Experimental Media & the City: Part II

3D Projection Mapping performance during Fête des Lumières, Lyon, France (2010) Artists: 1024 architecture. Photography by Daniela Krautsack
In this introduction to the second series of posts from the roundtable on experimental media in the city, Swagato Chakravorty contends that the intermediations between city and self have created a crisis of representation.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Experimental Media and the City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

I remarked in my introduction to the first stage of this roundtable that the entries taken together marked a distinct movement from the specific to the abstract, from material practices grounded in the very grain of film (so to speak) to digitally-informed practices at the bleeding edge of speculative architecture, from cinematic practices that subjected the city—the lived city, the city “as such” to withering critique—to those that dare to reimagine the city itself, negotiating an ongoing decentering of human subjectivity from the logic of the cityscape. Thus, Alison’s discussion of the Black Audio Film Collective’s documentary work stands as an exemplar of how incisive documentary filmmaking (and, more precisely, sound editing and voiceover) can work toward undoing received histories and construct alternate histories that foreground invisible subjects and neglected subjectivities. And on the other end, Holly’s examination of the cinematic-architectural practices of Liam Young allow us to think of the different logics that increasingly undergird cities and the built environment today, and which will inform the structure of urban spaces to come. Somewhere in-between, we have Aroussiak’s attentive explication of the ways in which Google Street View—which is, to be sure, one among several available city-mapping and visualizing programs widely available to the public—not only produces a cityscape defined by certain criteria, but also highlights the roles of narrativity and (human) imagination in defining and redefining these cities.

At the heart of these distinct but related concerns, it seems to me, there lies an anxiety of representation. Although Alison probes the consequences of “visibility rather than concealment” being foregrounded, it is ultimately sound and voiceover that reveal the critical function of John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (1986) and Reece Auguiste’s Twilight City (1989). It’s true that visual editing strategies serve to subvert any illusions of totality or unity within the lived city—after all, a central concern of both these works is precisely the fragmentary character of the modern city, and of the lifestyles both enabled and demanded by them—but it is in voiceover that these fragments are reorganized into coherence. The implication here appears to be that visible evidence and visual strategies somehow prove insufficient. Likewise, Aroussiak presents Google Street View not merely as both method and episteme that construct a virtual world, but more specifically as a set of conditions that, fulfilled by Google’s algorithms, produce certain ways of seeing (and being in?) the world. Neutral perspective is undone and, once again, representation is proven to be inadequate. The mapping narratives made possible by Street View call out for imaginative completion, just as the very “views” offered by the program demand that we continuously negotiate the intimate and the distant. These concerns with representation and its limits seem to reach a point of crisis in Liam Young’s “speculative cinema,” where the work of seeing and representing is done by wholly non-human agents. Here, as Holly notes, a “reinvention of the rules of cinema” is in process, which automatically demand a human response by way of the development of ways of seeing—and reading—the image differently.

What’s interesting about this crisis of representation that each of the contributors to the roundtable variously engage with is that it offers us media scholars opportunities to look forward while looking back. Alison, in discussing the Black Audio Film Collective’s work, recalls the city-symphonies that were prevalent in cinema’s early years. Frequently theorized and historicized as experiments in the mode of flânerie, they take on new currency when put under the kind of pressure Alison brings to bear in her post. Indeed, they raise large questions for urban documentary in general: what do films in this genre fail to show? What do they take for granted as standards for ways of seeing? What, in other words, are the critical assumptions they make but never articulate?

These questions can be extended to the realm of software and hardware in the digital era. Aroussiak clearly indicates the ways in which Street View operates according to specific criteria, thereby negating all claims to neutral representation. For me, this raises a question that has arguably shaped the histories of cartography and visualizing nature: is neutral representation in fact possible? From imaging, representing, and visualizing the built environment, we move closer to the discourse of the history of science in this regard. Rather than seek to answer the question in the affirmative or to deny its validity—either of which effectively closes off avenues for further inquiry—I should like to conclude these reflections by turning to Walter Benjamin’s notion of Spielraum: room-for-play. Benjamin, that astute critic of modernity, the city, and lived experience, intended Spiel not just as “play” but also, crucially for my purpose here, as performance.

For Benjamin, as film and media scholars will have already remembered, this “space for play is widest in film.” 1Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version” (quoted in Miriam Hansen, Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno, University of California Press, 2012: 183). And what the discussions in this roundtable have repeatedly invoked is a crisis in representation inaugurated by a wide range of disparate forces, but which collectively point toward a fairly coherent set of issues: first, a reimagining of cinematic practices (from technology through ontology); second, a reassessment of cinematic encounters with cities and the built environment, with particular emphasis on what is/not represented; and third, the negotiation of extant practices of visuality and interpretation with emerging forms of imaging and representation. Together, I find these to constitute an arguably more literal space for play than Benjamin had originally intended in the context of cinema. As notions of the “cinematic” have expanded far beyond the confines of the black box or the theater, it seems appropriate to test the limits of Benjamin’s thought by considering that expanded field precisely as a space-for-play. It is lived experience that is redrawn, redefined, reconfigured by the shifts in representational and imaging practices we’ve discussed here, and if we are to continue to make sense of the ways in which our media—and we ourselves—inhabit cities and the built environment, it must be to experience that we turn our critical gaze.


1 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version” (quoted in Miriam Hansen, Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno, University of California Press, 2012: 183
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