John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A hulking sculpture outside City Hall preserves popular citizen complaints and transforms unpopular ones into harmless music.
Citizens who have a beef with their government can write an angry letter or complain at a public meeting.
In Seoul, there's an alternative option: Yelling it into the "Big Ear."
This elephantine aural sculpture, designed by artist Yang Soo-in, squats outside of the new City Hall looking like an iPod earbud that fused with an acoustic meatus. The mayor of Seoul, political independent Park Won-soon, had it installed this spring to symbolize his administration's pledge to listen to the people. Since then, Koreans have lined up to speak their woes or ideas for civic improvement into the immense ear, which sits their impassively like a Catholic priest during confession.
The process does not end there, however. (That would require a different artwork, perhaps a "Big Hand" that people could talk to.) The sculpture records the words it "hears" and plays them over speakers in a citizens' affairs bureau, located in the basement of City Hall. Motion sensors record how long people stand under the speakers listening to these ideas and complaints, and then parse them into two piles: Statements that attract audiences for a long time are preserved, whereas those that do not are turned into harmless mood music.
In this way, the "Big Ear" functions as a "digital ecosystem in which these messages are passed on to future generations or compost," according to the organization behind the artwork, Lifethings. It's a novel and hilarious way of dealing with citizen concerns – what public-meeting attendee hasn't wished that the abrasive voices of NIMBYs would melt away into harmless music?
Here's what it what it looks like when Koreans interact with the 8-foot-tall appendage (don't worry, their heads aren't stuck... probably). The Big Ear creators are designing a similarly themed artwork for San Jose's new convention center; it's an "Idea Tree" that will record and remix the spoken thoughts and desires of Silicon Valley visitors.