D-Tower

Q.S. Serafijn & Arjen Mulder

The D-Tower in Doetinchem is a project that consists of three parts: a physical tower along one of the city's approach roads, a website, and a survey taken among the local population. The D-Tower will measure the emotions of the residents of Doetinchem, every week, every day, for seven years. It measures their degree of happiness, hatred, fear and love using the survey and website. Doetinchem is divided into eleven postal code areas. In each area, participants fill out a survey which consists of 360 questions that become more and more detailed over the course of the year. For example: Are you happy? Are you happy with your relationships? Are you happy with your partner? Are you happy with your partner because your partner is faithful, or because you and your partner do everything together, or because of sex? Finally, the survey asks participants how long their happiness with their partners lasts, and how often they have sex.
The results of the questionnaires are represented visually on the website in the form of emotional landscapes. The answers are translated into peaks and dips: a lot of happiness, little happiness, a huge amount of hatred, scarcely any hatred, barely any love, some love. Hatred toward foreigners, dogs, vandalism. Love for children, parents or friends, or simply a dislike for workmates because they are stupid. The division into postal codes is interesting because every emotion, high or low, can be located somewhere on the map of Doetinchem. In other words, an emotional map is placed over the geographical map of the city, something like a relief map, to render visible the emotions of the residents.
Every emotion is linked to a color: red for love, yellow for fear, green for hatred, and blue for happiness. The score of every input is sent to the database which calculates the result and sends it at the end of every working day to the twelve-meter-high tower – designed by Lars Spuybroek/NOX – at the edge of the city center. Depending on the emotion that has prevailed that day, the tower glows – lit from within – blue, red, green or yellow. Thus we see which emotion is dominant in Doetinchem each day. If the tower is red on a Friday, then there's mostly love in the city. If it's yellow on a Sunday night, fear has ruled that day. The website explains why.

In December 1997 the Doetichem city council asked me to take part in this project. It was to be a long road, for the tower was not completed until September 1, 2004. The city fine arts commission's master plan "Between Rock and Cloud” was waiting as a blueprint: they wanted artists to design towers based on the themes of fire, water, air and earth for the sites of the old city gates. The commission invited me to do the first tower. I am not an architect, and I had never built a tower. At that time I had realized one interactive work in a public space, in the entry hall of a home for the elderly: a playful variation on current information for travelers. The work was an offshoot of a student assignment made for a new housing development. It consists of a light box containing a photograph and a neon light, a mirrored wall, and a bench, and keeps residents and visitors informed in real time about the arrival of the bus that connects the home with the city center. (The bus shelters were cold and damp and some distance away from the home.) In 1995 the technology for this was still relatively complicated, with modems and cables under the road surface. I was then what is known as a "studio artist": I exhibited videos and installations, made books and placed full-page ads in magazines under the name Stichting Omission (Omission Foundation) with Hans Snoek.
In Doetinchem I wanted to map the city, the community. Or as I expressed it then: "I want to fold the community over itself." To bring invisible things to the surface in an interactive way. The arts commission agreed. It was not my intention to give the population direct input or say in the design. Residents are mostly laypersons – not innovative, not socially concerned, not inventive. Communities are conservative and sometimes spiteful when it comes to the fine arts. It's our tax money, they often say, although everything in public space is designed with tax money; they only notice it when it comes to art. In the case of D-Tower, the residents had no say in the design. But they help to make the work, and it's about them too! Doetinchem's emotions projected on the belly of a slug.

I always enter into projects as "blankly" as possibly and allow many decisions to be determined by practicality. Reality is obstinate. This is another way of planning: it is not the original goal that determines a project's quality, but the process. As an artist I do not have a typical style or oeuvre. In my projects I work mainly "undercover." For me, art is a means rather than an end. I link different kinds of expertise. The project is central and in it I make generous use of the knowledge and experience of others present. But I do keep control of the direction of the project. For D-Tower, I had to find an architect. I sought an open-minded person, someone who could design a tower that would catch the eye. I chose Lars Spuybroek. An extra benefit was that his office was within walking distance from my house. I told Lars only that I wanted a tower that would "fold the community over itself" and bring the invisible to the surface, preferably in an interactive manner. With the state of technology at the end of the 1990s it would have been illogical to design something static. From there, Lars could let his imagination run free.
After a few conversations he said, "Why don't we measure the residents' emotions?" For an architect, that is an unusual idea: while artists often work with emotions, architects don't. Lars then designed his tower, which looked at the start more or less as it does now, except for a few extra things that were scrapped later for budgetary reasons. I thought it was a fantastic design from the beginning. For me, in any case, it was an advantage that I as an artist could ask for the help of an architect, instead of the other way around, which is more usual. An artist may add something to the architectonic design, but not too much: the architect's design and ego will not allow that. The artist protests out of preservation of his or her identity, for this is what they learn in art school. And so on. That didn't happen here. Instead, architect and artist worked from the start together on the same concept. Most things Lars proposed I accepted. Good ideas are irresistable. After that, we thought for a long time about how to measure and display the emotions: how should the website look, and how should the survey be set up? Lars sketched three-dimensional images for the website on the computer; I drew on paper with a ballpoint pen. At one point he asked: "Why don't we use your handwriting on the site?" And that's how it went.
We tested various ideas for the website. Initially we wanted a tower shape that would move around on the map of Doetinchem to the area where the strongest emotions prevailed. The residents could bring the tower to themselves, so to speak. At the end of the year, the tower would point out an address. The residents there would receive a 10,000 euro prize. But this proved impracticable. The way the website looks now is a combination of what we envisioned and what was technically possible. Initially we wanted 1,200 people to participate in the survey, but the database couldn't handle it, and the site would have become less legible and slower. So we reduced the number to 200, and finally – at a late stage – we began the project with 55 participants, some of whom quit during the half-year they were involved. It was something like a ratings study. We recruited participants through ads in local papers, the website, and flyers. The city then chose the final participants from among the applicants, distributed as evenly as possible across the various postal code areas. The participants form what we hope is a representative sample.

Composing a survey to measure the participants' emotions was difficult. I contacted three sociologists at Erasmus University in Rotterdam to find out how to design a survey. They said: "You're an artist; do it however you want to. There are no rules." I began with four emotions – love, hate, happiness, fear – and tried to make the survey a "composition" rather than merely a list of questions. At each level, the questionnaire is split into three categories, like a tree structure, within which the questions become more detailed but also more absurd. I was pleased with the composition, but it was also a straitjacket: I had to formulate questions that could be adapted to the system.
Initially there were 484 questions, which we tested over a summer in Doetinchem. I also asked colleagues to fill in the questionnaire and add their comments. There turned out to be too many questions; people's attention flagged. And some questions turned out to be too long-winded. We reduced the number of questions to 360: 90 for every emotion. Every other day, participants get four questions sent to them at home, one per emotion. They log in to the closed section of the site, using a password, and answer the questions. They have five choices (very much so; yes; somewhat; no; absolutely not; no answer). They can also record comments, to add nuances to their answers. Because of technical limitations, each comment can be a maximum of 300 characters long. This is too few to get a good discussion going. And that's something that is difficult even in forums and chat rooms: the level of discussion is generally low. But anyone can respond to the comments. Visitors and participants can also write letters to the D-Tower. If all the participants consistently answered the day's questions on the same night, we would get an "absolute" result for the day's emotion. But participants sometimes leave questions unanswered for days, or save them up until the weekend. So the result each evening may not reflect the day's actual emotion.

I put others in charge of the technical work and execution. The advantage to this is that I can imagine anything: I do not feel constrained by my lack of knowledge. But for various reasons a high level of communication is required. After I propose something to the technicians, the ideas must be continually adapted – mine as well as theirs. V2_Lab built the site as I envisoned it, insofar as that was technically possible. At the V2_Lab, Simon de Bakker "built" the database and the back office, and Enric Gilli Fort made the front office, the interface. They were a great deal of help to me.
I provided the data for the construction of the website in my own handwriting (alphabet, punctuation marks, icons), and V2 converted the handwriting into a new font. As far as I was concerned, it might as well have been someone else's handwriting. What was important to me was that it be different from all existing websites. The website is a stripped-down one; I like that. V2 never pressed for an imposing website.
I consider all three parts of the project successful. The tower is sexy, a real eye-catcher. The site works well, although the 300-character comment limit for each question is a bit of a shame. The survey works. It is conceivable that the questions will have to be updated in the third round; the participants know the questions by now and will probably expect something different. The questions, including the answers for each postal code area, can be read by anyone on the website.

The D-Tower has been embraced by the Doetinchem residents. Their involvement in the project is great. They determine how the work of art looks every day, despite the fact that NOX built the tower and I designed the survey and website. The work is by the residents of Doetinchem. That's how it has to be: the tower's Achilles' heel is the population's participation. If that is not there, you have a fake emotion meter.
Showing the emotions of the community stirs up new emotions. When something unpleasant happens – like the murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh – residents want to see it reflected in the tower. But that is not how the tower works. On the day of the murder the tower was blue, for happiness. That led to outrage. But the tower is not yet "intelligent" enough to formulate questions itself based on the news. The tower is interactive, yes, but the questions are programmed in advance; there is no direct link to current events. It could be done in the form of an "extra edition," such as newspapers have when there is a disaster. The extra edition would have to be manually added to the program. In addition, the participants would have to answer the timely questions on the same day, otherwise there would be no point. On the other hand, you could imagine that in case of disaster the participants' mood would sink so low that it would be reflected in the answers to the questionnaire and thus in the color of the tower. Sociologists could investigate that.