Fan Mail: W3FI

For this edition of Fan Mail, Denver based CO-LAB has been selected from a group of worthy submissions. If you would like to be considered, please submit to a link to your website with ‘Fan Mail’ in the subject line. Two artists are featured each month—the next one could be you!

CO-LAB (Chris Coleman & Laleh Mehran). Installation view of "W3FI" at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. Interactive Installation.

I remember arriving at college as a bright-eyed freshman and recognizing familiar faces within moments. It was not because I went to a small school or because I had met these classmates at orientation events in my hometown, but rather that I had done my due diligence on Facebook. Today, not a week goes by that I don’t find myself googling unfamiliar names or wishing a friend Happy Birthday by e-card – or dare I admit it, text – rather than by phone or hallmark card. And yet none of this feels strange.

It is this unprecedented interconnectedness fostered by the digital world that CO-LAB founders Laleh Mehran and Chris Coleman take as a point of departure for their most recent project entitled W3FI. An unmistakable play on words, W3FI is a combination of WiFi, the word “we” and the slang use of the number 3 in place of the letter “e” as a nod to the digital parts of our lives. The W3FI project encourages people to consider their online identities – referred to as S3LF – and how we can use technology to interact with one another in positive ways. The artists explain, “[t]he W3FI project is much more than an awareness campaign, it is a movement in social activism to ask a new set of questions for each of us every time we click, text, or share a photo.”

In its manifestation at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, W3FI is an interactive installation in every sense of the word. The project’s central tenants are presented on the gallery walls as a series of moving texts and symbols alongside dynamic statistics about national and international use of the internet, cell phones and social networks. Broad statistics – usually difficult to grasp in real terms – are made more tangible through their juxtaposition with data that relate directly to the Boulder area. A topographic map of the region is overlaid by animated visualizations of internet use and signal data. Live tweets from local residents utilizing the words “I” or “we” punctuate the gallery walls as well. Museum visitors can become a part of the W3FI network by having images of their faces taken and integrated into an ever-growing forest of interconnected trees projected along the gallery walls. While many museum galleries offer limited seating – encouraging visitors to rapidly proceed through the galleries – seats are deliberately interspersed throughout the W3FI project space in order to facilitate discussion, learning, reading and quiet contemplation.

CO-LAB (Chris Coleman & Laleh Mehran). Installation view of "W3FI" at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. Interactive Installation.

CO-LAB does not merely demonstrate a philosophy and data with W3FI. They bring this concept to bear by relying on Open Source software and hardware in designing the installation. Open Source encourages the sharing of knowledge and work by having contributors make all the files they have developed available online for others to copy, supplement and improve. Generating the terrain of Boulder for the map, controlling the glowing seats and the forest of faces on the “W3FI tree” were all made possible through various Open Source programs and hardware.

While the project unfortunately closes tomorrow, never fear – W3FI will live beyond this singular venue. CO-LAB’s goal is to continue promoting the W3FI presence in both real and digital space; online it will be represented by websites, pages and social networking media. And in the “real world,” Mehran and Coleman will continue to organize traveling exhibitions.