Public Space, Media Space: A Review

In this issue, Joshua Synenko reviews Chris Berry, Janet Harbord, and Rachel Moore's recent edited collection on media and public space.

Public Space, Media Space is a wide-ranging collected volume by editors Chris Berry, Janet Harbord, and Rachel Moore.1Berry, Chris, Janet Harbord and Rachel Moore, eds. Public Space, Media Space. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 It represents a unique contribution to the field of urban media studies, and follows groundbreaking work in this area, such as MediaSpace: Place, Scale and Culture2McCarthy, Ann, and Nick Couldry, eds. MediaSpace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age. New York: Routledge, 2004. and Urban Screens Reader,3McQuire, Scott, Meredith Martin, and Sabine Niederer. Urban Screens Reader. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2009. to name a few. The editors of the current volume, however, have not only provided readers with an update on research in what has become a fast-changing engagement by interdisciplinary scholars, but they have also consciously narrowed the scope of previous collected volumes by emphasizing the relationship between new media and public space in terms of questions about the changing conditions of labor and leisure, everyday life, and individual experience. Given these diverse but connected and dynamic initiatives, the pages of this volume offer a subtle reframing of what constitutes urban public space for the cultural present.

A significant part of the editorial strategy appears to have been selecting contributions that make explicit attempts to divert attention from a Habermasian reading of the public sphere, in which consensus-building rational debate among equals tends to be repackaged as a conceptual ideal for the demands of a particular social class. As a generation or more of critics and scholars have pointed out, the Habermasian project, though persistently (and wrongly) tied to questions of public space, is itself anchored by a selective historical reading of the bourgeois republican state in which inequities of all kinds go deliberately unacknowledged.4Papacharissi, Zizi. Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology and Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. However, instead of offering a systematic response to these shortcomings as others have done, the editors of Public Space, Media Space have chosen to develop a broader if vaguely anthropological framing in which public space is defined by ordinariness. Moving at times against the Habermasian project, then, the editors make clear their need to explore changes to public urban space on a conceptual playing field that is more attuned to urban geography. They recognize that it was geographers like Edward Soja who, during a critical moment in the process of rephrasing the terms of their discipline, found it necessary to assert the spatial specificity of the social world as itself a variant of ordinariness, and to do so without relinquishing an air of polemical urgency in this matter.5Soja, Edward. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso, 1989. Remembering Soja’s deliberate shift toward thinking spatially as well as radically, we as readers of this volume should consider our own responsibility for participating in a constant reevaluation of the ossified historical, political and social frameworks that exist for investigating the distinctions between public and private, labor and leisure, individual and collective. From this angle, the ever-present discussion of new and emerging media should be considered as but one essential ingredient of this foundational demand.

Moreover, Berry, Harbord, and Moore acknowledge the task of reasserting place within the critical study of urban new media. To that end, the editors have selected individual contributions that express a degree of ambivalence toward writers such as Rem Koolhaas, who in “The Generic City” discussed the elimination of place as a key feature of the urban public domain,6Koolhaas, Rem. “The Generic City,” in Rem Koolhaas, Bruce Mau, and Hans Werlemann, S,M,L,XL. New York: Monacelli Press, 2nd Ed., 1997, pp. 1243-1268. or Marc Augé, who famously earmarked the “non-place” as being contemporaneous with transfer points that connect urban environments in a global network.7Augé, Marc. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Trans. J. Howe. London: Verso, 1995. Beyond the threat of total erasure, the articles selected here explore how the media that exist both in and of these environments are in fact constitutive for establishing the specificity of the place in question. They investigate, for instance, how the variability of screens affects the imputed boundlessness of generic non-places like international railway stations or subway platforms. In fact, given this attention to specificity, I would argue that the impetus driving most of the contributors is a desire to enhance the discussion concerning how new media in public culture simultaneously reveals and obscures the possibility to gain insight into the modalities of place. Another motivation of these case studies is to privilege a certain grouping of research methods that can adequately represent these phenomena.

In addition to the conceptual and methodological issues that make Public Space, Media Space into a coherent volume, a subset of its individual contributors raise another set of issues involving the conditions of labor for the producers of media hardware. These articles focus on the material conditions that underlie the explosion of leisure economies across the globe, and the extent to which revealing these conditions affects the overall function of public space in particular instances. Questions surrounding immaterial labor and ludic forms of capitalism are isolated as being particularly relevant for raising awareness about the production phase of new media, and indeed several contributors make efforts to connect these questions to established scholarship on the social dynamics of commodity fetishism and patterns of global consumption. A glimpse from the opposite end of the labor spectrum is provided by a final section of articles in which the focus shifts once again to the theory of everyday life and its impact on the personal or individual experience of urban public media. Unlike the previous set of articles devoted to labor, this set is accompanied by an effort at analyzing how new media applications change the spatial imaginaries of individuals, and also at questioning how individuals today can be collectivized (or not) for productive ends. As I will demonstrate below, the papers collected in this volume provide the reader with a comprehensive accounting of the most important and pressing issues in this field.

 New Media and the Reshaping of Urban Public Space

As I briefly mentioned above, the first section of Public Space, Media Space focuses on the question of whether new media can be used to reconstitute urban public space for the cultural present. This section includes a particularly strong grouping of articles; notably Chapter One, entitled “What is a Screen Nowadays?” by Francesco Casetti, which sets the tone for the rest of the volume. This article includes a compelling argument for exploring the distinction between different kinds of screens and hypothesizes on strategies for managing an impossible reconciliation with the cinema, which, Casetti argues, has redemptive appeal. Beyond the integrated and imaginary constructions of narrative cinema, today’s screens, according to Casetti, have been reduced to a series of “transit hubs for the images that circulate in our social space,” and they have therefore become interceptors rather than communicators of information (17). Casetti settles on making a repeated epistemic distinction between cinematic and post-cinematic screens by drawing substantially from key texts by Lev Manovich8Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, Revised ed., 2002. and Vilem Flusser.9Flusser, Vilem. Into the Universe of Technical Images. Trans. Nancy Ann Roth. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. In fact, Casetti’s claims often lack subtlety because of his decision to focus on epochal shifts in our shared conditions of mediation, and also because of his nostalgic reclamation of the cinema as a preferred site for building community—a reclamation that nevertheless recognizes the cinema’s limitations in this regard. Having said that, Casetti’s subsequent probe into how metaphors of the screen, in general, could change its particular social functions is inventive and provides a clarion call for the reader. By investigating modes of presence and individualization, not to mention the various questions that accompany matters of attention, surveillance, storytelling and testimony, Casetti propels the reader into a volume that is much more experientially grounded.

Another strong contribution is offered in Chapter Three, entitled “Mapping Orbit: Toward a Vertical Public Space,” by Lisa Parks. In this work, Parks provides a review of the various imaginary formations surrounding the orbital space of satellites and delves into how this spatial imaginary became a commanding feature in various geopolitical, aesthetic and infrastructural developments. Though Parks charts the development of what she describes as vertical public space, and follows the lines of treaties and declarations as they were issued from 1927 to the present, she also provides a number of categorical descriptions of her own with the aim of providing a strong account of the scope of the imaginaries of publicness that slowly emerged. These descriptions include cartographic histories, but they also include a new set of considerations regarding the feats of scale and directionality that are made necessary by technological developments such as satellites. The resulting imaginaries of the landscape are literally transformed into what Parks describes in terms of “orbital projection”(75). These categorical descriptions are helpful because they allow readers to situate interfaces like Google Earth inside a much more comprehensive set of questions regarding verticality and sovereignty. For these and other reasons, this particular article represents Parks at her best: it is inventive and original work that provides just enough detail to give readers an opportunity to ask their own questions.

The Specificity of Place

The second grouping of articles focuses on the way in which new media can be used to emphasize the specificity of place through the materialization of public encounter. On that note, we enter the social and political context of contemporary Egypt in Chapter Four, entitled “Cairo Diary: Space-Wars, Public Visibility and the Transformation of Public Space in Post-Revolutionary Egypt,” by Mona Abaza. Although the restoration of dictatorship and the destruction of the revolutionary spirit by protracted conflicts across the region have changed the discourse that first emerged with the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Abaza chooses to limit her analysis to the initial moments of the revolution, and specifically to the alterations of mural designs that occurred during a crucial point in the articulation of democratic power. Abaza includes a further analysis of documenting practices among participating revolutionaries in the square itself. Compelling as this approach may be, my sense is that the theoretical specificity of previous articles in the volume might be lost with Abaza’s effort at diverting attention to the boundedness of place and to the forms of expression that are facilitated by its mediated realities. Though something undoubtedly happened in Cairo during the Arab Spring that is noteworthy for media scholars, the argument that “Tahrir triggered a new visual culture” strikes the reader as unsubstantiated (90). In fact, the word “new” is mentioned twenty-two times throughout the article, perhaps in an effort at rhetorically duplicating the emphatic gestures of revolution on the ground. Still, given the scope of this work, Abaza’s article should be included as part of an important archive of scholarship that is devoted to the Arab Spring and its use of media during this compelling phase of Egypt’s contemporary history.

A somewhat more theoretically embedded contribution is offered in Chapter Five, entitled “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval,” by Chris Berry. Registering a debt early on in the article to Anne McCarthy’s Ambient Television, Berry argues that despite the insights of this particular work, it also represents a limitation for exploring public screens because it was written prior to the introduction of flat screen technologies, and therefore prior to the massive changes that such technologies lay in store for televisual media.10McCarthy, Ann. Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001. Like Casetti and McCarthy, Berry situates his work on sites in contemporary Shanghai with comparisons abroad. He asserts that a fundamental connection must be made between public screens and the cinema at large, arguing that screens in the public domain must retain a level of “enchantment” regardless of how banal their surroundings or rudimentary their design (111). Using McCarthy’s emphasis on site specificity as a methodological guideline, Berry appears to be concerned with moving away from the ideological considerations of the screen as rooted in ideas of citizenship, for example, to explore how the screen mobilizes social functions by effectively constituting the public spaces in which they exist. For example, in his discussion of the Shanghai South Railway Station, Berry argues that screens have the functional aim of moving people to their destinations, but even here, amidst the banal experience of daily travel, the screen is accorded a social responsibility to provide the commuter with a measure of comfort and enjoyment that for Berry only reinforces an established set of consumption imperatives.

Labor and Leisure

The preceding analyses of how patterns of consumption become a determining factor in various contexts provides the reader with anticipation for another set of articles devoted to matters of production and labor. In Chapter Six, entitled “iPhone Girl: Assembly, Assemblages and Affect in the Life of an Image,” by Helen Grace, the public life of the mobile phone is deftly interrogated amid the disintegration of private space and the subsequent reimagining of what publicness ought to be in light of the patterns of consumption that these devices promote. Grace, however, chooses to take a novel route through this debate by anchoring her research in the viral image of a female worker pictured operating machinery in an assembly-line production of the iPhone, arguing that this particular representation is unique because it reveals the production process in a way that is not otherwise available to consumers of the product, and that it therefore successfully culls the working conditions that producers must face from obscurity. Using Deleuzian metaphors of the assemblage to their full potential, Grace draws attention to the aesthetics of the image by suggesting that it serves to individuate the figure of the worker while simultaneously drawing attention to the atomization of the production cycle. While the political merits of this representation may be clear, Grace argues that such images of working lives also run the risk of making “a mass ornament of production rather than consumption,” and therefore effectively compounding the inequities that it appears to challenge (150).

The volume returns west to sites in London with Chapter Seven, entitled “In Transit: Between Labor and Leisure in London’s St. Pancras International,” by Rachel Moore. In this article, Moore analyzes the new design initiative at London’s St. Pancras Station and the particularly contemporary vision of labor that it epitomizes. Moore revisits historical texts by Benjamin, Kracauer, and Epstein, in which the romantic image of laboring bodies from the industrial age are explored through aesthetic objects and the litmus test of ever-changing technologies of perception; but, as Moore claims, a new shift has occurred in these processes that can be detected in turn by the design of the station. To put it another way, whereas the historical texts struggle to make equivalences between industrial production and mechanical reproduction in the form of the cinema, Moore claims that industrial labor as it was once known by these writers is now non-existent and otherwise obscured from view. Moore further claims that questions of labor and value are impossible to discern in a public space like St. Pancras Station where immaterial forms of labor endure. By examining this particular disjuncture in our collective contemporary experience as being different in kind from the world described in texts where media forms became transparent receptors of industrial abstraction, Moore nevertheless retains a suggestion made by Kracauer that with the cacophony of the modern world we have lost the creative potential that accompanies moments of boredom.

Everyday Life

The themes of everyday life and experience are first introduced in Chapter Eight, entitled “Encountering Screen Art on the London Underground,” by Janet Harbord and Tamsin Dillon. In this article, the authors explore engagements of site-specific art in a broad historical framework that is centered on the use of moving image installations in London’s Underground. From a business perspective, the use of moving image installations are meant to augment the experience of London’s daily commuters, however, Harbord and Dillon would like to further emphasize that such works serve to create dynamic changes to the experience of the environments in which they dwell. The provocative qualities of public art initiatives like those explored here reflect a corresponding change in the value of public video art that, as Harbord and Dillon contend, follows a specific historical trajectory spanning forty years. This particular case study is thematically consistent with Chapter Nine, entitled “A Brechtian Proposal for an Alternative Working Method,” by Marysia Lewandowska. Indeed, this work stands out from the rest as it bears the appearance of an intermission of sorts, taking on a highly rhetorical, image-laden appeal for challenging the corporate logic of out-of-home advertising (OOH). Lewandowska makes an impassioned plea for civic and theatrical engagement with the culture of screens and city life.

An altogether different reading of the everyday is offered by Chapter 10, entitled “Domesticating the Screen-Scenography: Situational Uses of Screen Images and Technologies in the London Underground,” by Zlatan Krajina. Using ethnographic methods to analyze the phenomenology of looking (away) that determines the experience of the Underground, Karjina develops a rich analysis of urban screens as they appear in a highly contained environment. With his attention to the scene of non-interaction following Simmel’s analysis, Krajina argues that commuters on the train may spend the entire duration of their visit consuming visual information without seeing it, concluding that screens in transport locations are ultimately aimed at perpetuating a kind of situational inertia of experience rather than the flourish of engagement proposed by previous authors in the volume. This assessment is joined by a similar discussion in Chapter 11, entitled “Privatizing Urban Space in the Mediated World of iPod Users,” by Michael Bull. In a fascinating discussion of the publicness of private music listeners, Bull contends that listening individuals take part in dramatic re-creations of the city that emerge in accordance with their own sonic design, a so-called “hyper-post-Fordist soundscape” that represents the kind of interiority of experience espoused by Simmel many years ago. Bull goes on to investigate this privatization through the figure of the flâneur and in connection with discussions of alterity (249).

Public Space, Media Space. Chris Berry, Janet Harbord, and Rachel Moore, eds. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Photo by Tungsten


1 Berry, Chris, Janet Harbord and Rachel Moore, eds. Public Space, Media Space. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013
2 McCarthy, Ann, and Nick Couldry, eds. MediaSpace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age. New York: Routledge, 2004.
3 McQuire, Scott, Meredith Martin, and Sabine Niederer. Urban Screens Reader. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2009.
4 Papacharissi, Zizi. Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology and Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
5 Soja, Edward. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso, 1989.
6 Koolhaas, Rem. “The Generic City,” in Rem Koolhaas, Bruce Mau, and Hans Werlemann, S,M,L,XL. New York: Monacelli Press, 2nd Ed., 1997, pp. 1243-1268.
7 Augé, Marc. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Trans. J. Howe. London: Verso, 1995.
8 Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, Revised ed., 2002.
9 Flusser, Vilem. Into the Universe of Technical Images. Trans. Nancy Ann Roth. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
10 McCarthy, Ann. Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.
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