Felix Lenz - The Physical Geography of the Sea

Felix Lenz

The Physical Geography of the Sea

»The Physical Geography of the Sea shows the geopolitical context of the Bosphorus Strait and experiments with new models of knowledge that can be produced with data.« (via Domus )

filed asinstallation, research
project byStudio Folder
exhibitions4th Istanbul Design Biennial – A School of Schools
lThe Physical Geography of the SealThe Physical Geography of the Sea


The 19th century pilot maps that Matthew Fontaine Maury compiled from captain’s logs and redistributed back to seamen might represent not only the origins of modern oceanography, but also of open data. Since then contemporary seamen have retrained their directional instruments from astronomical bodies to an invisible abstract cloud of data of unprecedented scale. Using an antenna that taps into the automatic identification system that tracks all ships, a decoder that draws real-time open data, a custom-built projector, and a set of analogue data lenses, this multimedia installation reveals an alternative visualisation of the maritime environment of the Bosphorus Strait.

»The Physical Geography of the Sea« was developed on the occasion of the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial. During the course of my internship at Studio Folder (Milan, ITA) I have been assigned to define the concept for the installation.

lThe Physical Geography of the Sea

Maury’s Charts

Seafarers have been looking at celestial bodies for centuries in order to find their way across the seas. While ancient navigational techniques were reliant on complex astronomical calculations, contemporary shipping routes’ optimisation looks at the cloud—a body of data of unprecedented scale—to determine the most advantageous routes in the crowded space of the commercial maritime environment. The 19th-century maps that Matthew Fontaine Maury—a US Navy officer, oceanographer and cartographer—compiled from ships’ logs and redistributed back to seamen show how the vast amount of meteorological observations collected during each single marine voyage could be processed in order to determine more efficient routes for navigation. At the same time, they represent the origins of modern oceanography, and demonstrate how the crowdsourcing of this data could provide a vast knowledge of sea currents and trade winds, based on the experience of previous cruises. The materials presented here attempts a visualisation of this history, from the origins of the faith in technology and computation to provide guidance into the unknown—to the possibilities that open access to AIS vessel tracking data offer to understand the global maritime flows of capital.

lThe Physical Geography of the Sea

Receiving AIS

AIS (Autonomous Identification System) technology is a standard vessel tracking systems that ensures real-time detection of any ships within a range of 70 km, providing constant information about its position, course, drift and cargo. The system has been developed in order to improve the communication between vessels and marine authorities in case of emergency. In order to understand and reinterpret the Bosphorous Straits as a contemporary maritime landscape—constantly reshaped by human activities, economic routes and environmental agents—we built a solar-powered AIS antenna. The technology supporting this project is open source and easily accessible to everybody. The basic components of the system are a microcontroller and a Raspberry PI, expanded with different modules that transpond the data from the vessels to the server. The antenna is coupled with a photovoltaic panel, a battery and input controller, in order to be independent from the power grid.

lThe Physical Geography of the SealThe Physical Geography of the Sea