Apparitions and Wormholes: Moving Image Artworks and Urban Porosity

Tony Oursler, Tear of the Cloud
Annie Dell'Aria shows how illuminations and projections move through the fluid, living skin of the built environment, parting the boundaries between public and private space
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Porousness and Cities.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Urban porosity denies hard boundaries or enclosures, understanding the built environment as fluid and shifting rather than permanent and immovable, like living skin rather than cold stone. Moving images and projected light in public spaces produce a similar destabilization of materiality and immateriality, often leading to anxieties over the porous boundaries between public and private spheres. The presence of moving image screens in commercial districts in city centers, for example, can lead to critiques and debates about the privatization of public space or the creation of generic “non-places” that supplant a supposedly authentic sense of place. The actual relationship between public screens and built environment is far more complex, of course, as Anna McCarthy’s landmark study of television’s material presence in places outside of the home, and an emerging literature on urban screens attests.1Anna McCarthy, Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).

Site-specific public artworks are perhaps ideally situated to evoke urban porousness through the moving image by allowing bodies, objects, and concepts from other places or times to be co-present in the urban environment with passersby. Fleeting and ephemeral, these works challenge assumptions of permanence and immovability and highlight the transience and ever-shifting nature of urban space, layering upon already porous urban spaces or opening up new ones for communication between places or subjectivities.

Ports, sites of both licit and illicit forms of entry and exit to and from the city, frequently occur in discussions of urban porosity, as Sabine Haenni and Anna Viola Sborgi detail in this roundtable. Shimon Attie’s Night Watch (2018) screened slow-motion, high-resolution portraits of people who were recently granted asylum in the United States on a 20-foot LED screen that traversed New York City’s waterways on a floating barge. Recalling the city’s long connection to immigration—and the centrality of waterways in that history—this work was deliberately timed to coincide with the UN General Assembly.

Urban ports have also been supplanted by other forms of movement into the city, leaving ruins on the edges of cities, on the banks of waterways or even half-submerged. Tony Oursler explored just such a site in his multi-channel public projection Tear of the Cloud, commissioned by Public Art Fund in 2019. Taking the abandoned 69th Street Transfer Bridge Gantry as its ground, this work featured a dizzying array of references to the ecological, indigenous, technical, and social history of the Hudson River and its many communities and industries. Transforming urban ruins into a haunted house, Oursler’s work continued his long-standing interest in phantasmagoria and the history of spiritualism.

Phantasmagoria, or the sudden appearance of voices and images from other places or temporalities, could perhaps also be read as a form of porosity. Noam Elcott has recently cited phantasmagoria as one of three media archaeological forebears of contemporary video’s insistent verticality: “the phantasmagoric dispositif—simply and directly describes the (perceived) assembly of bodies and images in real time and space.”2Noam M. Elcott, “Material. Human. Divine. Notes on the Vertical Screen,” in Screen Genealogies: From Optical Device to Environmental Medium, ed. Craig Buckley, Rüdiger Campe, and Francesco Casetti (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019), 306, These images’ verticality, Elcott argues, contrasts with the horizontality of cinema, effecting “a shift from narrative to image, from then and there to here and now.”3Elcott, 309. When brought into the public realm, this type of vertical, anthropological moving image—one of mimesis rather than diegesis, as Elcott suggests—contrasts with the material urban environment, suggesting portals, holes, or pores through which these spectral images have come to inhabit our spaces.

The projections of Krzysztof Wodiczko make present not figures from the past, but from the margins. His works often feature the hands, faces, or entire bodies of populations not normally visible in official forms of public commemoration projected onto monumental surfaces. The faces and hands of veterans both illuminated and obscured the figure of Abraham Lincoln in his 2012 Union Square projection; the torsos of family members grieving losses from gangland violence overtook a Revolutionary War obelisk in Bunker Hill Monument Projection (1994); and most recently the faces and voices of refugees are currently overtaking the monument of Civil War Admiral David Glasgow Farragut in Madison Square Park. The skin of these official edifices of power become porous through the moving image, the living, breathing skin of subjectivities whose stories and experiences challenge and disturb our official images of greatness and identity in public spaces.

The sudden appearance of other subjects via the moving image also has communicative potential between disparate places. Hole in Space a 1980 project by Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway created a spontaneous connection between New York and Los Angeles through life-sized televisual images and sound linked by satellite. Installed without advanced publicity or build-up, this spontaneous urban pore grew in popularity over its three nights, spreading by word of mouth and eventually attracting media attention and planned virtual, cross-country family reunions. The sudden co-presence of bodies and voices from another coast make this telecommunicative social sculpture interactive and open to the uses and misuses of its viewers.

Of course, this kind of interpersonal telecommunication has become commonplace and even mundane on mobile screens, but the creation of linkages between places on screens situated within cities can still create moments of disjuncture that trouble and challenge borders and boundaries between center and periphery or between places. Like Hole in Space, these sudden connectors are like wormholes that compress two places together at the site of the screen while also offering glimpses into another location. In 1979 Dan Graham installed video monitors in the atrium of the newly built CitiGroup Building in Manhattan for Video View of Suburbia in an Urban Atrium. He said of the project: “Instead of viewers in their private home interiors seeing a view of public life in the city (which is safely ensconced within their homes), a public viewer in the center of the city sees a television image of the exterior of a suburban house.”4 Dan Graham, “Video in Relation to Architecture,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, ed. Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (New York: Aperture, 1990), 175. Thomas Struth projected photographs of abandoned streets and residential buildings from the outskirts of Münster, Germany onto walls located in the city center for the decennial public art exhibition Skulptur Projekte in 1987. Utilizing real-time images, Wolfgang Staehl’s Midtown (2004), projected a webcam image of Manhattan (refreshed every eight seconds) onto the façade of the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, United Kingdom. These publicly situated screens become windows into other places, images that call attention not only to the places rendered within the image but the interface between the site of the screen and the image within it.

This brief sample of the many ways artists use moving images to evoke urban porosity challenge and complicate dominant narratives about the relationship between urban screens and place, producing encounters that prompt viewers to consider how and why certain subjectivities, places, and temporalities move through place.


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