Uncovering the Media City: Public Screens and Urban China

Stephanie DeBoer introduces a new installment of Student Voices by situating her students' essays on Hong Kong and Shanghai in discussions of public screens, global publics, and the dispositif.
[Ed. note: this post introduces 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.]

Public urban screens are a central locus for interrogating our encounters with the media city. Their material frames and facades – increasingly manifest in transit thresholds and corridors and incorporated into architectural surfaces of all scales – are sites for making visible and known the relations between media, urban space, and their inhabitants.1My use of the term “media city” is indebted to Scott McQuire’s articulation in hisThe Media City: Media, Architecture and UrbanSpace (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2008).Writing in the early 2000s, not long before the last gasps of the television console’s presence in public space, Anna McCarthy presciently observed how screens are an emplaced and “flexible” medium.2Anna McCarthy, Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space(Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 229. As the box-encased cathode ray tube had become an integral part of the everyday non-domestic spaces of department stores, airport terminals, waiting rooms, and transport platforms, it was not the screen technology itself that rendered significance; rather, the public (then television) screen was an expression of the scales, “powers and discourses” of its practiced places – the relations and dynamics of location, time, even aspiration that competed in its formation. For global and globally aspiring cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai, medium- to large-scale public screens are not everywhere in the city.3Chris Berry also makes this point in his chapter, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture,” in Ambient Screens and Transnational Public Spaces, ed. Nikos Papastergiadis (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016), 59-80.They are predominantly (though not exclusively) emplaced in commercial centers, tourist routes, and transport circuits that are often the very locations that announce the city as global – evoking its urban future even as its inhabitants and daily commuters must figure how to sustain themselves in its light and shadows, roads and streets.

What are the dynamics and relations that form the public screens that so visibly mark the central districts and transit routes of Hong Kong and Shanghai? And how do various urban inhabitants live within and pass through these screened spaces, with their distinct histories, politics, and local to global experiences and aspirations? These are the questions that inspired the ten-day field trip to Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shanghai in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in which fifteen undergraduate students of the Indiana University Media School participated during March 2018. Part of a semester-long course that I designed entitled “Uncovering the Media City: Public Screen Cultures and Urban China,” my colleagues and I led the students not only to observe the simultaneously spectacular views and mundane uses of public screens and light facades in these cities, but also to meet and converse with a wide range of stakeholders for their large- to medium-scale screen surfaces – out of home advertisers for metro and street-level throughways, tourist and urban planning technologists, LED screen manufacturers and light factories, LED designers, media researchers, and media artists working to intervene in these spaces.4My sincere thanks to Jim Nagler and Professor Dave Groobert. This study trip to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Guangzhou would not have been possible without their very capable and enthusiastic field assistance. My sincere thanks, as well, to the following people and institutions that gave generously of their time, expertise, and perspective during our field travels: Professor Maurice Benayoun, School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University; Professor Wu Jie and her colleagues and classes at the School of Design and Innovation, Tongji University; Teddy Lo and the Teddy Lo Studio, Hong Kong; David Chan and Isaac Leung, Videotage, Hong Kong; Nikita Hua Lin, Chronus Art Center, Shanghai; Josh Spahr and Ashton Flowers, Daktronics, Shanghai; Tsong Chen, JC Decaux, Shanghai; ST Decaux, Shanghai; Daniel Wong, JM Network, Hong Kong; Pilva Kwan and Lily Chen, Light Engine, Huizhou, PRC.

The dynamics of Shanghai and Hong Kong addressed by the student essays collected here sit within a version of the screened city that is both distinct from and adjacent to McCarthy’s earlier televisual context. “As media become increasingly mobile, scalable and interactive,” observes Scott McQuire, “the new mode of social experience in the media city is characterized by” what he terms “relational space.”5Scott McQuire, The Media City: Media, Architecture and UrbanSpace (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2008), 21. Within this characterization, the recent developments in LED, light, and interactive technologies that have accompanied the increasing incorporation of flat screens and light surfaces into our built environments are significant to the extent that their configurations confront us with the problems and possibilities of inhabiting the media city. It was with these challenges of inhabitation in mind that our semester-long course began with an analysis of the emplacement of public screens on the IU Bloomington campus – an analysis that was anchored in Nanna Verhoeff’s articulation of the screen dispositif.6NannaVerhoeff, “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.Constituted in the relations between the screen, the space surrounding the screen, and the spectators and inhabitants that look and pass by, the screen dispositif became a rubric for seeing how various screens, for example, work to direct our bodily movements on campus, individuate and collectivize our gaze, mediate our relationships with one another, and perform the very ideas and ideals that a campus such as Indiana University might hold for its media screens and surfaces. This analysis further made evident the “extent to which contemporary media can be used to promote other forms of spatial agency remains a critical issue.”7Scott McQuire, The Media City: Media, Architecture and UrbanSpace (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2008),132. Intimately understanding the campus as a media site that should be in the service of student expression, student proposals advocated for how screens might better reflect the interests of its citizens, offering plans for displaying student work on its public surfaces, and for better reflecting the movements of students on campus.

As they are emplaced and interwoven within their respective locations, public urban screens are, of course, not the same for all cities. Their expression can be both familiar and distant, at times revealing and at other times hiding their significance from our view. The collection of undergraduate essays featured here for Mediapolis were prompted by my invitation that students articulate a problem concerning public urban screens of their own choosing based in the photos and field notes of their ten-day directed research in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, as well as the semester-long conversations that had framed our travels. The screen problems from which many of these essays depart are of the city that most readily announces itself to any urban inhabitant who might encounter it – the commercial city, the spectacular city, the global city, the city of enchantment. These are communicated in overwhelmingly lit nighttime cityscapes of skyscrapers and commercial or financial buildings – of the Bund, Pudong, or East Nanjing Road in Shanghai – in dramatically lit or gigantically scaled screen facades – of Causeway Bay or Mongkok in Hong Kong – and in remarkably screened reflections that repeat themselves across metro and transit corridors. Yet the approach of these essays to this screened city is also that of the urban and media critic. The critic who makes visible the screen practices that emplace us in configurations of power that both enable and restrict our expression in the city. The critic who attends to the variations in the media city’s articulation of everyday experience – to differences in scale, in publicness and privateness, in daytime to nighttime screened expression, and to that uncanny yet arresting moment when the public screen is turned off. And finally, the critic who remains always aware of what might be hidden from view by the screened city’s bright and spectacular facades – the experiences of the street that always remain, as Anna Greenspan further phrases, in a play of light and shadow with “the unfolding of this unprecedented, unpredictable mix of the planned urban spectacle on the one hand and, on the other, the city’s unplanned culture that takes place in the darkness, hidden from view.”8Anna Greenspan, Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 54. From these descriptions and theorizations we might begin to uncover what it means – and what might be both possible and impossible – as we live, work, play, and pass through the screened media city.



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