Intimate Publics. Memory, Performance, and Spectacle in Urban Environments
Cities are sites of spectacle. We walk around, flaneur and voyeur, looking into faces and shop windows, at posters, screens, and facades, scanning for the new, the unexpected, the beautiful, and the wicked. The 'screen' of the city is a cluttered kaleidoscope, all shards vying for attention. A cacophony of mediated messages we barely notice and learn to ignore, or that we eagerly look out for – as signs and clues to find our way in the maze of itineraries, goods, and attractions.
The city is a field of experience in which built architecture, visual displays and personal communication overlap to form a rich, often overly rich mesh of impressions.
Urban screens confront us with the aesthetic phenomenon of building-size images. The gaze turned upward, we see an image that hides and mimics a built structure, a facade in visual acceleration. Most of these screens unfold their full potential only in the dark of evening and night when the city becomes a dreamscape in which immaterial images rule over the obscured material infrastructure. Glistening lights, disembodied luminar movements, all ugliness hidden in the dark, lights projecting images like the dreams of cinema.
The question of the ontological status of the urban screen as image is not merely philosophical, but it is the question also of what the screens offer as visual phenomena, and how they can be understood.
This is relevant not least since built architecture represents power, and the media-augmented structures inherit this representational power of architecture. Thus, what would it mean to conceive the context of urban screens not as a zone of spectacle, but as a space of dialogue, of conflict and negotiation, and of agency?
Walter Benjamin, philosopher of the modern city, sought to develop, in his 'Arcades Project' (or Passagen-Werk), an analysis of the city that would reveal its hidden potentials, or, as Susan Buck-Morss writes, Benjamin wanted "to interpret out of the discarded dream images of mass culture a politically empowering knowledge of the collective's own unconscious past." (1990, p. 273; cf Benjamin, Passagen-Werk, Konvolut K) Benjamin describes the experiential space of the city as an effective and affective dreamscape that is spurred by technological developments as much as by the social and economic context in which they are deployed. His interweaving discourse of observations, memories, marketing strategies and technological innovations is exemplary for a study of the dreamscape of urban screens.
Importantly, the term 'urban screens' does not describe a particular type of technical medium, but it is a concept that encompasses different kinds of screens, viewed from the perspective of how they operate in an urban environment, and how they contribute to shaping urbanity. Therefore, the screens of mobile phones and game pads can be as important samples of 'urban screens' in creating a contemporary sense of urbanity, as the large-scale video billboards and media facades.
All of these screens get embedded into a rich, layered fabric of urban experience in which intimacy, void, redundancy, difference, invisibility and memory play important roles.
What I will be trying to do in the next hour is to offer a number of skewed perspectives onto this phenomenon. I will be taking you onto several detours, hoping to reflect together about the possibilities as well as the limitations of an urban environment augmented, or cluttered, or coded, by a new generation of large-scale displays.
I'll be talking about several somewhat unlikely examples which I interpret as 'urban screens', even though they are very different from the typical screens that we may normally have in mind.
What follows, thus, is not the exposition of a conclusive theory, but rather an essayistic excursion into the margins of the current debate.
Take Jozef Robakowski's 1978 video, From My Window, as a first instance of friction. Robakowski has been experimenting with film, photography and video since the 1960s and is one of the key figures of the Polish avantgarde.
Consider what happens when we reverse the gaze that is normally turned towards a building. How does the city appear from the perspective of somebody sitting on the 9th floor of an apartment block? and what if we think of every window as an 'urban screen', the window as a screen through which the spectacle of the city is observed?
The intimacy of the voice-over commentary is intriguing because it reflects the type of everyday knowlegde that we have about our immediate surroundings, even in the most anonymous housing estates. Whether we know the names of people or not, when we see them regularly, they become actors in the play of the everyday which unfolds around us, a play whose narrative, most of the time, happens only in our heads.
Robakowski's observations are additionally charged by the fact that, when these recordings were made in the 1980s, the Polish SB intelligence agency was spying on people, making precisely the kind of close and often random observations from which patterns of behaviour and misbehaviour might be gleaned. Robakowski turns us into eager or bored, innocent yet complicit witnesses who cannot but thread along with him, in this interlacing of personal curiosity, voyeurism, and the nonchalant modes of surveillance.
He compels us to ask: Who are the subjects of viewing in public space? What does a subject see, and how does she or he connect all the other visual information, their living conditions, political opinions, and memories, with what they see in the city? What can they do with this meshwork of observation and experience?
Our senses, the sensual orifices and the use we make of them, looking, listening, touching, tasting, smelling, are intensely intimate media to the self. They are continuously trained by their environment, and the subjects that we become are projected by the shapings and the friction that occur at the interfaces of these senses.
This intimacy is a crucial dimension of contemporary technical media. Thirty years ago, the radio, television and the fixed-line telephone were probably the epitome of intimate media, media that have affected at least my generation in the most direct and subcutaneous manner. Whereas today's media – the interiorised ear-canal medium of the iPod, the ubiquity of familiar voices in the mobile phone, and the networked PC, – give us a very different sense of a mediated intimacy that touches us inside. The physical and mental integration between self and medium today goes much further than it used to.
One question that follows from this is how urban screens will become integrated into the structure of contemporary subjectivities. And will the large TV screens on buildings be able to compete with the intimate mobile media that vibrate in pockets, and that cocoon the gaze and the listening mind?
In his seminal 1974 study, The Fall of Public Man, the social theorist Richard Sennett decries how the modern city and its cultural interfaces create a deafening intimacy that prevents people from understanding their own lives as a result of broader, social and economic conditions. This run-down urbanity also engenders no sense of collectivity, of shared experiences, and it thus also does not foster incentives for political agency. While Sennett's analysis would have to be updated to this iPod age, the question it raises remains pertinent: into what social role do the urban screens call their viewers?
And how might the screens contribute to an understanding of a public urban space not defined by entertainment and one-way information, but by difference, communication, conflict, contradiction, efficacy, negotiation, and passion? In such an understanding of urbanity, intimacy becomes a dimension that is either consciously reclusive, or aggressive, that is, affective in its insistence on difference: what a rupture in the cool fabric of urban behaviour when it is interrupted by a passionate embrace or slight touch, a whisper, a languishing look, exchanged with a stranger. Is it desirable to recuperate, with this intimacy, the surreal eroticism of the modern city, as it was imagined by some artists of the earlier 20th century?
No urban screens without urbanity - yet, what is the urbanity of this cocooned unit: somebody rolled up on a bed, or hunched up on a subway train, earphones plugged and the eyes glued to the small screen of a Video iPod or Game Boy Advanced, fingers on the controls?
In the spring of 2008, the famous Accademia di Venezia, a museum housing one of the most prestigious collections of Italian art, is under reconstruction. Its facade is surrounded with scaffolds, covered by tarpaulin which simulates parts of the architectural decorum and leaves two large 16 to 9 fields free for advertising.
The apologetic text, printed on the tarpaulin, below, reads, in Italian, 'The sponsor contributes to the restauration of the Gallery of the Accademia.' The surfaces reserved for advertising are empty. A cynical interpretation of this white void would be that they have not found an advertising customer, while the romantics among us may believe in philanthropic aestheticism and speculate whether some sponsor actually gave money so that these surfaces can deliberately be left white.
Such an absence of additional information is now the exception, rather than the rule. Much more normal is this scene, only a few hundred meters away, on the old Marciana library, opposite the Doge's Palace and near St. Marc's Square: half of the facade is covered by a big poster that simulates the architecture and leaves room for a large Rolex advert.
Branded facades offering to fulfill desires for love, wealth, and well-being. Hungry eyes looking in the hope that one of these messages will change your life. Are they, in turn, being let down by the empty billboards on the Accademia whose surface makes no such promises?
A comprehensive theory of the visual economy of an urban environment in which screens of all different kinds overlay architectural structures and human perception – such a theory would have to account for the multiple cultural conditions of urbanity, visuality, media reception, the public sphere, and so forth. The specific interventions and inscriptions, and the way in which urban space is structured and transformed by media surfaces, need to be analysed individually, and compared.
For the moment, think of this as considerations towards a school of urban screen aesthetics.
In February, just across the Accademia bridge, I reached Campo San Stefano, and with my eyes now focused on any attention-grabbing transformation of surfaces, I saw this make-shift wall with posters, partly torn or half covered by more recent messages. And then of course also the Coca Cola logo to the right, and the 'artblucafe' marquee, quite humble between the dark green shutters and the monochrome facades. I began to think, what might make this a balanced, or interestingly unbalanced visual experience.
And then of course, I noticed the plaque commemorating the 19th century revolutionary writer, Felice Cavallotti, and the word 'Thief' scribbled beside it. The semiotic context for this chalk 'graffito' is very open, it resonates in our mind according to our own preconceptions and expectations.
For now, suffice to say that one chapter of the 'Aesthetics of Urban Screens' would have to analyse this triad of closure, void, and openness.
It is curious to notice that the step taken by the city of Sao Paulo two years ago, to remove all large-scale advertising from the city's buildings and highways, does not resonate more urgently through the discussions on urban screens.
I'm not sure whether the topic is what in German we call a 'Fettnapf' – a kind of taboo topic that people try not to mention because it would be embarrassing for somebody. But – what about Sao Paulo, and their claim to get rid of the visual pollution of the city? And how does the issue relate to similar discussions about graffiti and street art, in which some people argue that any graffiti or stencil is better than a dead and grey concrete wall?
Here is Sao Paulo journalist Vinicius Galvao speaking in a radio interview in 2007.
Sao Paulo's a very vertical city. That makes it very frenetic. You couldn't even realize the architecture of the old buildings, because all the buildings, all the houses were just covered with billboards and logos and propaganda. And there was no criteria.
And now it's amazing. They uncovered a lot of problems the city had that we never realized. For example, there are some favelas, which are the shantytowns. I wrote a big story in my newspaper today that in a lot of parts of the city we never realized there was a big shantytown. People were shocked because they never saw that before, just because there were a lot of billboards covering the area.
(...) Sao Paulo's just like New York. It's a very international city. We have the Japanese neighborhood, we have the Korean neighborhood, we have the Italian neighborhood and in the Korean neighborhood, they have a lot of small manufacturers, these Korean businessmen. They hire illegal labor from Bolivian immigrants.
And there was a lot of billboards in front of these manufacturers' shops. And when they uncovered, we could see through the window a lot of Bolivian people like sleeping and working at the same place. They earn money, just enough for food. So it's a lot of social problem that was uncovered where the city was shocked at this news.
(...) [Without the billboards] it's weird, because you get lost, so you don't have any references any more. That's what I realized as a citizen. My reference was a big Panasonic billboard. But now my reference is art deco building that was covered through this Panasonic. So you start getting new references in the city. The city's got now new language, a new identity.
(...) Big banks, like Citibank, and big stores, like Dolce and Gabbana, they started painting themselves with very strong colors, like yellow, red, deep blue, and creating like visual patterns to associate the brand to that pattern or to that color. For example, Citibank's color is blue. They're painting the building in very strong blue so people can see that from far away and they can make an association with that deep blue and Citibank.
The question can of course be approached from different angles. The purism of the Sao Paulo city council reverts the city to an age in which Sao Paulo itself barely existed: ever since the 19th century, posters and later billboards have been part of the major cities' face, and Sao Paulo began to grow to its present shape only in the 1920s and 30s, so that there has never been a pristine moment which the cityscape can now be returned to.
At the same time, the insidious idea of using posters and billboards to physically cover up instances of social injustice is of course intriguing, and makes us wonder what all the other facade decorations, screens and billboards might be hiding. Urban screens as camouflage – a rich field of research for conspiracy theorists and critical urbanists alike.
Naked 2: Colours
However, as another short detour, I would like to pick up on Galvao's remark about Citibank Sao Paulo painting their building blue, in order to mark and brand it. This instance reminds us of a project by the mayor of the Albanian capital of Tirana, Edi Rama, who has been seeking to transform the image of Tirana since 2000 by improving public park areas, tearing down illegally built houses and kiosks, and most notably by having buildings painted in bright colours. Some of you may have seen Albanian artist Anri Sala's film 'Dammi i Colori' about this project.
The vision behind Rama's project was to foster a stronger identification of the Tirana inhabitants with their city. The authorities provided paint and scaffolding for free to those people who wanted to paint their houses, or even only the part of a facade that belonged to their own flat in a larger estate. The result has been an at times wild patchwork of colours which emphasises or counter-acts the architectural structures of the facades.
The facades of buildings have always been designed to convey the symbolic, political and social values and status of the owners or inhabitants. Architectural style and decorum, media of simulation and dissimulation are used to articulate a social and cultural vision. In the Tirana colours project, the derelict anonymity of modernist facades is displaced by accentuating specific elements or areas. The previously dumb buildings and flats suddenly begin to converse, they say 'yes', and 'hello', and 'here', and 'look at me'. The built facades themselves are conceived as screens through which the inhabitants can communicate with the world around them.
Instead of living behind a pixel in a large-scale screen playing commercial videos, the Tirana inhabitants have adorned their facades with individual expressions of their sense of home.
As the last site of our excursion I would like to take you to Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, which some of you will most recently have seens as the site of the SPOTS Media Facade (2005-2007), a large-scale light installation that turned the glass facade into a huge, low-resolution video screen, made up of 1800 dimable circular neon tubes as the pixels of the screen.
When we curated the first four works for the facade, we took as a conceptual starting point the idea of the building looking back at the city. The exhibition was called 'Die Stadt hat Augen', freely translated as 'City Gaze'. The most literal application of the concept was provided by Carsten Nicolai's installation 'SENSOR', which used visual and sonic data from the immediate environment of the building to create on the facade a reflection of activities on the square. Nicolai designed a system of light, sound and movement sensors which were mounted on the facade and which tracked the lively square in front of the building. According to complex preset rules, the intensity of sounds, lights, and movements by people, cars, buses, etc. was translated into waves of light scanning across the facade at different speeds and in diverging directions. It was a feedback system that produced visual effects which were, at the same time, ever-changing, unpredictable, but in some vague form legible.
The facade was conceived as an abstracting mirror that reflects light back into the environment as a response to the urban activity in the square – an architecture that 'talks back' through the medium of a screen facade.
A stranger, and maybe more shocking project was realised by the American artist Jim Campbell who sent barely recognisable human figures stumbling across the facade, turning into an image screen what Carsten Nicolai had treated as an architectural and urban reflector.
The event we observe on the screen looks like a scene straight out of film by Samuel Beckett, whose anonymous heros trail the border of monomania, desperation, and humour. Projected at this scale into the city, Campbell's video sequences mark a fissure in the urban fabric, that is weird and disconcerting, as though it came from a different reality.
Another layer of reality, set at the same spot, is a more personal story which is, I believe, exemplary enough to justify that I tell you about it.
My own first encounter with Potsdamer Platz was in 1987 when, as a student in West Berlin, I was working at the State Library, the Staatsbibliothek, or Stabi. The cafeteria of the library has a large panorama window which looks eastwards and, at the time, offered a view of the southern part of Potsdamer Platz, the Berlin Wall in the background.
I have a vague, yet vivid memory of the view that, like many other people, absorbed me in my coffee breaks. I only really remembered this because a couple of years ago a friend of mine asked me whether I could try and track down a photograph that would show the view through that window.
Since the mid-1990s, the view has been blocked by a musical theatre which was built right next to the Staatsbibliothek, along with a whole quarter of new office, shopping and entertainment buildings that Potsdamer Platz now houses.
The view that we remember had a distinct life span: the library was first opened in December 1978, and the view got blocked some time around 1997 or 98 when the Theater am Potsdamer Platz by architect Renzo Piano was built. Twenty years during which thousands of library users spent their coffee breaks with a view of the city that has now physically disappeared, but lives on in people's memories.
For some yet unclear reason, I have so far been unable to find a photograph that would show that view. Like my friend, I am sure I would immediately recognise it, but neither the image archive of Berlin, the Landesbildarchiv, nor the image archive of the library itself, seem to own a photograph that shows it. It was, in a way, a double confirmation of my hopeless endeavour when I wrote to the commercial Ullstein Bilderdienst, a famous photo agency in Berlin, and got the response from the contact person that she too remembers the view that I am talking about, because she also saw it when she was studying in the 1980s, but she could also not find a matching photo in their archive.
So, what I have are some images from the area around Potsdamer Platz, and two images of the recently completed cafeteria in 1978. (Fig. 1 Staatsbibliothek, cafeteria, 1979; Fig. 2 Staatsbibliothek, press conference, 1978)
We are interested in the man with the glasses on the far right of Fig. 1, who is looking out of the window and sees what we would like to see again. The other clue I have is equally ambiguous: in the photograph taken during the press conference on the occasion of the opening of the library, we can see the reflection of the windows in the glass walls separating the cafeteria from the main building. This reflection feels much more vague than the image in my memory, but there is no way to materialise the image before my inner eye, either. – I am of course offering this memorised panorama window as a further example of an 'urban screen', akin to Robakowski's view from his window, but this time one that is hovering before a vaguely collective inner eye and, as it seems, undocumented.
The fascination with this site was shared by the German film director Wim Wenders who, in his 1987 movie, 'Wings of Desire', has the old Berlin actor Curt Bois first in the Staatsbibliothek, thinking about memory and the necessity of narration and commemoration; and then stumbling across what used to be Potsdamer Platz, unable to find a real equivalent for his half-century old memories of the once vibrant square. He says things like: 'I cannot find Potsdamer Platz. This - this cannot be it. For at Potsdamer Platz, there was the cafe where I would have chats and a coffee and smoke my cigar. There were buses and trams and cars. No, this cannot be it. But I will not give in, until I have found it.'
It is unlikely that Jim Campbell was thinking about Curt Bois, stumbling across Potsdamer Platz, when he proposed his uneasy Gait Studies for the SPOTS facade. However, both offer images of what we might call 'disintegrated flaneurs', men who do not simply drift and project their gaze, but who are caught up in an unstable body and in the maze of memory.
Each city, wherever people live, is rife with such imaginations, a cultural stage, and a container of mediated memories. The urban screens add only one layer to this multi-dimensional, deep screen of urban experiences.
In the society of surveillance, urban screens speak with the voice of those who have nothing to hide. It may be the voice of power and unhindered self-affirmation, or the naive voice of Reality TV actors, oblivious of a distinction between private, public, and political. They turn city squares into the equivalent of a private sitting room in which political decisions are neither tested, not taken. Some say that the urban screen was the ultimate democratic medium. However, I believe that like any other medium, it has to be used in a democratic way in order to be more than a tool of propaganda. Not the medium is democratic, only its use can be democratic.
In the case of any remaining doubt about the political role of these highly visible displays, let us look at an extreme opposite, like the tunnels of Rafah on the border between Gaza and Egypt. These clandestine tunnels have been used by traders and traffickers to bring weapons, food, cash, people, drugs and pharmaceuticals into the heavily policed Gaza strip. Because of the weapons trade, Israeli forces try to bomb the tunnels and regularly destroy buildings that are assumed to house tunnel entrances, and because of this often random destruction of houses, the people in the neighbourhoods near the wall equally hate the Israelis, and also the tunnel traders whose profiteering creates the permanent danger of further demolitions, rightly or wrongly.
These tunnels are running underground, and their entrances are hidden in the basements of buildings, since they are in strict conflict with the ruling power. We here need to address the intricate dialectic of legality and illegality, of visibility and invisibility. Whereas the tunnels have their impact because they are clandestine and invisible, the hypervisibility of the public screens and media facades, in contrast, display an unquestioning affirmation of their messages.
It is the role of artists to destabilise these dichotomies, to undermine the certainties and expectations about what is visible and what is invisible, and to pinpoint the visual regimes coded into the different display and media systems.
With Walter Benjamin we can maybe venture into this maze of significations. Dreams and nightmares alike creep out of closets and from underground holes, but they can very well also appear on the big screen, without any camouflage.
Benjamin interestingly points out that, if art can no longer compete in the modern dreamscape, advertising might still be able to have an impact.
"In the nineteenth century, when the tempo of technological transformations threatened to outstrip the capacity of art to adapt itself to them, advertising became the means of reestablishing a link between technology's forces and social desires: 'The advertisement is the cunning with which the dream imposed itself on industry.'" (Buck-Morss 1990, p. 144, qu. Benjamin, Passagen-Werk, G 1,1)
This leaves us with the question – both urgent and difficult – which images the designers of urban screens and screen content want us city dwellers to imagine; which of our memories they want to respond to, or embed; which dreams they want us to dream – and which of these dreams they want to help us transform into a history which we can take into our hands.
(Berlin, Melbourne, October 2008)
(Keynote lecture held at the Urban Screens Melbourne 2008 conference, 4 October 2008; published in: Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin and Sabine Niederer (eds.): Urban Screens Reader. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures 2009)
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