Light Wins: Commercial Placemaking and Public Screens

Teddy Lo light arrow art piece at his studio in Hong Kong, China. Many of his pieces relate a message or a story to the viewer. Photo by Calvin Badger.
[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.]

Advertising agencies and screen developers spend their careers figuring out how to make their public screens stand out above the rest in a city overly saturated with visual stimulation. In so doing, they impact upon our experiences and senses of place in the city. In this essay, I will discuss three common factors among the screens that had the biggest impact in our class travels through the Hong Kong commercial shopping districts, influencing our sense of being in this version of the city. These factors include: brightness, manipulation of light art, and light technology. These aspects of the screens consistently played with their surrounding urban infrastructures, with the brightest and boldest seeming to make a greater impression. This essay unpacks the tactics through which marketing strategists emplace screens to impact upon urban spectators, their attention, and their urban environments. Understanding these tactics is crucial for us to better comprehend how we are situated in relation to screens and in the light-based environments that make up the central commercial districts in cities such as Hong Kong, enabling us to better conceptualize what it means to exist as humans in such a commercial environment.

“Ubiquitous media” refers in part to media becoming so common that it isn’t even noticed. As Chris Berry describes media’s ubiquity for Shanghai, “Although huge screens might grab our attention on special occasions, screens are now mixed in with everyday life.”1Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture,” in Ambient Screens and Transnational Public Spaces, ed. Nikos Papastergiadis (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016), 61 In many ways, this volume of public screens in commercial districts of major cities like Hong Kong has resulted in a diminished sense of attention. When traveling through these districts of Hong Kong, many of my fellow classmates reported that they felt desensitized to the screens located all around us. For people who are used to living in a small town in Indiana, the commercialization of it all can become exhausting, overwhelming us to the point of not being able to pay attention to any individual screen or advertisement. After some time, it all seemed to blend together. Consider from here the permanent effects that this kind of screen overdose might have on the people who live there. Do they actively notice when screens are changed and are refreshed with new content? Do they even notice the screens at all after a lifetime of living with and walking through them? Chris Berry is very focused on how spectators are affected by and interact with the screens they see. He reflects on the commercial side of public screens, critiquing them from the view of their relationship to the urban spectator and the public at large. We can certainly see the perception of automation among spectator citizens as time goes on and the enchantment of the screens potentially begins to fade. This kind of automation results in a robotically mundane routine where advertising and public screens have a diminished effect. As people shut their brains off from screens and ads, it hinders the overall relationship between screen and spectator as it diminishes the interactive aspect. As folks turn away, the enchantment of the screen is an afterthought.

Screen developers are doing all they can to keep the attention of the people in urban areas. This kind of automation perception might be a scary thought to those working in the marketing or advertising industry. From their standpoint, as the attention of people become more automated, they become less aware of the new or updated product or service that is being advertised. This not only affects sales, but limits opportunity. Giving spectators as much information as possible without being overwhelming continues to be the challenge. We as consumers are confronted by advertising experts sprawling to capture the attention of the public and to make an impression among its people. In many instances, they have come to realize that the Disney-like format of brighter, prettier, and more technologically awe-inspiring screens have more of a lasting effect on us. This format catches our eye, captures our hearts, and makes us think about what message is being conveyed. To underscore this point, every once in a while during our travels, my classmates and I would witness screens that made our jaws drop. One of those screens was the giant screen on the Sogo department store in the Causeway Bay shopping district (photo below).

Saint Laurent advertisement in the Causeway Bay shopping district in Hong Kong. Photo taken by Dave Groobert.

This area of Causeway Bay was bustling with energy at every corner. There were shops and stores all around, both local and internationally known businesses. At times, the signs for each store would seem to blend together due to the volume of lights existing within such a limited space. Screens that display content such as the Saint Laurent advertisement above would likely amaze even the most jaded media people out there. Bright light, beautiful art, and incredible technology in terms of resolution and temperature turn a moving billboard into a living spectacle.

Design and media art critic Martin Tomitsch proposes the concept and practice of “digital placemaking,” which can be described as using digital media to shape urban experiences. He notes that there are three categories of digital placemaking: community placemaking, spectacle placemaking, and infrastructure placemaking.2Thomas Tomitsch, “Communities, Spectacles and Infrastructures: Three Approaches to Digital Placemaking,” in What Urban Media Art Can Do: Why When Where & How, eds. Susa Pop, Tanya Toft, Nerea Calvillo, Mark Wright (Stuttgart: Avedition, 2016), 339-347. While Tomitsch is primarily concerned with media art and design projects, the advertisement screens seen in Hong Kong certainly reflect each of these categories, but to a different end. The hidden inviting quality of the advertisements creates a sense of community by proposing that the product or service is for a collective “you” – a collective that you can be a part of by aspiring to purchase its products. The sheer scale and beauty of the screens creates the spectacle through creative art and advanced resolution technology – a spectacle that causes people to stop and communally gaze at its specter. Lastly, these things all work together to build the digital infrastructure that gives Hong Kong commercial districts appeal, making it a place where people will want to visit. These forces mix together to give sub-areas of Hong Kong a sense of identity. This identity and sense of place, however, is one of commercial union, encouraging consumers to understand that this is a place in which to come together, but come together in the interest of aspiring to “spend money here.”

In what follows, I identify three more specific tactics of digital and LED screen placemaking for the commercial screens that we saw in Hong Kong. Working in the vein of Tomitsch’s digital placemaking, these and all tactics linked to them, as noted above, are not the progressive calls for gathering people together in public spaces implied by Tomitch’s terminology. They are instead advertising tactics for garnering attention and bringing urban spectators in closer relationship to the screens and the commercialism that supports them. These tactics include manipulations of: bright and impactful lighting, media art, and advanced technology.

Light is vital to the public screen’s draw and attraction. Light serves as a stimulant to our vision. Light provides clarity and guidance in attention and movement. Companies use these properties to guide consumers to their advertisements and eventually to their products. The giant Saint Laurent advertisement is difficult to visually describe. In an already light polluted environment, this screen in Causeway Bay lit up the whole area as if it were Hong Kong’s own personal little sun. As it stood towering over the other screens and signs, it portrayed a sense of dominion or dominance over the other surfaces within the perceivable area. Certainly, this had to have been intentional on the part of the marketing executives and curators of this screen. People stand across the street and nearly break their necks to watch the advertisements run through as if they were watching film trailers at the movie theaters. Personally, I can attest to how much this bright-light-strategy worked on me. I went from not knowing what Saint Laurent was, to thinking to myself: “Wow, it would be so great to own something made by Saint Laurent!”

Additionally, this screen is a technological marvel, which further works to draw urban spectators’ attention to it and the products linked to it. The resolution is so high and the visuals so fluid that you could barely tell that it was a tangible screen. During our class trip, we took a tour of two different LED light and screen factories. During our visit to the Light Engine factory in Huizhou, China, we learned about how they are innovating to manipulate light temperatures and thus our perceptions and experiences of a place or product. A cool, crisp, blue-tinted light fixture has a piercing and jarring effect upon witnesses. By contrast, a warm, soft, yellow or red-tinted light fixture may not capture attention as quickly, but when it does, it gives off a more inviting character.

The intricacies of LED light bulb fixtures at LightWorks in Shenzhen, China. Photo by Calvin Badger.

Screen developers look at the environment in which the screen is going and consider such properties in hopes of connecting with urban spectators. Engineers and designers use LED strips and connect them with differently sized light fixtures. The smaller and more concentrated the red, blue and green of the LED, the higher resolution the larger screens obtain. The technological breakthrough in these high-resolution gigantically scaled screens are a huge deal for advertisers who want to stand out. The more realistic the image, the more immersive the spectator experience is. The screens and ads that appear grainy are a thing of the past as the new obsession is to make the screens appear as if they were holograms, moving and shining with so much life. These are all tactics for using light producing public screens to establish attention in a city that is infamously light polluted like Hong Kong.

Perhaps the most important strategy that businesses use to stand out is the implementation of light art with their public screens. Without this aspect, all you have is empty illumination. Light art can be intriguing, drawing people’s attention to the messages that the advertisers are trying to make. This cognitive thought is what makes consumers look into the commercial products.

Teddy Lo light arrow art piece at his studio in Hong Kong, China. Many of his pieces relate a message or a story to the viewer. Photo by Calvin Badger.

Our class was fortunate enough to take a tour through the studio of Hong Kong-based international light artist, Teddy Lo who helped us to understand how light art can give screens and other public displays meaning. Lo specializes in illuminated artwork that can be used for social or commercial use. Each work of art that he produces is designed to gain attention and to tell a story. For example, Lo developed a light screen that changes in accordance to the Wall Street stock market in New York City. Everything he designs has a purpose. He showed us details about how he uses light art to give depth to his creations as he uses digital placemaking to create a unique space of art and design. This strategy of producing commercialized content with a specific purpose that spectators can grasp in a tangible way is certainly relatable to the commercial screens our class experienced in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.

The need for attention is a central struggle for products and screens that want to be noticed and considered in the ubiquitously lit commercial city. As we recognize the concept of digital placemaking to become in this context more of a marketing strategy, we can begin to see practices through which screens can change urban culture, and its impacts upon the infrastructures of the city and the people who live and consume in it. This can certainly shine a light on the aesthetic identity of the city as a whole. Understanding the current trends of cultivating screen brightness, artistic value, and cutting-edge technology is only one step toward understanding the critical effects that these public screens have on our urban environments and our place in the city. This understanding is imperative, as we are sure to only see more jaw-dropping screens and surfaces in our near future.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture,” in Ambient Screens and Transnational Public Spaces, ed. Nikos Papastergiadis (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016), 61
2. Thomas Tomitsch, “Communities, Spectacles and Infrastructures: Three Approaches to Digital Placemaking,” in What Urban Media Art Can Do: Why When Where & How, eds. Susa Pop, Tanya Toft, Nerea Calvillo, Mark Wright (Stuttgart: Avedition, 2016), 339-347.

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