Ben Barker, co-founder of London-based PAN Studio, is bringing “talking lamps” to Austin. But for Barker and his co-founder Sam Hill, the biggest challenge wasn’t giving a lamppost the ability to talk via text message — it was figuring out what it would say.
The premise behind Barker’s project, “Hello Lamp Post,” is simple: Anyone with a cellphone can text the object’s reference code to the project’s phone number — which will go live on the project’s website Thursday. Then the sender waits for them lamppost’s reply, and a conversation is born.
Carrie Brown, the Art in Public Places coordinator who helped bring the project to Austin from its birthplace in Bristol, U.K., said she liked the simplicity of the interaction.
“You don’t need a smartphone, you don’t need to be able to get on the Internet, [and] you don’t need an app,” Brown said. “You just need to be able to send a text message. It’s really easy to engage with the project.”
Brown collaborated with Asa Hursh, executive director of Art Alliance Austin, to bring the project to Austin. Hursh said he admires the tech-centered artistry of the project.
“We were excited about this combination of art and technology and expanding the representation of what art is and can be and what an artist is and what an artist can be,” Hursh said.
Brown and Hursh met the PAN Studio artists when they came to town for last year’s South By Southwest. They worked together to make Austin’s streets come to life.
The idea for the project came from W.G. Sebald’s novel, “Austerlitz,” in which the protagonist learns about himself by exploring the world around him. Barker said this plot element motivated the PAN Studio team to think about how a city connects to its inhabitants and how much people can learn from its streets.
“[The project] paints an image of our environment, the city, as a [guide] about how we got to be the way we are, where we can walk the streets and be reminded of the ingredients,” Barker said. “The project for us is about asking people to think differently about their environment and where the boundaries between citizens and services are.”
“Hello Lamp Post” is more than a conversation between a person and a bench — the objects share stories that other people have told them.
“You approach it as if you’re talking to a lamppost or to inanimate objects,” Hursh said. “But what ends up happening is that it’s a facilitator for conversations among people. It really becomes ‘Hello Austin,’ in a way because it’s about communicating with one another.”
The developers encourage participants to find and “wake up” as many objects as possible. Revisiting the same objects results in different conversations because the personalities change over time. As more people use the platform, the objects have more stories to tell.
The project will run for 10 weeks in Austin, starting with a kickoff event at Republic Square Park on Thursday from 4–6 p.m.
The developers hope to tour it in more cities, such as Tokyo. For now, Barker said he likes Austin because of its similarities to Bristol.
“If there is one city in the U.S. that has a similar feel [to Bristol], it’s Austin,” Barker said. “Much like Bristol, during the development people haven’t questioned the idea of talking to lampposts. They’ve just said, 'When can we start?'"