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Participating in the City through Performative Urban Interfaces / Marcos Dias, Matt Adams

Marcos Dias
Assistant Professor, School of Communications, Dublin City University


Matt Adams
Blast Theory Artist


Reference this essay: Dias, Marcos and Matt Adams. “Participating in the City through Performative Urban Interfaces.” In Urban Interfaces: Media, Art and Performance in Public Spaces, edited by Verhoeff, Nanna, Sigrid Merx, and Michiel de Lange. Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, no. 4 (March 15, 2019).
Published Online: March 15, 2019
Published in Print: To Be Announced
ISBN: To Be Announced
ISSN: 1071-4391
Repository: To Be Announced

The aim of this essay is twofold: first, it proposes a definition of performative urban interfaces as interventions in urban space driven by non-functional narratives that incorporate digital communication technologies as opposed to informational urban interfaces, which are described as systems that aim to provide efficient urban interactions of a functional nature. Second, it provides examples of urban art interventions as forms of performative urban interfaces, analyzing their participatory outcome through ethnographic research. This analysis unveils multiple forms of participatory engagement and interpretation of the narrative that can be defined as emerging performative interventions in urban space. Such interventions emerge through a collective of relational ‘actants,’ including: citizens, artistic narrative, urban space and digital communication technologies. The term ‘actant’ is borrowed here from Actor-Network-Theory (ANT), defined as a mediator capable of reconfiguring agency with unexpected results. The analysis of this collective and its participatory outcome is conducted through examples of urban art interventions, as we discuss the process of artistic narration and participant translation and the potential for performative urban interfaces to repurpose informational urban interfaces.

Keywords:  Urban interface, performance studies, participatory art, digital media, social interaction

Informational urban interfaces might enable direct citizen interaction or be fully controlled by city authorities. They might be located in public space or remotely accessed online by citizens in public space. They help us to navigate the city (such as Google Maps and Apple Maps) and control key communication and transportation services (such as the coordination of traffic lights, urban transport networks, parking facilities and emergency communication systems). Digital dashboards are an example of informational urban interfaces that have emerged as a means of overseeing and acting upon the different urban exchanges governed by digital technologies. These dashboards might be directly accessible to citizens—such as the Dublin Dashboard, an online dashboard with free online access that collates near real-time and real-time information from several sources to give an overview of the city, including CCTV camera footage, water and sound levels, weather, parking availability, flight and train information and several other services. [1] They might also be used for the purpose of managing key city services (with no direct input from citizens), such as the Dublin Traffic Management and Incident Centre (TMIC), a centralized and enclosed system for “monitoring and controlling the road transportation network and traffic flow in the Greater Dublin Area.” [2] Informational urban interfaces are based on the efficient deployment of software, or computer code. They are examples of what Kitchin and Dodge (2011) define as code/space, which is “dependent on the dyadic relationship between code and space.” [3] Or in other words, the space defined by the relation between code and space ‘breaks down’ in the absence of code: a check-in area in an airport “reverts from a space in which to check in to a fairly chaotic waiting room”; and thus, temporarily ceases to be an informational urban interface. [4]

The breakdown of an informational urban interface invites active intervention of the user, who might respond in several ways, such as: questioning the effectiveness of digital communication technologies, engaging in a collective display of anger, lamenting the communication breakdown or actively engaging with other affected users towards finding a resolution to the issue. This breakdown illustrates the potential of an informational interface to perform. While this example involves a private (or semi-public) space, informational interfaces situated in public space are also subject to unexpected circumstances as they interact with actants: active users, bystanders, urban furniture and unpredictable (or less predictable) city events—such as unruly weather conditions, traffic jams, unrest, signal failure and so on. The term actant is defined by Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) as a non-figurative mediator of agency—an individual, object or process—that acts (or performs), and in the process reconfigures agency. [5] A mediator, as Latour states, is capable of modifying meaning and challenging the “accounts attributed to its role.” [6] Or in other words, their role cannot be premeditated and their ability to perform in a way that is completely unexpected is never curtailed.

This might lead to unscripted outcomes, such as the opportunity to reflect on the effect of mediated digital technologies on our everyday lives and the opportunity to engage with other citizens (including strangers) in unexpected performances. Such outcomes also emerge through situated media art events that engage citizens through non-functional narratives facilitated by digital communication technologies in public space. These events are capable of having a significant impact on the participants’ perception and engagement with their surroundings and other citizens through their individual interpretation of the narrative of the event, as we will describe later.


A Machine To See With

The main case study that we discuss is based on a collaboration between the authors (Marcos and Matt), initiated through ethnographic study of Blast Theory’s A Machine To See With, a situated media art performative event that was part of the Brighton Digital Festival in September 2011, and that emerged from a “Locative Cinema commission from the Sundance Film Festival, 01 San Jose Biennial and the Banff New Media Institute.” [7] Marcos’ role as an ethnographer involved actively participating in the performance while also observing and interviewing other participants and the artists. [8] His role as an “inside-outside observer” involved “[steering] a middle path between the two extreme roles of total newcomer (an unattainable ideal) and that of complete participant [the equivalent of the total native],” where the observer’s role is neither completely detached nor fully immersed. [9]

Blast Theory, led by Matt Adams, Ju Row Farr and Nick Tandavanitj, is renowned for their situated media performances in urban space that—in their own words— “[explore] the social and political aspects of technology.” [10] Their work foregrounds our contemporary condition of immersion in a media saturated world while prompting us to question “the meaning of interaction [and] its limitations.” [11] Their aim is significantly important in light of the dominant ‘narrative’ of contemporary urban space, which presents itself to the tech-savvy citizen as ungoverned (or self-governed) interactive space imbued with full potential and agency—go-where-you-want/do-whatever-you-want in whatever order—while at the same time being deeply codified, highly controlled, and governed by unwritten social rules and expectations that aim for (political) order, (economic) efficiency and (social) consensus.

A Machine To See With reflects “on the tension generated by the increasing mediation of our everyday experiences … through pervasive digital media.” [12] The narrative is intentionally ambiguous, demanding reflection from participants. As Matt points out, it is “interested in the nature of interaction itself and the limits and false promises of it.” [13] Participants sign up to take part in A Machine To See With and are given a time slot. Up to six participants start from different places in the city at the same time. At an allocated time, they receive a call telling them where to go. Once they get there, the phone rings again and they follow a series of instructions based on a fictional narrative that suggests they are the lead in a (fictional) bank heist. [14] As they negotiate both public and private spaces (such as a pub, a leisure center, a bank and a games arcade), they are prompted to partner up with another participant (usually unknown to them) inside a car parked on the top level of a multi-story car park to plan and execute the heist, which is eventually aborted at the last minute as they approach the main entrance of a Barclays bank in Brighton’s city center. The narrative tells participants to move swiftly away from the bank unnoticed.

Blast Theory describes it as a “film where you play the lead,” and an experience that envisions “the city as a cinematic space.” [15] Apart from cinema, the project is driven by two other main themes. First, the tyranny of choice and consumerism, as it addresses the aim of marketing focus groups and polling questions to respectively create psychological profiles of consumers and to target swing voters, such as in Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. And second, the financial crisis, as a means of highlighting the “steady impotence of citizens confronted by digital capitalism.” [16] These themes are addressed in the narrative, as the participant is asked to answer a series of questions through the numeric keypads on their phone and by staging both the failed bank heist and then asking the participant to give some of their money to a complete stranger at the very end as a counterbalancing act to the botched bank heist.

A Machine To See With invokes the language and technological apparatus of a call center and it repurposes an open source call center software package called Asterisk, which controls the phone calls to and from the participant and is also capable of triggering specific narrative prompts through keypad input. The narrative has been designed to guide the participant through a linear route and, as Adams points out, it is mechanical and methodical:

It’s not a particularly friendly and gratifying set of forms of interaction and its core is mechanic: you listen, you do what you’re told, you occasionally press buttons and every now and then those button presses are meaningful, but as much as anything else you are just confirming that you are ready to receive your next instruction, or you are in the right place to receive your next instruction. [17]

The narrative is imbued with ambiguous, conflicting and sometimes comical and absurd statements. For example, the prompt that suggests that the participant is about to enter an alternative reality of a transgressive nature, with serious implications:

You have just arrived. You are new here and you are alert to your new surroundings […] You are going on a robbery but your face shows no sign. To a bystander you could be anyone. You are just a person on a phone. By taking part in A Machine To See With you agree that you will take responsibility for your own safety and actions during this time. [18]

This is followed by a prompt suggesting an unusual approach to dealing with any possible issues with the police:

If the police are called they will not take any notice of your excuses. If you get caught you just deny that you knew you were breaking the law, just tell the authorities that re-distributing capital from where it is not being used to where it will get used is a service. Get ready to think on your feet. [19]

As the participant reacts to the narrative, their performance is subject to the unpredictability of city events, which disrupts the linear narrative proposed by the artists, as Adams points out:

The city is a random space. It is entropic, it is contested, so you cannot control it and people are going to be buffeted by real events and coincidences. Even in a work like A Machine To See With with its strong [narrative] linearity there are many, many interventions and disruptions to the work that are outside of our control. [20]


Figure 1: Participants Partnering Up, Marcos Dias, 2011. Participants partnering up in the BMW parked in the public car park. Marcos Dias, 2011. Used with permission.


Figure 2: Barclays Bank, Marcos Dias, 2011. The intended location of the bank heist: Barclay’s Bank in the center of Brighton. Marcos Dias, 2011. Used with permission.

To summarize the experience of the performance: it consists of a hybrid of technological apparatus, urban space and participant’s active engagement moderated through artistic strategies in the form of a carefully scripted narrative that aims to produce specific outcomes. However, when the performance is confronted with the unpredictability of urban space, it produces unforeseen outcomes and encounters between participants, urban environment, digital technologies (and their interfaces) and bystanders. Such encounters are influenced by the city’s role as both a collective of actants— including urban furniture, transport networks, weather conditions and electronic information displays—and as a performative stage or backdrop. They are also influenced by the individual interpretation of the narrative by participants.

Thus, a performative urban interface involves the interfacing (and repurposing) of digital technologies with their surrounding environment and with interface users for purposes other than facilitating efficient urban exchanges with predefined outcomes. This can be driven by artistic narratives, but also—as we have discussed above through the example of an airport check-in area—through technological failure. The performative outcome of A Machine To See With, as we will describe below, is influenced by the participant’s interpretation of the narrative, as they are drawn into an alternative performance that temporarily disrupts the everyday life of the city.


Defining Performative Urban Interfaces

Galloway states that “an interface is not a thing; an interface is an effect.” [21] Therefore, what matters most—regardless of the physical shape, dimensions and operational structure of the interface—is the effect that an interface is capable of producing through the relations between its components. Hookway defines interface as a “relation with technology rather than as a technology in itself.” [22] This relation, as he points out, consists of “the combined activities of human and machine” through an encounter that “has already been subject to a mediation.” [23] Hookway’s definition emphasizes the agential nature of the interface and its ability to produce different effects as users of the interface react to and interpret the information transmitted through the interface in many different ways. For the purpose of this essay, urban interface is defined as a system based on electronic devices (screen, audio, sensor based or a combination thereof) connected to remote or local databases for the purpose of transmitting information to and from public space. Therefore, an urban interface might consist of an informational electronic display in a train station, the screen of a mobile phone being used in public space, large scale urban screens, electronic advertisement billboards, automatic sound announcement systems, sensor-based parking space availability systems and CCTV systems.

We define two distinct types of urban interfaces: informational urban interfaces and performative urban interfaces. An informational urban interface is defined as an urban interface of a functional nature that provides (and retrieves) information for a specific function that seeks to improve the efficiency of urban interactions. For example, the electronic display in a train station has the specific purpose of informing users of the train services available on a real-time basis. Such a system is capable of dealing with unexpected issues, such as train delays or changes in platforms due to automated processes facilitated by databases and other electronic systems (such as GPS and sensors). It is also designed to cater to a universal user, with considerations for legibility (size of text and type of font) and use of well-known symbolic codes (such as colors and highlighted text). Therefore, the expectation is that the user will interpret the information provided in a predetermined manner towards facilitating their interaction with urban space.

Performative urban interfaces, in turn, do not imply a predetermined outcome or a universal user. Chatzichristodoulou, Jefferies and Zerihan provide a definition of ‘interfaces of performance’ in relation to artistic projects, arguing that they are capable of “marking a shared space of exchange and dialogue as well as a site of contestation and tension.” [24] This process of contestation, according to them, “disturb[s] boundaries of traditional performance and create[s] new paradigms of emergent practice and discourse.” [25] We define a performative urban interface as a system based on electronic devices connected to remote or local databases that interfaces with public space and that is governed by non-functional narratives that—intentionally or not—augment, displace and reconfigure patterns of social and spatial interaction in urban space. In contrast to informational urban interfaces, performative urban interfaces do not cater to a universal user, do not have a specific function or a predefined outcome and are reshaped by the relational agency between citizens, digital technologies and the unpredictability of city actants.

It is important to emphasize that there are no fixed taxonomies of informational and performative urban interfaces, and that any particular urban interface might move between these categories due to expected or unexpected circumstances. For example, a participant might decide to take part in an urban art intervention in a functional, non-engaged way against the original artistic intent. Likewise, an informational urban interface such as an electronic display in a train station might be subject to a catastrophic fail, such as providing the wrong information to users and potentially leading to unexpected performances of passengers as they get lost, angry and confused.


Ciudades Paralelas: Performing Functional Spaces

Ciudades Paralelas, a project curated by Lola Arias and Stefan Kaegi from Rimini Protokoll, demonstrates the ability of performative urban interfaces to repurpose both informational urban interfaces and functional urban spaces. Arias and Kaegi invited artists to create interventions in several functional places of the city: factories, shopping centers, train stations, hotels and courtrooms. Ciudades Paralelas has been staged in several cities across the world, and Marcos had the opportunity to observe and participate in several interventions during the staging of Ciudades Paralelas as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival in June 2012. [26] In the Station: Some Times I Think I Can See You intervention, artist Mariano Pensotti repurposed the type of informational screens commonly found in train stations by adding extra screens inside the station and putting four authors in control of writing content for them in real time, as described in Rimini Protokoll’s website:

Mariano Pensotti turns four authors into literary surveillance cameras who describe scenes in a railway station as they happen. The viewers read the texts as a novel unfolding live on large screens over the heads of its real-life figures. [27]

The large screens have been purposefully installed to blend in with the existing informational screens showing arrivals and departures and are located at main access areas. Marcos describes the experience of observing the interaction between screen and passers-by:

Passers-by reacted with surprise when they noticed that the screen was addressing them, the sort of reaction you would get in the ubiquitous candid camera TV programmes. They would discreetly look around, trying to figure out what was going on. Some people laughed; others just carried on with their lives. No one seemed particularly offended or angry. [28]

 Some of the performances generated by the interaction were more engaging and long lasting, providing entertainment for other passers-by:

The writers sometimes would try to get [passers-by] to engage in ad-hoc performative acts. In the most successful one I observed, a child with her mother spent about five minutes looking at the screen, clapping and dancing after being prompted by the screen. [29]

As the Ciudades Paralelas website states, the narrative initiated by one of the writers is eventually assimilated and reconfigured by passers-by, who in turn “become part of a collective story”:

Each writer transforms the spontaneous progress through a public space into narratives conveying what is going on—or might be going on—inside people’s heads in parallel with the bustling life of the station. The viewers and chance passers-by become part of their narrative. One glance at the screen reveals that they have become figures in the process of being invented. Over the space and the time they share with the authors, the viewers are able to influence the fictionalization, and become part of a collective story. [30]

Mariano Pensotti’s intervention demonstrates how the functionality of an informational urban interface can be repurposed into a performative urban interface. It also fulfills the factors defined above as indicative of such interfaces: it does not have a specific function or predefined outcome and it is driven by a non-functional (and ambiguous) narrative. Its outcome is relational, as an assemblage of several actants—digital information technology, artistic narrative, participant and public space—defines a collective story.


Figure 3: Train Station Performance, Marcos Dias, 2012. Intervention in Cork city train station during performance of Ciudades Paralelas. Marcos Dias, 2012. Used with permission.


Unpacking the Actants in A Machine To See With

In performative urban interfaces such as A Machine To See With, the assemblage of urban actants involves minute and discrete spatial and temporal exchanges. Marcos’ ethnographic study on A Machine To See With situated actants into three distinct categories: design (the artistic process initiated by Blast Theory), technology (the technical apparatus employed in the performance) and city (urban furniture, buildings, streets, weather, bystanders). [31] By defining these categories as a relational and non-hierarchical structure, the analysis of the performance preempts any assumption that the technology apparatus moderates (from a vantage point) the relation between participants and urban space.

The design actants relate to the artistic strategy of the performance, and in this case include the original aim of the project (as a locative cinema commission), the artist’s interpretation of this aim and the production, testing and promotional strategies involved in the assemblage of the performance. The technology actants include the hardware and software components of the performance, including the call center software (Asterisk), the servers controlling the software and contingency strategies (such as a phone number for the participant to call if they had any issues). It also includes the participant’s mobile phones, defining a “boundary or shared space between two areas or systems” that enable them to “communicate with each other.” [32] Or in other words, the artists’ ‘system’ (an assemblage of technical and artistic apparatus) communicates with the participant’s ‘space’ (an assemblage of mobile phone, participant and urban space), and in turn the participant interprets the artists’ system as they navigate urban space.

Finally, the city actants include public and private spaces (pub, leisure center, games arcade, bank, streetscape, multi-story car park), bystanders, atmospheric conditions (wind, fog, dusk and sudden changes in daylight) and the artistic prop (the car in the car park). By making a distinction between the different categories of actants, it is possible to first analyze the particular aims, potentials and performative patterns of each category, and then subsequently understand how they enter into relations with each other. For example, the call center system software (a technology actant) had contingency measures that enabled it to deal with expected issues, such as failure of mobile phone signal, by repeating certain prompts. However, it could not cater for the unpredictability of the city actants. As we will describe below, one participant (Paul) ended up listening to the narrative prompt for the car park while actually being in a different car park after getting wrong directions from a bystander. This enabled him to partake in an unscripted experience that was described by him as one of his highlights while participating in A Machine To See With.


Participating in Digitally Mediated Urban Space

Prior to unpacking some of the participant experiences observed in A Machine To See With, we will outline how participation in urban space is reconfigured by digital communication technologies. Participation in urban space has been previously framed as a matter of citizen power through a struggle between citizens and powerholders, as described in Sherry Arnstein’s ‘ladder of citizen participation’ framework. She defines eight categories of participation: manipulation, therapy, informing, consultation, placation, partnership, delegated power and citizen control. Arnstein emphasizes that “neither the have-nots [struggling citizens] nor the powerholders are homogeneous blocs,” although both citizens and powerholders tend to perceive each other as holistic systems, paying little attention to “divergent points of view, significant cleavages, competing vested interests, and splintered subgroups.” [33] Arnstein argues that the lower levels of the ladder of citizen participation (manipulation and therapy) “enable powerholders to ‘educate’ or ‘cure’ the participants.” [34] She associates the three middle levels—informing, consultation and placation—with tokenistic initiatives where citizens are able to ‘have a voice’ that is not “heeded by the powerful” (informing and consultation) or where they are given the opportunity to advise but where the right to decide is reserved for the powerholders (placation). [35] Finally, the top three levels of the ladder (partnership, delegated power and citizen control) enable decision-making by citizens to various degrees. [36]

Arnstein’s framework is geared towards governmental urban renewal initiatives and urban policy making, but it can be helpful towards analyzing participation through performative urban interfaces. By acknowledging that the different parties involved are not homogeneous and that “power is … distributed through negotiation,” she reminds us that participation is subject to a process of dynamic power distribution. [37] This process is reshaped through different levels of engagement, awareness and individual interests rather than simply through a top-down process of direct manipulation. Arnstein argues that once “the groundrules have been established … they are not subject to unilateral change.” [38] Arguably, digital communication technologies are capable of facilitating a participatory process of dynamic power distribution in urban space, despite (as mentioned previously) their promise to offer ‘freedom of input’ to the user while operating through deeply codified modes that are geared towards efficiency and social consensus.

A Machine To See With is a participatory art project that fits into Arnstein’s lower category (partnership) of the top three levels of the participatory ladder, as it enables a partnership between computer interface, participant and urban space that involves decision-making by participants while enabling them to diverge (if they wish) from the pre-planned route and pre-planned actions defined by the linear narrative. The performative nature of A Machine To See Withdisrupts the traditional dichotomies of actor/spectator and audience/stage defined in traditional theatrical performance. The participant is both actor and spectator, moving fluidly between these roles as the narrative prompts them to both perform and reflect on their performance. The city is both audience and stage, where the events of everyday life are merged with the performance in unexpected ways and where the inefficiencies of digital media communication technologies (mobile signal failures, delay in transmission of information, misinterpretation of instructions) combined with the ambiguous narrative disrupt momentarily the expected and accepted patterns of engagement with public space.

However, Matt states that the participant is not “collaborating [with the artists] in any meaningful sense,” while emphasizing the fact that the phone (as the main point of contact between artist and participant) is ‘tyrannical.’ [39] He points out that A Machine To See With invokes the contradictory nature of mobile phone usage, as its ability to empower is counterbalanced by its persistent and overarching mediation of everyday life:

In A Machine To See With itself we wanted to invoke the language of the call center; the ‘press one now, press two now’ and so on. It is a direct use of call center technology. So, we wanted the phone to be both interactive but also tyrannical; the nature of which that when the phone rings you answer it. The extent to which in modern culture we are wedded to our phones and answerable to them; constantly checking, fiddling with them, even in mid-sentence having a look at them, texting while talking to someone, etc.; all of those microscopic ways in which it is infiltrating our own lives. We wanted to invoke all of that in a piece of work. It is promising you tremendous agency as a protagonist: you are the lead in a movie […] However at the same time it is doing that through fixed instructions on a keypad-based interaction system. [40]

Blast Theory intentionally sought to critique interaction in the age of ‘techno-utopianism,’ where sweeping and consistent generalizations are made about the correlation between the rise of technological platforms (such as social media platforms) and the rise of open societies, democracy, discussion and debate, as Matt points out:

These technologies are perfectly applicable by oppressive regimes as well. The ability of secret services to make use of these platforms is just beginning to be understood. You only need to look at something like the Stuxnet virus, or the way in which during Middle Eastern ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions there was very widespread usage of these platforms by the secret services to monitor activists. And Facebook, Twitter and other platforms enable them to do that very efficiently. [41]

In A Machine To See With, the idea that technologically mediated interaction is equal to openness and positivity is challenged by the very nature of the interaction of the performance, where the participant takes part in a failed ‘bank heist.’ The narrative situates the participant in a highly adrenalin-driven moment of individual activity, yet when they are about to walk through the door of the bank the narrative tells the participant to abort the mission.

In light of the technical and artistic considerations above, A Machine To See With might appear to contain elements of Arnstein’s lower (manipulation) and middle (placation) levels of her ‘ladder of citizen participation’ framework, rather than fitting easily into the higher level of partnership. However, a more fitting interpretation is that the performance is capable of transcending any strict separation between these levels due to both its use of digitally mediated interactions, the contingency of urban space and the diversity of modes of interaction displayed by participants. On some occasions, such interaction fitted in with Arnstein’s highest level of citizen participation—citizen control—as participants reappropriated the artistic narrative without the consent of the artists. For example, Tandanavitj referred to two fairly transgressive incidents during the performance of A Machine To See With as part of the Sundance Film Festival in 2011:

We had one instance of people who’d done the project and, knowing where one of the start positions were, they were driving past in a van and saw someone waiting to start. They pulled up, they opened the side of the van and they said: ‘Get inside!’ And they then drove that person, I think, all the way to the end, all the way to the bank and then dropped them off and said: ‘This is where you are going,’ and then left them there. And I think they also took this circuitous route round town. And then we had another group of people who had done the project, so they knew where the car was, and they went back to it, and they then got into the car when they saw people getting into it and starting being quite, you know, not aggressive, but quite hyper, really hyping it up, like how dangerous it was going to be. [42]

The pattern of participation above was quite extreme and unusual. If participants played by the rules, they were not able to alter the predetermined path of the work, or change which bank to stake out, or choose which other participant they partner with to conduct the bank heist; those decisions were removed from them. However, as participants attempted to disentangle the narrative, they had to negotiate the tension between the fictional narrative and the actual urban space, as Adams points out by referring to a specific sequence that is ambiguous in nature:

The tension between that fiction and the reality of the environment that you are in—the instability of the fictional frame—is a constant thing that you are navigating and negotiating. And that has a very raw impact onto your experience. So, for example in the Brighton version some participants are asked to go to a pub and use the toilet. Now, you don’t know whether the people in the pub know that you are coming or not. And it is a socially transgressive act – to walk into a pub, not buy a drink, use the loo and leave! [43]

The user’s awareness and understanding of the events is tested as they navigate the city while following the narrative. In this case, the pub staff were aware of the performance, and therefore the participants were not at risk of being called out. Yet that uncertainty to whether that is an acceptable thing to do, or whether they should or should not acknowledge the person behind the bar, or whether they explain to staff what they are doing generates tension. For some participants, this was one of the biggest challenges that they encountered; however, it was also the most gratifying for participant Tim, as stated in his interview with Marcos after his participation. Tim described himself as a reserved person. He said it was a big effort for him to say goodbye and described it as “real social interaction”:

I think the only real social interaction I had (during the performance) was with the woman in the pub when I left to say goodbye. She was busy serving someone, so she couldn’t see me saying goodbye, so I had to kind of wait and then she looked at me … I said goodbye and she thought: ‘What the hell is going on?’ [44]

The examples above are illustrative of the ability of performative urban interfaces to generate a variety of unforeseen encounters between bystanders and participants and multiple participatory outcomes that transcend attempts to categorize participation. As we will describe below, the process of translation of the artistic narrative by the participant also plays an important part towards defining any participatory outcome.


Participatory Translation of Performative Urban Interfaces

The concept of a performative urban interface entails, as we have seen above, multiple combinations of relational agency between the participant, the artistic narrative, digital communication technologies and urban space. Performative urban interfaces transcend the perceived separation between spectator and actor in theatre plays and cinema screenings. Jacques Rancière questions this separation and the ‘set of equivalences and oppositions’ associated with it in theatrical performances: “Equivalences between theatrical audience and community, gaze and passivity [and] oppositions between the collective and the individual, the image and living reality [and] activity and passivity.” [45] He denies the deterministic interpretation of theatre as a form of ‘emancipating’ the spectator by dictating a lesson or participatory outcome:

It will be said that, for their part, artists do not wish to instruct the spectator. Today, they deny using the stage to dictate a lesson or convey a message. They simply wish to produce a form of consciousness, an intensity of feeling, an energy for action. [46]

To counter the argument that the spectator is subject to the tyranny of artistic authorship, Rancière states that: “An emancipated community is a community of narrators [artists] and translators [spectator-participants].” [47] Or in other words, the participant interprets and reappropriates the artist’s narrative, as argued by Umberto Eco in The Open Work. [48] According to Eco, “every work of art is an interpretation and a performance of it.” [49] This counters the expectation of a pre-determined outcome and a specific mode of engagement. Matt points out that even in ‘traditional art forms’ such as cinema, spectators are always-already ‘emancipated’:

It may be a simple point to make but it is an important one. Cinema might be the most highly controllable art form in terms of how it manages the gaze and the emotions of the spectator—and yet you are still highly ‘emancipated’ in many respects when you watch a film. The fact that I see Terminator II as a movie about paternity and fatherhood has to do with my personal experience and my particular viewpoint. [50]

One of the ways in which artistic narratives can be translated is through our ability to reflect on our digitally mediated lives, especially as digital communication technologies increasingly attempt to emulate the character, actions and emotions of human beings. In the 1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum developed a computer program called ELIZA that emulated a psychotherapist and was capable of sustaining a therapeutic discourse with a human being via text inputs on a computer terminal. He stated that “some subjects have been very hard to convince that ELIZA … is not human.” [51] In contrast to ELIZA, the voice of the narrative in A Machine To See With does not attempt to hide the fact that it is merely a recording, but it still attempts to establish a rapport with the spectator by ‘humanizing’ itself. As Tandavanitj points out: “It suggests its presence as a person and as having a kind of humanity, but also it suggests that it doesn’t actually have that.” [52]

The narrative, or ‘voice,’ recorded by Blast Theory artist Matt Adams in a confident and clear tone, was interpreted in many different (and contradictory) ways by participants. For example, participant Hazel described her inability to empathize with the voice:

I kept feeling I was missing something in not being able to interact with it. Because it was automated if felt very much like a black and white exchange. [53]

In contrast, participant Paul viewed the narrative as having an immediate and personal presence, despite it being automated. And while the participant’s location was not being continuously tracked by the call center software, Paul’s reflection on his own performance implies that it was:

I must have been walking at exactly the right [pace] cause it was perfect. So when I glanced to the right, I glanced to the left … I got to the junction, the street junction, it was just kind of … I almost thought that someone was watching me from a window, because it was so timely. [54]

Despite stating that he felt restricted, participant Paul described the voice of the narrative as a “breath of fresh air” in contrast with “the digital life we live in [where] everything is actually quite controlled.” [55] Participant Marney had a very different opinion: “I found it quite unnerving. It feels sort of ominous or like I’m being manipulated.” [56] These accounts highlight the multiplicity of ‘translations’ of the digitally mediated narrative by participants, while also showcasing a variety of conflicting reflections on the mediation of life by digital communication technologies: uneasiness, reassurance, empathy and oppression.


Participatory Interaction and Serendipity

In A Machine To See With, some of the most unusual participatory interactions occurred through serendipitous experiences that involved unexpected coincidences, performative failures or impulse actions by participants. For example, participant Tim described his uncanny experience with a bystander:

When I got to the finishing point there was a homeless person or just someone sitting on the street wearing a shirt exactly like mine. I was like, what? Maybe that was part of it, somehow they must have found a shirt exactly like mine and given it to this guy, and maybe I have to give that guy the money or something. [57]


Figure 4: Church Starting Point in A Machine To See With, Marcos Dias, 2011. Participant Tim at the church starting point of A Machine To See With listening to instructions over the phone. Marcos Dias, 2011. Used with permission.

Performative failures occurred through both technological failure and human failure: participants missing vital instructions; participants getting lost and temporarily ending up outside the scripted trajectory of the performance; and participants inputting the wrong key on the keypad, and not being able to choose their desired option of interaction (such as stating their decision to partner or not with someone else to execute the bank heist during the car park scene). Some of these failures were dealt with by the contingent strategies embedded in the software, but such strategies were limited in scope. While such failures could have very negative consequences for informational urban interfaces, as we described above, they are capable of providing very positive outcomes during performative urban interfaces depending on the participant’s interpretation of the technological failure. Participant Paul described his failure to interpret directions provided by a bystander while trying to find the multistory car park mentioned by the narrative as a meaningful experience and the highlight of his participation:

… for me the car park was (pause) amazing, because … I got the first NCP car park wrong, and I ended up on level seventeen in the theatre NCP car park. And it was absolutely amazing because it’s a huge top floor exposed, and it’s got like a split-level experience going on, and I hid behind a yellow grit bucket, and it smelt of piss. And I was standing there for about twenty minutes looking for this … silver BMW… But what I did see which was absolutely mind-blowing was … there is a huge tower block directly opposite, and it … just kind of settled in this fog frame, and it had all these … lights on it, and I just thought: ‘I would not have seen that if I had took … the left turn―the correct turn―instead of the wrong turn.’ [58]

Paul’s account highlights the importance of the agential role of the city as both stage and a collective of relational actants, some of which were not accounted for in the artistic narrative, such as the yellow grit bucket, the impostor car park and atmospheric actants (fog). These city actants, assembled with the narrative, the technological apparatus (software and hardware), the participants and bystanders, transformed a performative failure—Paul’s unplanned wrong turn—into a meaningful experience for him in his own words.

On many occasions, the narrative—aided by the technological apparatus of the repurposed call center system—played a crucial role in generating the trust necessary to carry out the unusual tasks that it proposed, as participant Helen described:

I wouldn´t normally get into a car with someone like that at all [but] cause the instructions on the phone tell you to, you did. [59]

And despite the bank heist being a fictional construct, some participants expected the narrative to somehow enable them to execute it, regardless of the consequences. Helen, who took part with her partner James (despite the first part of the performance being designed as a solo experience), was willing to go to any lengths to execute the bank heist:

If they told us that there were some scissors … by that door, break that lock, we would have just done it! We would have done anything that they told us to. We just believed in the game. [60]

Figure 5: Market Diner Café Starting Point in A Machine To See With, Marcos Dias, 2011. Participants Helen and James waiting at the Market Diner Cafe for the phone call to start their participation in A Machine To See With. Marcos Dias, 2011. Used with permission.

At the end, the narrative prompted participants to give some of their money to a complete stranger as a meaningful and challenging gesture that brought spectators back to the ‘real world.’ While we are quite used to the idea of giving money to a charity or someone in need, the idea of approaching a stranger who is not asking for money and giving them some, constitutes a transgressive act that could be misinterpreted in many ways. In fact, only one out of nineteen participants interviewed by Marcos during his ethnographic study was able to accomplish this task. Participant Nick described his experience of giving money to a stranger as “quite emotive”:

There was a girl in the arcade that I gave my money to and she had her … little pennies in a little case thing, so I put some more money in it. Her mom, I think, particularly was very happy (laugh) that I had given her money and she said: ‘Thank you,’ and walked outside (laughs). [61]

Nick’s act challenged the unwritten rules of conduct in public place and could easily be misinterpreted (engaging with a child unknown to him and offering them money). Yet from Nick’s point of view, it was the highlight of his participation and it became a meaningful gesture for both him and the two bystanders-turned-participants (mother and child). In contrast, participant Joseph’s interpretation of the same narrative prompt, as described by him to Marcos, involved a personal solution to what he defined as a ‘Christian morality tale’:

There was a charity box in the arcade, by the kiosk. So I wandered inside there, thinking: ‘What the hell am I gonna do?’ So I just gave all the loose change I had in my pocket [and put it into] the charity box. [62]


Figure 6: Regency Arcade: the final destination of A Machine To See With, Marcos Dias, 2011. The final destination of A Machine To See With for all participants: The Regency Leisure Arcade. Marcos Dias, 2011. Used with permission.

Joseph’s interpretation of the narrative suggests a more cautious and detached mode of interaction, while he sought to critically analyze the narrative during his participation and his own response to the narrative prompts. The participant case studies described above fit into three patterns of participant engagement with the performance as defined in Marcos’ ethnographic case study:

a) Play: defined by game-like, immersive, task-oriented participation, where the participant tries to complete the aim defined by the narrative in the quickest and most efficient way without much consideration to the implicit meaning of the narrative prompts. Both participants Tim (through his same-shirt experience with a bystander) and Helen (stating that she “believed in the game”) fit into this category;

b) Exploration: defined by reflective and emotional engagement with the city and its spatial ambience through non-task-oriented participation. Both participants Paul (through his detour to the wrong car park) and Nick (through his emotional engagement with a child unknown to him) fit into this category.

c) Critique: defined by the desire to understand the mechanics of the narrative through analytical participation and a more pragmatic approach to its prompts, acknowledging the fictional nature of the narrative. Participant Joseph (through his critical analysis and cautious mode of engagement) fits into this category. [63]

These patterns are not intended to represent every type of participatory mode and they are not mutually exclusive. While many other patterns or modes of participation can (and did) emerge in A Machine To See With, the modes defined above (play, exploration and critique) illustrate the process of artistic narration and participant translation as a defining factor of performative urban interfaces.

The ability of performative urban interfaces to evade predefined participatory outcomes contrasts with the aim of informational urban interfaces to improve the efficiency of urban exchanges (services, transport, shopping) through fixed modes of interaction, such as public transport, electronic information displays or electronic advertisement displays. By employing non-functional narratives that are subject to the relational agency of city actants, performative urban interfaces enable playful, exploratory and critical engagement with the city. They also enable serendipitous encounters that are initiated or mediated by alternative narratives and the repurposing of functional digital communication technologies.



We have proposed a working definition of performative urban interfaces as interventions in urban space that enable alternative modes of participation in the city. By analyzing the relations between the different actants that take part in these interventions, we have highlighted their ability to facilitate modes of engagement with and within urban space that are neither predefined nor of a strict functional nature. We also highlighted their ability to enable reflection on the digital technologies that mediate contemporary urban living and their contradictory nature, as they empower us at the same time as they unleash new forms of control and efficiency driven by consensus. The case studies of urban art interventions examined in this essay unveil the process of artistic narration and participant translation that emerges through these interventions, which is open-ended in nature and can potentially generate multiple social and spatial outcomes.

The ethnographic study on A Machine To See With and the participatory observations on Ciudades Paralelas, reveal, through close observation, how they are capable of temporarily interfering with expected and accepted patterns of engagement with and within public space through the relational agency of design, technology and city actants and through serendipitous encounters. Such performative events generate a multitude of participatory modes—such as play, exploration and critique—and outcomes that emerge through the liminal space generated between fictional and ambiguous narratives and actual urban space. By providing a definition of both performative and informational urban interfaces and emphasizing the fluidity between them, we have highlighted the potential of urban interfaces defined by the convergence of urban space, digital technology, artistic narrative and citizen participation towards supporting alternative modes of engagement with public space.


Authors’ Biographies 
Marcos Dias is Assistant Professor in the School of Communications in Dublin City University. His research investigates the social and spatial impact of digital technologies in the contemporary mediated city. He has a particular interest in participatory art performances, interactive installations, public play interventions and the impact of artificial intelligence in social encounters. His forthcoming book, The Machinic City: Media, Performance and Participation, is due to be published in 2020 and his blog (Performative Publics) can be accessed at:

Matt Adams is one of the leading artists of Blast Theory, renowned internationally as one of the most adventurous artists’ groups using interactive media, creating groundbreaking new forms of performance and interactive art that mixes audiences across the internet, live performance and digital broadcasting. Led by Matt Adams, Ju Row Farr and Nick Tandavanitj, the group’s work explores interactivity and the social and political aspects of technology. It confronts a media saturated world in which popular culture rules, using performance, installation, video, mobile and online technologies to ask questions about the ideologies present in the information that envelops us. Blast Theory is based in Brighton, UK and their website can be accessed at:


Notes and References 

[1] Dublin Dashboard, “About Dublin Dashboard,” accessed October 2, 2018,

[2] Claudio Coletta and Rob Kitchin, “Algorhythmic governance: Regulating the ‘heartbeat’ of a city using the Internet of Things,” Big Data & Society (2017): 5,

[3] Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge, Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011), 18.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 54.

[6] Ibid., 39.

[7] Blast Theory, “A Machine To See With,” accessed July 10, 2018,

[8] Marcos was able to observe closely Blast Theory’s design and development process of A Machine To See With as a guest (observing their project development onsite and in their studio), test participant (for their pre-launch tests prior to the Brighton premiere), interviewer (through several interviews with Blast Theory artists and their collaborators) and through ethnographic study of participation (by observing other participants taking part with their consent and subsequently interviewing them). Both artists and researcher benefitted from this synergy: Blast Theory’s artists’ insights enabled Marcos to obtain a deeper and richer understanding of the mechanics and outcome of the performance, while the artists benefitted from Marcos’ observations during both the testing and enactment of the performance in their own process of evaluation.

[9] Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 44.

[10] Blast Theory, “Blast Theory Biography,” accessed March 2, 2017,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Marcos Pereira Dias, “A Machine To See With (and Reflect Upon): Interview with Blast Theory Artists Matt Adams and Nick Tandavanitj,” Liminalities: Journal of Performance Studies 8, no. 1 (2012),

[13] Ibid.

[14] Blast Theory, “A Machine To See With.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Dias, “A Machine To See With (and Reflect Upon).”

[18] Blast Theory, Script for Brighton premiere of A Machine To See With, 2011 (unpublished).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Dias, Interview with Matt Adams, 2012 (unpublished).

[21] Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2012), 36.

[22] Branden Hookway, Interface (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), ix.

[23] Ibid., 1.

[24] Maria Chatzichristodoulou, Janis Jefferies, and Rachel Zerihan, eds., Interfaces of Performance (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009), 1.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Marcos Pereira Dias, “Experiencing Ciudades Paralelas – Cork Midsummer Festival, June 2012 (part 2 of 3),” accessed July 11, 2018,

[27] Rimini Protokoll, “Ciudades Paralelas,” accessed December 15, 2017,

[28] Dias, “Experiencing Ciudades Paralelas – Cork Midsummer Festival, June 2012 (part 2 of 3).”

[29] Ibid.

[30] Mariano Pensotti, “Station: Sometimes I Think I can See You,” Ciudades Paralelas, accessed July 11, 2018,

[31] Marcos Pereira Dias, “Rethinking Urban Space Through Mediated Performance” (PhD diss., University of Melbourne, 2015),

[32] Chatzichristodoulou, Jefferies, and Zerihan, Interfaces of Performance, 1.

[33] Sherry R. Arnstein, “A Ladder Of Citizen Participation,” Journal of the American Planning Association 35, no. 4 (1969): 217,

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Arnstein, “A Ladder Of Citizen Participation,” 221.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Dias, Interview with Matt Adams.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Dias, “A Machine To See With (and Reflect Upon).”

[43] Dias, Interview with Matt Adams.

[44] Marcos Pereira Dias, Interview with participants in A Machine To See With, 2011 (unpublished).

[45] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London: Verso, 2009), 7.

[46] Ibid., 14.

[47] Ibid., 22.

[48] Umberto Eco, The Open Work (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989).

[49] Ibid., 4.

[50] Dias, Interview with Matt Adams.

[51] Weizenbaum, Joseph, “ELIZA A Computer Program For the Study of Natural Language Communication Between Man And Machine,” Communications of the ACM 9, no. 1 (1966): 42.

[52] Dias, “A Machine To See With (and Reflect Upon).”

[53] Dias, Interview with participants in A Machine To See With.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Dias, “Rethinking Urban Space Through Mediated Performance,” 261.



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Blast Theory. “A Machine To See With.” Accessed July 10, 2018.

Blast Theory. “Blast Theory Biography.” Accessed March 2, 2017.

Blast Theory. Script for Brighton premiere of A Machine To See With, 2011 (unpublished).

Chatzichristodoulou, Maria, Janis Jefferies, and Rachel Zerihan, eds. Interfaces of Performance. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009.

Coletta, Claudio, and Rob Kitchin. “Algorhythmic governance: Regulating the ‘heartbeat’ of a city using the Internet of Things.” Big Data & Society (2017): 1-16,

Dias, Marcos Pereira. “A Machine To See With (and Reflect Upon): Interview with Blast Theory Artists Matt Adams and Nick Tandavanitj.” Liminalities: Journal of Performance Studies 8, no. 1 (2012),

Dias, Marcos Pereira. “Experiencing Ciudades Paralelas – Cork Midsummer Festival, June 2012 (part 2 of 3).” Accessed July 11, 2018.

Dias, Marcos Pereira. Interview with Matt Adams, 2012 (unpublished).

Dias, Marcos Pereira. Interview with Participants in A Machine To See With, 2011 (unpublished).

Dias, Marcos Pereira. “Rethinking Urban Space Through Mediated Performance.” PhD diss., University of Melbourne, 2015.

Dublin Dashboard. “About Dublin Dashboard.” Accessed October 2, 2018.

Eco, Umberto. The Open Work. London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989.

Galloway, Alexander R. The Interface Effect. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2012.

Hookway, Branden. Interface. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.

Kitchin, Rob, and Martin Dodge. Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Pensotti, Mariano. “Station: Sometimes I Think I can See You.” Ciudades Paralelas. Accessed July 11, 2018.

Protokoll, Rimini. “Ciudades Paralelas.” Accessed December 15, 2017.

Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso, 2009.

Weizenbaum, Joseph. “ELIZA A Computer Program For the Study of Natural Language Communication Between Man And Machine.” Communications of the ACM 9, no. 1 (1966): 36-45.