City as Screen / Body as Movie

Posted on September 9, 2009 by Holly Willis

Let’s start with a photograph: taken by Hiroko Masuke, it is of a billboard that features an ad for the TV miniseries The Andromeda Strain printed in The New York Times a year ago.1 The billboard includes a large, horizontal poster for the film, along with a video display showing clips embedded within the poster. What’s not visible, however, is a small video camera made by the company Quividi that documents passersby as they look at the billboard; the company has developed what it calls the “automated audience measurement solution,” which documents visitors who look at the billboard, channeling the information into a database, from which it then decodes the data, examining factors such as the overall height of viewers, as well as facial features, including cheekbone height and the measurement of space between the nose and chin. The goal is to determine gender and age, and although the company says it does not yet factor for race, it plans to soon.

This essay takes as its topic urban video and screens, umbrella terms that include the multiple cameras and projection surfaces that characterize the topology of contemporary urban space. At any given time in an urban setting we are participants within an information space – as subjects surveilled and “captured” by video cameras; as users of cell phones and PDAs that allow for multiple and layered interactions with data, from telephone usage to Web-based activities, photography and video capture; as users of the screens of ATMs; as viewers of the media displays on terminals at train stations and airports; as readers of assorted screen-based texts; as viewers of video ads; and as subjects interacting with a broad range of specific media streams. In these capacities, we move from networked subject to object, and from viewer to viewed. We are imbricated within networks, often unknowingly, while knowingly interacting with others. In short, we negotiate innumerable interfaces almost continually, being hailed as subjects and enacting subjectivity in a continual media flux. Urban screens are just one part of a larger set of screens that build a network around us. As such, screens are no longer simply dedicated to display; instead, they become components of what’s been described as “augmented space” and “mixed reality.”2

Academic interest in this sphere has multiple vantage points stemming from the specific yet convergent media from which these iterations derive, namely the traditions of cinema, video, public art and an emerging participatory culture, some of whose participants borrow from and extend the tactical and politicized activist media practices of earlier decades. However, urban screens also intersect with other categories and disciplines:

– as integral extensions of the built environment, they participate in discussions in the field of architecture and debates about the intersection of the digital and material as they are articulated by architects designing and constructing actual buildings;

– because these screens often display advertising, they are also very much included in discussions of branding and the interface between markets and individuals;

– and because they dot the urban landscape, sometimes hovering between private and public space, these screens serve as the focal point for discussions of political power and the need for public space to exist as a component of democracy.

However, in the context of this particular issue of Afterimage, I want to focus my discussion to ask what kinds of literacies are being shaped by pervasive video in public space? Further, in a space rife with advertising, what rhetorical strategies are deployed by users of this space, whether corporations, governments, artists and others, to “speak” to viewers? And how are everyday viewers responding with their own images in public? As cities become screens, and bodies become movies, where do we situate empowerment and literacy?

To move toward some answers, I’d like to start by highlighting three key components within the larger matrix of moving images and outdoor spaces.

Outdoor Ad Screens

Major cities are employing screens, as a means both to draw visitors to certain locales and to sell goods via advertising. The biggest screens – those that are several stories high – are known as “spectaculars.” Found in cities such as New York, Las Vegas, London and Tokyo, among others, the screens have become increasingly prevalent as the prices for the technology needed to create them decreases. Until recently, these signs were akin to billboards and because they required careful planning to be altered, they generally remained relatively static. However, beginning in 2005, many of the signs were networked. The Coca Cola sign in Times Square was one of the first to be networked, which means that the material screened on the sign can be changed instantly. The programming, which is generally silent motion graphics or animation, most often made by repurposing existing print or commercial advertising, is sold to advertisers in the form of “dayparts,” a term borrowed from TV advertising which refers to the segments of a day that an advertiser seeks in order to address viewers it deems most appropriate to a product. Wow Factor has trademarked the term “content engineering” to refer to the work the company does to align a particular sign’s technical parameters and the advertiser’s needs to “create content that ‘pushes the envelope.’”

While spectaculars become tourist destination points, a more common form of screen increasingly finding its way into public space is what Clear Channel calls the “Digital Outdoor Network,” referencing the large digital billboards that rotate through sequences of static images. Clear Channel has experimented with a variety of digital advertising forms. Two years ago in New York, for example, Clear Channel collaborated with the New York Mass Transit Authority, which runs the public buses and subways, to install 80 LED advertising panels above various subway entrances. The project was initially dubbed “Street TV,” but Clear Channel had trouble selling the space because advertisers were not sure what this space actually was – was it television or signage? The company adopted the term “moving billboard” to help alleviate the confusion, but this points to the very clear process of remediation and definition taking place as these screens continue to appear.

Museum Spaces

Since 2000, the number of projected, multi-channel or single channel displays of video art projects has grown exponentially in museums both in the United States and abroad, with large-scale image spectacles drawing viewers back into institutions whose power and significance in the 1990s was definitely on the wane. Normally ensconced inside the museum, these images are gradually moving out into the public sphere. One prime example of this trend is the project situated in New York’s Museum of Modern Art Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden between West 53rd and 54th Streets in Manhattan from January 16 to February 12 of 2007. On the walls encasing the garden were gigantic moving images projected onto six facades between 5:00 and 10:00 p.m. every evening. The films, part of what the artist Doug Aitken calls a “broken screen” narrative, chronicle the lives of five characters as they move through the city at night.3 The Web site accompanying the project noted, “These characters provide a blueprint for the metropolis as a living, breathing organism fueled by the desires, energies and ambitions of its inhabitants.”4 The description continues, explaining that “Aitken pioneers a site-specific cinema, expanded into the urban landscape and keyed to the pedestrian experience.”

Visitors to this site-specific cinema were able to access commentary about the project via their cell phones, and a fast-paced 60-second trailer was posted on YouTube in hopes of generating interest. Visitors were invited to stroll around the silent film to see all six 11-minute segments and the large images, with many of them close-ups that exacerbated the sense of enormity of the faces and figures of the characters, were visible from blocks away from the museum. The title of the project was Sleepwalkers.

While unusually large and expensive, Aitken’s project is just one example of a broader trend toward the embrace of video art in general and video art in public space specifically. The 2001, ’03 and ’05 Venice Bienniales suffered much criticism for what was often characterized as the “infiltration” of video and the circus-like atmosphere of multiple screens and aural cacophony. (In her Village Voice review of the 2001 Biennale, for example, Kim Levin declared that “this is the biennale where everyone OD’d on video.”)5 In the United States, the 2006 Whitney Biennial was both celebrated and criticized for its emphasis on moving images. However, many museums are going further, seeking to reinvigorate their cultural significance by finding new ways of connecting with audiences, often by pushing their exhibitions out into the city, hoping to offset charges of redundancy and irrelevance. The recent series of In/Site shows staged on the border between Tijuana and San Diego, for example, are very much situated within the neighborhoods, streets and highways that mark that territory. Similarly, the Hammer Museum and The Getty Center in Los Angeles have been home to extensive outdoor projections in shows curated by Anne Bray and LA Freewaves.

Along the same lines, many museums have responded to their desire to engage the public by crafting buildings that architecturally blur the boundaries between inside and outside, whether through translucent architecture or large-scale screens designed to attract viewers at a distance. One example is the Walker Art Center’s $70 million expansion by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron in 2005, which includes what a reporter describes as a “skin of crinkled aluminum mesh that changes constantly with the sky, sometimes looking like ice, sometimes like glass and other times like cellophane” and at still other times like concrete.6 The addition also includes a “dynamic information display” designed by the New York-based firm Pentagram Design. Located on the outside of the building, the display is a rear projection featuring two streams of information and utilizing five synchronized video projections that are displayed on an etched-glass surface. The resulting images are described as “ghostly” and “diffuse,” but these effects are intentional; the designers did not want the images to appear as sharp as they might on a monitor.

In short, many museum spaces and outdoor advertising screens are appealing to people through large-scale moving images, screen-based information, and screen-like facades that blur the distinctions between interior and exterior, and among media (whether cinema, television or print), as well as among branding, entertainment and art. Indeed, I would argue that these screens contribute to a larger project of constructing viewers who are encouraged to cede the boundaries dividing the activities of aesthetic viewing, browsing, walking, talking and shopping, addressing us as subjects able and willing to fluidly negotiate the information and artistic flows around us. To some extent, this is nothing new. Billboards and television similarly addressed spectators who could negotiate multiple forms of attention. However, seen in the context of a growing screen ecology, these screens presume and construct a new kind of viewing subject and propose a public space onto which private – and oftentimes corporate – spaces leak.

But why would this fluidity be desirable? One reason has to do with the construction of digital consumers and workers. To be productive as either, we need new forms of attention and perception. As such, what used to be derisively dubbed “distraction” or “continuous partial attention” when we simultaneously listen to music, chat on IM and work on three projects at the same time is now called multitasking and is seen as a skill. Further, sitting in front of a film screen immersed in a single narrative is no longer a beneficial skill in this instrumental logic of the new corporate environment; being able to handle multiple streams of input is.

These screens and their reconfiguration of formerly separate boundaries also reflect what Saskia Sassen dubs the “global city.” Sassen describes the contemporary city as “an amalgamation of multiple global circuits that loop through it.”7 “What “remains physical in the city,” she says, “is transformed by the fact that it is represented by liquid instruments” in a dense, digital infrastructure.8 If much of the activity that occurs in a global city is indeed completely invisible as the flow of electronic information and finance all around us, the screen remains obstinately visible, framing and demarcating what threatens on the one hand to overwhelm or on the other hand to disappear altogether. But what exactly do screens demarcate in their stubborn presence? And who deploys this demarcation and toward what ends?

Several artists ask these questions, and answer them with their own outdoor projections. Perhaps best known among artists working with video in public space is Krzysztof Wodiczko, who has been projecting controversial images onto public buildings and official monuments for more than 25 years. Similarly, Canadian-Mexican media artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer uses public space in many of his projects. In Under Scan from 2005, for example, Lozano-Hemmer projected a series of video portraits on the ground of the public squares in several towns in England. However, the portraits are invisible until people walk into the light of the projection, at which point their shadows reveal the portraits. An exchange takes place between the viewer and the video portrait, and one result is a sense of composited and performed social identity that is at once connected to and more than the single, individual body. Similarly, in Body Movies, part of a larger project that Lozano-Hemmer dubs “relational architecture,” the artist and his team created a series of interactive projections based on photographs taken on the streets where the piece was shown. In this case, the photos only appear within the projected shadows of people passing by, again conjuring a necessary linkage between the viewer and the image. The images are also very large.

The number of artists engaged in outdoor projections is on the rise, thanks in part to the falling costs and increasing effectiveness of projectors. However, only a few artists, such as Wodiczko and Lozano-Hemmer, fully engage with the power and politics of public space in their work.

In an interview in 2005 with José Luis Barrios, Lozano-Hemmer quotes Cicero, saying, “We make buildings and buildings make us.”9 He is referencing his projections on architectural structures, but it might be expanded to include public space. Indeed, Lozano-Hemmer continued on to add, “Our situation in the globalized city says the opposite: the urban environment no longer represents the citizens, it represents capital.” Lozano-Hemmer’s response is to encourage an “eccentric reading of the environment” (7) and to promote “alien memories” (9), namely those that do not come from or belong to the site itself.10 He adds, “I don’t want to develop site-specific installations but rather focus on the new temporal relationships that emerge from the artificial situation, what I call ‘relationship-specific’ art.” Finally, Lozano-Hemmer has also described a notion of “relational,” explaining that “relational architecture disorganizes the master narratives of a building by adding and subtracting audiovisual elements to affect it, effect it and re-contextualize it.”11

I would like to propose that we extend Lozano-Hemmer’s understanding of “relational” in this context to consider it with regard to literacy. “Relational” as a term has many uses. Lozano-Hemmer himself points to the “neurological essays of Maturana and Varela.” He cites the function of relational databases, those that, in his words, weave “multi-dimensional webs for connecting various fields.” Lastly, he explains, relational “was a good word in counterpoint to the term ‘virtual,’ which emphasizes the dematerialization of experience and asks us to create in simulacra.” In contrast, “‘relational’ emphasizes the dematerialization of the real environment and asks us to question the dissimulation.”12

The key element here is the negotiation of the material and immaterial, with the word “relational” designating not the virtual, but instead the enactment of the relations between networked and material, and the play of signification as it occurs across an increasing range of frequencies.

The ability to understand this play across frequencies must be added to our understanding of contemporary literacy. To quickly sketch a history: “critical literacy,” a term used by Paulo Freire in 1967, designates the need to incorporate a critical perspective in pedagogy dedicated to literacy. Part of that critical perspective requires understanding the hegemonic and ideological drives that influence – and perhaps govern – modes of communication, and one of the primary practices within a critical literacy is the “uncovering” of hidden agendas or the revelation of coded meanings. The notion of visual literacy added to critical literacy the need to comprehend and decode visual communication, applying a kind of reading practice to images.

What is required in addition to these literacies, then, is relational literacy, which unites a critical stance in regard to “reading” the world, as well as an understanding of visual literacy, but adds to these fundamental endeavors the ability to negotiate the material and immaterial vectors of media and the social relations that they engender at any given moment. Just as a relational database allows users to discern unforeseen relations among sets of data, so too does relational literacy help users discern the invisible or unacknowledged linkages and connections among data streams around us. This literacy, then, parallels the augmented reality noted earlier, working similarly as an overlay on the environment around us that allows us to perceive the heretofore unperceived. It is also situated, and specific to users.

What specifically are the components of this literacy?

First is the recognition of a new form of subjectivity. If cultural objects construct us through interpellation, a subject constructed through myriad mediated instanciations of interpellation and surveillance is very different than that of the traditional cinema spectator. In his book The Cinema Effect, Sean Cubitt charts a path through the history of cinema in an equation that aligns Jacques Lacan’s realms of the psyche – the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic – with Charles Sanders Pierce’s firstness, secondness and thirdness. In the first phase, cinema gives us the plenitude and immersiveness constitutive of the Real; in the second phase, the cut enacts the division between subject and object, corresponding to the Imaginary; and in the third phase, writes Cubitt, we arrive at the Lacanian Symbolic, moving toward “concept and meaning, socialization, the paradigmatic axis of film.”13 He calls this phase that of the vector, and notes that as spectators of the vector, we are addressed “no longer as termini but as media: as people who make sense, but only as nodes in interweaving trajectories of signification.” He continues, “It is no longer a matter of recognition, of deciphering what is already encoded. Rather it is a matter of reinterpreting, of adding a new spin to a trajectory that has not yet realized itself,” adding a bit later that “we confront the double presence of the screen image as at once object and image.”14 As subjects, we are not terminal points but nodes within a relational network.

Second is the fact that much of what we hope to discern is in fact invisible or hidden. The surveillance camera on a Quividi-equipped billboard, for example, is not immediately apparent, nor does the information on the billboard connect the “viewer” of the camera’s footage with those being viewed. Here the billboard acts as both a screen hiding a camera and an image, hovering in the space in between, acting as an interface through which information is conveyed, as much as it is a screen that obscures and makes information invisible.

And third, just as many of us carry screens around with us, we have some power to direct and participate in the information flows around us. Yochai Benkler, in his book The Wealth of Networks, describes the “networked information economy,” which is distinct from the industrial information economy thanks to its creation of a communications environment that contributes to creating individuals who, he says, are less passive, “and thus more engaged observers of social spaces that could potentially become subjects for political conversation; they become more engaged participants in the debates about their observations.”15

Benkler’s excitement is paralleled by that of Henry Jenkins who, in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, discusses the relationships among three concepts: media convergence, participatory culture and collective intelligence, noting that he’s most interested in convergence as a cultural shift, one in which “consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content.” He adds in reference to his book that it is concerned primarily with “the work – and the play – spectators perform in the new media system.”16

And this leads to the fourth component of a relational literacy, namely play. Play in urban spaces continues to take multiple forms, from the casual gaming of subway-riders using increasingly miniaturized cell phones or DS consoles, to city-wide alternate reality games that may have no visible manifestation in the urban space whatsoever. But this reappropriation of city spaces for play has profound implications for the experience of individuals who, in the words of Michel de Certeau navigate the city “against the design” of urban planners, oriented toward orderly movement and maximized access to commerce.

And finally, the fifth component of a relational literacy is the making of the public through narratives that disrupt, that allow the silenced to speak and that empower the disempowered. What are the various practices of users in public space that make that space? Returning to Saskia Sassen, whose work focuses on these practices, we find a sense of urgency. She notes that we are at a critical moment in the work of what she calls making the public and making the political. She highlights “growing velocities, the ascendance of process and flow over artifacts and permanence, massive structures that are not on a human scale, and branding as the basic mediation between individuals and markets.”17 And she notes that there are narratives that “add to the value of existing contexts” and to the “utility logics of the economic corporate world.” Then she writes, “But there is also a kind of public-making work that can produce disruptive narratives, and make it legible to the local and the silenced.”18

If the city as we are to understand it is now considered dynamic and layered, a space of multiple, mutable flows, then urban screens, in their convergence and divergence, in their contradictory agendas and diverse audiences, serve as emblems, tangible manifestations of the liminal juncture between material and immaterial. Relational literacy designates the ways in which we might “disorganize” the master narratives of mediated public space and its screens, in order to differently reconstitute our own architectures of meaning and priority.


1. Find the image here:
Accessed May 31, 2008.

2. “Mixed reality” comes from the 2005 International Symposium on Mixed Reality, which focused on “the environment generated by new technologies that contain significant interaction possibilities in both virtual and physical spaces.” “Augmented space” comes from Lev Manovich’s discussion of the Prada store in Manhattan in “The Poetics of Augmented Space: Learning From Prada,” 2002. Downloadable PDF:

3. The term “broken screen” is also the name of Aitken’s 2006 collection of interviews with artists interested in nonlinear narrative forms. Broken Screen: 26 Conversations With Doug Aitken, Expanding the Image, Breaking the Screen (New York: Trilce, 2006).

4. See the Web site here:

5. Kim Levin, “Panic Attack: Navigating the Venice Biennale’s Sprawling Interzone,” Village Voice, June 25, 2001.

6. Karren Mills, “Walker Art Center Undergoes Futuristic Face-Lift,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, April 24, 2005.

7. Saskia Sassen, “Making Public Interventions in Today’s Massive Cities,” The London Consortium, Static, Issue 04, 5. Available as downloadable PDF:

8. Sassen, 5.

9. “Loose Ends: A Conversation Between José Luis Barrios and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer,” April 2005, page 7; available as downloadable PDF here:

10. He adds, “I don’t want to develop site-specific installations but rather focus on the new temporal relationships that emerge from the artificial situation, what I call ‘relationship-specific’ art.”

11.  Nettime listserv entry, January, 1998. Accessible here:

12. All from Barrios conversation, page 9.

13. Sean Cubitt, The Cinema Effect (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005) 70.

14. Cubitt, 92.

15. Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Comment Press version, Chapter 1, paragraph 23.

16, Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006) 3.

17. Sassen, 7.

18. Sassen, 7.