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W3FI photo
Image courtesy Chris Coleman and Laleh Mehran/Artisphere

Editorial Review

See the digital distance for yours3lf
By Maura Judkis
Friday, December 14, 2012

Send a tweet with the words “I” or “We” in it and it could become a work of art.

“W3FI,” a projected digital installation at Arlington’s Artisphere by artists Chris Coleman and Laleh Mehran, examines connectivity and Internet privacy, and your tweets may be used to prove their point. The traveling exhibition streams tweets and other mobile data from the region, creating an ever-changing picture of Washington and its super-connected citizens.

“The piece is about the fact that we can no longer keep a distance between our digital and real selves,” Coleman says. “The Internet is no longer a digital utopia.”

Coleman and Mehran, his wife, consider the piece to be a manifesto about digital relationships, with terms outlined on their Web site using leetspeak, which substitutes numbers and symbols for letters:

You have no control over what others do to your S3LF.
Other S3LFs can be celebrated and destroyed by you.
We are all part of this now.
All the S3LFs are the W3.

They lament the lack of privacy and control we have over our digital selves, but also appreciate the Internet’s free flow of information, without which they never would have been able to do this project. Aside from the tweets, much of the data are collected from Skyhook, a Boston-based location technology company.

For the Artisphere installation, these data points are projected onto a skyline silhouette of Rosslyn and Washington, connected by an outline of the District and Key Bridge. On one wall, a camera takes pictures of visitors to the exhibit, adding them at random to a growing web of faces. The streaming information will comprise a portrait of the region, with a cluster of softly-glowing chairs inviting people to sit and take it all in.

“It’s gently moving, not a frantic piece,” Mehran says. Though the installation could just as easily have been made into a slick-looking Web site, Mehran says, “It’s critical to us to have a physical experience.”

So far, the artists say they’ve seen “young people having many good times, virtual protests, lots of curiosity and even boredom” come through in the installation. “Unlike where we have put on the show before, D.C. really does host many many types of people living sometimes very different lives,” Coleman wrote in an e-mail after the Dec. 6 opening.

Pulling in snippets of tweets with “I” and “We” is a way to gauge how people are thinking about themselves, and how they’re relating to others, the artists said. The images of visitors will be randomly grouped to represent “the randomness of our actions . . . the serendipity that happens with digital networks,” Mehran says.

The artists hope their installation will help people be as deliberate with their digital personae as they would be IRL -- or “in real life,” as it is abbreviated online. “W3FI,” Coleman says, represents the ideal of what the Internet can be: “A positive space where we’re all interconnected, helping people live better lives.”