The Networked Condition: Fast Familiar Case Study

Wed 23 Nov 2022

At the start of 2020, we began working with Arts Catalyst and Fast Familiar on The Networked Condition: Environmental Impacts of Digital Cultural Production, a collaborative research project exploring digital arts through an environmental lens.

The project is part of The Accelerator Programme (led by Julie’s Bicycle and Arts Council England), which helps artists to advance their sustainable practice and share insights with their peers and the wider sector.

As part of The Networked Condition, we’ve been speaking to artists and arts organisations whose work encompasses digital tools and environmental sustainability or activism, gaining insight into a range of ideas and approaches. We’re documenting these studies as we go along, as a source of shared knowledge, inspiration and reflection for others.

Here, we talk to digital studio Fast Familiar about their project, Social Sandwich. 

Digital studio Fast Familiar make artworks which are participatory, playful and political. They use digital technology to enable new forms of human connection in a rapidly changing world, creating relational artworks that bring groups together.

For them, art is a space to explore questions which are too complex for daily life, and where we can rehearse better outcomes for a world where no significant decisions are made by an isolated individual. 

They are an interdisciplinary collaboration with expertise in narrative design, facilitation and creative computing. Fast Familiar’s lead artists are Dan Barnard, Rachel Briscoe and Joe McAlister

Fast Familiar, Abandon Normal Devices (AND) and Arts Catalyst are collaborating on the research-led project The Networked Condition, which explores the often-hidden environmental impact of the creation and delivery of artworks using digital technology.

Can you tell us about your individual practices as artists, and how this informs the way that you develop projects together as Fast Familiar? 

Dan: Rachel and I started off as theatre directors.

Fast Familiar (under our old name fanSHEN) were a theatre company for a number of years. Our work was becoming more and more activist (particularly around topics of environmental justice) and I started to become uncomfortable with the idea of calling people to action while they sat passively in the dark.

So, we started to make interactive or playable theatre that allowed audiences to practise their activism within the artwork itself. It was this journey that prompted us to become interested in digital technologies, and the possibilities they gave us for making work that invited interaction in different ways.

We made our first digital piece in 2015, and started collaborating with Joe in 2017.

Rachel: I’ve always been fascinated by stories – my parents used to get so frustrated with me as a kid because they’d take us to some interesting place on holiday and all I wanted to do was read my books!

I think I always wanted to be a writer but, on the journey that Dan describes, I realised that you could write with images and interactions as well as words. You can put other people at the heart of the story you’re making.

Once we’d made our first show with digital technology in 2015, I couldn’t imagine not using it. It’s another dimension to the story.
You’ve got the regular three dimensions, time as the fourth dimension ,and adding in technology and all that enables as a mind-blowing fifth dimension.

Joe: I grew up in a very artistic atmosphere, learning traditional fine-art skills as an early teen, taking a particular interest in sculpture. Alongside this, I was fascinated with technology, spending lots of my time reading computer science books and channelling that passion into learning to program.

I started to combine my two passions, leading to my interest in computational art and the wider field. I found that programming provided the same tactile and fast gratification you receive with sculpture – you can go from thought to reality in minutes. This intrigued me and really encouraged me to mix computer science and fine art.

Around 2017, I started creating larger-scale computational art projects, exploring wider fields like theatre, installation and interaction-based technology. Conveniently, Dan and Rachel were also looking at this at the same time. leading to our first collaboration.

We’ve developed a shared language that I believe allows us to push the boundaries of the field even further. We know how to pull the best elements from all of our interdisciplinary strengths and not be shy of creating something entirely new or label-less; work that is not constricted to particular genres but instead, created around a need or quandary.

Rachel: Working in an interdisciplinary collaboration also means you become aware of the assumptions you make. Dan and I bring with us a load of stuff from theatre and performance, but then Joe would be like, ‘why are we doing it like this?’ And we’d find we didn’t have a good answer, it was just the only possibility we’d experienced to that point.

I think questions from a point of naivety can also be useful. I often find I’m asking Joe, ‘could we use this thing we’ve built to do this?’

Again, it’s something that isn’t habitual for someone within the field. The interdisciplinary collaboration means you re-examine things you don’t question, through the prism of someone else’s experience.

Dan: I guess our different backgrounds affect the work that we create together and the different roles we take on. Rachel tends to come up with the central concept and questions for our pieces and designs the overall shape of the experience, whereas I tend to focus on the detail and logic of the audience member’s journey through the piece.

In pieces where we work with actors, I also direct the actors. Joe builds the software that our pieces run on, and also collaborates with Rachel on the aesthetics of our work.

Could you tell us about a recent project?

Dan: Social Sandwich is a project about online encounters with people you don’t know yet, created at a time when people’s opportunities for physical travel and new experiences were limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s part playful glimpse into the life of another person, part experiment in collaborating with an stranger, to determine the trustworthiness of the news that appears online.

We created it at a time when we were only really interacting with people we already knew, when we were not allowed to travel abroad and longed for meaningful connections with strangers.

Instead of doom-scrolling during your lunch break, you message with someone in another country to see the world from their perspective, and make sense of the world together. Participants indulge their curiosity with a 15 minute message-based conversation, find what they agree on – and how to keep talking when you don’t. The app that runs the artwork translates so that participants see everything in their own language.

When the project was live, Social Sandwich ran for seven days, with a one hour ‘chat window’ at lunchtime each day. Participants were matched with a stranger to talk to, and you could have multiple conversations in that hour, take part every day of the week, or just one or two days.

Social Sandwich ran for a week from 6 – 12 September 2021 and people from 10 different countries played. It was free to take part, and the project was part of an EU Horizon 2020 programme. 

The project had three different ecological elements:

The first was that it was a project which happened across Europe, without any need for artists or equipment to travel.

The second was that the theme of one of the days centred on discussing climate change and the polarised opinions about climate change that appear online.

The third element was that we wanted to build it in a way that both the artwork itself and the marketing of it were as close as we could get to carbon neutral. 

The piece runs on a bespoke app which Joe built. The design of the experience, which was a relational artwork, was done by Rachel and Joe, with some support from Dan.

What were the key questions driving the project? 

Dan: We wanted to know if we could create a relational artwork online that allowed people to discuss difficult topics, without the polarisation that so often accompanies these conversations between strangers in the online space.

Another was around translation. Could we could create a piece that allows people to type in their own language, and seamlessly translate what their partner was saying? We also wondered if we could build the app in such a way as to make it as close to carbon neutral as possible.

We were also interested in exploring the impact of anonymity on people’s interactions. How do people engage with each other when they don’t know the age, gender, ethnicity or nationality of the person they are chatting with?

Could you tell us about how you developed the technology behind the project? 

Joe: At Fast Familiar we have a lot of custom-built platforms for shows, and I’d like to think that we have developed quite a few techniques to streamline the development process, as well as reducing our carbon footprint.

One of the most useful techniques is modularity. Each time a new Fast Familiar project is built, it’s built in a modular way. This allows us to take parts of another project and embed them into a new one, for example taking an email sign-up page from one artwork, to another.

It reduces the time spent making new components, but also if hosted once and built to be universal it can halve (or more) the power used by such a component.

Once we combine this approach with our commitment to custom built technology, we have a single piece of software which runs on Fast Familiar servers and importantly, is very easy to monitor and measure for carbon impact.

Could you share some of the environmental challenges of working with digital technologies and how you approach these?

Joe: Social Sandwich is an artwork which relies heavily on technology, from the servers behind the scenes allowing interaction to take place, to the app that allows users to interact. So, making this a carbon neutral piece was a challenge. 

I took a three-pronged approach, similar to most projects we create at FF using these guiding principles: Simplicity, Footprint and Hardware.

Simplicity is perhaps the hardest. Technology is often interwoven with products from third-parties, and for us, this introduces elements of energy usage which are less measurable. It also means that it’s likely fossil fuel energy will be involved in making our work function.

For example, a lot of API’s (APIs – Application Programming Interfaces, which allow us access to third-party resources) run on AWS. AWS is Amazon’s web server platform which as of 2022 largely uses non-renewable energy for their power. By using an API powered by an AWS server, we would be creating carbon dioxide. What makes it even more challenging is that companies rarely disclose what technologies they use, so avoiding carbon-producing technology is particularly difficult.

When developing Social Sandwich, I reduced our API usage to two companies, and produced everything else in-house. The two companies I used also certified to me that they use green energy. This allows us to keep the entire platform carbon neutral, but also introduces a lot of complexity to the project, as I have to build almost everything from scratch. This, however, helps me significantly with the second prong: footprint.

While we might be using carbon neutral power, it’s still better if we use less. So the second prong is about making the size of the platform as small as possible, for both the server and the mobile app. By applying in-house optimisation techniques, and building the project from scratch, we can reduce elements like the CPU (Central Processing Unit) load, and bandwidth used. This helps to reduce energy usage from the server-side operations.

For the user-end, the focus was mainly on the third prong: hardware. I worked at making the mobile app as efficient and small as possible, meaning it uses the least amount of battery life (and subsequently power) possible. This also improves the user experience, as the app is small, snappy and lightweight.

What do you see as the potential legacy of the project? How will it inform your future work? 

Dan: We found it really interesting to see how much people enjoyed interacting with anonymous strangers across the globe, using our platform. It’s the first piece we created that invites pairs to interact in this way, and it made us excited about creating something that uses similar dynamics in future. 

Joe: In this project we faced our biggest challenge yet –  optimising a significant and daunting infrastructure to make it fully carbon neutral. A lot of these techniques are cross-compatible with other projects of ours, so will inform the development of our future projects. 

I also plan to write about some of our findings, both from a content devising point of view, but also as an academic, studying optimisation methods for computer science,. This will guide others in the field, leading to more sustainable computational art.

Enjoyed this article? Read our Joana Moll case study, part of the Networked Condition.

Additional Links

Recent Journals

Other Journals