This is a paper I wrote with Matt Adams from Blast Theory for the Leonardo Electronic Almanac (LEA) on Urban Interfaces. We provide a definition of performative urban interfaces (in contrast to informational urban interfaces) and their importance towards facilitating emergent social and spatial interaction in the city and enabling reflection on the impact of digitally mediated technologies in urban space.
Through case studies on Blast Theory’s A Machine To See With and Rimini Protokoll’s Ciudades Paralelas,we discuss the importance of accounting for the participant’s translation of the artistic narrative, where multiple interpretations enable a diversity of outcomes, and where failure might (at times) turn out to be a positive outcome by providing a meaningful experience for the participant. This potential is not limited to performance art, but also to urban interfaces that—intentionally or not—perform in unexpected ways.
By taking into account the multiple actants in performance art and in the city—citizens, artistic narrative, urban space and digital communication technologies—we highlight the potential for performative urban interfaces to repurpose informational urban interfaces.
MacGhillie by Knowbotiq – conference attendant taking part in the performance
How can we define urban art? Art that is performed in urban spaces? Art that questions, challenges and addresses urban issues? Or art that originates in the city and is distinctively urban? It is perhaps all of the above, but more importantly, urban art is about encounter. Performative and embodied encounter. It is about participation. It is also about uncertainty, awareness, reflection. It can trigger political action, social interaction, or play. Or it can just sit in the background, waiting for someone to wear it (see video above), trip on it (see video below), pick it up or sit on it.
Its outcome is contingent on the unpredictable agency of the city and the subjectivity of participants, who might interpret it in significantly different ways than envisioned by the artists or the institutions that have commissioned it. By moving outside of the controlled environment of art galleries and museums, it is subject to performative ‘failures’, although, as Judith Butler puts it, performance must fail, as the failures of performance can bring new affordances.
The reART:theURBAN conference showcased and discussed the many facets of urban art, including its discrepancies, missed potentials, contradictions and failures. During the open plenary, Charles Landry pondered why there is so much red public art around the world. Is it because it needs to make a point by ‘shouting out’ its purpose by standing out against the chaotic backdrop of the city? Can urban art not make its point discretely? After Landry’s talk, Erik Swyngedou highlighted the contradictions in the employment of urban art as a promotional tool for cities that market themselves as creative/sustainable/eco cities.
Swyngedou’s warning call can be seen here:
He replies to the question: “How can we bring divergent approaches to the table?” by arguing that it forces us to mistakenly think that we can actually all come together and agree in the city. Instead, we must understand the city’s most important quality as being exactly the ability to cater for an assemblage of individuals with divergent opinions, desires and ways of living. IN this case it is worth pondering the following question: how does the city support the development of the commons through urban art without succumbing to the rhetoric of the ‘cultural city’?
Rimini Protokoll’s 100% Zurich, performed during the conference, attempts to sketch out such commons in a two hour performance: 100 citizens on stage representing a statistical selection of the population of Zurich take part in a staged performance that shines a torch on the city through a lens that highlights its people and their ways of living rather than the infrastructure fabric. These ‘experts of the everyday’ tell their individual and collective stories, opinions and wishes through a semi-rehearsed performance, while multiple questions are posed to the 100 members, who scramble around the circular stage (that doubles as a sort of giant whiteboard filmed from above) to indicate statistically their answers. At one point, the narrative states: “We are a body with 100 heads”. This statement summarises the role of the city as a stage for a commons through dissensus, according to Swyngedou’s argument.
Slavoj Zizek’s keynote lecture – When Art is Dangerous – also questioned the totalitarian aim of the cultural city rhetoric. During his entertaining and engaging talk, Zizek elaborated on the ‘poetic military complex’. He argues that “authentic poetry, authentic art is used in crimes of poetic military ideology”. He referred to the justification of crimes against humanity through the use of poetic rhetoric – from Hitler via Karadzic to contemporary African dictators. The poetic military complex. These crimes, according to Zizek, are perpetrated through the use of language as a totalitarian weapon. Instead, he argues, “language should be tortured to tell the truth” so that poetry can be redeemed. He mentioned as an example Eisenstein and his ‘torturing of language through montage’.
I think Zizek’s point must be taken seriously especially when the focus on technology as effect/technique/theme in urban art foregrounds spectacle and an action/interaction effect molded on cybernetic predictability that affects participation, the important role of embodiment and reflection. It is a refreshing challenge to the myth of unimpeded information flows that help us find our way in the ‘concrete jungle’, (think Robocop, Minority Report, Google glasses…), or, as Katherine Hayles puts it, the belief that, in our posthuman condition, the body is redundant. Zizek’s point sheds a light on the need to be less prescriptive on the outcomes of urban art and forgo the rhetoric of cultural city in favour of a multiplicity of participatory modes and of foregrounding embodiment.
A better understanding of the multiple ways in which participants engage with urban art helps to overcome the urge to categorise it and pre-define its outcome as political, leisure, social. While many projects might have a specific agenda to start of with, the outcome is always unpredictable. I agree with Hilke Berger’s argument in her presentation about participation during here talk at the conference: “citizens attach their own value to things”.
A work of urban art can be interpreted in many different way by participants. During his inspiring and innovative presentation, artist Manos Tsangaris argued that “the urban is inside of us”, and that “if art says: I have to do this for x-reason, it fails”. According to him, we must focus on the punctum, the ‘leaping point’. Or in other words, we must pay close attention to sudden moments of displacement, of social potential, of renewal of what the term ‘urban’ stands for.
One of the highlights of the conference for me was taking part in a workshop on Urban Games ran by Jakob La Cour and Sebastian Quack. Through an iteration process, we adapted and played two ‘urban games’: Surveillance Roulette and Tetris Smuggling. Surveillance Roulette consisted of a typical roulette game where, instead of gambling on numbers, participants bet on the future actions of selected passers-by entering the designated space. In Tetris Smuggling, two competing teams had to recruit passers-by smuggle physical representations of the pieces of the famous electronic game into a designated security space and attach the pieces to a magnetic surface while avoiding two security guards patrolling the space.
Both games are remarkably simple, cheap to reproduce (no digital devices involved) and cleverly draw in passers-by into the game playing by reinterpreting traditional games (roulette and Tetris) and situating them in an unfamiliar space (transport hubs, bars) in a simple but challenging way. They raised questions about participation. Some participants felt uncomfortable engaging strangers to ‘smuggle’ pieces of Tetris past the ‘security personnel’ (a participant with a bright green safety vest). Passers-by were drawn into both games with unexpected results. During the enactment of the Surveillance Roulette game, many passers-by realised they were being observed and were puzzled by the excitement on the table inside the conferences bar where participants were assembled around the improvised roulette table. Sebastian and Jakob argues that urban games can “make you more aware of other participants” and to “observe and learn more about space”.
One of the important outcomes of these games is to allow adults to engage with urban space in a playful way, outside of everyday life routines. But they also fulfill other important roles, and therefore categorising them simply as playful interactions does not do them full justice. Through rule discussion, play and post-game analysis, the potential of embodied participation and reflection triggers disagreements that must be worked out through a democratic process. Therefore a temporary commons emerges through participatory dissensus.
La Cour and Quack’s workshop summarises what I liked most about the reART:the URBAN conference: it reassures me of the importance of participation in the creative re-appropriation of everyday urban spaces where the outcome is open, rather than an attempt to narrow the focus of urban art towards pre-defined categories (social, political, cultural, play) or prescriptive outcomes.
This, I think is an approach that can help us avoid the use of art, in Zizek’s words towards “providing an aesthetic screen to make us blind and indifferent”.
Ciudades Paralelas: Shopping Centre: The First International of Shopping Malls
On my second day, I took part in the Shopping Centre event. We met at the Cork bus station at 3pm, where a double-decker bus was waiting to bring us to the venue, an undisclosed suburban shopping mall, the kind of fully commodified/pasteurised shopping experience that shuns the messiness of the city centre urban fabric and is comfortably accessible by car (not by public transport), surrounded by a vast parking space area. There were between forty and fifty people taking part. On entering the bus we were given a radio transmitter with headphones. They asked us for some ‘collateral’ as a deposit, I gave them my student card.
I was hoping that we would be taking part somewhere in the city centre, perhaps even the famous English Market where the Queen recently paid a visit. However, as the bus kept moving away from the city centre I knew straight away that we were going to the ubiquitous suburban shopping malls that are an ubiquitous presence in all major cities and towns across Ireland. I’m not particularly fond of them. They all have the same shops, usually chains of stores selling mobile phone contracts, white trainers, perfume, videogames, cheapish clothes, fast food, cinema with the mandatory box-size packet of popcorn… Clichés aside, this is exactly the kind of space where the narrative of the Shopping Centre event (created by Ligna) thrives with its transgressive theme that suggests to us that we were about to join the ‘First International of Shopping Malls’.
Shortly before exiting the bus we were prompted by the organisers: not to mention the location avoid spoiling the experience of further participants (the shopping mall was completely unaware of the impending performance); if we were confronted by the security, we should just pretend that we are listening to music on our transmitters; if – in the worst case scenario – we were asked to leave the shopping mall, we should obey. However, according to them there shouldn’t be any reason for that, as the performance was designed to avoid breaking any ‘rules of common behaviour’ in shopping malls (is there such thing?).
On exiting the bus, staff adjusted our radio transmitters to the right frequency for the narrative transmission, and then we were told to freely roam the shopping mall and wait for instructions. There was a sense of anticipation, and it was quite uncanny when the white noise of the radio transmitter was interrupted by the start of the narrative. It started by describing the building as a living character composed of several other characters. The roof, glass facades, walls, and in particular, the products on sale all ‘spoke’ to you during the narrative.
The narrative initially takes you on a psychological journey exploration of these non-human characters and the objectives of the First International of Shopping Malls . It suggests an approach that involves “altering the space in a subliminal way”, comparing the mall to a prison and the commodities on sale to hieroglyphs of society, waiting to be deciphered. It argues that the mall is a place where commodities are venerated and where “visitors are meant to loose sight of any objectives”. It asked the following question: “When does a collective movement become a demonstration?”
As part of our membership of the First International of Shopping Malls, it suggested that we carry out a number of ‘tests’. The tests consisted of slightly transgressive acts: giving secret directional signals to fellow participants; yawning as a secret signal indicating you were an active member of the First International; hiding from passers-by and observing the surroundings; walking backwards; walking at different paces for different effects (“Walk fast until the facades become a blur”); walking while holding a coin in your extended palm and standing still against one of the shops facades; discretely exchanging pieces of paper with other participants – where you had written an alternative function for the space of the shopping mall; clapping, joining and rejoining other participants in random walks; and at the very end, bouncing up and down to the sound of music.
I found myself a bit embarrassed to carry out some of the demands. I also noticed the same on other participants. But at the same time, I wasn’t going to simply give up on it, so I went with the flow. It was amusing to see the reaction of unsuspecting security and passers-by as they started noticing strange occurrences of isolated members of the public walking around with earphones plugged in. I particularly enjoyed the clapping, and the joining and rejoining other participants. They were clearly noticeable against the random trajectories of shoppers. These left both security and passers-by baffled.
When participants started clapping from different locations along the main corridor of shops, the security swiftly moved towards the centre of the corridor, unable to pinpoint the action. Passers-by copied some our actions: when the narrative asked us to look up, they looked up, wondering what we were seeing that they couldn’t see. At the very end, when the narrative asked us to started bouncing/dancing in random fashion, passers-by looked intrigued. I saw the security approach one of the participants, but they didn’t intervene. After we all bounced up and down to the sound of happy music for a minute or so, looking slightly loopy, the narrative ended by asking everyone to return to the bus. As we all moved towards the main door, a security guard followed, looked towards the bus, radioed a colleague, then went into the manager’s office that was just next to the main entrance. They were left without a proper explanation. The bus left, and the shopping mall went back to its normal routine.
I spoke to one of the Ligna artists afterwards and he said that the mall was quite big and that it might have been better to conduct the event on just one floor. I agreed, and mentioned that when the narrative asked us to lean against the balustrade, I was on the ground floor and there wasn’t any balustrade to lean onto. He also mentioned that the radio transmission wasn’t particularly good, making it difficult at times to listen to the instructions. I noticed that there was a lot of interference as I approached the cinema, and also near the radio station cabin on the opposite end of the mall.
I enjoyed the experience, but felt slightly uncomfortable at times. I overheard someone saying on the bus back that they would love to take part in the event in a foreign country, where they would feel more comfortable doing it. Perhaps they were worried that they would be spotted by a friend? Having said that, I witnessed one of the participants bouncing and dancing at the end, in a sort of uncontrolled fashion; an individual form of expression triggered by the narrative. In comparison, I felt that I was doing too little to justify my membership of the First International of Shopping Malls, but nevertheless it was thoroughly enjoyable to be part of a slightly surreal moment in a place where, despite the lack of rules of ‘engagement’, people seem to perform very similar, established routines (browse, buy, eat, repeat).
Ciudades Paralelas: Station: Sometimes I Think I Can See You
In Station, three writers with portable laptops and mobile phones are connected remotely to three different displays situated in the entrance lobby of Cork’s train station. As they observe passers-by walking along the lobby, the writers type messages onto the screens making comments about passers-by trying to get their attention. If they were successful, the writers sometimes would try to get them 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. This was the only event that wasn’t ticketed, so I came in through the side door of the train station’s main lobby and sat on one of the benches, in front of one of the writers typing away on her laptop as she watched the actions unfold. One of the writers was actually typing his messages from a smart phone, and it took me a while to spot him, although he was only five metres away from me.
As I sat and watched the writers from close range, I was conscious that it would only take a few seconds for them to pick up on something I did (such as raise my arms while stretching) and I would be drawn into the performance. The success of the writer’s interpellations depended on the awareness of passers-by. When trains came in, passers-by tended to ignore the displays, as they were discreet enough and people seemed to be in a rush. However, when someone walked into the train station, waiting for a train in the lobby or for someone to arrive, they tended to pay more attention to the screens, especially the one situated in the middle of the hall.
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. And no one approached any of the writers. Perhaps we are so used to people holding laptops in public spaces so it is difficult to make the connection between the writers and the screens. It would have been interesting to see how the writers would react if approached.
Ciudades Paralelas: House: Prime Time
In the house performance, a section of the street had been blocked for the event to take part. I was given a pair of headphones and a radio transmitter on arrival. Standing in the middle of the street, my attention was directed to two blocks of flats situated opposite each other. Through the headphones, I could hear the stories of several neighbours while watching them carry out their daily routines through the wide windows of the flats.
The facade of the buildings was akin to a multi-screen interface where each window was an individual screen, switched on and off as the focus moved on from one neighbour’s story to the other. Sometimes the actors/neighbours would get out binoculars and look towards other participants. This signalled to viewers/participants that they should direct their gaze across the road towards another participant, who would then start narrating their story. Although the voices seemed pre-recorded (as participants remain immobile while you could hear their voice), some of the ambient sounds, such as the Bob Marley soundtrack, the guitar playing and the sound of one of the neighbour’s turtle swimming in a tank sounded live.
The opposing blocks of flats served as social containers where the most contrasting living experiences happened side by side: an Indian couple with two daughters that were sowing clothes, a lone engineering student with his turtle tank and guitar, a gay couple who were into music producing and partying, a German girl that liked to play darts, a Hungarian florist… Some of the neighbours seemed to know each other, but most of them had nothing in common. The event lasted half an hour. It felt like a mix between a movie and a theatre play: the windows as screens with a wide depth of field, and the possibility of directing your gaze away from the focus of the narrative. At the very end it seemed that the audience/stage relationship had been inverted: it ended with participants looking at us through their binoculars, inverting the stage/audience relationship. The whole experience felt slightly voyeuristic, with the inversion of the gaze at the end providing a slightly uncanny experience: are they really pointing those binoculars at me out of curiosity, or it this part of the narrative? Shortly afterwards, all the windows went dark a the neighbours switched of their ‘screens’. It was time for the next performance, as the next group started to arrive and collect their headphones.
Last Saturday I took part in the first ever Dublin Mini Maker Faire, an event hosted by the Science Gallery and Trinity College for crafters, tinkerers and hobbyists and displaying all sorts of DIY stuff. People from all ages and backgrounds were in attendance, and the organisers estimated that 6500 people visited the event, more than twice their predicted outcome. The event had an emphasis on engaging the public to participate, either through demonstrations or by getting people to produce things, from cardboard robots to electronic badges to music.
I took part with a prototype of an Arduino project I’ve been working on, a Moveable DIY LED lamp, a.k.a. “Dynolamp’. It consisted of a very simple interaction, where motion and tilt combined changed the colour of a LED light on top of an animal-like structure with flexible legs, designed to be hung around different objects and surfaces. I added some TIC TAC boxes to add to the sensorial experience (sound and smell). Despite the simplicity of the project I was surprised by people’s interest, scrutinising my rough sketches and asking me all sorts of questions (what controls the light change, what are the TIC TAC boxes for, where is the power source…).
I put a sign up encouraging people to pick it up and move it around, and was delighted to see many kids having a go at it, bending Dynolamp’s legs, tilting and shaking it and suggesting things (make it walk!). From 10am to 6pm I was flat out explaining Dynolamp to people from 3 to 80 years old. I took a break and got a volunteer to replace me for an hour. When I came back, the table was surrounded by people listening to an explanation given by volunteer Maurice.
In the opposite corner of the room I was in, the NUI Maynooth crew was even busier, and their popular gesture-controlled giant Tetris game was a hit. It created an ad-hoc performative space where people surrounded the player and cheered them on as they played. It was great to see how a re-appropriation of a game considered banal and trivial was generating so much interest, including from kids that are so used to much more sophisticated games. I didn’t see a single person completing one round of the game, as the gesture controlled system was quite difficult. The NUI crew said they had to do some work on the code to make it smoother, but I think that by making it harder to control it actually created a more interesting challenge for people. They also had a DIY old-school arcade cabinet with several games from the 80s and 90s, and kids seem to enjoy playing Pac-Man, Space Invaders and other ‘oldies’.
The Faire extended into the Trinity College Physics lawn, where, among other things, there was a giant drum that could be played by up to twenty people at the same time. It was a nice collaborative device, and I particularly liked the idea of having a dozen people in a circle performing on the same instrument. One guy seemed to be performing the role of percussion leader, and he got people to synchronise (to a certain degree) their drum playing.
In several tents, kids were creating and playing with things. Among these: a giant scalectrix activated by the electricity generated by a participant using a gym walking machine; DIY remote controlled submersibles, and a class on soldering techniques.