Interactive Media Artworks for Public Space: Does Art Hold the Potential to Influence Consciousness and Behavior in Relation to Public Spaces?

“Individual bodies moving through urban space gradually became detached from the space in which they moved, and from the people the space contained. As space became devalued through motion, individuals gradually lost a sense of sharing a fate with others […] individuals create something like ghettos in their own bodily experience.” (Sennett, 1994: 323 – 366)”

The Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam, founded by Geert Lovink, will be releasing in December 2009 during the fourth Urban Screens conference what I think is the first book dedicated to the Urban Screens  phenomenon, which the institute initiated in 2005 with the conference ‘Discovering the Potential of Outdoor Screens for Urban Society.’ This blogpost summarizes the argument of my essay “Interactive Media Artworks for Public Space: The Potential of Art to Influence Consciousness and Behavior in Relation to Public Spaces,” which will be included in the book.

One of the aims of the Urban Screens project is to bring art into the public space by means of large digital projection screens. It aims to explore the opportunities of employing the growing infrastructure of large digital displays in public space, currently used mainly as a tool to influence consumer behavior through advertising, and expand them by displaying cultural content with the purpose of revitalizing public space.

My essay explores contemporary interactive artistic projects employing urban screens, which respond to a critique of the public space theorized as early as the first half of the twentieth century by sociologists such as Richard Sennett and Georg Simmel, and groups of artists such as the Situationists.

Georg Simmel, analyzing the culture of mundane interaction in modern cities, described the relation between individuals who share urban space as one of civil indifference (the ‘blasé’ attitude). Public behavior was reduced to passivity, nonintervention and observation, which replaced the previous ritualized modes of interaction in public space. In relation to urban spaces, the Situationists criticized the rationalism and functionalism characterizing modern urban architecture and design which were downplaying spontaneous, imaginative and playful practices. Guy Debord in his influential book The Society of the Spectacle theorized the modern society as a ’society of the spectacle,’ to describe the media dominated consumer society driven by commercial culture, advertising and entertainment. In the contemporary society, which Gilles Deleuze dubbed as ‘control society,’ the spectacle has been supplemented by surveillance technology in public urban spaces. Constant surveillance which allows for identification at any time cancels the sense of anonymity in associating with a mass of individuals, thus tempering the unexpected energies that crowding with others may release.

The purpose of my paper was to assess the potential of the contemporary interactive media artworks to influence human consciousness and behavior in public space, mainly in reference to this modernist critique of urban space, by means of hermeneutical analysis.

In order to comparatively reflect upon the urban space critique which the interactive media artworks for public space incorporate, the type of individual engagement which their activate, and the interventions which they aim to accomplish, I grouped the artworks into two categories, namely installations which use the body as interface and installations which mark up the public space with text. While the first category, which includes artworks such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Body Movies, Pulse Park (Pulse Front), and Under Scan, intertwines performance art and media art by experimenting with augmented reality and involving the human body in a multisensory way, the second category is reproducing or engaging social media, the most recent phase of Internet culture, in public space. This second category includes artworks such as Jason Lewis’ CitySpeak, Stefhan Caddick’s StoryBoard, and Johannes Gees’ HelloWorld.
I used concepts such as Myron Krueger’s ‘responsive environments,’ (Krueger, 2003 (1977): 379) David Rockeby’s ‘transforming mirrors,’ and Mark Hansen’s ‘disembodied embodiment,’ (Hansen, 2006: 91-94), which describe aspects of interactive media in artistic environments, in order to analyze the potential of Lozano-Hemmer’s relational architecture to influence human consciousness and behavior in public space. I argued that the transformation operated in the bodily representation of the self by his pieces – the gap created between the participant’s actions and the transformed representation of his actions -, creates an opening, a space of amplified consciousness of one’s body in relation to other beings, thus challenging us to think differently of ourselves in relation to that world. Potentially this sets the conditions for increasing the participant’s awareness of him/herself in relation to others in the public space in an engaging way, like in a community, which is what is important for Lozano-Hemmer: “people meeting and sharing an experience, […] coming together, […] coming together in the flesh.” By creating a temporary artificial zone of experimentation with the sense of engagement, connection, agency and empathy, Lozano-Hemmer’s relational architecture artworks create a state of consciousness, of awareness of the relational potential in public space, in order to overcome the routinization and passivity which define public behavior now.

In relation to the installations’ potential for activating reflection, Lozano-Hemmer states: “People who are participating are in fact reflecting.” However equaling agency with reflection is arguable. As Kristine Stiles and Edward Shanken explain, the quality of reflection or the extent to which the desired reflection is triggered, depends on the meaningfulness of the agency activated by the artwork. In their view agency is meaningful when it “sets empathy in motion toward responsible interaction and constructive change.” (Stiles & Shanken, forthcoming: 93) In projects such as Pulse Park, where physical interaction and feedback are very limited, the meaning of the artwork rests in the artist’s conceptual decisions more than in the participant’s agency, thus making questionable my description of this project as interactive media artwork.

The second category of artworks inscribes digital displays in urban space with text by means of mobile phones or the Internet as way of stimulating alternative models of inhabiting and acting in public urban space. The two identified categories of artworks differ both formally – in the way they involve individuals -, and in terms of intended effects. While the first category, by using the body (as shadow, video, or image) as interface, involves the individual in a more sensorial way and aims to explore the relational potential of public space by way of a community or an even more profound ‘communion in the flesh,’ the second category permits a different kind of individual input – textual message -, and is more directed towards challenging the disproportionate relation between individuals and other types of ‘voices’ which usually dominate public space, such as commercially driven discourses. They aim to reconfigure the public urban space by offering its inhabitants a legitimate tool to re-appropriate it by way of hypertrophy of personal and intimate expression in public space. By opposing the privatization of public space and its domination by commercial discourses with a communication tool open to public participation, they put forth democratic understandings of public space, if we are to consider Claude Lefort’s consideration of public space as guaranteeing democracy when it belongs to no one (Lefort, 2006 (1988):71).

But rather than dismissing the ‘spectacle’ of commodities and their reification of social relationships, they can also be seen as supplementing a culture of ‘spectacle’ and entertainment with more participatory models of generating spectacular ‘representations,’ if we are to consider Guy Debord’s critique of the society of the spectacle, or Jean Baudrillard’s critique of the media (Baudrillard, 2003 (1972): 277-288). In a public space which is already overexposed to media and information, what difference does an installation using the same means and platforms as the types of discourse that it tries to dispute bring? Debord would certainly judge them as supplementing a culture of ‘spectacle’ and entertainment, which is also how the press and the public often perceive them. Baudrillard would argue that reversibility of the positions of producer and consumer do not guarantee reciprocity of exchange. Turning everyone into a producer will not lead to emancipation or empowerment, because the issue at fault is not who transmits information but the transmitter-message-receiver model of communication itself which excludes what Baudrillard nostalgically values as ‘genuine’ exchange and interaction.

The interactive media art installations of the 1990s and 2000s which are of interest to the Urban Screens project reappropriate parts of the Situationist theory. They support the Situationist critique of modern urban space, although with less politicized and more aestheticized artistic practices. In order to oppose the privatization, rationalization, and functionalism of public space which results in a loss of the unpredictable, spontaneous and creative side of urban life, they aim to inject temporary artistic zones of creative human interaction into the public space by means of large digital displays, digital media, and sometimes surveillance technology, mobile technology and the Internet.

Although responding to social issues by means of collective urban experiments the contemporary artworks do not hold the political density and expansiveness of the Situationist agenda and the potential to empower individuals which the Situationists envisioned with the idealism specific to Modernity. The Situationists envisioned the constructed situation, in its maximum stage of maturity, as ‘lived by its constructors.’ (Debord, 1996 (1957): 706) The collective production by its participants, or ‘livers’ to use Debord’s notion, was the measure of success of constructed situations, although in practice this stage was never achieved.

The contemporary art installations do not aim to achieve empowerment in this sense because the participant is not meant to be the producer of the artistic ‘tool.’ The technological tool is exclusively the creation of the artist and his team who thereby guide the interactive possibilities and meaningfulness of the artwork. However, technological mediated interaction in artistic environments affords other empowering opportunities and achievements. The use of digital media, large digital displays, surveillance technology, and in some cases mobile technology and the Internet in order to mediate or disseminate human interaction may be seen as producing an aesthetization of human relations and thus mask and weaken the meaningfulness of their direct experience by their spectacular representation, overwhelming the senses and inviting for contemplation. However, technologically mediated interaction in an augmented environment which transforms the individual image in the act of reflection, as in the case of Lozano-Hemmer’s installations, affords – in the opening created by the participant’s actions and their distorted representation – opportunities for amplified consciousness of the self in relation to other beings in an intense sensorial, engaging way which goes beyond community and enables a more primary, more deep sense of human communion, a collective genesis afforded through technological mediation, in Mark Hansen’s terms.


Quoted works:

Baudrillard, Jean. “Requiem for the Media” (1972). Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003. pp. 277-288
Debord, Guy. “Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action” (1957). In Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art. University of California Press, 1996
Hansen, Mark. Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. London: Routledge, 2006
Krueger, Myron. “Responsive Environments.” (1977) Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003. pp. 377-390
Lefort, Claude. Democracy and Political Theory, trans. David Macey (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1988). In Wendy Chun. Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the age of Fiber Optics. MIT Press, 2006
Senett, Richard. Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. New York: Norton, 1994
Stiles, Kristine and Edward A. Shanken. “Missing in Action: Agency and Meaning in Interactive Art.” Forthcoming in Margot Lovejoy, Christiane Paul, Victoria Vesna, eds.. Context Providers: Context and Meaning in Digital Art. University of Minnesota Press

Leave a comment