Matt Gilbert

A Topological Map of the Governor's School Campus

The spaces where we live and work have a profound impact on our social lives. The myriad paths we can take through these spaces are all the possible lives that we can lead. By looking at the connectedness of these spaces at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, A Topological Map of the Governor's School Campus points out how many potential connections the campus hasóbetween the five art areas, academics, faculty, administration, residential life, and students.
The interactive map was installed during a Surdna-funded residency at the Governor's School Academy program for rising 10th graders. While in residence, I documented my research and process on a wiki. I also had the students participate in the research by making their own topological maps of spaces with which they were familiar.

Rather than defining the walls between spaces the way a blueprint does, this map places a dot in each space and draws lines connecting the spaces where one could walk from the first space directly to the other. Each of these dots is a button that lights up when pressed. After the first dot is lit, the dots that are connected to it light up. Then the dots connected to those dots light up, and so on, until a path has been lit from the first space to every other space on the campus. The pattern travels through all the paths starting at the dot that was pressed. There's also a knob that controls the speed of the pattern, so you can focus on each step as it occurs, or speed it up and watch the pattern quickly spread through the campus.

The way the dots are connected tells you a lot about the spaces they representóa busy hallway or a courtyard typically has many more connections than a private office. Topology is a branch of mathematics concerned with the connectedness of a space (or a surface, or a network, etc.). So, while a topographical map represents the shape of the place, a topological map represents the connections in a place. The piece was installed at the entrance to the library, a central and highly connected space on the campus.

The piece intends to give a new perspective on the spaces where people live and work and to encourage them to consider the nature of those connections. One person working at the Governor's School pressed the button representing her office, and as the pattern spread throughout the campus she exclaimed, "Look at all the little me's running around." A faculty member turned the speed knob way down, pressed a button and joked that, "This is what it's like when you are trying to implement a policy." She then turned the speed knob way up and said, "This is what it's like when there's a rumor." While I was in residence at the Governor's School, several people told me that it was a very timely piece because they were in the process of bringing the campus together and articulating their mission.

I'm very grateful to Surdna and to the Governor's School, especially the entire Visual Arts faculty, for making this project possible.

Technical details

The piece was developed on an Arduino board and finally installed with a Wiring board, custom circuit boards, and hand-made LED buttons. Here's the code that was downloaded to the Wiring board. A screen-based mock-up was created beforehand in Processing. It's pretty big, so it may not load in your browser.

Many, many thanks to Monica Duncan for helping with the video documentation and for demonstrating the piece. Thanks as well to Al Matthews for working with me on the sound for the documentation. The sound was created in ChucK with code that was based loosely on examples from a class taught by Jason Freeman. The sound was then processed with my Gestural Speech Synth.