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Radio, GPS, and others. Each piece was intended to explore how wireless technologies affect our everyday urban experiences. The pieces were exhibited outdoors in the park for three days, and the artists were out exhibiting artwork and explaining their work to park visitors.

In addition to the works of art, Spectropolis offered five workshops and three panel discussions. The workshops offered an up-close look at wireless communication technologies and an opportunity for hands-on play and participation. The workshops aimed to educate both the technical and non-technical public and demystify a range of technologies through engaging presentations.

The panels explored the larger scale implications of wireless technologies for society, public policy, activism, and art. Each panel focussed on a particular area of influence for wireless technology, with commentary by a number of recognized leaders.

An outdoor park/public space was chosen for the event primarily because this location provided a way to both attract a large number of attendees as well as situate the event in a space that many people pass through both during the workday and on the weekend. One of the goals of the event was to reach out to local residents and people who wouldn't otherwise attend a technology-centric event. During the time that Spectropolis was in City Hall Park, thousands of people came through the park each day, and many stopped to look at one or more artworks.

From a visibility point of view, holding Spectropolis in an outdoor public space was important, and the foot traffic around the area definitely resulted in attracting a number of people into the park who would otherwise not have come to the event. In addition, New York City has a long history of outdoor public art, however this art is almost entirely sculptural in form, and meant to participate in the landscape but not really be interactive. Bringing highly interactive new media art from a museum or gallery into an outdoor public space created discordance with people's expectations.

Why Spectropolis is important

Spectropolis is an attempt to give wireless technology and Wi-Fi in particular a life beyond email and websurfing. The interactive works of art showcased at Spectropolis are engaging beyond the “work-use” that is associated with Wi-Fi by the general public. By introducing wireless technologies via “play” and “exploration”, Spectropolis removes much of the fear that people have about new technologies, and enables people to consider the larger implications of wireless technologies and their lives without getting caught up in the “how” of the technology itself.

Spectropolis is a unique event because it focuses on the social impact of wireless technologies, as opposed to the technologies themselves. The vast majority of people are either scared by raw technology (this is common in adults more than children) or are merely disinterested. While Wi-Fi and cellular technologies have made significant inroads into general society, they have done so by riding on the coat-tails of two well established social activities: talking on the phone and accessing the Internet (email, web, IM, etc.)

In addition, Spectropolis puts a face on the ethereal nature of wireless signals. That Wi-Fi is available in a park may be indicated by signs and stickers on windows, but creating a tangible artifact in the form of works of art drives this concept home in the same way that benches, trees, and grass showcase the public amenities that a park provides. Wi-Fi in public spaces isn't a gated community, but rather a public resource that can be shared and appreciated by all just like the shade of a large tree.

Participating organizations

NYCwireless, through Dana Spiegel, took on the role of producing Spectropolis. NYCwireless is a non-profit organization that advocates and enables the growth of free, public wireless Internet access in New York City and surrounding areas. NYCwireless, founded in 2001, is an all-volunteer organization with seven board members, five special interest working groups and approximately sixty active members.

NYCwireless partnered with other local organizations and prominent individuals from the New York Arts community who volunteered their time to help curate and produce the event. Spectropolis was sponsored by the Alliance for Downtown New York (DTA), a Business Improvement District (BID) company. The DTA also sponsors a number of free, public, wireless hotspots in downtown New York, including the hotspot at City Hall Park, where Spectropolis was held. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), an arts funding and promotion organization, sponsored the curation of Spectropolis. LMCC hosted a number of meetings and oversaw the process of inviting and evaluating artists and their works in preparation of the event. In addition, a number of individuals contributed a significant amount of time to Spectropolis: Wayne Ashley (Curator, LMCC), Yury Gitman (Curator), Jordan Silbert (Producer), and Jordan Schuster (Producer)

Community Reception

The local community received Spectropolis quite well. The primary groups of people who attended the event were: wireless researchers, wireless proponents, artists, and the general public.

Leading up to the event, we reached out to the local artist and local university communities to generate interest. We received a large number of email inquiries from people both locally and around the continent (primarily US and Canada) about attending the event. Some wireless enthusiasts even traveled from Europe in order to attend. The local university community was particularly interested, with students from NYU, SUNY, New School, Parsons, and other nearby schools attending. During the event we even had a few people bring their own projects to the park and set them up.

We also sent out a press release to local media outlets and websites to inform the general NYC community about the event. While we weren't contacted prior to the event by anyone from the general public, there were some people from this group who signed up for our workshops and our panels who had not ever handled wireless equipment. Primarily, local residents and visitors just showed up to the event to experience the artwork. We had thousands of people each day come through the park and experience at least a few of the works.

In addition to the art, we had a number of people ask questions about wireless technology in general, and public Wi-Fi in specific. Many of these people were directed to the NYCwireless information booth that was set up in the middle of the park. A number did speak directly to the artists (we had expected this, and this was one of the reasons why we wanted artists to show their own work) about the works they created, and ask about how they worked and why the artist created the work.

For a number of attendees, Spectropolis was the first time they experienced Wi-Fi as something more than just an Internet technology. Many were surprised that wireless technologies could be more than just a cell phone call or a web page in a cafe, and they were pleased to get a better grasp on the alternative uses for Wi-Fi that the art works explored. In some instances, the relationship between wireless signals and the works of art were hidden and obscure--such as Akitsugu Maebayashi's Sonic Interface. In other works, like Upper Air by the DSP Music Syndicate, the art was designed to support the existence of the wireless technology, and the piece explored the the technology's relationship to both the viewer and the art.

Some pieces, such as Jabberwocky by Eric John Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman, made use of the technology to explore social relationships in urban environments. These works were important and meaningful because they related wireless technology to something that is clearly a human experience, such as seeing familiar strangers in a crowd. In Jabberwocky in particular, the viewer is forced to see also the limits of the wireless technology, and make use of human abilities to fill in the gaps.

GPS drawings, a workshop held by Jeremy Wood, extended the notion of humans + technology equaling something greater than the sum of its parts. Wood actually led groups of people around parts of downtown New York City to create large scale drawings out of their movements. This artwork personalized the experience of wireless technologies more than any other project.

All of the projects forced people to re-evaluate their relationships with their technologies. More than just seeing public spectrum and wireless networks in a new light, Spectropolis caused people to think about how these technologies enrich and permeate their lives. In speaking with artists after the event, all of them were surprised by how engaged people were. People who interacted with the artworks had a better understanding of the otherwise ephemeral nature of wireless signals. For visitors to the event, Spectropolis made abstract concepts of spectrum and public wireless much more concrete, and gave them a way to understand these concepts in a way that merely using a cell phone or Wi-Fi laptop could not, and in this way, Spectropolis was a complete success.


Spectropolis featured the following projects and artists:

  • WiFi Ephemera Cache by Julian Bleecker,
  • UMBRELLA.net by Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Katherine Moriwaki
  • Microrardio Sound Walk by free103point9 Transmission Artists
  • Urballoon by Carlos J. Gomez de Llarena
  • Bikes Against Bush by Joshua Kinberg
  • InterUrban by Jeff Knowlton and Naomi Spellman
  • Hotspot Bloom by Karen Lee
  • Sonic Interface by Akitsugu Maebayashi
  • Jabberwocky by Eric John Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman
  • Upper Air by The DSP Music Syndicate
  • Twenty-Four Dollar Island by Trebor Scholz
  • Text Messaging Service and Following 'The Man of the Crowd' by Dodgeball + Glowlab


The planning for Spectropolis began about one year prior to the event. At the outset, representatives from NYCwireless, LMCC, and DTA, as well as the producers and curators, met on a monthly basis to establish the plan and execute the event. The cost of producing Spectropolis was about $11,000 USD.

More information can be found on the Spectropolis 2004 website at www.spectropolis.info and at my Wireless Community blog at www.wirelesscommunity.info/spectropolis.

'Dana Spiegel

Last Update: 2007-01-25