Media and the Physically Distanced City

Park goers practicing social distancing in Houston, Texas. Photo: Toby Dagenhart
In their introductory essay, dossier editors Dave Colangelo and Zach Melzer examine how the pandemic and BLM protests offer a lens into the makeup, visuality, and legibility of urban environments and their relationship with various forms of media.
[Ed. note: This article is the introduction to the dossier, “Media and the Physically Distanced City,” which examines how the pandemic and BLM protests offer a lens into the makeup, visuality, and legibility of urban environments and their relationship with various forms of media]

With a diameter of only 50-200 nanometres, SARS-CoV-2 is incredibly small. It should come as no surprise, then, that the visibility of this miniscule virus began with images of emptiness. Drone footage taken between January and April of 2020 shows the streets, highways, bridges, corridors, squares, and boulevards of Wuhan, Tokyo, Dubai, London, Delhi, New York City, Barcelona, Paris, Lagos, Istanbul, Rio-de-Janeiro, Mexico City, San Francisco, Mecca, Rome, Budapest, and many other cities, as notably vacant, motionless, and inanimate. In their flights over empty urban landscapes, these eerie, slow-moving flyover shots, typically employed in crime and horror genres to invoke a sense of remoteness, made apparent how the city itself has been made distant from its own identity.1For extensive discussions of the diverging uses of aerial shots, see Noa Steimatsky, Italian Locations: Reinhabiting the Past in Postwar Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008);Lisa Parks, Rethinking Media Coverage: Vertical Mediation and the War on Terror (New York: Routledge, 2018); and Stephen Groening, Cinema Beyond Territory: Inflight Entertainment and Atmospheres of Globalization (London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Like Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins’s illustration of a SARS-CoV-2 floating in abstract dark space, global landmarks such as Times Square, the Arc de Triomphe, and al-Masjid al-Haram still look unique, though now notably obscured from their more pedestrian contexts. If early panoramic films from the turn of the twentieth century sought to capture the scurries of the industrial city, drone imagery from 2020 captured how the energetic vitalities of contemporary megalopolises can come to such a sudden and homologous standstill. Haunted yet seemingly peaceful, cities seem to have momentarily transformed into an ‘anytime, anyplace’—the type of visual logic afforded to urban planners, architects, and cartographers. It seemed, in some ways, that cities transformed into something between the setting of a post-apocalyptic thriller, a ghost world, a Le Corbusier fantasy, and OpenCities Planner.

The proliferation of stay-at-home orders instituted in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic has made sparsely occupied streets, squares, highways, and public spaces more common and necessary phenomena. However, this is not to be mistaken with the notion that cities have somehow become empty or lacking in intensity. Aside from the movement of essential workers and the transportation of necessities such as food and medicine, the inertia of urban flow and exchange could also be observed early on during lockdown in the incremental uses of streaming, broadcasting, and electronic media. Data gathered by media analytics companies show a spike in the consumption of all media including print, radio, and video games, but especially broadcast and streaming services. The uptick in online video consumption was so sharp that in order to control the heavy traffic, media services providers announced they would be reducing streaming qualities in many parts of the globe. Relatedly, since the beginning of lockdown, online retail giant Amazon reported billions of dollars of earnings above expectation, causing the value of its stock to continue to rise, thereby putting its CEO, Jeff Bezos, on track to become the world’s first trillionaire. But whereas certain platforms and media outlets have prospered, the same cannot be said about the many smaller businesses and low-income earners who are today at risk of losing their livelihoods and homes. To overlook the ongoing, albeit altered and displaced, movement and flow of people, capital, and media is to miss a powerful component of how activities under lockdown conditions are measured, calculated, and implemented, both geographically and bio-politically.

The Image of the Lockdown City

Examples of drones hovering over empty streets, and data showing the clustering of activities online, barely scratch the surface of the shifts in the mediation of cities during the lockdown. During March and April, nationwide lockdown measures in Italy brought global attention to that country’s burgeoning window, balcony, and rooftop culture. Images of neighbours singing and dancing from their respective apartments, projecting classical films onto adjacent building façades, or playing tennis across rooftops, illustrated new ways that communal interaction could take place. As lockdown measures continued to spread, so did examples of local communities transforming their neighbourhoods around the world. Signs with rainbows accompanied by messages that “It will be alright; Ça va bien aller; Andra tutto bene” appeared in the windows. A couple exchanged their vows on a Manhattan sidewalk as their officiant presided over the ceremony from his fourth-floor apartment. In suburbia, birthday celebrations became car parades. Inspired by these seemingly extraordinary and highly performative human interactions, Apple released an ad campaign wrapping all these examples into one oversimplified message: “Creativity goes on.”

The “image of the city,” to borrow a phrase from urbanist Kevin Lynch, did not disappear.2Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960). Rather, its existing infrastructures of “imageability” have simply shifted. Whereas some components of urban living have been made outmoded, others have been promoted. What Lynch describes as paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks—both old and new—still exist, though not without some notable changes. With shifts towards video-conferencing as a dominant mode of spatiality, pathways are fibre-optic cables and network infrastructures, edges are network protocols and password-protected domains, districts are video conferences, nodes are the tiny rectangles that frame our views into each other’s spaces, and landmarks are viral posts and videos on social media. Solid coloured walls, libraries, living rooms, and kitchens found in the backgrounds of slightly high-angled—never low-angled; apparently a faux-pas!—shots are a dominant mode through which architecture and our relationship to it are now felt. Even fake Zoom backgrounds, with their veiling of the supposedly real scenes, speak to this cognitive aestheticization of the city. Instead of the outdoor scenery of architectural façades and noisy streets, the city is remarkably imaged, experienced, and staged through its interiors. Lockdown, in other words, is a diagram through which various ‘mental mappings’ of the city and how we appear in it are being redrawn.

Whereas parts of cities’ outdoor architecture and their usages have changed, certain urban interiors have also become more explicitly visible. Video-conferencing and video-on-demand (VOD) media serve as instructive examples of changes in the ways we both imagine ourselves looking and being seen in the city. The work-from-home “slob-chic style” and the “Zoom shirt” speak to the embodiment of a sort of fashion made logical by videoconferencing. Zoom performances by musicians located in different parts of the world expand cities into translocal communities. Connecting disparate rooms across different cities, such performances blur the borders of urban districts, making the interiors of domestic spaces into public parts of the urban landscape. If the last decade brought us “Netflix and chill,” the current one has fittingly begun with the “Netflix Party”— from physical intimacies with media in the background to the intimacies of being alone-together through the screen.

Perpetuating a relationship between architecture and media, a correspondence that has long been a part of urban design and architectural practice, it seems today that the city’s visuality is more greatly than ever before shaped through the interfaces of frames, windows, and screens.3See Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994); Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006); and Shannon Mattern, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017). But this augmentation should not be understood in terms of abnormalities or as events that are out-of-synch with history. Although COVID-19 might become a parenthetical note in the study of media and city, the fact that this pandemic is deeply embedded in existing structures should not be forgotten. As disasters historian Andy Horowitz argues, “The pandemic exists in history and is itself a historical process. Its causes and consequences are not intrinsic to the virus itself; they are contingent on the world around it.”4Andy Horowitz, “Pre-Existing Conditions: Pandemics as History,” Items: Insights from the Social Sciences (blog). July 9, 2020. COVID-19 certainly has a tangible impact on the organization of urban culture. But the kinds of affordances made possible during and post-lockdown, illuminate already existing conditions of the city’s architectural, infrastructural, and communicational structures.

Empty Space is an Oxymoron

“The world dominated by its phantasmagorias—this…is ‘modernity.’”5Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century: Exposé of 1939,” in The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999), 26.

Questions of emptiness and desolation are clearly not new phenomena in urban history and theory. In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin rummaged through the empty ruins of nineteenth-century Paris arcades in order to make sense of the impacts of density on culture. Convinced that the dominance of spectacle that characterized mass culture coincided with the emergence of mass consumption, Benjamin studied the places where “the greatly increased mass of participants has produced a different kind of participation.”6Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version,” in Selected Writings, Volume 3 (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2002), 119. Scavenging through the deserted arcades, Benjamin traced the emergence of a particular logic of idle perception and participation—flânerie—one that transformed the city from “landscape” into a “room” veiled by the crowd.7Walter Benjamin, “Paris,” 21. Connecting the desires to simultaneously see the crowd as an environment as well as to participate as one more anonymous feature in a crowded scene, the logic of flânerie, Benjamin argued, ultimately “inspired the decor of department stores,” those large trading depots of mass culture.8Benjamin, “Paris,” 21. For Benjamin, modernity and the culture industry did not emerge in the manifestation of architecture without ornaments, or technologies of reproduction, or in the over-simplification of politics through culture. Rather, it was in the masses where Benjamin saw the emergence of a new type of logic taking shape, both emancipatory and exploitative. Yet, he looked for traces of the masses in the empty arcades. That is because modernity is not to be found in the arbitrary manifestation of people clustering in abundance, such as in crowds and gatherings. If modernity is “the world dominated by its phantasmagorias,” it is therefore in the amorphous organism structured on the bases of masses — that is, the metropolis — where mass culture is to be understood. Mass culture, as Benjamin argues, is the mediation between mass participation, the design of spaces for mass participation, and the experiences that emerge out of such configurations, both good and bad.

Analyzing the more contemporary urban landscape, architectural theorist Albert Pope convincingly argues that in fact, it is empty spaces which play greater, more instructive roles in defining mass society and the city—now transformed from an industrial metropolis into a neo-capitalist megalopolis. Not unlike Marc Augé’s conception of “non-places,”9Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity (New York: Verso, 1995). cities today are defined by what Pope describes as “the immense spaces over which built form has little or no control.”10Albert Pope, Ladders (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996/2014), 3. Spaces such as “vast parking lots, continuous or sporadic zones of urban decay, undeveloped or razed parcels, huge public parks, corporate plazas, high-speed roads and urban expressways, and the now requisite cordon sanitaire surrounding office parks, industrial parks, theme parks, malls, and subdivisions…overwhelm the architectural gesture [and] ultimately dominate the contemporary urban environment,” writes Pope.11Pope, Ladders, 3-5. These extensive, under-occupied spaces illustrate how much of the contemporary city remains largely “unseen,” “under-theorized” and “inaccessible not only to those who live in it, but also to those charged with its design.”12Pope, Ladders,5. As Pope specifies, questions of emptiness and desolation are not specific to megalopolises either. Benjamin, after all, studied mass culture by investigating the residual qualities of empty ruins. Moreover, developments such as white flight, urban sprawl, and the devaluing of residential real estate in downtown cores through the systemic preferential financing of suburban living all helped define urban planning since World War II. Ghost cities and smart zones—built spaces waiting to be populated by poor labourers and robots—are examples of a newer nexus between the systemic organization of capital and under-occupation.

The distinction between the masses and the city, the concentration of multitudes and the organization of their interactions in space, thus points to an enduring tension. That urban planning, governance, and architecture have yet to satisfactorily integrate a spectrum large enough to accommodate all kinds of bodies, spaces, and experiences in their conceptual frameworks are witness to this persistence.13See Aimi Hamraie, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Public and pseudo-public spaces, even those explicitly aimed at making areas in the city so-called family-friendly, are still dominantly defined through the lenses of exclusion rather than inclusion. Instead of being shaped in the widest definitions of accessibility, the current discourse is still largely about “dominating the streets,” maintaining control over the governance of public spaces, and presiding over power through occupation and exclusion.

With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, these interstices in cities are revealed and reconfigured once more. The vast and quick spread of the virus speaks to what Pope recognizes as the elimination of the dichotomies between the urban core and the suburb. And yet, the logics of distancing and empty spaces are precisely the kinds of spatial designs needed in order to limit the spread of the virus.

Spatial distancing is perhaps the oldest paradigm in architecture and urban planning. Walls, fences, and zoning regulations do the work of partitioning spaces. Line-ups, elevators, escalators, markings for parking spots, and lobbies all demarcate the interspaces designed for mobility and immobility alike. Differentiations between town and country, industrial grounds versus residential spaces, green spaces and grey infrastructures, urban sprawl and gated communities, point to the fact that the logistics of distancing are firmly entrenched in urban design. For example, as Adrienne Brown argues, social distancing logics in the design of skyscrapers informed and augmented racist perceptions. As Brown notes, “The skyscraper potentially disrupted the ability to perceive race as well as the capacity to feel raced,” both in the ways that it anonymized and potentially dehumanized subjects when viewed from above, and created new barriers to accessing verticalized spaces through highly-controlled lobbies.14Adrienne Brown, The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 2017), 2.

The speed at which the COVID-19 global pandemic has brought cities to near-closure offers a unique lens into the makeup of urban environments and their relation with various forms of capture, communication, and culture. CCTVs, smart sensors, and urban screens still illuminate, surveille, and trace streets that exhibit well-below average densities due to social and physical distancing measures. Geotracking and screening media have been implemented and used, both voluntarily and more nefariously, in order to locate and minimize the spread of the virus. At the same time, personal mobile devices capture the physically distanced, and sometimes not-so-physically distanced city. How has the lockdown city been mediated? What kinds of new or residual images, mobilities, cartographies, expressions, and impressions have come about?

What’s in the Dossier

This dossier on Media and the Physically Distanced City includes three more essays from contemporary media scholars that reflect on the intermedial encounters that have emerged from current urban conditions of physical distancing, and more recently, protest. Addressing questions of spatial design, robotics, and night-time culture, the essays will explore the numerous ways in which the pandemic has made cities far from immobile or empty, highlighting instead how the logics of visibility and mobility have informed urban interactions and participation both residually and anew. Each of the authors was asked to respond to the following prompt: How do urban structures, spaces, and their associated or embedded media infrastructures function under the conditions of the physically distanced pandemic and protest city, and what does this tell us about how they worked in the past or potentially in the future? As the essays in this dossier will show, with the emergence of COVID-19 and global Anti-Black Racism protests, cities quickly adopted new kinds of legibility and imageability, remoteness and connectivity, spatiality and assimilation. What follows is a short preview of each entry to come.

Mobilizing Inter-mediacies

Sigrid Merx, a theatre scholar, and Nanna Verhoeff, a specialist in screen and interface theory, both from the Department of Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University, combine their perspectives on urban spaces in our first entry. Their work unpacks a set of what they call “scenographic figurations” of urban space in the physically distanced city. For Merx and Verhoeff, current practices such as the delimiting of social space in parks via painted circles, the choreography of queues and socially distanced protests by floor markings and other wayfinding cues, and the public address of posters and projections constitute emergent forms of the writing of space (a literal definition of scenography) or designs of potential use. All this occurs because, they argue, we are in an “inter-medial” state—in all senses of the words: we are in an in-between state of disequilibrium, but as such we are compelled to mediate our way through it. We are asked, provoked, and forced to address the in-between of people and space, and between people through space.

Merx and Verhoeff’s article helps us to better understand how the various answers to questions of how public space can be used, for what and by whom, provoked by protest and pandemic alike, can be analyzed as plots, points, and posts. Not unlike Lynch, Merx and Verhoeff address a range of connotations and denotations that urban scenographic figurations such as massive painted and projected Black Lives Matter murals, as well as retail and public space distancing (and congregating) signage, bring about. Through this thinking, the authors provide us with a framework for analysing shifting temporal figurations and stagings of publics and public space, provoking further questions and lines of inquiry: are we seeing more of these points, plots, and postings because of the perceived vacuum of expression and interaction created by the evacuated city? Is it because of capital’s ongoing colonization of space, time, and thought, now disrupted by the pandemic’s displacements, that we have found the time, space, and means to reckon with it?

Robotic Logics of Public Space

Our second dossier article, by a group of interdisciplinary researchers from Monash University’s Emerging Technologies Research Lab, Human-Centered AI Group, Human-Robot Interaction Group, Public Policy, and Engineering Departments (Shanti Sumartojo, Daniele Lugli, Dana Kulic, Leimin Tian, Pamela Carreno, Michael Mintrom, and Aimee Allen), presents urban robotics as another emerging possibility for the colonization of public space brought to light by the relative dearth of humans. As the authors show, the conditions of lockdown reveal the very “human-centric understandings of emptiness” at work in robotics sciences. Whether designing robots for the collection of rubbish, the transportation of people and things, the sanitation and disinfection of public areas, the provision of healthcare, or the monitoring of spatial distancing, less populated spaces, and the enforcement of more social rules and norms, provide a “welcome simplicity” for robots whose functions thrive on predictability. (We might want to read these as the workings of artificially intelligent flânerie in datafied space.) As such, the authors argue that there is both an urgency and an opportunity for the analysis and critique of urban robotics in the physically distanced city.

Like Merx and Verhoeff, the authors propose a tripartite framework through which we might understand, and thus critique, robot logics of space. They contend that robotic technologies treat space as predicted, partitioned, and datafied, all of which have implications for our cities as the use of this technology grows. For example, robots thrive when they can predict or be programmed to “know” their environment. This works fine within a relatively controlled factory setting but breaks down in public spaces. When friction is encountered – for example, when a delivery robot encounters a person in a wheelchair and fails to recognize them as such, that is, as a person – holes in the often simplistic epistemological construction of robots become visible, as does the potential ontological harm to human subjects.

Sumartojo et al. also draw attention to the underlying partitioning functions of apprehension, assessment, and decision-making built into robots, as well as to the ways these functions are increasingly connected to datafied structures and practices such as financial and social credit systems, and facial recognition. At best, these structures serve to simplify and reduce the rich complexity of our public spaces and identities, and at worst, they multiply and exacerbate existing inequities and discriminatory practices that are built into flawed methods and protocols of data capture and analysis. In the face of these pressing challenges, the authors ask, how might we harness technologies of communication, mobility, and aid without reducing the complexity of space and identity? How can we create technologies that enhance, protect, or celebrate these complexities?

COVID Nights

Finally, Will Straw, Professor of Urban Media Studies at McGill University, analyzes nocturnal audiovisual responses to the pandemic through the lenses of “Night Studies.” Echoing Sumartojo et al.’s observation that empty streets lend themselves to machinic tasks, Straw draws our attention to a genre of clips that show the methodical movements of machines disinfecting empty streets. The presence of these videos reveals part of the often-ignored scale of night-time labour while the absence of effervescent urban life in the videos highlights another domain of Night Studies—the night as a complex site of political and social construction and contestation. Straw picks up on the latter in two important ways. First, he notes the pandemic’s role in drawing attention to the ongoing sensory politics of urban noise and urban lighting. His research introduces and critically analyzes a number of opposing sources, policy debates, and narratives that have used the alleged reduction of sound and light during the pandemic as arguments for their further or sustained reduction for health and environmental purposes. Secondly, Straw draws our attention to TikTok as a forum where the exuberance and effervescence of the urban night are revealed and circulated, often in the form of videos that “gather up” evidence of this vitality in the illuminated and animated partitioned frames of apartment blocks, or the sociality that spills out onto the streets in contrast to the controlled scenes of street disinfections.

In Close-ing

As the contributors to this dossier demonstrate, our cities, built for and in many ways produced by close and dense encounters with others, have, in the absence of proximity, given us an opportunity to reflect on the work that media does to construct space, identity, and meaning. Through this, we can consider ways we might question and reconstruct sociality, spatiality, and media.


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