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Urban Screens 2008 onderzoekt de invloed van schermen in de stad


Federation Square Melbourne door

— Tijdens de Urban Screens 2008 conferentie gingen sprekers en bezoekers op zoek naar antwoord op de vraag in welke mate schermen verandering in de stad in gang zetten. Annet Dekker ging voor Virtueel Platform naar Melbourne.

Het verslag, of beter gezegd een reflectie op de conferentie, behandelt onder andere de presentaties van verschillende sprekers van de conferentie. Saskia Sassen, Ien Ang en Yoshitaka Mori geven een kritische kijk op schermen in de stad en de rol die hedendaagse kunst daarin kan spelen.

Reflections on Urban Screens08 conference in Melbourne: the need for a consciousness of sight!

Upon entering the land down-under I’m again amazed by the warm welcome, genuine friendliness and the sunny atmosphere - despite the bad weather.

Kicking off Urban Screens08, organizer Mirjam Struppek (International Urban Screens Association) explained that Federation Square where the conference took place was a unique place and probably one of the best locations in the world to hold a conference and exhibition about urban screens in public space: an amazing urban environment that integrates digital media in an outstanding way.

The goal of Urban Screens08 was to connect theory with practice. The theory element takes place inside the hall and outside on the square and ‘theory coming to practice’, as announced in the opening speech, can be found on the square outside, integrating all kind of technologies.

Urban Screens08 aims to make a critical investigation. Co-organiser Scott McQuire (Assoc Professor, School of Culture & Communications, University of Melbourne) outlined the initial research questions: How do urban screens contribute to the transformation of urban space? What is their relation to contemporary art? How do they alter traditional broadcasting strategies? Do they lead to new models of urbanism and social communication? Who should have access? How can urban screens facilitate cross-cultural exchange? Given that there are specific forms in which cities are transformed by ubiquitous and pervasive media, how do the old traditional piazzas and market square merge with the new concepts of public spheres? It promised to be an intense and interesting two days.

The conference started with an inspiring keynote by Saskia Sassen (Lynd Professor of Sociology, Columbia University). In her talk she focused on two topics: Firstly, the tension between heavy metal and fuzzy logics. In short, the introduction and embedding of the digital, and partly the interactive, unsettle the material world and add new dimensions into existing traditional spheres. The second topic Sassen referred to was “new frontiers of global urban space Within this global urban space, she explores spaces in which new sociabilities emerge. Her particular focus is on the numerous slums that exist all over the world. Slums are a habitat for complex realities and even complex technological structures are reflected in social relations. She highlighted powerlessness as a variable and questions how immobility can still be active. On the one hand slums have a condition of negativity; harboring victims and showing the oppression, but on the other hand they are very complex systems that can be breeding places for empowerment. Powerlessness has the capacity to distort, allowing for globalities and networks to arise.

This is where Sassen spots a possibility of openness that would be interesting to research and to relate to other spaces with complex social situations. There is a lot of activity that is invisible but very important, and the question is how far we can take this unhinging? Master categories have the tendency to blind us, therefore Sassen proposes to dig into things and to deepen the search in order to get away from the trope: “one has to get at the making off, at the characteristic of the space, there one can capture the essence and start to unsettle the meaning of the space - unsettle the tropes”.

The talk explored the broader field of social relations within our culture, transcending beyond the borders of urban screens.

To summarize, an inspiring presentation that showed new possibilities for regeneration processes and change implying that the new will only be found in the small corners and not on the large and implemented.

The large screen on Federation Square opened afterwards, though the programme was shortened due to the rain and ended in a disappointing cold drizzle. Although most of the audience vanished and the organization failed to organize any social event on the opening day of the conference, Melbourne turned out to be a small enough city which made it easy to run into each other by chance. And on top of that there were many other, sometimes almost hidden, 'urban screens' in the form of light boxes, graffiti and other art projects in the many lanes and walk ways of the city.

The first day of the conference showcased a several examples of contemporary projects using interactive art in public space. Some well known, others less but most of them interesting. Many projects investigated new forms of public relationships, and there was a lot of talk about a new public sphere where a mediation of physical and electronic space takes place.

Yoshitaka Mori (Assoc Professor, Sociology and Cultural Studies, Tokyo University of the Arts) gave an interesting presentation about the influence of mobile phones in Japan. He mentioned the ‘internet café refugees’, a group of people who are lost without their online lives and have no sense of identity. The secluded world of the internet café is the only place they can their own selves again. These refugees bring a very different layer to the notion of (in)visibility within social society.

Independent curator Andreas Broeckmann presented the work of Knowbotic Research and showed how public art can play a critical role in the context of publicity-soaked and mediatised cultures. Knowbotic Research contextualises the presence of urban screens in various ways. Although they are mainly interested in the small urban screens, their work and projects highlight once more how our information world has changed. And again the notion of the (in)visibility surfaced!

The second session of the day addressed current and future directions in the media infrastructure of urban space. Jan Schuijren (curator CASZ, Amsterdam), who had presented his work for the public screen CASZ at a previous Urban Screens conference, discussed recent developments of the screen. CASZ is an unusual screen because it is devoted to the screening of video art. About a month ago, the organisation did an audience on the impact of theirs screening programme. Maybe not surprising, many people were hardly aware of why and what was been shown on the screen; some liked it and others didn’t; but overall people felt it lacked context. As a consequence and in order to improve communication, CASZ is now reorganizing its programming and plans to install computer kiosks with additional information about the work and a possibility to react to the screenings.

BBC screens in the UK are less art oriented. Mike Gibbons (London2012, Head of Live Sites and UK Coordination) coined the evocative phrase: ‘It’s time to deliver!’. After a few successful years of BBC Big Screens, the next phase for the BBC is to network the various screens across the UK. The experience from the past showed that what is needed is local content and a specific space and atmosphere that creates opportunities to use the screen in new ways, i.e. including technique and creative possibilities of interactivity.

Yann Le Belego (Barco Media) followed with many outstanding examples and surprising possibilities of LED screens, concluding that the commercial sector is leading in the content development of urban screens, which is not surprising considering the costs of these wonderful 3D screens which is far from any artistic budget.

The discussion went from small to big, to large screens and even to the notion of projecting on the sky, or was it from the sky… From there the focus moved to the notion of political agency with regard to the forming of social relations. The public screening of the president’s apology to the Aboriginals on the Federation Square was taken as an example for questioning the risk in replacing public action with an action in second life. The difference of watching the live apology at home or at a public screening is the fundamental difference in intensity of social interaction. Urban Screening can be regarded as a performance in public space, and in that way is a form of public agency. However this doesn’t mean that it is a democratic medium, which leads to the question of how the relation between camera and screen functions in this new power relation?

Andreas Broeckmann’s keynote presentation “Intimate Publics, Memory, Performance and Spectacle in Urban Environments” was a call to look at urban screens from a different angle. Whereas in Renaissance painting, the outside was reflected through the window looking out into an imaginary world, urban screens can be seen to do the opposite he argued. Urban screens give a glimpse of the imaginary interior of a building, or as Broeckmann called it “a mediated beyond”. But this view only gives one level of the multi dimensional experience of urban space. What happens if one looks beyond, reverses the gaze? By referring to the notion of intimacy, Broeckmann made a plea that the urban environment consists of more screens than just the large urban screens. He pointed out that the term 'urban screens' does not describe a particular type of technical medium, but that it relates to a concept that looks at different kinds of screens 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 are also important as 'urban screens', just as the large-scale video billboards and media facades. Together they create a contemporary sense of urbanity. The physical and mental integration between self and medium goes much further than before, especially when one looks at the “interiorised ear-canal medium of the iPod, the ubiquity of everybody's voice in the mobile phone, and the networked PC”. Broeckmann rightfully asked if the urban screen was able to compete with the intimate mobile media “that vibrate in pockets, and that cocoon the gaze and the listening mind”?

What followed was an attempt to show how screens might contribute to an understanding of a public urban space that is not defined by entertainment and one-way information, but by difference, communication, conflict, contradiction, efficacy, negotiation and passion. Each city, he explained, is rife with imaginations; a cultural stage, and a container of mediated memories. According to Broeckmann, the urban screens talked about at the conference add only one layer to the multi-dimensional urban experiences. What Broeckmann left us with were the following questions: which images do the designers of urban screens and screen content want us city dwellers to imagine; which of our memories do they want to respond to; which dreams do they want us to dream – and which of these dreams do they want to help us transform into a history which we can take into our hands.

The whole lecture can be found on

After this resonant lecture on the impact of urban screens that ended with the message to search for projects that deal with friction, clashes and raise questions, architect Aaron Tan (Research Architecture Design) closed the first day of the symposium with an interesting overview of their projects. He urged to stop thinking in a 19th century fashion and suggested to make a fresh start that looks at pixels and to map these in different ways. He spoke about the need to enter into a layer of cellular molecules, referring to the influence of computer technologies and media art as potential for understanding the complexities of the world we live in. An interesting approach that he described as Pixel Planning: a new tool and masterplan that will give more transparency.

The next day discussed the impact of Urban Screens on architecture and space in the broader sense.

Leon van Schaik (Professor, Architecture, RMIT University Melbourne) started with an account on his notion of spatial intelligence. He believes that we need an understanding of how architects design in order to make them design better. The architectural practices haven’t changed in a meaningful way since the 17th century. Many architects are still stuck in the traditional thinking about space and architecture, rather than concentrating on spatial thinking to change our perspective and introduce new developments that reflect our current environment and needs. It is time to stop learning from the past in order to start creating cities for the present. We need to be very clear about the body of knowledge, and not claim the territory of the master engineer, but return to a continuous dialogue with the community.

Co-organiser Mirjam Struppek proclaimed the new central public square as the living room of the urban community. As a place central to discussion and negotiation are made in contrast to the private living space/room

The last session of the conference was on cross-cultural public networks. Both Manray Hsu and Ien Ang investigated how large urban screen installations embedded in specific urban precincts contribute to the redefinition of the relation between local places and global culture, and which models of collaboration enable a shift beyond the competitive battle between individual cities to become ‘cultural hubs’?

Curator and philosopher Manray Hsu (Taipei and Berlin) stressed the importance to look at urban screens not just as a place for exhibiting but also as a place to think about hacking and infiltration. Because the strategies of public interventions have diversified, one should be ware of and use all possible means. One suggestion is to learn from the informal: Just as the informal city has been built by its users he suggested to regard the large screens as a performative space where one can explore and present the semiotic and ambiguity in the public space.

Ien Ang (Professor of Cultural Studies, University of Western Sydney) explained the project diverCities, an experiment using web2.0 technologies within and between cities around the world (Singapore, Mumbai, Sydney). Their main focus is to explore if the computer screen can be a tool for cross-cultural collaboration across cities around the world. The development of a theory of cultural dialogue is very interesting, in what way the online project will be exemplary for this remains to be seen.

Due to the cancellation of the last speaker Sho-Yeong Roh, Hermen Maat, one of the participating artists had the chance to present his work. Surprisingly little attention had gone to the artists of the exhibition program, so this was a welcoming addition to the conference. Although the ‘Stalk Show’ project by Maat and Lancel, due to problems with the technical infrastructure, did not work until the following day, Hermen Maat gave an interesting account and insight in the working and experience of their projects.

For me, Urban Screens 2008 symposium indicated the urgency to get at the making of, head for the invisible, learn from the unexpected, reverse the gaze and look at artistic informal practices to unsettle the tropes, cause friction, create new sociabilities and raise questions and discussion.

Art(ists), as was confirmed during the conference, will help us to understand these processes in order to come to terms with the complexities of the world we live in. A valid conclusion which certainly does not explain the lack of artists’ presence and presentations within the conference. With ‘the art’ being somewhere outside, on a large screen towering above us, while below people were passing… Did theory really come to practice?


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