Book Launch: ‘The Urban Screens Reader’

sabine niedererIn the final session of the conference, Sabine Niederer presented the launch of the first book dedicated entirely to the urban screens theme, The Urban Screens Reader. The book was edited by Scott McQuire and Meredith Martin from the University of Melbourne and Sabine Niederer from the Institute of Network Cultures. The Urban Screens Reader contains three sections: ‘Urban Screens: History, Technology, Politics’, ‘Sites’, and ‘Publics and Participation: Interactivity, Sociability and Strategies in Locative Media.’ The book in pdf will be soon available for free download on the INC website.

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Urban Screens Conference Reports

 The Urban Screens conference which took place in Amsterdam on the 4th of December this year is the fourth in a series of events which has been organized around the theme of display screens (LED signs, plasma screens, projection boards, intelligent architectural surfaces, etc.) in urban spaces. It supports the idea of using public space as a platform for creation and cultural exchange, strengthening the local economy and encouraging public discussion. Since the first Urban Screens event in 2005 in Amsterdam, related international conferences have taken place in Manchester in 2007 and Melbourne in 2008. The series of events encourages the exploration of opportunities to employ 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 and artistic content with the purpose of revitalizing public space, and generating public engagement and interaction.

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Light as Artistic Medium: Paul Klotz (and the Meaningfulness of Interactive Features in Media Artworks)

klotzPaul Klotz is an applied art engineer and light designer who specializes in interactive light installations for public spaces. By means of light and sound installations which create a feedback loops between the passerby and the installation upon physical interaction with the artwork, he attempts to set up in public spaces artistic zones which captivate, entertain and enrich human experience.  The Tunnel Vision installation for example is a light and sound installation which responds to the individual’s hand movements within it by sound and light alterations.

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Mettina Veenstra on How Public Screens Can Help Build Social Capital

mettina veenstraMettina Veenstra is principal researcher and coordinator of the theme public screens at Novay Research. Novay is a Dutch research institute for ICT driven innovation. Her presentation at the Urban Screens conference in Amsterdam on the 4th of December this year focused on what public displays can do for public space in terms of stimulating encounters and interactions between people in public spaces. They envision the role of public digital displays as external stimuli for encouraging contact between people, with art being an important type of stimulus. But why is it important to foster social interactions? According to Mettina Veenstra social interactions lead to social capital which is important for our well being and our economy.

 The speaker identified eight functions of public displays: information, entertainment, art and culture, advertising, communication, better services, e-participation (the stimulation of discussion on environment and other local issues) and influencing (colors or imagines that can improve the mood of people). The speaker presented a series of projects for public screens which incorporate these functions and ideally aim to generate social capital. For example, a game projected in neighborhood public digital displays, the main target audience of which are youngsters, permits any individual who owns a mobile phone to play with the main character of the game, a dog, along with other people who access the game trough their mobile phones. A social networking site which links you to people whom you played the game with has also been set up. Other projects aim at encouraging the practice of performing arts in public spaces, while others are designed for public areas of office spaces with the purpose of stimulating workers to get in touch with each other by means of a constant flow of messages related to their activity.

The ‘recipe’ for fostering social capital which Novay puts in practice emphasizes the ‘locality’ of content and it’s direct relevance to the individual (personalized content), as well as allowing people to interact with the screens. The personalization of content is enabled by the integration of sensors and facial recognition technology in context aware applications.

This year’s Urban Screens conference in Amsterdam focused less on theoretical aspects and more on showing some of the actual artistic and non-commercial projects and installations which have been developed for digital displays in public space, and Mettina Veenstra’s presentation was one of them. I could not help noticing with surprise the great gap between theory and practice in what producing applications and installations for digital interfaces in public space as platforms for creation, cultural exchange and social interaction are concerned. While the growing number of such projects is certainly a step in the right direction, an issue that deserves more attention is a more informed and critical integration of new technologies, such as surveillance technologies, in these projects. For ambient intelligence enthusiasts, a recent exhibition which took place in New York, The Sentient City, provides a useful source for reflection. The Too Smart City section of the exhibition contained a series of artworks which amusingly explored potential technological failures of augmented objects, as a way to generate reflection about the transformations and effects of living in an intelligent urban environment.

Another concept which has been extensively and uncritically used today in the presentations with implicit positive and ideological connotations directly related to the applications’ potential to foster social change is the concept of ‘interaction’ in relation to media applications. However, interaction with digital environments is often not the much celebrated ’empowerment’ of the individual now an user/participant, to replace the passive consumption of traditional media, but simply reaction and individual configuration of a technological environment with a limited number of already defined potential paths. Moreover, the participant’s agency in artistic environments is not meaningful in itself in relation to social change but only when it “sets empathy in motion toward responsible interaction and constructive change.” (Stiles and Shanken, forthcoming: 93).

I am convinced that The Urban Screens Reader which has been launched today and which will soon be available for free download on the INC website,  will be an useful tool in bridging the gap between theory and practice.


Kristine Stiles 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).

Nanna Verhoeff: Mobile Digital Cartography from Representation to Performance of Space

nanna verhoeff

Nanna Verhoeff, associate professor in the department of Media and Culture studies at Utrecht University, had one of the very few yet very welcomed theoretical presentations at the Urban Screens conference which took place on the 4th of December this year in Amsteram.

Her contribution focused in particular on mobile screens (such as mobile phones, PDA’s and GPS devices), and their role in urban screen culture. She discussed the specificity of these screens in relation to the concept of mobility, an often encountered trope in the history of screen media.

The first question which the speaker addressed was: how are these mobile screens different from the large digital displays in urban space? And, in relation to a broader range of screen media, how do mobile screens influence the relationship between the user, the screen and the space outside the screen?

As Nanna Verhoeff points out, one of the differences between mobile screens and traditional static screens is the fact that mobile screens are ‘application based.’ The mobile screen serves as an interface for the convergence of various technologies and software applications: they can act as cameras, interfaces for online communication or surfing the web, as well as GPS devices. While the relationship between user and screen as material object may remain ‘static’ and unchanged in the context of the mobility afforded by the use of mobile digital screens, what changes and deserves attention according to the speaker is “the relationship to the off-screen space, the world surrounding the screen, [which] is perhaps becoming at once more intimate, more flexible, and more mobile”:

“Because of these characteristics (application-based hybridity + “intimate” closeness) mobile screens put forward practices of a mobile and haptic engagement with the screen that fundamentally revise the spatial coordinates of large, fixed and (paradoxically) distancing televisual, cinematic, and architectural screen-dispositifs. When the screen is becoming an interactive map, camera, and a networked communication device all-in-one, these mobile (touch)screens and practices of mobile screening problematize set boundaries of agency, between making, transmitting, and receiving images (who “makes”, “programs” and watches them). Moreover, these devices turn the “classical” screen as flat and distanced window on the world, into an interactive, hybrid navigation device that repositions the viewer central within that world.”

Equipped with mobile screens we therefore become a sort of ‘postmodern’ cartographers: we produce space by navigating through and interacting with an augmented space. But unlike traditional cartography which is concerned with the systematic and objective rendering of space and space relations at different scales, creative cartography in 4D enabled by mobile screens is a subjective, flexible and open-ended practice of personalized space mapping.

What are some of the applications which enable this practice? GPS navigation, for example, in which the movement produces the map, is one of them. Another example of subjective/ creative production of space is geo tagging, through which geographical identification data is added to media such as photos. In mobile augmented reality, reality browsers or ‘layar’ applications, the information enhanced map fluctuates according to our position.

In conclusion, Nanna Verhoeff points out to a new notion of cartography which is being revealed by the use of these applications, by means of which we are not only navigating space but also constructing space. According to her cartography:

“it is not a precondition only, but a product of navigation, and as such, cartography is becoming more than a systematic representation of space: it is a performance of space in a true sense: a making and expressing of space.”

With this notion the media theorist emphasizes the necessity of a shift in discussing some of the contemporary media practices from the notion of representation, which received criticism in modernity for its potential to produce alienation and engender passive consummation, to the notion of process, performance, performativity, more specifically “the process in which representation comes into being” through the embodied experiencing of space.

From Weak Ties to Organized Networks: Winter Camp 09

Winter Camp 09 was an event which took place between 3 and 7 March 2009 in Amsterdam. Organized by the Institute of Network Cultures, the event offered twelve networks for four days the space to develop and analyze their identity and practices.

How does the “will to network” manifest in today’s society where the number of network technologies is continuously growing? How do networked interactions influence culture? What happens when networks become driving forces? How can networks maintain their critical edge while aiming for professional status? These and other questions motivated the organization of the event which resulted in the publication From Weak Ties to Organnized Networks: Ideas, Reports, Critiques, which can be downloaded for free from the Institute of Network Cultures website.

The posts in this section are articles which I contributed to the Winter Camp blog.

Upgrade! Decision Making in a Distributed Network

Winter Camp

In the previous two days, after having discussed their identity, mission, core values, and crises, the sixteen members of Upgrade! gathered this morning with several issues on their agenda, which have not yet been touched upon this week at Winter Camp: collaborative tools and managing collaborative tools, lists and managing lists, and the decision making process. The discussion about potential models of network organization was combined with discussing the upcoming event organized with the assistance of Upgrade! International in Sao Paolo.

Upgrade! defines itself as a decentralized, non-hierarchical network of currently thirty local nodes, which started in 1999 in New York City. It seems to me rather that the network has a distributed structure, considering that all the locally defined nodes are equal and autonomous. The network structure fundamentally defines the decision making process. While the network maintained a quite democratic mode of organization and decision making so far, this model has its weaknesses as well. Not all the members felt motivated to contribute in the decision making process by voting at the right time. A potential solution that has been discussed during the group meeting today was voting versus mandate, or a combination of the two, according to the various circumstances. In situations which require higher effectiveness over a short period of time, the democratic procedure would be ‘sacrificed’ in order to meet deadlines and objectives, and the decision power would be delegated to a smaller representative group. As a matter a fact, working in smaller groups has proven to be an effective method to reach results also during work at Winter Camp.

Winter Camp

A vulnerable point with which the network seems to be confronting at this moment is the decision making process, reason for which changing the currently used collaborative tools: mailing list, wiki, website, has been considered. There seemed to be an oscillation between working in a democratic manner, and giving people clear responsibilities and mandates to work on.

An important value for a distributed network like Upgrade! is transparency. Introducing a wiki as communication platform is a way to achieve transparency and avoid isolation of the local nodes.

The growing number of group members might also turn into a vulnerability of the network unless the mode of organization is adapted. An important point of discussion of Upgrade! at Winter Camp was precisely how the growth of the network should be approached and how membership should be defined. Since the network does not impose constraints of activity on its nodes, each of the nodes has the freedom to be active or passive. The nodes may be inactive until an activity of local interest determines the engagement of the node and consequently the network’s support. The weakness of this approach is that it is difficult to distinguish between temporarily idle nodes and ‘retired’ nodes, therefore it is difficult for the network to have an account of who it can count on.

The local nodes are connected in an online global network that meets twice a year. The question arose of how to activate the nodes and make them more efficient without imposing constraints on them. The network does not seem to have a set of predefined norms to regulate the interaction between nodes. The conditions of participation in local events are established ad hoc and depend on the circumstances of each event and the needs of the local host, as it had been evident from the discussion regarding the organization of their upcoming event in Sao Paolo.

The group also noticed a difference of involvement between generations of nodes. The old nodes seemed to be more involved and dedicated than the new ones. This situation may be connected with the fact that an important value on which the foundation of the network was based, and which guided their relations was friendship. Now that the network is growing and more nodes are being attached, the strategy of accepting new members might change from friendship to more formal criteria.

“Stop searching, Start Questioning!”: The Society of the Query, Amsterdam, Nov. 2009

The Society of the Query conference was held in Amsterdam between the 13th and 14th of November 2009. It was organized by the Institute of Network Cultures lead by Geert Lovink. The conference aimed to generate reflection on the role of the search engine in our society, and particularly in our culture. What happens to our knowledge and culture when stored on online platforms and accessed through search engines? The dominant role of one particular search engine, Google, was one of the main themes of the conference, along with potential alternatives to web search and interface design, as well as Internet and search engine art.

One may be skeptical of the potential of such Humanities approaches to influence the course of technological developments. However, theory, critical thinking and art play a significant role in that they generate a cultural flow which could alter the course of technology developments  and potentially lead to a different direction.

The posts in this section are articles which I contributed to The Society of the Query blog.

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