The Ordinary vs. The Spectacular

In this essay, Maggie Farwig, a student at Indiana University, considers the ways in which screens manifest in the practices of everyday life in both ordinary and spectacular ways, creating both connections and disconnections and blurring relations between public and private.
[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.]

In Hong Kong, screens are everywhere. Screens of many sizes, functionalities, capabilities, and features fill the streets and skies of the city. It is in a word, spectacular. As a first-time visitor I was in awe everywhere I went throughout my first day and night in the city. As I became accustomed to the light and the constant stimulation, I began to start asking questions about the screens presented to me. The biggest question I found myself confronting was how ordinary are these screens and are they public or private? Early one morning in Hong Kong, as I began to reflect on these questions of mine, I went wandering in the area around our hotel. As I wandered throughout the streets I watched as the city began to wake up. I watched streets being swept and tired workers going for their morning runs. It is a privilege to watch a city wake up as it is in its most natural form. Before the screens are turned on and tourists abound, you are able to see a city’s roots, the things and people that make the city run. Screens change the way we interact with cities and change as the day moves from morning to night.

There is an interesting juxtaposition that is posed when considering the functions of the screens depending on the time of day. In the morning and most of the daytime, screens are ordinary. They serve a purpose of functionality and often offer a private space. By ordinary, I mean part of the everyday. Ordinary screens are ones that would not stop you in your tracks for you to stare at in awe. They are a part of life that everyone is used to, that is unremarked upon, in most parts of the world. This definition of ordinary is in a similar vein to how Anna McCarthy discusses television in her book, Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space. As she says, “…the fact is that TV integrates into everyday environments so well that we barely notice its presence in ‘our taverns and our metropolitan streets.’”1Anna McCarthy, “Shaping Public and Private Space with TV Screens,” Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 117-154. Screens become part of the everyday and, therefore, the screens we use each day become ordinary. However, these ordinary screens are what is important and functional during the morning and daytime. This does not mean that ordinary screens do not exist at night. Ordinary screens need to function at all times of day for the smooth running of a city. However, the “main stage” screens at night are the spectacular lights. They are spectacular because they are made to be gazed upon by visitors and other cities. Comparably, in her chapter titled “The Power of Spectacle,” Anna Greenspan remarks, “Urban dwellers in Asia’s big cities do not read spectacles as a generalized effect of capitalism, but rather as symbols of their metropolis that invite inevitable comparison with rival cities.”2Anna Greenspan, “The Road Versus the Street,” and “The Power of Spectacle,” Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 29-68. My use of spectacular is along these same lines – these lights and screens are not meant for the people of the city of Hong Kong but rather for the gaze of visitors and envy of other cities.

A woman sits on her phone as she waits to begin selling newspapers for the day in Hong Kong.

The woman in Figure 1 is experiencing a private moment as she sits on her phone in front of the newspapers she will soon begin selling. This woman is ready to go for the day as her newspapers are neatly stacked and ready to be bought. In the few precious moments this woman has before her day begins, she sits down and takes out her phone. She sits on the ground and begins to watch something. She is soon in her own private world. She doesn’t see me take her picture as she looks at her phone and I quickly move on down the street to continue my structured wandering. About twenty minutes later I am back, trying to make my way to my hotel when I see this same woman again. Except now there are more people out on the street and she seems to be in her element. Her phone is gone and she is selling newspapers left and right. This is her ordinary experience, out on the public street selling papers. However, when she was on her phone and experiencing a private moment all to herself she was also demonstrating the ordinary.

I have grown up in the smart phone revolution. I was in high school when I got my first iPhone and have had one ever since. As much as I hate to admit it, I do not know how I would function on a day to day basis without my phone. Sure, I can disconnect for a few hours or maybe even a few days at a time but pretty much the moment I need to get ahold of someone I start fumbling for my phone. However, this is what connects me and this woman of whom I know nothing about. We have both experienced a private moment in the middle of an ordinarily busy environment through the screen on our phone. When we look at screens we often focus on the massive scale of screens that wow and amaze us instantly. We don’t, as often, consider the screens that are considered a part of our day to day survival. These screens, whether they are our phones or smart watches or laptops, allow us to create private environments no matter where we are. This is part of our ordinary life. In other words, it is not strange to see a person watching a video on their phone while riding the subway or FaceTiming their mom while walking down the street. We do not question the private moments that are allowed to happen during the day. However, these private moments are not possible for this woman and people like her at all times of the day.

In the early morning, it is easy for the woman in the image to slip into her own world for a few minutes. There is simply not a lot of people around and she does not need to pay attention as there are no potential customers. There is nothing for the screen to distract her from. But at night, the same potential for private interaction in a public space is not possible. At night, her attention would be commanded by her urban surroundings. The bright lights are stimulating but distracting. The city is brightly lit and loud. There are people everywhere and the sales people, people much like our woman in the image, are hounding every potential customer. A private screen is much harder to find in the chaos of nighttime in the city. The spectacular lights take away from the potential private moments for this woman as she is now competing with them to command attention of her customers.

A busy intersection in Hong Kong.

When first examining Figure 2 we are confronted with many stimuli. There are many things that can be focused on, whether it is the incoming trolley, the pedestrians crossing the street, or the different screens presented throughout the image. What draws me to this image is the ordinariness of it. If it were not for the Chinese characters adorning the different surfaces, one could be convinced that this is a street in any city across the world. The screens seen throughout this image do not distinguish the city of Hong Kong, in which they are placed. Instead they serve to inform rather than perform. There is nothing spectacular about what we are seeing in this image. Instead, we are seeing images of everyday life.

No one or nothing is putting on a show, they are not performing or trying to draw attention. Rather they are going about their normal everyday lives. Take the traffic light for example. Most traffic lights are fairly universal and this is no exception. Red means stop, green means go, and yellow means slow down depending on what kind of driver you are. They are necessary to a city when it comes to safety. There is nothing spectacular about a traffic light, in fact this might be the most ordinary thing in the world to most international visitors. It is not something that is going to make tourists stop in their tracks and say to their group, “oh now that, that I have to get a picture of.” That is, unless you are an American student studying screen culture who begins to question the function of ordinary screens.

I took the above picture while I was waiting for our field assistant to take money out of the ATM. As I watched the street I began to question what this street would look like without the stop light and how it would function. Obviously, at some point, this street functioned without the use of the stop light. However, the question I find myself asking now is, how did the road change with the implementation of new technology? While I can’t answer that at this juncture, I would like to further examine how screen technology is being used today in the image. While the traffic sign may not be interpreted by many as being enchanting, Chris Berry makes observations about the everydayness of enchantment in screens in his article, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval.” In the article Berry explains, “Prosaic and banal though these sites may be, enchantment is a necessary component of the deployment of the screens in all cases, because it is what catches our eye and helps to make the screen stand out from the visual clutter of the contemporary city.”3Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval,” in Public Space, Media Space, eds. Chris Berry, Janet Harbord, Rachel Moore (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave, 2013), 110-34. The traffic light is often stared at, but not out of awe and amazement. The changing colors are necessary; they need to be distinct in order to stand out from the rest of the busy road. They are an important aspect of everyday life for everyday ordinary people. They do not attract people to a city but they do keep them safe and functional within that city.

Hong Kong is home to over three hundred skyscrapers. This is no small number and it certainly was not an accident. Hong Kong is making a statement in the landscape of global powers. The cityscape screams for the world to look at it and the world would be foolish not to. As Greenspan says in her work, “The Power of Spectacle,” “China loves a good show.”4Anna Greenspan, “The Power of Spectacle.” The skyscrapers light up the night sky and illuminate the surrounding world. Personally, I will never forget the first time I experienced these lights. Fresh off a sixteen-hour flight from Chicago, my classmates and I boarded a bus that would mercifully take us to our hotel. As we drove from the airport to the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong we encountered thousands of lights adorning hundreds of buildings. It was magnificent, an experience that I will truly never forget and will probably never stop talking about. Spectacular lights change the life of a city and how the residents of Hong Kong must feel about the space they live in.

The skyline lights up as it waits for the nightly light show to begin in the Victoria Harbor.

While phones and traffic lights are a part of ordinary life for everyone whether they live in a city or not, three hundred skyscrapers lighting up the night sky certainly are not ordinary. Nor are they private. These massive structures are built to make an impression and to show the world what a city is made of. Figure 3 was taken right before the start of light show along the Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong. The light show takes place every night starting at 8:00 pm and lasts for about 10 minutes. The light show is meant to be a tourist attraction. It is not meant for the residents of Hong Kong or the everyday people. If it were meant for these people, then it would be something that is considered a treat or only shown for special occasions. Instead it is displayed, the same show, night after night. After a while this would get old. However, if you are just visiting Hong Kong then it is exciting, new, and spectacular.

Screens, like a lot of things in our world, have many purposes and functions. There services range from informational to entertainment and from safety to bragging rights. As the day progress, screens move from ordinary to spectacular. In Hong Kong the screens in the morning are ordinary and part of the everyday while screens at nights are for the world to see. This doesn’t mean that the screens in the night are better in the morning or vice versa. To me, it means that screens have a powerful ability to change a city just throughout one day – and can stay variously enchanting the whole time.


1 Anna McCarthy, “Shaping Public and Private Space with TV Screens,” Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 117-154.
2 Anna Greenspan, “The Road Versus the Street,” and “The Power of Spectacle,” Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 29-68.
3 Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval,” in Public Space, Media Space, eds. Chris Berry, Janet Harbord, Rachel Moore (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave, 2013), 110-34.
4 Anna Greenspan, “The Power of Spectacle.”
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.