Finalist for the Situated Technologies commission
sponsored by The Architectural League of New York (New York, USA)

collaboration with Thom Faulders

Image: Rickenberg / Faulders

Weeds have no purpose. Like any plant, a weed exists because it has chanced upon an environment in which it can survive and because its progenitors have done likewise. But unlike other plants, a weed also lacks purpose by definition. Weeds survive because they propagate in the places where purpose-oriented systems crack. We are intrigued by the dynamics of such propagation, and by what these dynamics reveal about the codes on which our cities operate.

The sight of weeds tracing cracks in a sidewalk is familiar. Such growth reveals much about underlying conditions of our built environment. Weeds can highlight physical properties of the materials with which we build, for example, as well as our understanding of the codes that define how these properties shift in the context of use. And, in addition to providing such tangible information, the growth of weeds in a sidewalk can offer insight into our social codes. Weeds often trace the complex interstices that arise along the boundaries of public and private, or that demarcate zones in which conceptions of wealth and poverty are contested. In essence, weeds produce such richly-nuanced maps of our cities precisely because they have no purpose.

Our proposal is to deploy artificial weeds that will propagate in cracks where Manhattan's material and social conditions meet. Our intention is to generate insight into the codes by which this borough operates, and to do so in a paradoxically purposeless, weed-like manner. To this end, we are developing a family of simple devices that embody the basic functionality which enables lineages of weeds to colonize the niches in which they fit. More interesting than our mimicry of this fundamental biological process, however, are the ways in which our artificial Weeds leverage existing urban technologies that their natural counterparts have yet to master. Simple or "dumb" as these artificial weeds may be, they are tuned to resonate with specific dynamics that already occur in Manhattan. Our Weeds will use ways in which New Yorkers currently interact with their environment as a means of propagation and, moreover, they will illuminate these interactions as they take place. The level of engagement that such "real-time" feedback elicits can produce a particularly valuable form of insight: as they propagate, our weeds will offer New Yorkers an opportunity to see how they are currently participating in the generation and mutation of codes that define their city.

Weeds that propagate successfully in the environment of a Manhattan sidewalk share a set of general characteristics. Regardless of whether they have evolved biologically or been produced artificially, these weeds must have a morphology that enables the lineage to span niches without overly compromising chances of survival in any specific environment. We address this criterion with an artificial weed that includes several specialized forms in its family, each of which can be attached to different materials found along sidewalks and all of which have the capacity to sense and respond to temperature variables in their immediate surroundings. This enables our new Weeds to act as free agents, inviting passing pedestrians to re-configure and disperse their colonies by highlighting the patterns formed by heat-leakage and other local temperature gradients found the built environment. As important, it is also from such free-agency that our Weeds gain the capacity to propagate in unexpected ways and, in the process, enhance our understanding of the codes that bring our city to life.

Image: Rickenberg / Faulders