Screens in Public Space: Questions of Aesthetics and Access in a Moment of Social Distancing

Tiffany Carbonneau, Today, Tomorrow, 2019. Site-specific projection during the BLINK Cincinnati that featured archival research into the historical occupants of the building and their links to transatlantic migration. Photo by Tiffany Carbonneau
[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.]

Questions of aesthetics and access, which Sabine brought up in her thoughtful synthesis of the first posts of this illuminating roundtable, are essential to the study of public art. When artworks are placed in public (rather than inside dedicated art institutions like galleries or museums), they open up to a wider audience, eliciting an unpredictable range of responses and interpretations and often prompting artists and curators to consider issues of legibility, controversy, and popular taste. Access and aesthetics are uniquely intertwined in public art, as the common lament of public art’s appeal to the “lowest common denominator” attests. One recent special issue of Open Philosophy even asked “does public art have to be bad art?” Cher Knight has taken a more nuanced approach to this issue, arguing that art’s publicness rests neither on mass appeal nor adherence to the same aesthetic and conceptual criteria en vogue in the white cube of the museum and gallery. Instead, she claims that art’s publicness relies on its “ability to extend reasonable and fair opportunities for members of the public to understand the negotiate their own relationships with it.”1Cher Krause Knight, Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism, 1st ed. (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), ix.

Moving images’ fundamentally attractive nature has the potential to spark the attention of passersby who might not notice static sculptures or installations during their everyday movements, possibly extending more of these opportunities for members of the public to engage with art. On the other hand, urban screens’ connection to publicity and surveillance brings with it the connotations of “the society of the spectacle” and dystopian science fiction cities of Blade Runner (1982) and Minority Report (2002), potentially being inadvertently “tuned out” by passersby armed with urban blinders and an aversion to public space advertising. In distinguishing itself from the crowd of advertising screens in public spaces, moving image-based public art can, however, generate meaningful experiences in public spaces, ones that create audiences out of strangers and passersby, creating platforms—or pores—for shared experiences and even social interaction in the space emanating out from the screen.

Jaume Plensa, Crown Fountain, 2004, Millennium Park, Chicago. Photo by Annie Dell’Aria

Although public artworks are often understood has having to eschew avant-garde forms in favor of legibility, in many ways moving image artworks in public spaces buck this trend, employing non-narrative forms that often draw upon or recall motifs or techniques from the avant-garde, but in ways that are designed to reach a distracted, ambulatory spectator. This connects to the dominance of projection in moving image installations in galleries and museums since the 1990s, which has been likened (both positively and negatively) to the return of the flaneur, a term with obvious connections to a mobile, urban visuality. In her discussion of programming video art for a public screen in Manchester, UK, Kate Taylor observed that “Slowness is often more striking than frenetic works, with inaction on screen a contrast to the pace of life below and the dynamics of the people traffic in the space.”2Kate Taylor, “Programming Video Art for Urban Screens in Public Space,” First Monday Special Issue #4 (February 6, 2006), http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1555. This can be seen in the static webcam shot in Wolfgang Staehle’s Midtown (2004), mentioned in my first post, as well as the slow portraits of Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain (2004) in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

In Crown Fountain, faces of ordinary Chicagoans grace LED screens on two facing monoliths, slowing blinking and smiling until eventually “blowing a kiss,” at which point (during the summer) a stream of cooling water descends into the shallow pool between the screens. In both cases the slowness of the image departs from the paces and movements of the surrounding city and allows incidental audiences entry at any point of the work’s duration. These slow portraits, reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (1964-66), produce a strange mixture of boredom and cinematic suspense as children wait for the rushing stream of water at each facial tick or smirk. Each screen monumentalizes the presence of unnamed citizens, and the entire screen situation—including the interactive space and water between the two moving images—becomes a porous site that transforms a public park dedicated to civic sculpture into a rowdy space for play.

Montage aesthetics are also embedded in many moving image artworks in public spaces, both within the images and at the site of the screen. Krzysztof Wodiczko’s projections are particularly interesting in this regard, as they simultaneously illuminate and obscure surfaces of official memory and commemoration in public spaces. Montage happens precisely at the intersection of image and screen, or rather, along a new screen produced through the dialectical collision (to speak in Eisenstein’s terms) of projected image and urban surface. Giuliana Bruno refers to this as “surface tension.” Of Wodiczko’s public projections she writes: “Wodiczko has incessantly used the medium of projection to interrogate the face and façade of architecture as a dense surface: a permeable site for the mediation of memory, history, and subjectivity.”3Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 76. The porosity of his projections not only allows for the co-presence of elsewheres and elsewhens in urban space (as I mentioned in my first post), but, through montage, mediate intersubjective exchanges in the city by transforming architectural surface into living, porous skin.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Monument, 2020, Madison Square Park, New York. Video and sound featuring the testimony of refugees projected onto the Admiral David Glasgow Farragut Monument. Photo by Annie Dell’Aria

Avant-garde aesthetics do not hinder access but rather create it in these works. The question still remains, however: who are public moving image artworks for? As Sabine points out, there are questions of whether or not these works are made for tourists or residents. This is most pressing when considering the recent trend of light festivals, events where whole neighborhoods are transformed through light art and projection. These events, often funded through BIDs, Chambers of Commerce, or other private-public partnerships, produce an image of the city as dynamic, playful, high-tech, and commercially vibrant. Looking particularly to the use of projection mapping, some critics are troubled by how moving images’ immateriality destabilizes architecture, likening these spectacles to the simulacrum. Others liken light festivals to theme park tourism,4Emanuele Giordano and Chin-Ee Ong, “Light Festivals, Policy Mobilities and Urban Tourism,” Tourism Geographies 19, no. 5 (March 17, 2017): 711, https://doi.org/10.1080/14616688.2017.1300936. arguing that these events are little more than the realization of the society of the spectacle, rearranging urban space for the tourist gaze and the Instagram post.

However, as geographer Tim Edensor points out, light festivals can also be laboratories for experimentation and opportunities to reenchant public space.5Tim Edensor, From Light to Dark: Daylight, Illumination, and Gloom (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017). To do this, as I have argued previously in this journal, they should consider their wide appeal and ability to attract diverse audiences as a medium rather than an end in itself. Put another way, the spectacular transformation of urban space through the use of multiple light art installations and projections in light festivals should be seen as an opportunity to create and explore porosity—and to interrogate what these pores mean for the city and its inhabitants—rather than to reify an image of the city as a space of consumption.

Tiffany Carbonneau, Today, Tomorrow, 2019. Site-specific projection during the BLINK Cincinnati that featured archival research into the historical occupants of the building and their links to transatlantic migration. Photo by Tiffany Carbonneau

The ability for such artworks to produce these shared experiences among incidental audiences and explore urban porosity through the moving image relies, however, on our habitual occupation of public space itself. As I write this, I am being forced (along with many others) to conduct activities I normally do in the shared space of the classroom through a screen. Urged not to visit crowded spaces, my usual experiences of shared viewing of art, film, and public screens is cut off. Prompted by officials to practice “social distance,” we turn to individual screens to compensate for the lack of social and professional human interaction. Our bodies’ porousness to pathogens and the propensity of public spaces to accelerate a dangerous biological virality is currently closing off public spaces, making us suspicious of strangers—or rather the traces of infection that strangers leave behind with their touch and presence—and causing us to rely even more on the tactility and responsiveness of our individual touchscreens, keyboards, and remote controls.

This moment of extreme isolation and increased reliance on screen-based interactivity reminds me even more of the ability of screen media in public spaces to open up a different kind of haptic viewing, one that moves us through spaces rather than isolating us in bubbles of private consumption or the home. A haptic viewing that creates shared experiences with others—defined not by algorithmically-determined echo chambers but by incidental proximity to and even physical contact with strangers. Will we emerge from this public health emergency wanting to reimagine our public spaces in ways that create shared encounters, intersubjective exchanges, and contact with each other, or will this only prove to our managers, administrators, and market overloads that education, work, and play can occur more efficiently remotely and in isolation? I hope very much for the former as I worriedly attempt to live with the hopefully momentary experience of the latter.  

Notes   [ + ]

1. Cher Krause Knight, Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism, 1st ed. (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), ix.
2. Kate Taylor, “Programming Video Art for Urban Screens in Public Space,” First Monday Special Issue #4 (February 6, 2006), http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1555.
3. Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 76.
4. Emanuele Giordano and Chin-Ee Ong, “Light Festivals, Policy Mobilities and Urban Tourism,” Tourism Geographies 19, no. 5 (March 17, 2017): 711, https://doi.org/10.1080/14616688.2017.1300936.
5. Tim Edensor, From Light to Dark: Daylight, Illumination, and Gloom (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

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