The Spectacle of Screen Environments

In this essay, Kyle McClarney, a student at Indiana University, explores the ways in which public screens become "integrated spectacles" in their environments in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Student Voices section on Hong Kong, cities, screens, and spectacle. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

The AIA Central Tower in Hong Kong, housing one of the city’s largest public screens on its outside and one of China’s largest insurance companies on its inside, is junk. No, actually — the building itself with its strange, asymmetrical, and innovative look is modeled after the traditional Chinese ship called, ironically, a junk. The tower is immediately recognizable against the sea of other buildings due to this wonky, eye-catching difference and draws the spectator immediately from its other more traditionally-shaped surroundings. As the spectator scans up its light blue exterior, the peak of the building shines out in stark contrast with a deep, seizing jolt of red. This red, situated at the very top of an unconventional structure in a scope of general normalcy, is a screen — and it is extremely hard to miss.

AIA Tower in Hong Kong, China. Photo by author

The skyline of Hong Kong is home to an arresting number of screens that can quickly numb both a resident and newcomer alike, resulting in a need for each screen to add something to this ever-increasing locale of lights. After witnessing the effect that the mere shape of the building and color palette of the screen had on its visibility in contrast to its generic brethren, screens in intriguing environments became more and more noticeable. Screens on ceilings of malls, on stairways of stores, and on buildings shaped like chess pieces became infinitely more intriguing than the standard rectangle screen on rectangle building that permeates the city. By these and other observations made through traversing the city, questions for screen efficacy became apparent: does the environment in which a screen is situated affect its visibility? Does daring to be different really work? These and other questions became a guide through the streets as not only the spectacle of the screen but also the inexorable spectacle of the environment became critical. This criticality of environment and creative placement will be analyzed by this essay, using both research and firsthand field experience on the streets of China, in order to argue the significance of the screen environment in an increasingly digital age in maintaining the relevance and visibility of public screen media.


“Chess Building” in Hong Kong, China. Photo by author

The urban dispositif, as articulated by Nanna Verhoeff, is a spatially layered composition of the inner circle of the screen (its personal specificity) and the outer circle (the surrounding public space). Bringing the idea of this dispositif to urban screens in different environments is useful to uncover the workings of spectacle. When the public presence of the screen is so affected by its environment, the symbiosis of screen and its placement becomes as pivotal a technique in visibility as the infrastructure itself. Verhoeff, writing in 2016, outlines this as “the way in which screens, spectators, and spaces mutually transform each other.”1Nanna Verhoeff, “Screens in the City,” in Screens: From Materiality to Spectatorship: A Historical and Theoretical Reassessment, eds. Dominique Chateau and Jose Moure (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 125-139. The relationship between screen, spectator, and environment is apparent in the spectacle that creative placement creates. In order for a spectator to notice the screen, it is natural that the screen must be different than its surroundings. This is achieved by the AIA Central Tower in building shape and clever use of color and by other screens in equally creative ways. To fully undergo mutual transformation as outlined by Verhoeff, screens must adapt to the eye of the spectator, even going so far as to make the space of the screen adapt as well. The ability of the coordinated screen and space to influence both consumer culture and the culture of screens themselves helps to reconstruct space into its own compelling narrative, thereby maintaining its presence in the city. The desire by those who install screens to achieve relevance is transformed both by the normalcy of their surroundings and the tendency of spectators to marvel at something new and intriguing — a spectacle.

Most screens we encounter as spectators feel disconnected and static, melding into the background of the city as light noise, not warranting a second look. It takes something that cocks the head and furrows the brow to draw in such jaded eyes in such an environment. This is what Chris Berry refers to as disenchantment within the media city.2Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval,” in Public Space, Media Space, eds. Chris Berry, Janet Harbord, Rachel Moore (New York: Palgrave, 2013), 59-63. The sheer amount of similarly-sized and similarly-targeted advertisements all within one locale numb the consumer over time to these screens that all serve the same purpose. Going against the norms of screen presentation to become a contained spectacle is reflected in the concept of “le vif” in Berry’s writing; it is the “cinematic” quality inspired by movies that public screens attempt to emulate. If the screen dispositif is able to overcome disenchantment to become that cinematic spectacle, the relationship becomes more effective in connecting with its spectator and maintaining that connection. The Chinese junk design of the AIA Central Tower is its own compelling narrative, bringing historical significance, architectural intrigue, and eye-catching color all into one environment. It refuses to be influenced solely by its spectators and opts to do some of that influencing itself. This is the le vif of which Berry writes and is its own form of enchantment in the city. To view in depth a screen that also warrants deeper inspection into its environment indicates a seamless integration between the screen dispositif’s inner and outer circles, as each piece of the ongoing process maintains the idea and experience of spectacle for both creator and consumer. This too can be said of any screen that is housed in a creative environment — looking deeper is looking longer, and looking longer is more traffic for the content.

Chris Berry further writes about what Guy Debord called the “integrated spectacle,” in which “we no longer gaze at the spectacle but live in it (and it lives in us).”3Chris Berry, “Exposure: The Integrated Spectacle of the Shanghai Public Transport System,” Situations 7, No. 2 (2014): 13. The sensibility of this integrated spectacle is indicated in the same numbness that permeates the rectangle on rectangle issue described above. As these screens devolve into the structuring ambience of the city, the integrated spectacle is maintained even as attention will turn to other forms of entertainment or spectacle. These other forms are often ironically smaller screens, contextually presenting themselves in the modern age in the form of personal devices. Even as these personal screens continue to evolve, Debord’s reasoning remains resonant. To apply his writing to the modern influx of smartphones becoming the logical evolution of personal screens offers insight into what the integrated spectacle looks like in today’s world. Large screen media is in a constant push-pull with small screens as they continue to become more and more integrated into daily life. It is not uncommon to look out on a street of colorful and numerable public screens like those at the front of Hong Kong’s Chunking Mansions and see the prospective spectators instead with their heads down, focused entirely on personal devices. To break the standard of integrated spectacle and create an enticement to actually look up is a difficult task for large screen media. This difficulty is exacerbated by a refusal to be transformed by the spectator — to remain integrated in the spectacle of smaller screens. If the streets and buildings as housings for screens remain smooth and unobtrusive, the content will too be unnoticed. Screens must be transformed by the climate they have found themselves in and jut out to become noticed.

The spectacle of the city is maintained as screens necessarily become new and separate from the norm: found on oddly shaped buildings and in asymmetrical corners of malls and in the pieces of daily life everyone sees but aren’t necessarily hospitable for a rectangle. The perceived necessity of screen environments to become their own spectacle is critical for us to understand, and will only increase as the advent of personal screens progresses. Consumers must learn to notice and better see these constructions as the city expands, so that they can be better informed of the screened environments, infrastructures, and spectacle that form their experiences in the media city.


1 Nanna Verhoeff, “Screens in the City,” in Screens: From Materiality to Spectatorship: A Historical and Theoretical Reassessment, eds. Dominique Chateau and Jose Moure (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 125-139.
2 Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval,” in Public Space, Media Space, eds. Chris Berry, Janet Harbord, Rachel Moore (New York: Palgrave, 2013), 59-63.
3 Chris Berry, “Exposure: The Integrated Spectacle of the Shanghai Public Transport System,” Situations 7, No. 2 (2014): 13.
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.