Disenchantment of the Spectacle: What Happens When the Lights are Turned Off

Photograph by Madeline Dippel
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Student Voices section on Hong Kong, Shanghai, cities, screens, and spectacle. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

While spending my time in Shanghai, each day I encountered hundreds, if not thousands, of public screens. Whether this was driving or walking by or even physically interacting with the screens, they became a part of my everyday experience of the city. The screens there shape not only the city’s culture, but also its physical landscape. Screens are now ingrained in the architecture of the city, lights lining the buildings to attract attention at nighttime or via a light show such as the one in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor emanates each evening. However present their technologies are in this landscape, screens are not always a part of the 24-hour culture of Shanghai. Many of them, when the buildings they are connected to shut down, turn off as well, leading to a disconnected or even disenchanted experience. As we are surrounded by screens and spectacles twenty-four/seven, when the screens turn “off,” we obtain a different experience. It alters our normal reality, perhaps making spectators uncomfortable, because it is not what we are used to seeing from these spectacles — it is abnormal.

Normally, these screens lining the city’s skyscrapers and buildings provide a spectacle to be seen by Shanghai’s many inhabitants, whether they be visitors or residents. Though the word spectacle seems fairly straightforward, there are several different definitions of the term. To understand spectacle in this context, one also has to look at the context and history of the city. Anna Greenspan defines spectacle relatively accurately for the context of this analysis. Rather than looking at the term “spectacle” in a Western context, as it seeks to erase the city’s past and “uncivilized” culture, laying root in a false illusion, Greenspan situates spectacle within Chinese culture. Westernization has long associated the term with denying the origins of the city and focusing on “moving forward,” following the routes of Western civilizations. In this case, Westernization is forcing people to think about terms, such as spectacle, in the way that its respective cultures understand it, not in the culture of the country or even city they are experiencing. Looking at it from the perspective of the culture that we are considering, that of China, allows for spectacles to take on another context. With the society’s understanding of the coexistence of shadow and light, there is room for the spectacle to operate in another realm, as it relates with other aspects of the city.1Anna Greenspan, Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 53-65. This definition of spectacle allows for understanding of not only what a stimulating skyline can attract or coerce, but also how it coexists with the urban street life of a city.

The modern, Shanghainese landscape revolves around the plethora of screens that the city houses. In different words, it revolves around the spectacle that the city produces. Both residents and visitors of the city are barraged with an overstimulating, and at times overwhelming, production of lights that add to the spectacle of the city. But what would happen if the overwhelming presence of screens were turned off so that the landscape reflected only the outlines of buildings and the previous presence of the screens? This particular question was brought to my attention when I experienced a sense of disenchantment from the spectacle that screens provide in Shanghai. From the moment that our charter bus drove up to the Hotel Equatorial, the ritzy hotel my classmates and I were lucky enough to stay at for our duration in Shanghai, there was one sparkling screen that stood out around the area – an Estée Lauder screen that was ingrained in the foundation of a mall adjacent to the Jing’an Temple Station.

Photograph by Madeline Dippel

Every day in Shanghai, I encountered this screen and the glorious, show-stopping spectacle that it provided. The sparkling sticks, a form of screen that is used when the owner wants those inside to be able to see around the screen or vice versa, lined the entirety of the entrance. Pairs of pink-and-red lips were purposefully placed upwards from outlined lipstick cases, the entire façade shimmering as if it were made of crystals and the sun was shining directly on them. The stairs walking up to the mall were applied with a similar design, though the advertisement they produced was a relatively mundane one I’ve often seen of a circle of different colored lipsticks. Even though the advertisement was mundane, the stairs still caught my eye as they lit up the entrance as if one was walking a lipstick-lined red carpet. Every inch of this mall screamed “spectacle.” It was meant to draw attention and impress those who walked by. The placement of this spectacle was smart as it was adjacent to the Metro station, so thousands of people would walk by the establishment on a daily basis.

One night, my colleague Keenan and I were searching for food around our hotel after a long day of traveling and shopping, first checking the “Estée Lauder” mall as it was the closest potential source. However, we quickly had to depart because the mall was closing. After finally satisfying our hunger by way of Burger King, we again walked past the mall to return to the hotel. This time with the mall closed, I noticed that the “show” the mall staged for its customers and passersby was shut down. The lights that shimmered and attracted attention were dimmed to only the nighttime lights of the mall that stay on to constantly backlight the intricate, unlit designs of the mall’s façade. Although we had been told in Hong Kong that not all screens stay turned on for all hours, this was the first time that I had seen a screen such as this, prominently defining itself during the daytime and dusk hours, shut down. It was strange to see the lips without their color, the attraction without the aspects that attract attention. This made several thoughts come to mind as I stood staring at the disassembled spectacle: what do other visitors, such as myself, think of when they see the other side of the spectacle when it is not, in fact, being a spectacle? And how do the residents of the area feel when they get a chance for peace from the at times overwhelming and overstimulating scene the spectacle produces?

These questions that I am asking are not new by any means. As the landscape of the city evolved around advancing technology, screens produced spectacles so that the cities could define their prowess to the world. With this advancement, questions of the effects of twenty-four/seven spectacles on the city’s residents, and of what happens after the spectacles terminate, began to sprawl up. Before media cities revolved around screens, there were questions of what urbanization and cities increasing in size would do to populations and cultures. Because of their placement and integration into modern cities, screens have become normalized. A screen could be an advertisement that you see daily walking through the metro station, something that you log into your memory vaguely by passing by. Or it could be a screen in the sense of the Estée Lauder design attached to the mall at Jing’an Temple Station. These more prominent screens, such as the Estée Lauder one, need to define themselves and enchant passersby. It is an enchantment to lure in consumers to spend money, promoting happiness derived from materiality. As Chris Berry points out, “enchantment is a necessary component of the deployment of the screens in all cases” because the enchantment catches our eye and defines the screen apart from others.2Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval,” in Ambient Screens and Transnational Public Spaces, ed. Nikos Papastergiadis (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016), 59-80. The Estée Lauder screen thus assimilates with the various other screens present in media cities around the world, enchanting the visitors and residents.

However, some could say that the integrated nature of screens themselves disenchants those passing by because it is something they see every day. The enchantment that people encounter in everyday life has become normalized. As the opposition between modernity and enchantment has also shifted, the screens bring forth what we might call a disenchanted enchantment. Populations in cities around the world experience the integrated nature of screens. Whether it is from advertisements lining shopping districts, lights bringing attention to regions like Times Square or as simple as information being displayed on bus screens. With this being the case, people go to cities and expect to experience this type of enchantment. This technology has even spread to smaller, less urban cities. Furthermore, advanced technologies such as smartphones and tablets also allow people around the world to experience these scenes without being physically present. By the time a person gets to the spectacle, it might have lost some of the flare, some of the enchantment, that it was intended to bring to the spectator. In this day and age, the spectacle is commonplace.

So, in this circumstance, I argue that it is an enchantment for passersby to see the screen not as it usually is. The spectacle that the screen produces brings a different type of enchantment, a “magical transformation” or even disenchanted enchantment because of the normalization of screens.3Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture,” 59-80. Thus, as people walk by the grandiose Estée Lauder screen, they are used to what they are seeing whether it be from seeing this particular spectacle consistently or just being barraged with a multitude of spectacles on a daily basis. On the other hand, seeing the building with the spectacle after the “show” is done provides a different atmosphere for the area. When I encountered this, I of course felt like I was not seeing what was meant to be seen, which led to an uncomfortable feeling of being forced to encounter the unlit spectacle. At the same time, I was in awe. I had never encountered this side of a screen of this scale. I felt that I should be disenchanted from the circumstance that was before me, but I was enchanted seeing the spectacle as it is not normally presented. But because of how these spectacles are ingrained into our society, other people might not feel the same way. For some, it can bring comfort seeing these bright, sparkling screens while others specifically travel to these cities to be enchanted by the spectacular “shows” that screens can provide.

At the same time, problems can be brought forth by the reliance upon these technologies and screens that are ingrained in everyday culture, more-so than solely being enchanted or disenchanted by the normality of the screens. With the consistent barrage of lights that promote elite-like spending, areas are then dominated by “brandscapes,” promoting a society reliant on materiality. It has also become reliant on the “self” and not focused on physical interactivity and engagement between the masses of urban society.4Scott McQuire, “Performing Public Space,” The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2008), 130-57. Rather than focusing on society as a whole, people tend to push for themselves rather than interacting with others. This is not a new trend in humans, but with an increase in marketing interwoven with spectacles, cell phones and social media to advertise brands and people themselves as well as the Internet, it is completely possible to distract oneself from the surroundings and other people, causing a rift between public engagement. Now it is simple to walk down the street of Chicago without making eye contact with anyone. People walk with their nose in their smartphones, scrolling through Instagram and shopping online for the newest fashion trend. With this, physical interaction is no longer a necessity. However, engagement and interaction are necessities to continue to have a strong, integrated society.  Perhaps taking a break from the spectacle being “on” twenty-four/seven can allow for less reliance on the spectacle and the materiality that it produces. It could also allow the people within the society to integrate with other people, physically interact with and be able to focus on rather than attempt to ignore their surroundings.

As I walked by the backlit Estée Lauder spectacle, turned off for the evening as the mall was closing down, my classmate and I were two of the only people to stop and look at this spectacle without the attention-grabbing aspects. It was strange seeing the other side of the spectacle, the side that is not promoted around the world to emanate political or commercial prowess. In a time where everything revolves around technology and the predominant use of it, sometimes you need to take a step back and reevaluate the effects these practices are ingraining into society.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Anna Greenspan, Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 53-65.
2. Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval,” in Ambient Screens and Transnational Public Spaces, ed. Nikos Papastergiadis (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016), 59-80.
3. Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture,” 59-80.
4. Scott McQuire, “Performing Public Space,” The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2008), 130-57.

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