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The City and the Cinema: Turning From Urban Screens to Screened Urbanism / Holly Willis


Holly Willis
Professor, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, the United States of America

Email: hwillis@cinema.usc.edu

Reference this essay: Willis, Holly. “The City and the Cinema: Turning From Urban Screens to Screened Urbanism.” 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: edit
ISBN: edit
ISSN: 1071-4391
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Abstract 
In this essay, I draw on cinema studies, with its legacy of theorizing forms of identity, subject formation, and the dispositif—or arrangement of the cinematic apparatus—to discuss the impact of urban screens. However, rather than exploring a stable, material cityscape into which an array of screens and their imagery are positioned, I posit that a better articulation of the contemporary mediated city is as a continuous, networked unfolding of cities, screens, and humans that together characterize a culture of computation and a form of posthuman subjectivity that I have dubbed ’screened urbanism.’ Urban dwellers occupy a Mobius strip of mutually producing and being produced not through representation so much as computation. The result is an experience of networked being, a continuous process of re-shaping the visual from the computational while navigating a media-rich space that is at once tracking, sensing, producing, and engaging.

Keywords:  Urban screens, dispositif, apparatus, networked cities, interface, cinema, spectatorship, public space, open data

 

Introduction 

In his 2009 novel The City and the City, China Miéville describes a world in which two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, exist side by side, with parts of each city’s territory overlapping with that of the other. [1] These zones of mingling are demarcated not by a strict, physical border or by a highly visible boundary, but instead by a kind of hazy crosshatching. This indistinct divide between the two urban centers is sustained by the citizens of each; custom dictates that city-dwellers enact a form of ‘unseeing’ so that the inhabitants in one city do not see or acknowledge those in the opposite city, despite their obvious presence. Further, to ignore this custom and to look overtly from one city to the other results in swift punishment. For the novel’s city dwellers, therefore, to see is to risk retribution, and indeed, the protagonist’s eventual willingness to look propels the entire story. As evidence, the first words of the book are these: “I could not see…” and the novel continues from that moment to trace the narrator’s gradually expanding visual acuity—and bravery—as he investigates a murder; seeing is clearly aligned with growing consciousness of the protagonist and his story. [2] At the risk of belaboring a point, the first page also presents the body of the murdered woman, who forms of the story’s mystery; she was killed precisely for her ability to see and comprehend what no one else dared acknowledge.

I begin with this conceit of the crosshatched border and culturally shaped forms of seeing from Miéville’s work of fiction in order to underscore the significance of artworks in helping explicate the increasing mediation of everyday life. In particular, I would like to borrow Miéville’s concept of spaces that are marked by forms of crosshatching, of layering, and of overlap, and investigate the cultural logics that allow and even perpetuate certain kinds of seeing and not seeing as they relate to urban interfaces. Miéville’s depiction of the city and the city, of what is both seen and unseen, is analogous, I will argue, to American contemporary urban experience and its layers of information, which are both visible and invisible. As inhabitants of the city, we move through the crosshatched zones of Wi-Fi, RFID, and Bluetooth signals in a kind of ‘protocological surround’ that at times is visible and at others invisible but in all cases is producing new forms of engagement and interaction—of urban interfaces—within the city and among its people. [3]

Perhaps more significantly, however, I would also like to adopt a productive rhetorical move employed by the novel. Miéville, despite his book’s title, does not merely focus on the city and the city, but inverts his emphasis in order to showcase in great detail the ways in which the overlapping cities produce the behaviors—and perhaps even an epistemology—of their inhabitants. Rather than chronicle inert boundaries and background borders, the novel showcases the violent repression of seeing and knowing precisely as it is enacted through the actions of citizens and in the violence done to bodies.  

In my essay, then, I will argue similarly that if we shift our focus from the array of urban screens that increasingly appear in our urban spaces and focus instead on a form of screened urbanism that imbricates cities and their inhabitants, we are better able to understand the functioning of a system that produces particular kinds of subjects and allowable behaviors. From there, we might then risk an adventurous gambit akin to that advanced by Miéville and propose the parameters of an epistemology that is produced by a matrix—or a form of crosshatching, of layering, and of overlap—of cities, bodies, and signals. 

I will use the term ‘interface’ to designate the spaces of screened urbanism and the overlapping registers of data and space where particular forms of seeing and acting are produced, focusing specifically on how they are created in relation to two examples of large-scale outdoor screen-based work: Doug Aitken’s Mirror (2013) and Refik Anadol and Susan Narduli’s ConvergenceLA (2017). [4] Both projects feature dazzling images on large screens on the exterior of buildings in major cities. Both also visualize data, either transforming rather prosaic details of temperature, wind speed, and geological activity into abstract imagery, or using the data to trigger video clips of live action footage. The projects therefore meld computational processing and video imagery; they respond to the environment in which they are embedded; and they translate data into moving images. In their use of information, the projects exemplify the complex, relational interface of screened urbanism and, like The City and the City, help enact a key rhetorical function, helping us understand the transition from the cinematic to the computational.

While my focus will remain on the interface produced by screened urbanism, I draw on cinema studies, with its legacy of theorizing forms of identity, subject formation, and the dispositif—or arrangement of the cinematic apparatus—for my argument. Scholars in urban planning, architecture, communication, and networked cultures use very different terms and lines of thought to discuss the ever-increasing mediation of cities. Topics of interest in these disciplines include sustainability, the smart city, ubiquitous computing, and civic engagement, and the diverse methodologies employed would include urban planning’s analysis of land use and transportation systems; speculative design practices that forecast the future of cities; data sampling and geospatial analysis in the field of communication; and quantitative statistical analysis for discerning patterns in social media usage in some networked cultures research. Film theory, however, contributes an understanding of the ways in which the cinematic apparatus arranges screens and viewers; it offers a sense of the production of identity and subjectivity, of pleasure and immersion, of narrative and ideology, and of affect and the body. [5] These concepts offer useful perspectives in understanding the role of spectatorship as it is performed in relation to networked existence within the city. However, these concepts are themselves in the midst of transformation as cinema expands beyond its traditional scope and dispositif. What was once an experience staged within a movie theater has expanded to include myriad moving image experiences in diverse locations, including those on the streets of major cities. The boundaries of the cinematic are increasingly permeable; physical and digital components of the image intersect, overlap, and obfuscate; and we are privy not simply to the migration of moving images into diverse spaces, from galleries and museums to mobile devices and ambient displays, but also to a reconfiguring of the cinematic as the image becomes data, data becomes image, and representation shifts to become computation. [6] These changes within how we define and delimit what constitutes the cinematic similarly underscore the productiveness of employing the cinematic to understand urban screens. Film studies scholars are following cinema and expanding their array of objects for analysis and employing new concepts to theorize the state of expansion. [7]

 

Defining Screened Urbanism

My articulation of screened urbanism attempts to add nuance to our understanding of urban screens. The term ‘urban screens’ was adopted at the 2005 transmediale festival, and has since generated a collection of essays titled Urban Screens Reader, edited by Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin, and Sabine Niederer and published in 2009, as well as many other recent publications that explore these topics in great detail. [8] A special issue of First Monday titled “Urban Screens: Discovering the Potential of Screens for Urban Society” was published in 2006, and McQuire’s The Media City: Media Architecture and Urban Space as well as Geomedia, Networked Cities and the Politics of Urban Space continue to explore the experience of urban space as it is inflected by networked digital media. [9] Nanna Verhoeff’s Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation makes another major contribution, arguing that navigation itself needs to be accounted for in our understanding of the contemporary city, now understood as the ‘mediated city’ in order to underscore the growing significance of technologies that are visible on large-scale screens, but also frequently less visible. [10]

The topic of the mediated city has also been addressed from other perspectives—the Situated Technologies Pamphlets, for example, emerge from the context of architecture, and query the relationship between media technologies and the future of the built environment. [11] Other scholars are exploring “urban computing,” described by the editors of Street Computing: Urban Informatics and City Interfaces as “a relatively recent area of research that looks at the impact of ubiquitous information processing at the scale of a city.” [12] They continue: “The focus shifts from integrating computing into everyday objects towards everyday urban settings and lifestyles.” [13] With these differing viewpoints, we gain a helpful cross-pollination of ideas, as well as a sense of the vital significance of the topic of information processing, and screens as they affect cities.

With screened urbanism, I turn from a focus on screens in the city to the behaviors they create and the subjects they produce. This turn is inspired by the work noted above, but inflected through the interests of the cinematic. Rather than exploring a stable, material cityscape into which an array of screens and their imagery are positioned, I posit that a better articulation of the contemporary mediated city is as a continuous, networked unfolding of cities, screens, and humans that together characterize a culture of computation and a form of posthuman subjectivity. Urban dwellers occupy a Mobius strip of mutually producing and being produced not through representation so much as computation. [14] The result is an experience of networked being, a continuous process of re-shaping the visual from the computational while navigating a media-rich space that is at once tracking, sensing, producing, and engaging. The crosshatched area that we opt to see or not see is precisely the interface of engagement, production, and sensing. We are captured as data at the same time that we generate our own flows and traces through mediated environments. Screened urbanism, then, is defined as the ongoing imbrication of cities, bodies, behaviors, and subject positions. In this matrix, screens are only the most visible emblems of the computational activity constantly unfolding around us.

With this definition in mind, the urban screen projects I discuss will be framed not primarily in terms of what is seen but in terms of being-screened, being-networked and being-engaged in the computational processes that increasingly shape our existence. While so much of the activity that unfolds within the contemporary city is invisible to human eyes, we have ways of sensing and visualizing the invisible, and it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge that, as much as the city looks at us, so too must we look at the city. As we cultivate new ways of seeing and sensing in collaboration with various technologies of vision, our built environment comes to reveals itself through what is seen as well as what remains unseen.

 

Interfacing Between Nature and the City: Mirror

Los Angeles-based artist Doug Aitken began his career making video installations for galleries and museums. His work has steadily migrated from these settings into outdoor space. In 2007, for example, Aitken staged a large-scale installation titled Sleepwalkers on the exterior of the Museum of Modern Art in New York using seven screens with state-of-the art projection systems. [15] In this project, a group of characters moves throughout a single day, and the disparate screens are timed to reflect moments of overlap and connection. Audience members visiting the project on the streets of Manhattan meandered from screen to screen outside on the sidewalks surrounding the museum, following the differing storylines while circling the edifice. With its beautiful characters, movie house scale, unfolding narrative, and large-scale projection, this project brought the cinema to the city, restaging the apparatus of the cinema on screens situated outside instead of inside.

Aitken also created the 2013 project titled Station to Station, in which he gathered together a diverse group of artists and crossed the United States on a train, stopping in small towns along the way to create a variety of live art experiences and performances. [16] The train itself served as a stage where artists live-streamed events, and the exterior of the train showcased imagery produced through real-time data gathering. With this project’s transformation of data into imagery, Aitken moves closer to the computational, relinquishing narrative and character in favor of an aestheticized vision of networked information.

However, it is with his project titled Mirror, located on the exterior of the Seattle Art Museum, that Aitken begins to truly grapple with the city not merely as the built environment but as the smart city, a space within which IT infrastructure comes to the fore, deploying data and analytics to enhance efficiency. The smart city reflects on itself, monitoring and optimizing, processing and analyzing. The city is also increasingly home to the Internet of Things. In their most prosaic form, these IoT technologies include adaptive signaling for traffic control; gunshot detection systems for crime response; air quality monitoring devices; and traffic infrastructures designed for connected cars. These systems for sensing, monitoring, and controlling integrate diverse information feeds, and are often justified with rhetorics of safety and convenience. However, their precise functioning and forms of control remain largely invisible to the pedestrian on the street.

Mirror begins to counter that invisibility. While we are aware of a shifting sense of the city suggested by its increased malleability and responsiveness through ride-sharing platforms such as Uber and Lyft, most of us have little conception of the vast scope and scale of the networked interactions taking place all around us. Aitken’s Mirror both references and visualizes these qualities.

[INSERT HERE AitkenMirror1.jpg]

Caption: Figure 1 – MIRROR, Doug Aitken, 2013. Custom software editor displaying responsive video (color, silent) on a site-specific architectural media facade (Seattle Art Museum, Seattle); environmentally-triggered continuous video recombination; Stills and install views at Seattle Art Museum, Seattle; Courtesy of the Artist, 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles. View of the artwork from the street. Photograph by Doug Aitken Workshop. © Doug Aitken, 2013. Used with permission.

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Caption: Figure 2 – MIRROR, Doug Aitken, 2013. Custom software editor displaying responsive video (color, silent) on a site-specific architectural media facade (Seattle Art Museum, Seattle); environmentally-triggered continuous video recombination; Stills and install views at Seattle Art Museum, Seattle; Courtesy of the Artist, 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles. View of the artwork from the street. Photograph by Doug Aitken Workshop. © Doug Aitken, 2013. Used with permission.

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Caption: Figure 3 – MIRROR, Doug Aitken, 2013. Custom software editor displaying responsive video (color, silent) on a site-specific architectural media facade (Seattle Art Museum, Seattle); environmentally-triggered continuous video recombination; Stills and install views at Seattle Art Museum, Seattle; Courtesy of the Artist, 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles. View of the artwork from the street. Photograph by Doug Aitken Workshop. © Doug Aitken, 2013. Used with permission.

The project consists of moving images and an LED display with vertical strips of lights that fold around the museum’s northwest corner. The video images that appear onscreen were collected by Aitken during his travels across the state of Washington; they include many landscapes and images of nature. The project stores this footage on a server and algorithmically generates fragments so that they appear on the screen in relation to sensor data representing various activities in the city, including the weather and pedestrian traffic. Like the train in Station to Station, then, the building participates in the performance of the video project, using data to select and then display pieces of imagery. In addition, the building is no mere surface upon which images are projected; it also holds the servers and processors that catalyze and externalize the images. 

Describing the project, Aitken says: “With Mirror, I was interested in the idea of creating a living museum, a downtown building that could change in real time in relation to the environment around it.” He continues: “It’s like an urban earthwork. Seattle is a very complex and fascinating city, and Mirror was an attempt to reflect the simultaneity of the culture and landscape you find there.” [17]

Aitken’s use of the term ‘urban earthwork’ is compelling for the ways in which it produces a reversal: nature is brought into the context of the city, while the city’s ‘natural’ elements—LEDs, displays, networks and sensors—come to reflect a new understanding of the natural. Aitken’s project refuses a simplistic understanding of ‘nature,’ giving us a transposition of the effects of wind, sun, and rain through images that also recall the natural world. Nature, through a series of triggers, becomes data, which in turn regenerates a new vision of nature. 

This first transposition signals a second transposition, namely from the realm of representation to that of computation. Cinema, in its traditional form, is based on the distinction between the world and pictures of that world. Cinema, as it is reconfigured in this project, suggests that the world and its images are computationally equivalent; there is no visible distinction, only an abstract flow of networked information. While the building wall with its moving images remains stubbornly visible and physical, with the artwork marking a tidy boundary and limit to what might otherwise seem unbounded, the flow of data around us remains precisely that: unbounded.

Returning to my framing within the cinematic, Mirror also participates in the production of a particular form of subject. The apparatus of American cinema in the previous century was most often situated architecturally within movie theaters outfitted with projectors and screens. These arrangements helped produce individual spectators who, hailed as subjects and sutured into particular forms of identification, became participants within structures of narrative unfolding. 

The rearranged apparatus of screened urbanism that takes shape on the exterior walls of the museum as seen in Aitken’s Mirror, in contrast, offers no human face or experience for identification, no hailing, no suturing, no narrative. We are left instead with the spectacle and scale of the cinematic, offered as only one screen within a set of multiple interfaces and forms of engagement taking place all around us on the street. In place of narrative, we get image flow and emergence, and an aesthetic that produces wonder, with the imagery earning our acceptance through pleasure. 

In a sense, the computational building becomes analogous to the computational self, celebrated as big, beautiful, and compelling. With Mirror—the word itself denotes reflection—we are explicitly invited to see ourselves in the project. Rather than merely serving as victims of tracking and surveillance, Aitkens invites us to see ourselves as aestheticized flows of computational unfolding. Frequently warned about the clouds of data that we produce through daily activities such as shopping, searching or communicating, we tend to imagine our data as something to be kept private; leakage is a problem. Mirror suggests a very different position. Data is beautiful.

Finally, the flurry of images of the ‘natural world’ suggests a neat delineation of nature and culture, city and countryside, and in being generated algorithmically, pretends to divest human control. Through the partial ceding of power over the artwork, Aitken naturalizes the project’s imagery and the shape of its generation. Simultaneously, however, he invites us to query our understanding of nature. Standing on the sidewalk beneath the brightly lit façade, we can opt to see the artwork and, in so doing, perhaps not see the implications of our decimation of the natural world, even in something as simple as the light pollution produced by the project itself.

In this sense, then, screened urbanism brings together cities, bodies, and behaviors, while also asking us to attend to the production of a zone within which we must choose what to see and what not to see, what to sense and not sense. Like China Miéville’s protagonist in The City and the City, what do we ‘see’ when we look at Aitken’s Mirror?

 

Interfacing With Data: ConvergenceLA

My second example comes from Refik Anadol and Susan Narduli, both Los Angeles-based artists with studios dedicated in part to designing large-scale urban media projects. Anadol has created a series of artworks that attempt to visualize the scope, scale, and beauty of information, often on public screens. These include the large-scale generative sculpture for the city of San Francisco titled 350 Mission (2016) commissioned by the Kilroy Realty Corporation. [18] The piece visualizes data produced from sensors around the city, such as wind speed, energy use, humidity, and even noise from the airport. Perpetually in motion, the piece is located inside the building in a large, windowed lobby that is visible from the street, enticing passersby to stop and watch the project’s various permutations from outside. 

More recently, Anadol created Wind of Boston: Data Painting (2017), a project that visualizes a data set chronicling wind speed, direction, and gust patterns over the course of a year as measured at Logan Airport in Boston. [19] The project transposes this information into a morphing artwork that shifts every 20 seconds to demonstrate a new rendering of the information. Anadol is also currently working on a large-scale data visualization media wall designed for the Los Angeles Transit Centre downtown. [20]

The projects of Narduli Studio include pacificBecoming | realtime (2016), a 60-foot high media installation on the exterior of the Paséa Hotel and Spa in Huntington Beach. [21] The project uses data to generate animations that create a representation of the ocean dynamically. Object Permanence (2016) is placed within the Marriott Hotel in Santa Monica, California, that combines video and data, and is described by the studio as “a layering of nature, culture and abstraction infused with data driven animations linked to the Pacific Ocean tidal levels.” [23]

Working collaboratively, Narduli and Anadol recently produced a project titled ConvergenceLA. Situated on the exterior of a five-story façade of a new building called Metropolis Towers in downtown Los Angeles, the project once again visualizes real-time data, including oceanographic and tectonic data, social media, and traffic information. The project is displayed on an LED screen that is approximately 100 feet wide and 18 feet tall and situated between two sections of the Metropolis Towers complex. The project is described on the Narduli Studio website in this way: “The artwork itself is a generative construct, fueled by data and informed by aesthetics. It explores new ways of storytelling through an intelligent platform that expresses and responds to the spirit of Los Angeles in a seamless fusion of digital content, public space, and urban life.” [24] 

While this description of the project remains vague, its stress on ‘a seamless fusion of digital content, public space, and urban life’ corresponds with the visual sensibility which is nothing if not seamless. ConvergenceLA features images that are dazzling, abstract patterns that morph in wave-like rhythms, continuously unfolding in rich colors and sumptuous shapes. Swirling dots and lines, pulsing patterns of color and shapes, and movement akin to waves or flocks of birds all contribute to an aesthetic of flow. This imagery—or is it data?—includes annotations with bits of text that identify specific points, marking their status as information. The experience of seeing these unfurling, colorful images is aesthetically pleasing, even thrilling. The projects conjure a sense wonder and enchantment, and there is a distinct pleasure in imagining that data can render such beauty. These are works that turn the city itself into an art-generating platform.

However, these works also function at a more profound level. Like Aitken’s Mirror, the large-scale urban artworks produced by Narduli and Anadol eschew conventions of narrative, character, and storytelling that characterize classical cinema, but retain the sizable screen, which has been incorporated into the architecture that holds it. In viewing these data-generated images, we are interpellated not by story but by data and scale; the identity proffered is not human but machinic; these are not images that replicate our view of the world; they are massive expressions of data. But we are still drawn by the aesthetic forms of the imagery.

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Caption: Figure 4 – ConvergenceLA, Refik Anadol and Susan Narduli, 2017. View of the artwork from the street. Photograph by Refik Anadol. © Refik Anadol, 2017. Used with permission.

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Caption: Figure 5 – ConvergenceLA, Refik Anadol and Susan Narduli, 2017. View of the artwork from the street. Photograph by Refik Anadol. © Refik Anadol, 2017. Used with permission.

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Caption: Figure 6 – ConvergenceLA, Refik Anadol and Susan Narduli, 2017. View of the artwork from the street. Photograph by Refik Anadol. © Refik Anadol, 2017. Used with permission.

As such, the project offers a form of identification that is not character-based, nor is it organized by a sense of temporal and spatial stability, qualities ascribed to the literate and cinematic self by scholars of apparatus theory in film studies. Instead, it presents fluidity and multiplicity, qualities more akin to the computational self. Where cinema hails and interpellates individuals, screened urbanism senses, tracks and then presents flows, patterns, and networked interactions. These qualities come to represent the self as flow instead of character.

With these projects, Narduli and Anadol have also created a portrait of the city derived from data that echoes the form of the city symphony—a genre of poetic documentary films produced at the beginning of the last century—as they attempt to capture urban life at a particular historical moment. The earlier city symphonies, such as Berlin, Symphony of a City (1927) by Walter Ruttmann, or Manhatta (1921) by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, capture the pace, beauty, size, and scale of the then modern metropolis by showing graphically composed images of the city. [25] More than that, however, they employ a non-linear form and many often included avant-garde sound scores, offering not simply a depiction of the city but an affective interpretation of modernity itself. 

ConvergenceLA suggests that rather than being static, the contemporary city and its interface of screened urbanism is active, constantly evolving, a Mobius strip of production and dissolution. This constantly shifting interface eschews the dichotomy that characterizes the earlier city symphonies, which assume a world and its pictures, replacing it with the logic of the network and its processes.

A skeptic might find the deployment of such beauty mendacious. In their spectacle and aesthetic pleasure, the images naturalize the collection and use of data; they rationalize and suggest an order within that data that is readily apprehensible to the viewer; and they placate what, for most of us is, the unknown and the invisible. They defuse our necessary wariness in the face of the extreme power of data collection as it relates to tracking, surveillance, and citizenship. 

In her essay, “Proliferation, Extinction, and an Anthropocene Aesthetic,” Myra J. Hird suggests the implications of a loss of wariness. [26] She explores an aesthetic that lists a set of qualities to characterize our world, specifically, those that have rendered the anthropocene. These are “capitalist venture, planetary conquest, colonial authority, and limitless resource extraction.” [27] Within this context, beauty, akin to that which characterized the Enlightenment, “has come to be equated with what we can control, what is safe to articulate: what we can, and choose, to save.” [28] This is the sense offered by both Mirror and ConvergenceLA: data is something that we can control; it is something safe to articulate; it is beautiful.

Hird goes on to quote Nicholas Mirzoeff and his 2014 essay “Visualizing the Anthropocene,” in which he writes that this aesthetic “allows us to move on, to see nothing and keep circulating commodities, despite the destruction of the biosphere.”  [29]

And this returns us to the spaces of crosshatching, of layering, and of overlap from The City and the City, and the logic that allows and even perpetuates certain kinds of seeing and not seeing. Aitken, Anadol and Narduli have opted to showcase the ways in which computationally generated artworks produce an aesthetic of grace, symmetry, and serendipitous pleasure, and it is incumbent upon us to consider the stakes of the imagery and our role in receiving it.

 

Interfacing—Ambivalently—With Pleasure

By way of a conclusion, then, both Mirror and ConvergenceLA create large-scale moving image flows on the exterior of buildings within major American cities. In both cases, the spectator experiencing the artwork enjoys an aesthetic experience that, in the best case, prompts reflection on the role of the transformation of data into artworks, and by extension, our own imbrication within the vast flux of data flows. [30]

I find myself weighing the possibilities that these artworks may promote positive social encounters against the wariness I have already expressed related to the obfuscation of power that data tracking holds. On the positive side, I am reminded of the refreshing advocacy ‘healthy public space’ made by Mark Kingwell and Patrick Turmel in the introduction to Rites of Way: The Politics and Poetics of Public Space. [31] Using a form of logic infused with generosity, they suggest that public space should eschew the instrumentality that produces efficiency and places utility at its center. “We are guided by the conviction, not pious but steely, that healthy public space offers one of the best, living parts of a just society,” they write. [32] 

Anadol and Narduli’s large-scale imagery of dazzling forms in compelling motion references both the history of painting and that of cinema, while Doug Aitken’s outdoor artworks rekindle a sense of interest in both the materiality of the world around us and the nature of nature itself. Both projects borrow from the invisible information that billows around us in order to render a visual experience of beauty. And both engage with the history and form of the cinematic, not only in construing city symphonies but in their use of scale and affect, and in offering a shared experience of wonder. Finally, both artworks also begin to suggest the shapes and forms that data can take when visualized. 

That said, both also participate in a form of obfuscation that belies the workings of power; they elide the ways in which we are moving toward a posthuman subjectivity; and perhaps most significantly, they participate in a celebration of screened urbanism and the interface that conceals as much as it reveals.

It is within the deep ambivalence embodied by these projects—an ambivalence that is indeed an in-between zone—that we are invited to choose what we will see and what we will not see, with ‘seeing’ here necessarily having several meanings. In the zone of crosshatched overlap, between the cinema and the city, we must not necessarily look harder in an attempt to see more clearly; we must reckon with the computational realm and its divesture of the visual. We need, then, to purposefully unsee, and in that unseeing come to understand who and what we are as computational subjects; this act is prompted by artworks by Aitken, Anadol, and Narduli, and by the city and the cinema. 

China Miéville’s novel ends with a provocative sentence: “I live in the interstice yes, but I live in both the city and the city.” [33] We might echo this sentence, noting that we live in the interface, yes, but we also live in both the city and the cinema.

 

Author Biography 

Holly Willis is a Research Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, and founding chair of the Division of Media Arts + Practice, a program dedicated to the integration of theory and practice. She is the author of Fast Forward: The Future(s) of the Cinematic Arts (2016) and New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image (2005), as well the editor of The New Ecology of Things (2007), a collection of essays about ubiquitous computing. She is also the co-founder of Filmmaker Magazine dedicated to independent film; she served as editor of RES Magazine and co-curator of RESFEST, a festival of experimental media, for several years; and she writes frequently for diverse publications about experimental film, video and new media, while also exploring experimental nonfiction and poetry.

Notes and References 

[1] China Miéville, The City and the City (New York, NY: Del Rey Ballantine Books, 2009). See also Jussi Parikka’s “The City and the City: London 2012 Visual (Un)Commons,” in Postdigital Aesthetics: Art, Computation and Design, eds. David M. Berry and Michael Dieter (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 203-218. In this essay, Parikka makes a reference to The City and the City as well. Similarly, John Potter and Julian McDougall describe disciplinary overlap in the context of media literacy using the cross-hatching trope in their book Digital Media, Culture and Education: Theorizing Third Space Literacies (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017). My use of the text will differ, but it is a testament to Miéville’s acumen that his trope feels so adequate to our current moment.

[2] Miéville, The City and the City, 3.

[3] Gillian Fuller and Ross Harley, “The Protocological Surround: Reconceptualizing Radio and Architecture in the Wireless City,” in From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen: Urban Informatics, Social Media, Ubiquitous Computing, and Mobile Technology to Support Citizen Engagement, eds. Marcus Foth and Laura Forlano (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 39-54.

[4] Doug Aitken, Mirror, 2013, urban earthwork, Seattle; Susan Narduli, ConvergenceLA, 2017, media installation, Metropolis Towers, Los Angeles.

[5] The intersection specifically of the city and cinema is taken up in a few instances as a research topic, moving beyond discussions of the ways in which cities are depicted in films to explore deeper imbrications. As an example, Francois Penz and Andong Lu introduce ‘urban cinematics’ as a rubric to unite the work that emerged from a two-year research project titled Narrascape that brought together scholars from the Department of Architecture in Cambridge (UK) and the School of Architecture at Nanjing University in China. The project resulted in a conference, as well as a book, titled Urban Cinematics: Understanding Urban Phenomena Through the Moving Image. See Francois Penz and Andong Lu, Urban Cinematics: Understanding Urban Phenomena Through the Moving Image (Chicago, IL: Intellect, 2011).

[6] For examples of this movement of cinema beyond the theater, see Janine Marchessault and Susan Lord, eds., Fluid Screens, Expanded Cinema (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008); Catherine Elwes, Installation and the Moving Image (New York, NY: Wallflower Press, 2015); and Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[7] When I describe a reconfiguration, I do not presume a singular notion of the cinematic, nor do I exalt novelty simply for the sake of ‘the new.’ Instead, I want to point to a philosophy of the digital image that seeks to explain the differences between a representational milieu in which there is a world distinct from the images produced about it, and a computational model that suggests that the world cannot be separated from the networks that produce it. 

[8] In their introduction, the editors explain: “Urban screens of various scale—from the small handheld screens of mobile phones to the large screens dominating the streetscapes of global cities—exemplified a new urban paradigm produced by the layering of physical space and media space, resulting in what has been variously called ‘Hertzian,’ ‘hybrid,’ ‘mixed,’ ‘augmented’ or ‘stereoscopic’ space.” Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin and Sabine Niederer, eds., Urban Screens Reader (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2009), 9.

[9] “Urban Screens: Discovering the Potential of Screens for Urban Society,” special issue, First Monday (2006), http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/issue/view/217; 

Scott McQuire, The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008); Scott McQuire, Geomedia: Networked Cities and the Future of Public Space (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016).

[10] Nanna Verhoeff, Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012).

[11] Omar Khan, Trebor Scholz and Mark Shepard, eds., The Situated Technologies Pamphlets (The Architectural League of New York, 2007-2012).

[12] Marcus Foth, Markus Rittenbruch, Ricky Robinson and Stephen Viller, Street Computing: Urban Informatics and City Interfaces (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), 3.

[13] Ibid. Johann Andersson and Lawrence Webb echo my own sense of shifting contexts in relation to cinema and the city in their introduction to Global Cinematic Cities: New Landscapes of Film and Media. Titled “Decentering the Cinematic City—Film and Media in the Digital Age,” the opening overview indicates a homology between the changes impacting cinema and those affecting cities. They write, “As the analytic focus of film studies is questioned by the proliferation of digital media, so the traditional concept of the city is destabilized by rabid urbanism at a global scale” (1). Johan Andersson and Lawrence Webb, Global Cinematic Cities: New Landscapes of Film and Media (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[14] A strong visual emblem of screened urbanism is offered by the artwork from New City, a three-dimensional display created by Peter Frankfurt, Greg Lynn, and Alex McDowell for the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition curated by Paola Antonelli in 2008 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

[15] Doug Aitken, Sleepwalkers, 2007, screen-art installation, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

[16] Doug Aitken, Station to Station, 2013, live-art project, the United States of America.

[17] James Careless, “Doug Aitken’s Multimedia Mirror: Video Installation Reflects and Responds in Real Time,” Digital Video Magazine (August 2013): 32.

[18] Refik Anadol and Susan Narduli, 350 Mission, 2016, data sculpture, San Francisco.

[19] Refik Anadol, Wind of Boston: Data Painting, 2017, data painting, Logan Airport, Boston.

[20] Each of these projects has been commissioned, which in some ways testifies to the enthusiasm of those who govern our cities to harness data flows to produce pleasurable experiences.

[21] Narduli Studio, pacificBecoming | realtime, 2016, media installation, Paséa Hotel and Spa, Huntington Beach.

[22] Narduli Studio, Object Permanence, 2016, media installation, Marriott Hotel, Santa Monica.

[23] Narduli Studio, “Cloud Parametric from Object Permanence,” video description, accessed April 10, 2017, https://vimeo.com/204443214.

[24] Susan Narduli and Refik Anadol, “ConvergenceLA unveiled at Metropolis Towers,” Narduli Studio, accessed April 10, 2017, https://www.nardulistudio.com.

[25] Walter Ruttmann, dir., Berlin, Symphony of a City, 1927, silent film; Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, dir., Manhatta, 1921, documentary film.

[26] Myra J. Hird, “Proliferation, Extinction, and an Anthropocene Aesthetic,” in Posthumous Life: Theorizing Beyond the Posthuman, eds. Jami Weinstein and Claire Colebrook (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2017).

[27] Ibid., 257.

[28] Ibid., 256.

[29] Nicholas Mirzoeff, “Visualizing the Anthropocene,” Public Culture 26, no. 2 (2014): 213-232, quoted in Hird, “Proliferation, Extinction, and an Anthropocene Aesthetic,” 271, Hird’s emphasis. 

[30] See, for example, Moritz Behrens, Ava Fatah gen. Schieck and Duncan P. Brumby, “Designing Media Architectural Interfaces for Interactions in Urban Spaces,” in Citizen’s Right to the Digital City: Urban Interfaces, Activism, and Placemaking, eds. Marcus Foth, Martin Brynskov and Timo Ojala (Singapore: Springer, 2015), 55-77. The essay offers a useful taxonomy of diverse media viewing positions, and highlights the significance of social encounters, which they define as “(un-)planned gatherings amongst strangers or people who know each other” (57). They go on to note that media facades may facilitate these social encounters, but that they operate in very different ways. The facades may function as ornaments, support communication and advertising, provide news content, present media art experiences, engage in social visualization, or support the specific purposes of a community.

[31] Mark Kingwell and Patrick Turmel, eds., Rites of Way: The Politics and Poetics of Public Space (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009).

[32] Ibid., xi.

 [33] Miéville, The City and the City, 312.

Bibliography 

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