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This New Art Project Brings Social Media “Recommendations” to Life

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Courtesy of Ben Polkinghorne and Scott Kelly

It’s strange to see these ubiquitous recommendations in the real world.

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You’ve seen those features on social media sites and apps that catalog all the stuff you’ve seemed to like online, analyze the data, and serve up suggestions for other stuff you might like, too. Technically, they’re called “collaborative filtering recommender algorithms.” And let’s be honest, they’re a little creepy in a Big-Brother/stalker kind of way.

This is precisely why “Signs of the Times,” a new travel-oriented art project from London-based artists Ben Polkinghorne and Scott Kelly is so subversive and sharp. The project consists of giant signs at popular tourist sites across New Zealand; the signs offer travelers “targeted” recommendations of other local destinations that might interest them. We recently caught up with the artists to learn more about their intentions and the project itself. 

How did y’all get the idea for this project? 

Scott: “Ben and I are frequent users of the interwebs. And it not hard to notice just how omnipresent these recommendations are. I suppose we got the idea by noticing just how much these things dictate our online lives. As the online world makes it more frequently into our day-to-day lives, we just wondered how far this trend will go.”

What did it take to evolve the concept from idea to reality?

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Scott: “It took about a month and a half. The idea came really quick. Finding the locations and working out the best design took most of the time. The design looks simple but it’s a tricky task taking an online design concept into the offline world.”

Some of the recommendations seem almost painfully obvious. How did you determine where to place the signs? How did you determine what to suggest/recommend on them?

Scott: “We choose public destinations with high footfall. To determine the recommendations, well, that was a bit more [challenging]. We obviously didn’t have an algorithm that could determine things for us. So we used a bit of guess work and took a lighthearted approach to it. For example, for the playground, we thought the recommendations of ‘theme park’ and ‘McDonald’s’ were appropriate, knowing that’s what we loved as kids. ” 

Why New Zealand? Could you replicate this concept elsewhere? Will you? If so, where? If not, why not? 

Scott: “New Zealand is where we are from, so, it made sense from an organizational approach. However, the idea is easily transferable; all you need are locations that are frequented by the public. We both live in London, so it has crossed our minds to do some London-based installations. We have been contacted by a park in New Zealand to make some more signs. So that is an interesting development.”

 Ben: “We’re super excited to see this idea come to life in a park. We both love the idea that things like an art project lead to things like a permanent sculpture [in a park].”

What does the message behind this project tell us about how we travel? 

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Scott: “We didn’t do this with the purpose of making some sweeping apocalyptic statement about the future of travel. However, we do think there is something to be said for the future of travel and how we choose our next destinations. It seems more and more often, people are introduced to new locations from celebrity bloggers on Instagram. We are curious to see how far this [trend] goes, and whether we will begin to see an ‘Amazon-like’ approach to choosing travel destinations.”

What’s next? How much of your other work will provide commentary on travel?

Scott: “We just try to make things that interest us. We do in fact have another thought which concerns travel, but it is not likely to see light for a good few months yet.”

>>Next: How to See One of the Year’s Most Highly Anticipated Art Exhibitions

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