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Challengin AI and facial recognition at the Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale

21 November 2019

The world’s most visited architecture event, the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture of Hong Kong and Shenzhen (UABB), will be the first exhibition to use Facial Recognition and Artificial Intelligence on its own premises, in order to prompt a critical reflection on how digital technologies are impacting urban life. Set up in Hong Kong’s neighboring city of Shenzhen, the exhibition is called “Eyes of the City” and aims to explore the new urban condition of cities that can “see”. Entirely fabricated locally and interspersed in one of the halls of a high-speed railway station, it features original work by more than 60 acclaimed international exhibitors (more details below). The “Eyes of the City” section is curated by MIT professor Carlo Ratti (Chief Curator), Politecnico di Torino and SCUT (Academic Curators), who will unveil the final selection at the Biennale opening on December 21st, 2019.

“At a time when urban technology and facial recognition are prompting polarization and conflict - from Hong Kong to San Francisco – our exhibition wants to provide a critical reflection,” says Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The “Eyes of the City” installations revolve around the following question: what happens when the sensor-imbued city acquires the ability to see – almost as if it had eyes? The exhibition premises will be in the newly inaugurated Futian high-speed railway station in Shenzhen, connecting Mainland China and Hong Kong in less than 15 minutes. Because of new technologies, stations themselves around the world, as well as other public spaces, are transitioning from spaces of anonymity to spaces of constant data gathering.

“As digital technology increasingly permeates our cities, railway stations are one of the public spaces that are likely to experience the strongest shift,” continues Ratti. “For a long time, stations have been places where one could experience urban anonymity at its highest form. Already today, they are becoming examples of a built environment that is able to recognize and respond to us in real time. In stations as well as in airports, we can already observe what an “Eyes of the City” scenario might look like and start a critical reflection about it.”                             

“We called upon all those practitioners who deal with cities – architects and urban planners but also economists and philosophers – to understand the impact of new technologies on our urban future,” says professor Michele Bonino - Rector's Delegate for Relations with China from Politecnico di Torino. “The ‘Eyes of the City’ exhibition presents a new way to look at ourselves. We are grateful to UABB for giving us the opportunity to explore such themes with honesty and transparency at such a critical moment.” The team from Polito working on the Biennale includes Edoardo Bruno, Valeria Federighi, Camilla Forina and Monica Naso.

“Eyes of the City” will be the first public exhibition to incorporate facial recognition technology on its very premises. Visitors will be facially scanned upon accessing the exhibition through the two info points, designed by leading Dutch practice MVRDV, on opposite ends of the venue. However, unlike all systems deployed in cities all over the world, everything will be based on transparency: cameras will be highlighted throughout the space and visitors who not wish to be recognized will wear a special mark on their face to remain anonymous, signaling their stance to others. “It is vital that we have the ability to opt-out, not only online, but also in the space of the digitally-augmented city,” adds Ratti.

Among the installations that underscore the “Eyes of the City” approach is the work by leading Chinese architect Yung Ho Chang, in which a series of upside-down telescopes invite us to “Look Back” at technology, advocating for a bidirectional relationship between mankind and the digital city: beyond its “Resisting technologies” section, the exhibition path will be divided into a series of sub-clusters devoted to exploring different fields in which the “Eyes of the City” can impact tomorrow’s urban landscape.

"The installations will deal with topics as diverse as Shenzhen’s transformation dynamics and collective memory, the transformations to urban infrastructure brought about by autonomous mobility, the increasing convergence between the natural and the artificial, and the ways in which A.I. might both support or disrupt design and construction processes," adds Bonino. The list of practices and designers involved in the “Eyes of the City” exhibition includes names such as Baukuh, Cui Kai, Dominique Perrault Arquitecture, Future Firm, Jeanne Gang, Thomas Heatherwick, Liu Jian, Antoine Picon, Terreform ONE, XKool, Long Ying, J. Meejin Yoon, Liam Young, Philip F. Yuan, Zhang Li.

The “Eyes of the City” exhibition is the result of an “open-source curatorship” process. More than 280 applicants from across the world responded to an open call that was held earlier this year – from April, 1 to May, 30. Throughout the process, several leading international architects, designers, philosophers, scientists and writers were also involved as “foundational contributors”, to reflect on and respond to the underlying themes of the exhibition contained in the curatorial statement. The latter was inspired by the “eyes on the street” phrase coined by urban activist Jane Jacobs in the 1960s to convey how pivotal people are to urban spaces – from improving neighborhood safety to strengthening communities.


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Exhibition design:

The “Eyes of the City” will be the world’s first architecture Biennale to be entirely produced on-site. As part of the “open-source curatorship” approach, exhibitors have produced a series of Blueprints with detailed instructions on how to develop each installation. The Blueprints were first shared digitally with the curatorial team and then made available to Shenzhen-based suppliers, who are currently finalizing the construction of all the installations. Later on, all projects will be made available online, so that anybody can download them and potentially reenact the Biennale. Inspired by the Fab Lab movements initiated by MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld, this choice acts as both a tribute to Shenzhen’s role as “factory of the world” and as a way to push the boundaries of open-source design, which relies on information shared digitally. This approach also made it possible to develop an entire Biennale virtually, without international shipping – reducing environmental impact.

The exhibition, which extends over a surface of more than 5,000 square meters, reacts to its transportation-hub location with a unique design, inspired by duty-free shopping areas. The creative spatial layout, devoid of clear gateways, was developed by CRA and Politecnico di Torino, while the visual language was conceived by the Dutch graphic designer Mieke Gerritzen.

“Eyes of the City” is one of the two main sections that form the 8th edition of UABB, dedicated to the overarching theme of “Urban Interactions”. The other main section, called “Ascending Cities”, is curated by the leading Chinese academician Meng Jianmin and the Italian art critic Fabio Cavallucci.