Screen potential

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 21

THEY’RE IN OUR POCKETS, THEY’RE IN OUR HOMES, IN OUR CARS, AND THEY’RE ALL AROUND OUR URBAN ENVIRONMENTS. IT’S HARD TO THINK OF A METROPOLITAN EXPERIENCE THAT ISN’T THOROUGHLY OVERLAYED AND INTERLACED WITH A HUGE VARIETY OF DIFFERENTLY SCALED SCREENS. THIS IS WHAT FIRST CAUGHT MY EYE AND LED ME TO ATTEND THE URBAN SCREENS EVENT IN MELBOURNE AT THE START OF OCTOBER 2008. HOW DO WE DEAL WITH ALL THESE IMAGE SURFACES AND NETWORKED DISPLAYS THAT TYPIFY THE PRESENT GLOBAL PUBLIC SPHERE?

When we think urban screens (as opposed to sub-urban, ex-urban or non-urban ones?), we typically conjure images of oversized projections strangely attached to Gehry-like buildings in hypermodern CBD plazas. Think Seoul. Think Times Square. Think Fed Square.

While the Bladerunner-scale of the moving image takes hold of our imagination and tends to hog centrestage, Urban Screens Melbourne 08 took a broader and more expansive view of the spatial impact of screen technologies in contemporary culture and cities. Urban screens can be seen as providing a new digital layer to the city, an augmented media space that folds and flexes its way into and out of contemporary urban experience. It was the event’s engagement with this broad field that made Melbourne’s Urban Screens 08 such an engrossing and stimulating event.

The third in an ongoing series of international projects (the first was held in Amsterdam in 2005 and the second in Manchester in 2007; RT84, p30), the Melbourne program focused its conference and related events around the theme of “Mobile Publics.” Consisting of a series of keynote addresses, panels and discussions, the conference provided a framework for the presentation of a wide variety of media works presented in public urban contexts. This multimedia program was developed by Mirjam Struppek, who was one of the originators of the Urban Screens conference in Europe, and a founding member of the newly established Urban Screens international network. The Mobile Publics Conference was jointly developed and presented by Scott McQuire, Nikos Papastergiadis and Sean Cubitt from Melbourne University’s School of Culture and Communication, and set the intellectual scene for the event as a whole.

It could be argued that Fed Square houses one of the most successful implementations of a large screen in a public mall/piazza space. Filling up an entire city block, the square was purpose-built in 2002 as a public meeting place for Melbourne. As Kate Brennan (CEO of Federation Square) noted in her opening remarks and comments during later discussions, the Fed Square screen has been programmed by the authorities/managers of that space at the same time as it’s been claimed by the general public. We see this most clearly in the public assemblies and displays of mass emotion around major sporting events and significant moments in our collective political and social history””witness the crowds around this and other large public screens for the Prime Minister’s Apology.

But does this mean that these outdoor screening spaces are appropriate for contemporary artists and media makers? Through the multimedia program, film screenings and joint broadcasting initiative, curator Struppek strove to engage audiences in the social/technical space of the Fed Square environs. This extended from the main 65-square metre Barco screen in the outdoor plaza to numerous indoor and outdoor public LED screens, interactive ticker screens and temporary projection installations. The scale of the programming, and the scope of the works was impressive, though ultimately impossible (for this reviewer at least) to see it all.

The large screen space was used to engage passersby in contemporary interactive works such as MobiToss””MobiLenin by Jurgen Schelble from Finland, SEED by Canadian artists Napoleon Brousseau, Gabe Sawhney, Galen Scorer, Dave Reynolds and Adam Bacsalmasi, and Troy Innocent’s x-milieu abstract interactive installation.

This context and curatorial strategy for works presented in Melbourne is not at all like the infamous SPOTS media facade in Berlin which began showcasing large-scale interactive artworks in 2005. Although this “˜screen’ and others of its kind in Europe were (for some time at least) devoted exclusively to electronic art and experimental/alternative content, the standard large TV format of Fed Square provides a very different, and arguably more difficult set of constraints for artists to work with. Many of the attempts I witnessed to involve the public in this kind of interactive engagement were not particularly successful, and highlight the complexity of making urban scale works that connect with “˜random’ publics.

The interactive program was complemented by a series of projection-based works that played open-air-cinema style in the evening. This is where the scale of screen, urban context and bodily rhythms of the audience fell into sharpest relief. It is incredibly difficult for these works to grab the attention of the casual passerby who has to find an entry point and an acoustic space for linear works such as these. A bit like outdoor cinema for the avant-garde, these works struggled to connect with the mobile and disengaged audience. Without the organising principle of a public political or sporting event, our bodily engagement with this form of public/social space collapses.

A number of speakers at the conference demonstrated these dilemmas from a variety of angles, focusing in on the ways media, art and technology collide with the practical construction and experience of urban space. Saskia Sassen’s opening night keynote was one of the highlights. Her talk, entitled “Heavy Metal and Fuzzy Logic”, neatly contrasted the liquid potential of media with the solid steel structures of the heavy architecture so predominant in the BMX Theatre where the conference took place. Building upon much of the work she has done as an investigator into global city/global slum (she invented the term), Sassen opened up a series of questions that were echoed by other presenters throughout the conference.

ANAT Director Melinda Rackham gave a beautifully illustrated overview of the types of work that artists and designers have been producing for a wide range of public spaces over the past few years. This helped set the scene for more culturally specific presentations by Yoshitaka Mori on “MobileTechnology Culture and the Emergence of “˜Mobile’ Subjectivities” in Japan and Aaron Tan’s impressive discussion of recent work from his Hong Kong design firm RAD. Other international speakers (such as Andreas Broeckmann, who spoke on the “Intimate Publics. Memory, Performance, and Spectacle in Urban Environments”, particularly as it applies to the contemporary reconstruction of Berlin’s social/screen space), and Leon van Schaik’s talk, “Spatial Intelligence”, expanded the theoretical horizons of the conference. Case studies presented by Manray Hsu on the Taipei Biennial and Soh Yeong Roh’s presentation on “The City as Open Creative Platform” were also noteworthy contributions to the discussions.

While it was difficult as a conference participant visiting from another city to find time to see all of the works presented around Fed Square in a couple of days, the informative display in the foyer outside the main conference theatre gave an interesting snapshot of the innovative ways that artists, designers and architects are dealing with screenspaces in urban settings.

It was apt to stage Urban Screens 08 at Fed Square, itself something of a success story in the unfolding narrative of large scale screens in public spaces. This event offered a number of provocative and fruitful ways into thinking about the claims made on behalf of public screenspace, and will provide stimulus for local endeavours in this field for some time to come.

Urban Screens Melbourne 08: Mobile Publics, Federation Square, Oct 3-5 www.urbanscreens08.net; www.seedcollective.org

Ross Harley, Professor and Head of the School of Media Arts, College of Fine Arts, UNSW, is an artist, writer, and educator in new media and popular culture. His work crosses the bounds of media art practice, cinema, music, design, and architecture.

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 21