The By-Product Economies of KIT by Laurence Isabelle

A KIT Map of Disaster by Berengere Marin Dubuard   

Toxic Homes for Sale by
Erik Windfeld  



The By-Product Economies of KIT by Laurance Isabelle
Art Monthly Magazine, February issue, 2000, England

The core members of the anonymous and genderless collective KIT reside in separate countries (UK, Canada, Australia) and therefore discuss the theoretical and practical aspects of all their projects via Web pages, ICQ and e-mail. The multi-disciplinary collaboration whose work generally consists of media based installation with a socio-political bent, examines the production of space within digital and concrete landscapes. It had been a year since KIT members started working on a piece originally titled New Toxic Homes in Ottawa, Canada. For this project they collaborated with a Canadian web commissioning body called 'Artengine' who consisted of Architects, robotics experts and software programmers and together they called themselves Borderline Developments.

Artengine originally approached KIT to develop a small project, which subsequently turned into a labour intensive joint venture. (The project being funded by the British Council in Canada, The Canadian Heritage Information Network, Ontario Art Council, Carleton University and sponsored by companies such as Corel Computers and Marconi).

KIT planned to develop a piece originally called KIT Homes, first created for the 'Epilogue' show in Leigh, UK in 1997 where they set themselves up as a faux real estate agent in a recently vacated school condemned to be demolished. With the surrounding community being a strong working class area, it meant that the destruction of the local school to make way for a middle class 'three up three down' estate was a hotly contested issue. One of the main issues in the spotlight was the fact that the community from the surrounding housing estates had actually paid for the school to be built in the first place from lack of council funds to provide a new school.

KIT used hand powered line markers usually utilised for drawing out football pitches to mark out 'Dream Homes' onto the school fields during the interval between closure and demolition of the school. The 'Dream Homes' were blueprints designed by school children and residents of the community, presenting what they would have built on the contentious area in question if they were given the choice.

The project on the polluted LeBreton Flats in downtown Ottawa, Canada furthered the idea of marking blueprints onto contentious tracts of land. In this case the land in question has been a sore spot in Ottawa's civic history as it lies unused, a testament to the lack of action taken by government or industry to make it safe for people to inhabit.

The National Capital Commission, from which Borderline Developments required and received permission from to use the site, demanded that all information alluding to the toxicity of the site was banished from the web site and from any published material launched by the artists to promote the project. Even the title New Toxic Homes had to be replaced due to pressure from the NCC. The project being renamed Greylands which is a term used by urban planners to designate post industrial land that is in the process of being 'rehabilitated'. Greylands notes the correspondent exponential growth of human population and industrial waste and contests the logic of Taylorism with the obvious fact that vast portions of the earth are becoming inhospitable. The project also traces a virtual connection between the tangible site of the Lebreton flats and the globalising technologies that continue to colonise and define new frontiers. The on-line 'colony' in this case being the Greylands web site which the audience drew blueprints on.

In designing their building, the web participants were asked to use the LeBreton Flats latent toxic substances as a functional By-product economy: a black humoured and critical strategy for questioning the utility of post-industrial areas where the only product left is pollution. As the remote participant drew onto the Borderline Developments web page, an automated robot built in the shape of a lawnmower hooked up to the page via Global Positioning System (GPS) marked out (with lime pitch marking fluid) their design onto the LeBreton Flats in real time and real size.

When selecting a lot on the web page to draw onto, the new digital occupant was given a detailed history of the location; The amount and type of toxins varied from one area to the other according to the lots past industrial inhabitant. Thus the type of toxicity present in the landscape dictated what could be designed in the digital underbelly of Eden - Greylands. Once the blueprint was completed on the web page the robot, proceeded to lay out the design on the ground as a camera placed at the front of the machine allowed the participant to view the process on their computer screen via the web page. The robot being the only 'real' occupant on the site was effectively the physical extension of the online agent who marked with powder their claim to property. The entire process of territorial colonisation occurring in the space between the eye and the monitor. After the 40 houses were designed and the robot finished its drawings, the LeBreton Flats returned to being a huge vacant lot, the community construction having taken place in an electronic landscape that continues to exist at

The process of designing a home in the public realm of the WWW was in itself a perplexing one. How one uses space for the purpose of residence is intimate. Having these details outlined onto the polluted public domain of LeBreton Flats and broadcast on the net reveals the self in a domestic display of soiled spectacle. By opening the realm of community to those who may not have any shared value systems other than access to a modem and a computer, 'Borderline Developments' examined the vectors of identity politics in the context of community, in both digital and concrete world. In doing so they redirected the play of alienation, using the Internet, robots and the logic of architecture to mark up a space for rethinking our communal contradictions about space.



A KIT Map of Disaster by Berengere Marin Dubuard
Artichoke Magazine, March issue, 2000, Canada

ADIEU offers the escape unit as a form of inherent technological rapture, leading the subject to a profane form of salvation (and perhaps even transcendence, however fleeting). Ignoring the homespun logic of 'what goes up,' ADIEU stages a collision between the dusty discourse of dissemination, with the immortalist desire to fleetfly.
-- Dominic Pettman

Trying to pin down the elements that constitute the art collective called KIT isn't a simple task. KIT construct, fall apart, and reconstruct for each project. The core members of the purposely anonymous and genderless collective reside in separate countries and discuss the theoretical and practical aspects of all their projects via the worldwide web, ICQ, and e-mail. A number of architects, writers, artists and programmers from around the world are involved for intermittent periods, depending on the nature and the location of the project work.

In May 1999, the working archives of the ADIEU: Architectural developments In Escape Units project were presented at the Artcite Gallery in Windsor, Ontario. This first public presentation of the ADIEU collective of engineers and architects proposed designs for an escape pod that would launch away from the rooftop of a skyscraper when the building's integrity was compromised. At Arcite, the display consisted of five groups of four digital prints and a single isolated image. Each group was composed to two central 3S-rendered prints of possible trajectories for the escape pod as it propelled itself away from the building rooftop. Flanking the prints were photographs of rooftops; the escape unit's probable location in the concrete world in which the surroundings had been masked by a neutral gray. The isolated 3D image was a rendering of the escape pod. Able to contain a single individual, it is a cross between virtual reality, an arcade game, and a Sci-Fi movie prop. Currently under construction with the assistance of Aerospace Design at RMIT in Australia and a robotics company called Applied Automation, the pod is designed to be functional; to survive impact after reaching terminal velocity by sophisticated airbag technology.

In addition to the prints and photographs, one-minute soundscapes at Artcite alluded to the idea of promotional trailers fro science fiction/catastrophe movie, contrasting the drama of future(istic) action with the exhibition's clinically-rendered images.

There was a definite sense of mockery in the various possible trajectories of escape. One design proposed a pod that jumps like a flea from skyscraper to skyscraper. Others were spirally propelled through a roller coaster-like tunnel on the side of a 'host' building.

One can only smile with apprehension at the thought of the 'chosen ones' surrendering themselves to the pre-programmed pod, letting it propel itself (with them inside) from some 50-storey building. Nevertheless, one of the ADIEU collaborative explained during the lecture that preceded the closure of the show that a number of people have already volunteered for test runs -- possibly following the main ADIEU event scheduled for November 2000 in Melbourne in conjunction with the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.

The major focus in Canada for KIT is a joint project with the Ottawa collaborative Artengine, a curating/commissioning group that seeks to develop art projects that include web and robotic components. Together KIT and Artengine envisioned 'Borderline Developments' on LeBreton Flats in Ottawa.

While ADIEU proposes a physical displacement from an unsafe environment, 'Borderline Developments' suggest an alternative solution. Via website, the audience draws blueprints for a fictitious housing estate called Greylands located on the polluted land of the LeBreton Flats. Greylands refers to a name used by urban planners to designate post-industrial land that is in the process of being rehabilitated. In designing their buildings, the website participants must turn the land's toxic substances to functional use -- a black-humoured yet critical strategy for post-industrial areas where the only product left is pollution. As the cyber-participant draws onto the web page, an automated robot hooked up to the page via GPS (Global Positioning System) marks his or her design onto the actual landscape in real-size dimension using pitch marking fluids.

The Greylands project is scheduled to travel to Mexico City in 2000, to a playground that was recently discovered to have been built on a toxic waste dump. During the same period, the ADIEU working archive travels to Melbourne, Tokyo, and London. Spreading their blurred identity through the cities they inhabit and the hyperspaces they mark up, KIT proposes alternative approaches to urban (re)construction.



Toxic Homes for Sale by Erik Windfeld
Canadian Forum Magazine, August issue, 1999, Canada

Just What is it that makes Today's Homes so Different, so Appealing?
-- Title of collage by British pop artist Richard Hamilton

Here in this place, the robot's wheels roll effortlessly on a manicured green turf. It moves through a flat, apparently empty landscape in straight lines. Stopping, starting, turning, it lays down a trail of white powder as it inscribes symmetrical shapes -- rectangles for the most part -- on the land's surface. Compelled by signals that come to it via keyboard, cable and air, the robot draws on the ground what an architect calls the footprint of a building, the outline of a structure as you might see it on a drafting table, on a computer screen, or hovering above this field.

Together the footprints create an easily discernible grid, a cluster of shapes, a familiar suburban template. But this preplanned neighbourhood resembles the Levittown tradition of housing development in outline only. The field is real -- an industry-contaminated vacant lot just west of the Parliament Buildings in downtown Ottawa, known locally as LeBreton Flats -- and so are the robot and the white dust i t deposits. But everything else about the projects exists in cyberspace, www land, the Internet.

New Toxic Homes is, to borrow a hackneyed phrase from a tract housing sales brochure, a planned community with a difference. If this project is successful it won't exist in any conventional sense. It is a dark, satirical, artist-created experiment in cyberillusion and consumerism, conjured to highlight technology and the ways in which it is changing our experience of the world and our ideas of occupying space, private property and how we treat the land. In this community the robot will be the sole "real" occupant of the site. It is the only builder, the physical extension of the online customer, a proxy laying in powder their claims to the property. Once the robot has completed its mission (about 40 houses) the subdivision will be finished, yet no homes will have been built in the physical sense. But in an electronic reality the properties will have been parceled out, built on, occupied and owned.

For the half-dozen artists behind the project, New Toxic Homes "attempts to relocate functional notions of property, space and colonization in both concrete and digital terms." What is more "real" when, for example, a business's "electronic presence" serves more customers (and makes more money) than that other place with the desk and flush toilets? When a stack of money in a bank vault remains unmoved while its electronic representative whips around the world by the billions in a day? Which currency has the most effect? Which currency is more real?

The artists have chosen LeBreton Flats for New Toxic Homes because they say it is typical of many urban areas in the western economy. The land is abused to the point of toxicity but also highly valued prime real estate. Originally a Native hunting ground and then a staging area for Europeans portaging nearby Chaudire Falls, LeBreton Flats takes up more than 60 hectares on a low-lying stretch of embankment on the south shore of the Ottawa River. Because of the proximity of the falls and the power they provided, it became a centre of industry for the logging town that was Ottawa. The Flats was thriving neighbourhood, a mix of industry and residence.

The soil beneath the Flats contains more than 80 known pollutants left behind by various industries that operated here, including paint factories, gas stations, junk yards and foundries, to name just a few. These businesses and a number of residences were cleared in 1962 to make way for government buildings. For reasons unconnected to the toxicity, the buildings originally planned for the site were constructed elsewhere, and while there have been many proposals for development since, the area has remained vacant for 35 years.

New Toxic Homes can draw participants from any point on the globe connected to the Net, but the artists believe it will be the locals that find resonance in this project. For the folks of the National Capital Region, LeBreton Flats is contentious. There are many who mourn the loss of the last community occupying the site, whose destruction appears all the more unnecessary as the area has remained essentially untouched since. Any proposed development over the years has garnered a lot of public attention and debate. As well, ownership and authority over the site are labyrinthine, split between the City of Ottawa, the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton and the federal government through the National Capital Commission (NCC) -- by far the majority owner. When it comes to the Flats, proprietary emotions tend to run high on all sides.

'Borderline Developments' is a real corporation set up by a variety of artists to carry out projects like New Toxic Homes -- though this is their first effort. Artists from two continents, a historian-architect, high-tech wizards and software programmers have come together to create and administer this project which, by its completion this fall, will have been a year in the making. The highlight of the "happening" will take place in August when the group plans to occupy the Ottawa site along with the robot and -- more typical of a housing development project -- a sales trailer complete with brochures and other traditional hard-sell accoutrements.

While much of the hype will precede the occupation and happen exclusively on the Net, it will be in the trailer on the site that the artists will be present to demonstrate and explain the project. As with most joint ventures, each participant brings a different area of expertise to the undertaking and as such each has their own ideas of what New Toxic Homes is about. Indeed, with this mix of artists and industry techies, these ideas can seem conflicting and, taken together, possibly overly ambitious. But accompanying literature is clear: The virtual inhabitation of the area as presented by this project is demonstrative of a new form of presence, one by which we will increasingly experience our world... This is a cautionary project with a healthy dose of satire, one that seeks to demonstrate how we as a species use our land... The project will reveal not only the history of the site, but what sort of futuristic house might be developed to best withstand the toxins in the soil.

To draw participants into these issues the artists have tapped into a bit of camp and the extremely powerful North American myth/dream/capitalistic construct of home ownership. Through the New Toxic Homes Web site during the last half of August, would-be home buyers surfing the Net will be offered, for no money down, a chance to buy a previously polluted lot and the facilities to design a living space with toxins in mind. Once the lot is selected the new owner is given a stratum-by-stratum history of the particular location. Depending on the site's past occupation, the number and type of toxins in one plot can be quite different from the area next door.

How the "owners" deal with the toxins in regard to the design of the home is completely up to them, says architect/historian Scott Weir: "They can deal with it head-on by incorporating, for example, the use of the toxins as a material part of the house or its operation. Or they can design the house in such a way that it will protect them from the effects of the toxins." (They can also choose to ignore the toxins altogether.) Once the design is complete, the robot will awaken and proceed to lay out the chosen design. A camera mounted on the machine allows the participant to view the process on their computer screen.

"We're not trying to point any fingers," says Weir to the project. "Part of this effort is to point out the certain fallout from our current lifestyle --- that the toxins in the soil are its foundation both literal [in this case] and figurative." Weir goes on to explain that past industries helped produce the economy and the products that allow today's typical North American way of life -- as well as the toxic byproducts. This site is the worst of capitalism: it pushed out the occupants and destroyed what was there in the name of progress (this has happened numerous times at this site as the exposed strata reveals) and left it essentially uninhabitable. New Toxic Homes asks people to deal with these issues as they attempt to reinhabit this site and sites like this one in the future.

Weir is part of the Ottawa based artist group Artengine that has teamed up with a similar group based in Britain, the KIT Collective, to form 'Borderline Developments' and produce this project. Where Artengine's mandate is to facilitate and encourage the use of technology in artists' work, the KIT Collective is concerned with urban landscape and issues of presence. DX Raiden (an artist pseudonym) of the KIT Collective explains the connection between the urban vacant lot and cyberspace: "Both are paradoxical spaces. Both can ascribe a different idea of presences."

The vacant lot, as Raiden sees it, is a hole in the urban narrative, a loss of control by the myth of the city as ascending nature. Vacant lots are transitory spaces outside the usual channels of power and authority because they are unoccupied in the traditional sense. So it is with cyberspace, a space that is outside the usual ideas of the concrete. And yet, says Raiden, "The economy is run in both [realities] where the production of space is now read digitally and concrete." As such, he claims, all terms of presence have become relative. Combining the lot with the Net suggest a new community.

However humorous, esoteric and temporary the project, New Toxic Homes may strike a sensitive nerve in Ottawa. Certainly the site's pollution is no secret to most Ottawans, but highlighting it in such a public, cheeky manner, in such detail, may get more attention than the artists expect. While this is rarely a problem in the production of art, they are concerned that the National Capital Commission, from which they required and received permission to use the site, may become defensive and somehow compromise the project before it is complete.

And the NCC has every reason to be defensive, as it has been judged harshly in the past for perceived heavy-handedness in developing this site and others. In addition, plans have finally been completed and agreed on to develop the site starting in 2004. Early in the next millennium, construction (the concrete kind) will begin on a mixed-use community comprising private residences, common space (a.k.a. parks), office and retail space. Once complete it will be not unlike what was there more than 30 years ago. Indeed, this time it promises to be a "planned community with a difference." Meanwhile, the New Toxic Homes project will continue to exist in cyberspace after is completion in September, at