Body Movies

City as Screen / Body as Movie

Posted on March 20, 2015 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?

See Afterimage, Vol. 37, No. 2 for the rest of the essay.