Wire-Tapping the Ruins of Pompeii

[Image: Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, steps forth into the ruins of the "extinct city" of Pompeii; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

The ruins of Pompeii are being wired-up by a company otherwise known for its work as a manufacturer of military drones and "electronic warfare equipment," Phys.org reports. Finmeccanica, the "Italian aerospace and defense giant," has been contracted to install a high-tech sensor network amongst the barely stabilized walls and streets of this city once buried by a volcanic eruption nearly 2,000 years ago, in the hopes of monitoring unstable ground conditions on the sites.

Slippage and instability threaten to bring some of the buildings down, not just putting the site's UNESCO-designated mansions at risk but potentially injuring (or worse) its annual hordes of international visitors.

[Image: General view of Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

In Phys.org's words, the sensors are being installed "to assess 'risks of hydrogeological instability' at the sprawling site, boost security and test the solidity of structures, as well as set up an early warning system to flag up possible collapses."

The results are a bit like electronic eavesdropping—a kind of NSA of the ruins—only, instead of wire-tapping a single phone line, the entire city of Pompeii will be listened to from within, hooked up from one side to the other with equipment so sensitive it is normally used in waging "electronic warfare."

[Image: The Street of Tombs, Pompeii; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

The data will eventually be made available online for all to analyze, but it is interesting to read of a more immediate use of the sensors' findings: Pompeii's "security guards will be supplied with special radio equipment as well as smartphone apps to improve communication that can pinpoint their position and the type of intervention required."

In other words, guards will receive electronic updates from the city itself while out on their daily rounds, including automated pings and alerts of impending structural failure or deformations of the ground, like some weird, semi-militarized version of ambient music, as if listening to the real-time groans of a settling city by radio.

Wire-tapping the ruins of a dead city, this mesh of electronic equipment—normally used in military surveillance operations—will thus help to preserve the archaeological site for future generations.

[Image: Fortuna Street, Pompeii; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

Like something out of Douglas Kahn's recent book about the history of terrestrial electromagnetism and audio art, the old crumbling columns and shattered walls of Pompeii will soon find a new voice through repurposed military equipment, a weaponized seance performed on the empty streets of a place that's more tomb than city.

[Image: The Forum, Pompeii; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

The possibilities for interactive apps and other touristic experiences are also mind-boggling here: imagine, at the very least, being able to walk into the center of Pompeii totally alone, with nothing but your phone and some earbuds, tuning into real-time broadcasts of the shuddering masonry all around you, a wireless archaeological orchestra of bleached monuments in the sun, listening from within to the sounds of the ancient city.

Distant HAM radio enthusiasts, tuning in from attics in Indiana, spin the dial every Saturday night hoping to find Pompeii, a destroyed city on the other side of the world with its own location in the ether, whistling and purring as its architecture falls apart, room by room, a catacomb of sound and destruction.

(An earlier, different version of this post first appeared on Gizmodo).

Romanticism of the Scanning Error

[Image: ScanLAB Projects].

(A different version of this post previously appeared on Gizmodo).

Matthew Shaw and William Trossell, the London-based duo known as ScanLAB Projects, continue to push the envelope of laser-scanning technology, producing visually stunning and conceptually intricate work that falls somewhere between art and practical surveying.

Their work also bears an unexpected yet increasingly pronounced political dimension, as they have scanned concentration camp sites, designed insurgent objects for thwarting police laser scanners, and even point-mapped melting ice floes in the Arctic as part of a larger study of climate change. The results are astonishingly, almost hypnotically detailed, as in this cinematic fly-through of an outdoor festival, where we pass through tent walls and very nearly see recognizable expressions on participants' faces. It's as if the future of the motion picture might really be narrative holograms.

Last week, Shaw and Trossell premiered a new project at London's Surface Gallery, exploring where laser scanners glitch, skip, artifact, and scatter. Called Noise: Error in the Void, the show utilizes scanning data taken from two locations in Berlin, but—as the show's title implies—it actually foregrounds all the errors, where the equipment went wrong: a world of "mistaken measurements, confused surfaces and misplaced three-dimensional reflections."

The tics and hiccups of a scanner gone off the mark thus result in these oddly beautiful, almost Romantic depictions of the world, like some lunatic, lo-fi cosmology filtered through machines.

Frozen datascapes appear like digital mist settling down over empty fields—or perhaps they're parking lots—a virtual Antarctica appearing in the middle of the city.

[Image: ScanLAB Projects].

Huge domes of white light burn like spherical flames above a central point that remains both mysterious and unidentified, resembling the halos of nuclear explosions or the birth of stars.

[Image: ScanLAB Projects].

Spectacular bursts of color then suggest the presence of some new stratosphere, where black airplanes roam the edge of space and clouds are nothing but processing errors in a blurred celestial rendering. Perhaps we could call it expressionist scanning.

[Image: ScanLAB Projects].

In Shaw's and Trossell's own words, "Using terrestrial LIDAR technology it is now possible to capture the world in three dimensions. This technology can create near perfect digital 3D replicas of buildings, landscapes, objects and events. But these digital replicas are always an illusion of perfection. Noise: Error in the Void explores the inherent mistakes made by modern technologies of vision. Here we see the unedited view of the world as seen through the eyes of the LIDAR machine. Reality is shrouded in a cloud of mistaken measurements, confused surfaces and misplaced three-dimensional reflections."

A short film—more like a dark ambient music video—shows some of the images in action.

In all honesty, many of the images are colored in a way that looks a bit more like a Pink Floyd laser show than the almost melancholy landscapes I like so much above, and I even made a few of these greyscale to see if, stripped of color, they could still repeat the lonely, wanderer-above-a-sea-of-fog feeling that the other images have, the benthic void of miscalculated data that nonetheless results in new worlds. But then I figured I shouldn't mess with ScanLAB's work and I left them as is.

[Images: ScanLAB Projects].

But, even here, blinded by the colors of a rave, throbbing architectural shapes rotate and spin, as if parts of London are stuttering in and out of sync with themselves, a whole city rumbling through a shockwave of digital reverb, blinking gyroscopically out of control.

[Images: ScanLAB Projects].

If you're lucky enough to be in London in the next few weeks, check out their exhibition at Surface Gallery—and, even better, if you're an architecture student, you can actually take a class with these guys. Check out their teaching work here.

(Read an earlier version of this post at Gizmodo).