A researcher, designer, and developer, Kei Kreutler makes work that explores how narratives of technologies shape their actual use and function in the world. She is currently the creative director at Gnosis, a forecasting and information aggregation platform on the Ethereum blockchain. This spring, together with Cosmos, they will also be opening Full Node, a large co-working space for blockchain companies in Berlin—a space for development, discussion, and diversifying the ecosystem across interdisciplinary practices.
Her previous projects, studio work, and research often conjoin a fascination with outer space with a focus on creating networked community spaces. To this end, Kei has developed an initiative for the observation of satellites, spacecraft, and space junk; worked with distributed living and hackerspace communities; and created a number of experimental platforms in conjunction with her research.
In the spring of 2017, Kei participated in the inaugural session of The New Normal, a postgraduate research program at Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow. The New Normal describes itself as a speculative urbanism think-tank that explores the opportunities posed by emerging technologies for interdisciplinary design practices. In the final two months of the program, Kei worked with a small team of New Normal researchers to create Patternist, a location-based platform for urban research and alternative economies. Patternist is simultaneously a narrative-driven augmented reality game in which participants can use their smartphone or computer as a window into a fictional sci-fi world overlaid upon our own.
To discover the world of Patternist, participants move through their local environment to find in-game elements which are generated based on the unique urban conditions of their location. Users can trade these virtual elements with other participants who may have discovered entirely different elements in other real-world locations. As elements are collected and traded across the surface of our own planet, the marks of these transactions merge into “alloys,” which reveal the looming structures of a second, virtual exo-planet. This is Patternist’s “experiential cultivation.”
I spoke with Kei about developing Patternist, her fascination with satellites, and thoughts about using augmented reality for alternative relations.
What led you to working on the Patternist project?
Strelka Institute came onto my radar because of the New Normal Program. With the director and the faculty it seemed like an interesting chance to focus on research and practice. The program was structured so that the first three months were quite fast-paced, working every week with different teams to produce small-scale projects, and the final two months of the program focused on one larger-scale project with a set team. Our final projects were developed in response to a relatively broad brief—thinking through “The Stack” as a framework for cities in the year 2050, as a schematic for urban development.
Patternist emerged from that initial direction. As a group, we took the approach, at first, of thinking through how augmented technologies explicitly tweak our relation to the world, and to the urban landscape in particular. I don’t think there’s always a useful distinction to make between digital technology and more analogue forms, apart from their scale and their flexibility of translation; they intervene and shape our narrative understanding of the world. But I do think there’s an emergent tendency within augmented reality, and especially mobile devices, in that we experience it as an active reality bending—one that we can point to as a tool for explicitly that, despite its ever-more seamless embedding in our lives.
With Patternist, we aimed to develop an overarching narrative—a sci-fi narrative, but also an implicit social practice—through a game-like scenario. So the ideas emerged originally from two multi-layered aims. The narrative aim was inspired by the recent partnership between NASA and Nvidia to produce a 3D model of the Mars landscape for astronauts to train. The storyline emerged from the question, what if you operationalize these virtual models, 1:1, onto our everyday experience? (We’ve since been told to read the Three Body Problem, as it seems to strike at this thread.)
Regarding the other aim of the project, to embed an experimental social practice, I’ve been inspired by several projects grouped, however vaguely, under the term “alternative economies”; one particularly inspiring platform was called Makerfox, developed by Matthias Ansorg. I encountered the Makerfox project around three years ago now through the unMonastery network. The Makerfox platform facilitated a “network barter” system, to organize trades between networks at scale. The platform used a sorting algorithm, so there wouldn’t necessarily be a direct exchange between two people but rather between between multiple. For example, one person is offering a bike, another person is offering computer repairs, and a third person might be offering a botany lesson. The botany lesson goes to the person offering computer repairs, and the computer repair goes to the person offering the bike, given that all values set by participants match accordingly. It facilitates a multi-directional, “networked” trading.
I believe projects like Makerfox developed in response to potential economic crises, of inflation—or say demonetization—that is, effects of currency destabilization in local economies. As in, how do you effectively organize resources when mediating standards of value—standing in for relationships—that may have lost trust or reliability?
I think this is an avenue of thought which we are just beginning to be able to explore in certain ways technically at scale: from crypto to Nick Szabo’s nanobarter, a system which could become more feasible with self-hosted preference data, that companies like Amazon now own and analyze. It was this kind of thinking, asking, ‘how do you organize distribution effectively without a standardized measure of value?’ Makerfox did not reach this point in development, but that question informed much of the intended social relations of Patternist. Except instead of computer repairs or used bikes, it’s fictional, virtual elements you meet with others in the city to trade; it’s trying to experiment with a game, implicitly, as a simulation of unexpected value relations.
Did your experience of Moscow impact how you were thinking about the project?
Living somewhere for six months, one could hardly presume to have an in-depth understanding of the place. On a personal level, much of my experience of the city was based on walking from home to the studio to other meeting places. The pastel of the city center—the scaffolding screens displaying replicas of windows and housing facades—felt like an interesting simulacrum. We were there on the centennial anniversary of the first revolution, and nothing particularly marked the 27th of February.
The idea of having a kind of resource-based barter economy perhaps emerged from being in Russia, a country so large and with such fundamental political and economic changes in the course of just 100 years. The game’s desktop version takes place within a model of the Sofiyskaya Embankment, along the Moskva River. As mentioned earlier, the thinking behind the project is trying to situate relations of value within site-specific contexts.
And then the trade is marked on the location itself?
Yes. The app is currently versioned for different locations, so it doesn’t work universally. This is something we thought about, and perhaps still want to build, but each deployment of the app corresponds to its intended topography. In a fully developed version of the game, there would be crypto-spatial coordinates for each successful trade—a heat map of interesting meeting points.
Do you anticipate people discovering different parts of their natural environment as they play?
Sure, that is one great experiential outcome. As Patternist develops further, I would personally like to incorporate broad ecological and environmental data sources, to bring in ambient and augmented qualities to the experience of gameplay, linked to someone’s current world. I think there’s a certain stagnation of using environmental data in implicit, or less-straightforward, ways.
Questions around climate rewilding need better propaganda. The Whole Earth Catalog is out of print, and it was never the multi-generational touchstone it intended to be. If there’s a WiFi mesh network embedded throughout an endangered forest, who knows, perhaps people may be more likely to protect it. It’s an idea of using what people call technology now to make more explicit the ecology that already exists around us. “Artificial” re-enchantment isn’t a universal solution, but it’s a potential, occasional tactic.
In Patternist, you’d imagine using environmental sensing data both to make explicit our ecology and that of another imagined planet?
Yes. The project opens with a line, “At first we thought it was the weather,” but I’d like to have something that’s a sort of mistranslation of our everyday environment into something sci-fi. And also to think through [Gregory] Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind model, where the steps that you take to perceive your environment are always linear, and in fact it’s a complex environment, so your thought processes to conceive of it will always be slightly misguided. Rather than mapping a climate model onto some linear steps of “I told you so,” it would be doing a more ambient reading.
The way you’re thinking about sensing technologies through Patternist feels reminiscent of some of the work you’ve done with satellites. How would you describe your relationship with them?
I first became interested in satellites as a tool to think through narrative framing of technologies. Satellites are critical infrastructure that support daily operations on personal and global scales.
For PROXIMITY (Distant Early Warning), I took London as the focal point in seeing which satellites passed on a daily basis, and which satellites passed during historical events. I see astrology and horoscopic narrative framing as something that’s socially active in the world, rather than empirically operative, and I see satellites as quite empirically operative while not socially active. I wanted to combine these to create a more accessible starting point for thinking through our infrastructure today. To note, it’s only been in the last 500 years, a relatively short time frame, that there’s been a distinction between astrology and astronomy.
Through that project, I wanted to build something like a wiki of hypothetical fictional satellite constellations, but I realized that, as a research project, it couldn’t be an individual experiment but rather something I’d like to bring to a collaborative space. Then on a whim I launched an idea called Open Space Observatory, which basically just started from a domain name, and imagined how there could be gatherings for satellite observation.When I’m visiting a city for a certain length of time, I try to go to the different astronomy clubs there. They bring out amazing telescopes, gaze at stars and planets, but occasionally someone will be like, “Oh, the International Space Station is passing!”
It’s more difficult to connect with public groups for satellite watching, though there are a fair amount of low-key ones. I’ve been working on doing a public group for satellite watching and satellite observation with a few meetups in Berlin. From the time that I spent in Athens, I then got to know the Libre Space Foundation. They’re a group of about 10 people who built an open source satellite ground station, and in 2014 won a Hackaday prize from which they started the foundation. They built this satellite ground station out of hackerspace.gr in Athens. It’s really incredible—you can build their ground station for less than $400, and there’s an open source platform from which you can retrieve satellite telemetry data. From this project they started a nonprofit foundation for civic space technologies, and just in the last year they launched the first open source CubeSat.
It’s a truly fantastic organization. From their work, you could imagine and prototype a speculative stack of civic space technologies, from the station, with accompanying open source data platforms, to a network of self-sustainable stations for global coverage. We can imagine this speculative stack, but they’re really building it!
I try to support and advocate for such possibilities through Open Space Observatory, looking to transparent infrastructure but also alternative narratives of engagement with “space.” Engagement which appears today as predominantly colonial, upper-class fantasmal—yet ultimately unimaginative—projections. There are many alternatives. Whether it’s Cosmodolphins, the work of Fabi Borges, or the cooperative Moon Village initiative, there are subtler, more radical methodologies that let us dream extraterrestrially without escaping our current ecological bounds.
Do you have any other ideas for projects in mind for augmented reality platforms?
I’m very interested in the intersection of distributed ledger technology and location-based AR, because the potentialities are wide-reaching. Moreso, I see whatever -reality platforms as a critical battleground that we face in the next decades. It’s companies like Facebook that have the resources and user-base to subtly, incrementally roll out these enhancements. The problem may be that the hype for VR and AR passed in the ‘90s, so that however incrementally these interfaces creep into our lives, the response will be equally that of initial spectacle and worn cynicism, so that that they proceed unimpeded. I don’t personally want to live in a Facebook Spaces meeting room, and I’m not sure how many people do. There is something fundamental in perceptible, cultural reality at stake—as there is in many other issues as well. If Snapchat doesn’t become the platform for augmented Otherkin, we’re lost.
Are there any games related to or inspired by Patternist that you’ve been playing recently?
I’ve always found that my favorite games are ones that are slightly broken. There’s a fairly shitty role playing game that I love, and the communication system between yourself and the other Non-Player Characters spawned huge forum threads from unintended consequences.
In the game, it would give you the choices of four sentences you could say, and you’d pick the one that you think would convey the intention that you had, and sometimes the responses you’d receive from NPCs wouldn’t clearly relate to the statement you’d intended at all—taking kindness or offense where you’d intended the opposite. People complained endlessly about this release. I liked the brokenness in the game—it added an element of something not being planned, suggesting you didn’t fully understand the position you were occupying, were speaking from.
It can remind you that you might not be the main character, almost.
Yes. People often say the attraction of games is that they are environments where you can escape to, where you have complete control. I find it’s the opposite: you have hardly any control, but you can experiment endlessly, while the experiential consequences are fully real.