BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Venice Architecture Biennale is the most
prestigious architecture event in the world, and when the 13th
biennale opens on Aug. 29, University at Buffalo innovator Mark
Shepard will be there with bells on.
Shepard, associate professor of architecture and media study,
will present two intriguing projects at the biennale as part of the
American exhibition "Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for
the Common Good," organized for the U.S. Pavilion by the Institute
for Urban Design.
The theme represents the compelling contemporary urban trend of
individuals like Shepard who create projects that expand the
amenities, comfort, functionality, inclusiveness, safety and
sustainability of cities.
In the first instance, he will conduct intriguing,
head-scratching walks through the city directed by Serendipitor,
his alternative navigation iPhone that injects a fun, gaming layer
into city travel.
In the second, Shepard and two collaborators will present the
Venice Mussel Choir, which will use data from water-quality sensors
made of live mussels to generate music from synthetized voices
vocalizing changes in water quality in a Venice canal. In other
words, the system will "sing" daily water-quality readings.
Serendipitor combines directions generated by a routing service
-- in this case, the Google Maps API, or application programming
interface -- with instructions for action and movement inspired by
Fluxus artists such as Yoko Ono, American
designer-landscape-architect-performance-artist Vito Acconci and
others. It is, like these artists, avant-garde, challenging and
This is how it works: A user enters an origin and destination
into the phone app, which, in turn, maps a route of varying
complexity between the two sites. So far, it's like a typical GPS
However, it is designed to provoke serendipity. As the user
navigates the route, the phone offers step-by-step directions for
possible actions he or she can take at a given location on the map.
("Turn left at Pearse Street." "Walk in the shade until there is no
more shade." "Turn right." "When you reach a one-way street, walk
down it the wrong way." "Look for something square and photograph
it." "Ask someone for directions to the nearest park and invite him
or her to join you.")
Shepard says the suggestions are designed to introduce a number
of small missteps and minor displacements in the otherwise
optimized route. It is an unsettling process that enhances the
users' consciousness of place by nudging them out of ordinary
experience and into a fluky new realm.
The Venice Mussel Choir is a public workshop that introduces
issues and challenges related to water-quality monitoring, and
demonstrates how to build a water-quality sensor using living
Shepard's collaborators on the project are Natalie Jeremijenko,
director of the Environmental Health Clinic at New York University,
and David Benjamin, director of the Living Architecture Lab in the
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation,
The project employs a type of mussel widely distributed in the
Venice lagoon that has been proven in a number of studies to alter
the gape in its shell in response to the accumulation of organic
pollutants and trace minerals in the water in which it lives.
"The choir is a prototype system that will use an array of these
mussels," Shepard says. "A Hall sensor and a rare-earth magnet will
be attached to the mussels' shells before they are submerged in a
canal near the Riva dei Partigiani pedestrian bridge.
"The sensors will detect changes in the shell gape over time and
extrapolate those responses to local water conditions in situ," he
"The data from the sensors will be used to generate a song
performed by synthesized voices (the choir) -- vocalizations that
reflect changes in the water quality of the canal."
Shepard, who joined the UB faculty in 2005, directs the
MArch/MFA dual degree program in Media, Architecture and Computing,
and co-directs the Center for Architecture and Situated
His work has been exhibited at many museums, galleries and
festivals in the U.S. and abroad. His recent publications include
"Sentient City: ubiquitous computing, architecture and the future
of urban space," published by the Architectural League of New York
and MIT Press.
Serendipitor was developed by Shepard at the V2 Institute for
the Unstable Media as part of a joint artist residency with Eyebeam
Art+Technology Center. The application is available for free
download at iPhone and iPod touch from the App Store. Examples of
maps and directed actions can be found on the Serendipitor website