Coding in Situ

Benjamin Earl

I’ve wanted to be good at coding since I was a teenager. The translation of language to things on a screen has always intrigued me. When my family first got a computer, I would talk to it as I played games, browsed the internet, or drew in MS Paint. My mum would tell me off for talking to myself, but I think in my head I was trying to code — attempting to transform ideas and thoughts into pixels. 

I grew up in the deep, deep countryside of southwest England. Back then I used computers to connect with things that were beyond the boundaries of my physical environment. But the internet never made me feel disconnected from my material surroundings: the vast stretches of green fields surrounding my house, the moors and wetlands, my parents’ clematis nursery. The landscape was as much a part of me as I was of it; I could sense and feel the place. 

These two worlds that I inhabited as a kid were distinctly different in terms of tactility, and today I still find myself searching for what I was missing in each: tangibility in an online environment and connectivity in a physical one. This search has, in many ways, led me to where I am now, and my reason for writing this. I want to tell you about a practice I’ve been calling Coding in Situ.

Web/Site Writing

On Valentines day 2022, an email arrived from some friends that I had never met. The email asked if my friend Kirsten Spruit and I would like to make a website for their collective Robida. I knew about Robida from friends who had been to visit them in the mountains on the Italian-Slovenian border where they live and practice what they call “inhabiting the margins.” Kirsten and I were intrigued by Robida’s practice of living and working differently. We decided that in order to make a website for them, we needed to practice making it differently. 

As soon as we arrived in the small village of Topolò, where Robida is based, I was overwhelmed by the sound of birdsong, the smell of fresh woodland air, and an immense feeling of peace. It hit me all at once, along with the daunting realization that we had to somehow translate all of this into a website.

Topolò from Google Maps. [A digital map showing green mountainous terrain.]
Topolò from Google Maps. [A digital map showing green mountainous terrain.]

To ease the uneasiness of a complicated task ahead, Kirsten and I spent the first day or two of our visit going for walks around the village and the surrounding mountains and valleys. We visited the caves, we crossed the border and swam in the river next to the waterfalls. We spent a lot of time with the people of the collective and others who were visiting at that time. We drank coffee, we cooked and ate dinner collectively, and we danced together in the evening. As we got to know this place more intimately, the website somehow became harder to visualize but easier to feel. 

Before Kirsten and I had left our studio in Rotterdam for Topolò, our friend and studiomate Jack Bardwell pointed us to the architecture critic Jane Rendell, and a practice of hers that Jack thought seemed relevant to our task. This practice that Rendell calls “site writing” is when “discussions concerning situatedness and site-specificity enter the writing of criticism, history and theory, and writers reflect on their own subject positions in relation to their particular objects and fields of study, and on how their writing can engage materially with their sites of inquiry and audiences.”

While with Robida, and guided by Rendell’s ideas, we began to ask what “site writing” might look like if it were to be applied to the act of writing code. Kirsten and I were writing a website, but we could still consider the material, political, social, and historical aspects of the place we were in. We wondered, what would it look like if we were to code in situ?

As we held onto this question, we continued to immerse ourselves in the life of Topolò. We developed routines and began to notice the sensitivities and peculiarities of the village. We felt the presence of different elements and materials that made up this site. We found that we could tell if someone was home by whether there was smoke drifting from their chimney, and that the fire salamanders only came out after heavy rain in the spring. We learned that the internet connection for some of the village came through a satellite dish pointed towards the sky, and that when it got cloudy, the internet connection got worse. We could sense the weather by browsing the web.

Satellite dish of the internet. [A small grey satellite protruding from the side of a concrete building, arching toward a blue sky.]
Satellite dish of the internet. [A small grey satellite protruding from the side of a concrete building, arching toward a blue sky.]

So we started to code. We began with translation: how can this physical place — seasonal changes, daily rhythms, properties of the landscape — be understood within this digital form? Inevitably not all of our ideas materialized, but along the way I realized that the process of making this website was never about translation to begin with. Rather, it was about creating something that would become a part of the space, a site-specific website that fluctuated, adapted, and moved along with the patterns of the place.

We finished the first version of the website a little over a year ago. Even today, it feels alive and somehow unfinished. I can see who is visiting the village via a scroll of names at the bottom, each name enveloped in a different color chosen by that person. I can see the events going on through the calendar, the thoughts people might be having in the journal. These are some of the ways that we designed and developed the website to be part of the site. We still haven’t finished the website, but ever since we started it I’ve begun searching for a way to turn this short experiment into a practice. 

Possibilities of Connection

I like to watch webcams pointed at different landscapes around the world. I find them soothing. I often drift off, my mind wandering away from my body as I gaze into the screen. I’ve tried to figure out what draws me to them for some time. Do I have some voyeuristic tendency? Do I enjoy watching the wilderness? Or is it just the feeling of looking out over something that I like? 

Recently, I realized that it wasn’t the video stream or the places that I was looking at that relaxed me. It was the infrastructure and systems that made that looking possible. Infrastructure made up of data centers, undersea cables, radio relays, and satellites, as well as the minerals they’re built from and the people who continue to maintain them. This technological system leaves me with a strange yet genuine feeling of connection.

After that Spring in Topolò, I visited another border — this time the Swiss-Italian border for an artist-in-residence program called Sasso. I wanted to spend my time there exploring network infrastructure and the possibilities of connection. Before arriving at Sasso, I had come across a set of weather satellites that broadcast their data through radio waves, along with a community of amateur weather enthusiasts who listen to them. I felt potential in this system and wanted to explore it, so I built a ground station at Sasso following the instructions of online guides. 

On the night that I assembled it, I sat out in the garden looking over the darkness of the Lake Maggiore below and the silhouettes of the mountains opposite. At first I heard nothing but static, but after a few minutes, a faint beeping sound came through my headphones. I was listening to a satellite hundreds of miles above my head. After I decoded the recording using open-source software, an image gradually appeared on my screen that showed cloud formations, land masses, oceans, and jet streams. 

Image from NOAA-15 satellite received on July 2nd 2023. [Two grayscale images showing abstracted cloud formations, land masses, oceans, and jet streams.]
Image from NOAA-15 satellite received on July 2nd 2023. [Two grayscale images showing abstracted cloud formations, land masses, oceans, and jet streams.]

I could see the world at that moment from a perspective far beyond my own. Naturally, I began searching for myself and Lake Maggiore in the images, but I couldn’t find it. I was looking at an image of the atmosphere, an image that measured on a scale I couldn’t even comprehend. Each pixel was the equivalent of 4x4km of land. 

But I began to notice moments of disruption in the signal, which appeared as visual noise in the image. Radio waves have an analog form that isn’t the same as an on or off digital signal, but instead can weaken as distance, obstacles, or interference come between broadcaster and receiver. Disruptions can be caused by mountains, buildings, trees, or people. The momentary noise in the image was a sign of my presence and the presence of my environment. It wasn’t the one-to-one representation I was originally looking for, but it was a sign that I was here, much like the chimney smoke coming from the houses in Topolò.

This experience informed another aspect of coding in situ and made me see the practice in a new way. Coding in situ is not just about making sense of one’s environment before coding. It’s also about creating something that is sense-able — something that doesn’t disappear behind a smooth surface. Coding in situ means creating something that fosters a level of autonomy to those that it touches and lets them sense the underlying infrastructure.

When I returned home to Rotterdam, I wanted to apply this realization to my own environment. So I learned how to self-host a small web server using my computer at my shared studio space Extra Practice. I also began experimenting with solar powering the computer. Now, when someone visits the studio’s website, they also, in some way, visit my desk. 

Solar-powering the Extra Practice Website. [A hand holds a small square box connected to a thin solar panel with a short wire.]
Solar-powering the Extra Practice Website. [A hand holds a small square box connected to a thin solar panel with a short wire.]

Situated, Local, Contextual, Placefull

Two years after I received the initial email from Robida, I found myself in New York City giving a workshop as part of Fruitful School. I was there to introduce the idea of an “ultralight computer” as part of Laurel Schwulst’s Ultralight workshop. The computer I brought was an amalgamation of an ESP32 Module, a battery, and a solar panel that could host a website no larger than 1MB. It could serve as a captive portal (similar to WiFi login pages at hotels and airports) to any device connected to the computer’s WiFi signal.

As part of the workshop, I asked the participants to create a site-specific website for this ultralight computer. The workshop took place in a space called Index. For the few hours we were together, the walls of the space became our boundaries, but it soon became clear that those boundaries were permeable. One group made a website that prompted you to sit at a specific spot, look out the window, and recount what you saw. Another website questioned where the dog whose name was embroidered into a bean bag was. There were websites as extensions of plants, websites as personal FAQs, a website as a kitchen guide — each dedicated to a specific site within the space.

In just one hour, seven site-specific websites were made, each in their infancy but born from a desire for connection between the material and the digital worlds. When the workshop ended, I left the building and found myself in the middle of downtown Manhattan. What I expected was a jarring contrast, one that revealed the difference between these two spaces: one calm, situated, poetic, and the other hectic, loud, and fast. Yet when I stepped onto the street, they didn’t feel disjointed. They felt different, but in no way separate. 

Coding in Situ was born out of a collaborative act, and I tend to think of it as something that exists beyond myself, something that extends further than my mind allows. Ever since that initial moment with Robida, I’ve found myself talking and working with others in public or private about what it means to code in situ. We’ve talked about what it means to make a site specific website, what the idea of “placefulness” might look like online, and how hardware and software can become focuses of play and experimentation when considered through their material conditions.

The workshop at the Fruitful School was a window into what it might mean to share coding in situ as a method or a tool. But instead of prescribing how it can be done, I want to leave every site open to what you think is right for it. Perhaps make a website for your home, build your own wifi router, make a queer server and feral web, interact with weather satellites, imagine a server farm, simulate a space, host all your own digital infrastructure, design your own digital garden, solar power your website. Whatever you think you need, know that you can do it without knowing how to code. If anything, don’t learn to code. Remain amateur. My teenage self still wants to be good at coding, but my current self just wants to stare out the window or through a webcam. logo