A Recursive History of Urban Simulation

A series of four images, two stacked on top of two. The first two images show a far away top down view of a sidewalk with people around, then the second image of a person staring sternly at the camera. The pattern repeats on the bottom.

A simulation. image / provided

This exhibition presents a postwar history of urban simulations that seek to render environments, populations, and humans knowable to computer calculations. From smart city digital twins and what-if scenario planning platforms to metaverses replete with virtual avatars, many spheres of life are currently governed by digital anticipation. What, this exhibition asks, are the histories, parameters, scenarios, and models used to simulate a city and its inhabitants for reasons of control and monetization? The computer models driving these simulations are based on abstract theories of individual and collective human decision-making. These theories are informed by genealogies of knowledge explicitly rooted in social ordering belief systems and techniques borrowed from military practices. These theories come loaded with assumption and bias. For example: sensitivity training software developed by the U.S. Army models virtual Iraqis performing non-verbal cues based on military analysts' interpretations of "Iraqi culture." Simulations, and their increasing ubiquity, also raise ethical questions. How can we think about the rights of actual humans when their decisions and movements are rendered as virtual analogs? How do we better advocate for the publics whose gestures, behaviors, and movement patterns have been recorded, quantified, and put into digital motion to drive the very policies that are reinscribed back onto their bodies?

Simulation practices may be in the business of predicting uncertain futures, but they are equally reliant on vast records of the past to power their calculations or validate their assumptions. Similarly, the exhibition consists of both an archive of past simulations and a new simulation system running live in realtime. The archive organizes simulation case studies assembled from military, urban, entertainment, and scientific sources into the categories of Environments, Populations, and Humans and combines found documents, diagrams, and footage into a looping three-channel video array. Cutting across the archive reveals a contradictory obsession with high fidelity (increased spatial and temporal resolution) and reductive abstraction (simple concepts for what a city is and how its residents behave). The second part of the exhibition, the realtime simulator, comprises four chromakey environments that revisit and translate historic simulation models into immersive displays. A touchscreen in each environment allows visitors to occupy the model operator's privileged vantage and adjust the scenario parameters and manipulate the associated virtual world. Concurrently a video camera captures and transmits footage of the operator's actions to the computer simulator where their figure is keyed into perspective views of the live simulation and broadcast to adjacent monitors. This stages a recursive feedback loop between interface, display, and response. Collapsing cinematic, surveillance, and computational practices, A Recursive History of Urban Simulation makes visible the entangled regimes of observation and prognostication at the heart of urban management.

Curation and Design
Farzin Lotfi-Jam, Realtime Urbanism Lab

Curatorial Assistants
Ekin Erar, Austin McInnis

Fabrication Consultant
Phil Rubin

Fabrication and Design Coordination
Ekin Erar

Interactive System Design and Engineering
Austin McInnis

Research Assistants
Nahall Ghodsi, Thuan La, Desai Wang, Yi Xu

Production Assistants
Sahil Adnan, Evan Levy, Andreya Zvonar  

With support of 
Cornell Mui Ho Center for Cities

And with additional support from
Preston H. Thomas Memorial Series, Cornell College of Architecture, Art, and Planning

With thanks to 
Frank Parish, Andre Hafner, AAPMPF, and AAPIT

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