Mobilizing Inter-Mediacies: Reflections on Urban Scenographies in (Post-)Lockdown Cities

Figure 2. Circles for public intimacy in spaces for leisure. Image: Kees Joosten. https://www.stadsleven.nu/2020/05/30/eerlijk-delen-van-de-ademruimte-in-pandemietijd
[Ed. note: This is the first in a series of articles from the dossier, “Media and the Physically Distanced City,” which examines how the pandemic and global BLM protests offer a lens into the makeup of urban environments and their relationship with various forms of media.]

Looking around in the cities where we live and work in the Netherlands, and the international cities we connect with through the various media channels we use, we see arrows, circles, points and lines popping up everywhere. They add fugitive inscriptions on pavements, grass, monuments and walls—surfaces that act as canvasses for imagery and writing with ephemeral materials like chalk, tape, paint and light. In this short reflection, we want to take up the challenge to reflect on spatial design and its socio-cultural implications in the midst of uncertainty: a time of radical transformations, experimental solutions and continuous contestations. This situation of inter-mediacy takes shape on the streets of our cities, as well as behind our desks in the process of grasping for knowledge and trying to make sense of what we witness both in our local communities and close surroundings, as well as via the media channels connecting us with cities around the globe.

Observations of Inter-Mediacy

Let’s start with two observations.

Observation 1. When we look around today in our cities’ social, commercial and cultural spaces, we are experiencing seemingly different, yet closely entangled transformations of public space both locally and globally. Public space in post-lockdown cities—how it can be used, for what and by whom—is currently radically contested, challenged and reconfigured. We see how new figurations and reconfigurations of urban publicness and our possibilities for presence and mobility emerge, both literally and symbolically, materially and discursively. This is not only in the response to the global pandemic of Covid-19 and the dual strategies of locking down and re-opening public and private spaces, but also shaped by current reflections on publicness by and in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, and the re-evaluation of our urban postcolonial history, as currently expressed by the removal of  its monuments and the renaming of streets, buildings and institutions. We can see how these multiple interventions in public space range from top-down policies to bottom-up practices and responses, and constantly move between moments of regulation and contestation, both affording and negotiating various forms of presence and absence.

Observation 2. These current upheavals in public space demand our attention and reflection—however tentative because we are in the midst of it all—on the state of inter-mediacy between the status quo of what “was” and the uncertainty of what “can be,” or even “should be.” We see how the urgency of fast-changing interventions in the social fabric within which we live, work, and connect mobilizes us to think, debate and protest. Indeed, the heightened awareness of limitations about what we know, what we can expect and how we should proceed, yields both a quest for knowledge and exchange, and also action and contestation, especially about issues of (urban) publicness, (co-)presence and the politics of in—and exclusion.

To bring these observations together, we write from within and about these entanglements in our own attempt to “stay with the trouble,” to evoke Donna Haraway’s call.1Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).  We zoom in on how, currently, the design of public space—or as we approach it, an urban scenography—provides contours for presence and absence, and also shapes and reflects multiple forms of mobilization. In a continuous engagement with what we witness, and our connected search for perspective, we want to think through a set of scenographic figurations that we recognize in what we see being shaped and taking shape in our cities, as conceptual anchors that may be useful for finding ground in the way that a design of inter-mediacy—using the hyphen to underscore both meanings of temporal and spatial, or situational interstitially—shapes a paradoxical distance for co-presence and mobility within our urban public spaces.

Seeking Perspective

A few words on our provisional perspective on the inter-mediacy of urban scenography. Firstly, we want to activate an understanding of inter-mediacy by means of a partially overlapping term: interface. In a recent special issue2Nanna Verhoeff, Sigrid Merx, Michiel de Lange, eds., Urban  Interfaces: Media, Art, and Performance in Public Spaces, Special Issue for Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, 4 (2019). on what we have conceptualized as urban interfaces, we have proposed to understand media, art and performance in public spaces as apparatuses that afford various forms of interaction with, and within these spaces. Central to our question is how urban interfaces can act as privileged sites to negotiate contemporary frictions in and about these spaces. The use of graffiti in commercial areas, the artistic and critical re-dressing of shop windows, or augmented reality annotations of routes through the city provide cases in point. From a processual notion of interfaces, or interfacing, we emphasize the materiality, mediality and performativity of urban technologies and other forms of spatiotemporal design, so as to connect their (material) specificity with their affective, relational and actionable affordances. Borrowing this perspective on public space as frictional sites of interfacing, the “inter” of inter-mediacy underscores not only the in-between-ness of the current moment, but also the performativity of socio-material spatial design that shapes our public spaces in this moment.

Secondly, one of the approaches taken up in the issue was that of scenography, literally the art of “writing space.” In her article “Borders and Breathing Spaces: The Porous Interfaces of Urban Scenography,” Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink approaches scenography as a form of spatial design that is specifically attuned to the design of an embodied, lived space: material, affective, relational spaces that emerge and transform in use. Scenographic design, with its roots in theatre, Groot Nibbelink argues, facilitates acting; it “embraces the changeability and potentiality that is inherent to theater as live performance.”3In their book Scenography Expanded, in which they theorize scenography beyond the limits of theatre and the theatre building, editors Joslin McKinney and Scott Palmer distinguish and discuss three key characteristics of expanded scenography: materiality, relationality and affectivity. See Joslin McKinney and Scott Palmer, eds., Scenography Expanded: An Introduction to Contemporary Performance Design (London and New York, NY: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2017). As such it can be understood as the design of potential use.4Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink, “Borders and Breathing Spaces: The Porous Interfaces of Urban Scenography” in Nanna Verhoeff, Sigrid Merx, Michiel de Lange, eds., Urban Interfaces: Media, Art and Performance in Public Spaces, Special Issue for Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, 4 (2019). Urban scenography, then, pertains to the spatial organization of potential behavior and experience in urban spaces, carefully choreographed (re-)configurations of objects, materials and bodies. It can  facilitate, invite, provoke, limit or even prohibit experiences, actions, connections and other behaviors. Following Groot Nibbelink, we understand scenography as a spatiotemporal and speculative design perspective that can increase our sensitivity for the material, affective and relational dimensions of urban environments and help us to explore the complex emergence, shaping and transformation of public spaces we witness today.

Sketching the Scene

For our exploration of current transformations in the (spatial) design of our public spaces, in the following we want to unpack a set of scenographic figurations in current examples of temporary urban scenography that work towards a somewhat paradoxical design for distance and presence, and for positioning and mobilization. (Fig. 1-5)

Figure 1. Procedural spots for moving up when it’s your turn. Image: Sanne Leufkens for Platform Scenography. www.theaterkrant.nl/nieuws/anderhalvemetertheater-platform-scenography.

Figure 2. Circles for public intimacy in spaces for leisure. Image: Kees Joosten. https://www.stadsleven.nu/2020/05/30/eerlijk-delen-van-de-ademruimte-in-pandemietijd

Figure 3: Standing your ground: gridding the field for collective action. Image: ANP. https://www.omroepbrabant.nl/nieuws/3213863/tilburg-verwacht-zaterdag-honderden-demonstranten-tegen-racisme

Figure 4: Reclaiming the city by using the pavement as canvas. Image: Michael A. McCoy for The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/us/politics/muriel-bowser-trump.html

Figure 5: Rewriting history by using monuments as screens. Image: Getty Images. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8419995/Black-Lives-Matter-sign-LGBTQ-pride-flag-projected-statue-Robert-E-Lee-Virginia.html

We propose to understand these examples of momentary and temporary urban design as inter-mediate scenographic figurations, explicitly activating the multiple and entangled meanings of the word. Figurations manifest as visual forms that shape and outline. Figurations also do the work of representation, and as such evoke immediate socio-political meanings and power relations. Yet, figuration also means the act of shaping something into a particular figure—with various aims and implications of this act.5With the choice of the word ‘implications’ we explicitly refer to the upcoming Media Architecture Biennale planned for the end of June 2021 with the theme “Futures Implied,” indicating the futurity, responsibility, and actionability of design. This connects to the three layers of spatial design and scenography: figuration as act, as process, and as product. In the following three sections, we explore the scenographic figurations of plotting, pointing, and posting that we argue are specifically pertinent to today’s urban inter-mediacy and demonstrate this triple working of figuration.

Plotting

With plotting we indicate the marking of space with distributed positions. This plotting not only punctuates space, marking the “here”, but also suggests a route to follow, a marking of how to follow different “heres” to get to “there”—a plotting of (halted) mobility.6On the principles of plotting, tagging and stitching of mobile Augmented Reality in urban space, see Nanna Verhoeff, Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), 133-166, and more recently on the principle of marking, see William Uricchio, “Augmenting Reality: The Markers, Memories, And Meanings Behind Today’s AR,” in Nanna Verhoeff, Sigrid Merx, Michiel de Lange ,eds., Urban Interfaces: Media, Art and Performance in Public Spaces, Special Issue for Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, 4 (2019). We can see the use of dots, or closed circles and lines between them to indicate intermittent standing positions and the order to follow to get to the literal end point (Fig. 1). But we can also recognize a plotting of presence in the use of open circles painted in, for example, the grass in parks as the outlining of spatial containers, or “terrains”—a plotting of (temporary) dwelling (Fig. 2). Such markings of container spaces can also be seen in the plotting of spaces for collective presence; for example, the bracketing of standing positions by painted dots and circles or taped-off squares plotting public spaces for collective protests (Fig. 3).7In the introduction to our special issue on urban interfaces, we have pointed out how we use typographic brackets when using [urban interfaces] as provisional searchlight working with temporary and porous contours for indicating this as a group or type. See the opening essay in the same issue: Michiel de Lange, Sigrid Merx, Nanna Verhoeff, “Urban Interfaces: Between Object, Concept, and Cultural Practice.” In the same vein, we use “bracketing” here also in both a spatial and temporal sense underscoring what we have above called the temporary and interfacing character of these urban scenographies of inter-mediacy. Plotting as urban scenographic act in current post-lockdown cities, thus involves the use of figures that both indexically indicate and symbolize an endorsed position (a dot or closed circle marking where to stand) and a border of a terrain, as safe spaces with open circles or squares marking off both an inside and outside of where one can be amongst others.

As scenographic figuration, plotting thus entails a perspective on positioning for a distributed co-presence—if one adheres to their endorsed position, others can take up theirs—thereby also setting the stage for the possible mobilization of groups. Mobilization here can be understood in both senses of the word, as a calling to presence or action, and as a starting point for an event or temporary situation, making mobile what was fixed, stagnated, or interrupted. For this double-sided notion, of mobilization of taking (up) space and setting in motion, the use of paint and tape paradoxically marks and delineates individual presence in order to allow for co-presence and collective action. This scenographic design of pandemic spaces combines principles of inclusion and exclusion, separating potentially sick and not-sick bodies, or containing “households,” for example. Simultaneously, it allows for making visible the size of the collective body, assembled for a cause that also has to do with social inclusion and exclusion, albeit in those cases not based on “health,” but on race, gender, identity or sexuality (Fig. 4 and 5). In the examples of dots, circles and squares, we see how plotting punctuates space in a spatial but also a triple temporal sense: (1) temporarily opening up (2) future possibilities for taking position, literally and figuratively, and thereby for (3) mobilizing public space.

Pointing

Pointing can appear both in discursive and material ways. “Making a point” can be to state or claim an idea or a (strong) opinion. But “pointing out” or “at” can also refer to marking and indicating a site or moment in time. As a spatiotemporal figure, a point marks the coordinates for the “here” and “now”. This inherent situatedness of the point is captured in each picture presented above: we see a park, a street, a sidewalk, a square photographed from a specific point of view at a specific point in time. When we zoom in on specific scenographic figurations in these urban locations, we can discern points that are more ephemeral and fugitive in nature—sprayed circles in the grass, a chalked lay-out on the pavement, letters on the street, a statue covered with projections. Both their presence and design are a direct response to the urgent particularities of these times. Moreover, in their timeliness these urban scenographic figurations function as punctuation marks, not unlike the full stop in typography, both separating and interfacing the present and the past—before and after Covid-19; before and after George Floyd. They both occupy and perform an inter-mediacy, providing us with a temporary vantage point for new perspectives.

Understood as unstable and  temporary inter-mediacies, scenographic figurations invite us to reflect on the ideas and opinions that have informed their design—the notion that the economy needs to continue (Fig. 1), that intimacy in public space is important (Fig. 2), that Black lives matter (Fig. 3 and 4), that our colonial history needs to be rewritten, and that there is a need for making present a political diversity of bodies (Fig. 5). But these urban scenographic figurations also point towards a new suggestions and directions for our cities and societies to take in the future: a safer and healthier (Fig. 1 and 2) “1.5-meter” society, as it is called in the Netherlands, as well as an anti-racist society that is also more accepting of the diversity of identities (Fig. 3, 4, and 5), and, more implicitly, a greener, more sustainable society. Each of these implied futures mobilize us in the present, whether we are advocates or adversaries for these societal imaginaries, each gathering and retreating in our own protests and counter-protests.

An implied directionality of pointing out or at manifest in the scenographic figurations of these examples, but also in the often-used arrows and other indexical markers in our public spaces today, can be highly authoritative and instructive. Taped routings in shops and restaurants, on streets and pavements, in public transport—often actively policed, with little space for deviation—appear as predetermined, plotted trajectories. However, they can also be more open, and playful, gesturing towards a less determined future potentiality. No matter the differences, underlying the act of pointing is always a belief that the facts that are pointed out are true and the future that is pointed towards is necessary and will happen eventually. In other words, there is a certain urgency linked to pointing as scenographic figuration. The line, the circle, as much as the statue or the protest-grid, each in their own way call to attention what is deemed important, relevant, worth remembering, fighting or striving for, especially when it is ignored, denied, forgotten or under pressure.

Posting

From our scenographic perspective, we activate the notion of posting as figuration in two different ways. Posting, today, is often used to refer to the act of posting messages online (by individuals or collectives), as well as to the posted messages themselves. The term suggests a one-to-many form of communication, long familiar in the history of urban media (via bulletins, flyers, posters, newspapers), from both institutional and activist positions.8See, for example Erkki Huhtamo, “Messages on the Wall: An Archaeology of Public Media Displays,” in Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin and Sabine Niederer, eds., Urban Screens Reader (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, INC Reader #5, 2009): 15-28; Shannon Mattern, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Malcom McCullough, Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013). Today, we may think of notifications about Covid-19 regulations next to testimonies about police violence, profile banners expressing solidarity, and various signs of protest.

With posting as a scenographic figuration, here we wish to zoom in on messages, information and opinions posted in physical public spaces. These can be the instructions for walking directions and distance rules, but also messages on the signs held by protesters (Fig. 3), statements painted on the pavement in Washington (Fig. 4) and visuals projected on the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia (Fig. 5). Postings, in these cases are acts of delivering a message to the public, as well as of re-inscribing the palimpsestic urban canvas. A compelling instance of this is the fencing around the White House perimeter, erected to hold off Black Lives Matters protesters, but quickly re-appropriated and turned into a canvas for artists, citizens and activists to post all kinds of signs of protest.9See: https://mashable.com/article/white-house-babygate-fence-protest-signs/?europe=true. Another example would be the guerilla light projections adding new layers to the urban canvas that were used in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter demonstration in De Bijlmer in Amsterdam on June 10. Slogans and images from the protesters’ signs were copied and redistributed over Amsterdam, popping up in the form of projections on urban facades across the city, as echoes from the earlier protest. Indeed, postings as “delivery” (can) entail physical, material interventions in public space: a rerouting, rewriting, and re-inscribing of public space, adding new directions, layers and, in some cases claiming presence for other (marginalized, oppressed, erased) positions, opinions, and subjectivities.10For more scholarship about the use of projections in relation to questions of property and occupation, see: May Chew, “Phantasmagoric City: Technologies of Immersion and Settler Histories in Montreal’s Cité Mémoire,” Public 58 (2018): 140–47; Zach Melzer, “Territorial Expanded Cinema in The Neo-Liberal City: Curating Multiscreen Environments in Yonge-Dundas Square and Quartier Des Spectacles,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 27, 1 (2018): 88-107. We see this also expressed in the so-called relay-protest of #AsLongAsitTakes, a citizen’s initiative to collaboratively claim ongoing attention for the fight against systemic racism in the Netherlands. Starting from the idea that one person can synecdochally protest for many and trying to creatively work around current distance regulations, every day from 9am till 5am a person occupies a spot on the Dam Square in Amsterdam while carrying a sign. The sign reads: “As long as systemic racism exists, someone will stand here.”11On media architecture and urban screens as critical spatial practices, see, for example, Dave Colangelo, “We Live Here: Media Architecture as Critical Spatial Practice,” Space and Culture 22 (2019): 1-16.

Besides messaging to a public, posting also refers to taking a stance with, but also towards one’s own position within debates. To take position, indeed, also means to hold on to that position, to occupy it, and to stand by it: to not give it up, to protect and safeguard it.12See: https://www.rtlnieuws.nl/editienl/artikel/5157751/estafette-demonstratie-dam-amsterdam-racisme & https://www.zolanghetnodigis.nl/. Posting, thus, can also be a message about posting: we are here, we are not going anywhere, this will continue, this is not the end. Posting performs a claim for presence, individually or collectively. Therefore, and paradoxically, as an act of standing ground, it also performs a call for mobilization.

Thinking with Figurations

Figuration

  1. the act of shaping into a particular figure.
  2. the resulting figure or shape: emblematic figurations of the sun and the moon.
  3. the act of representing figuratively.
  4. a figurative representation: allegorical figurations.
  5. the act of marking or adorning with a design.13From dictionary.com.

In the midst of fast changing and inherently temporary re-organization of urban public spaces, we propose to think about these figurations as starting points for analyzing the implications of spatial design for how we act within, respond to, and reflect on, various states of inter-mediacy of contemporary public life. Indeed, with our scenographic perspective on posting, pointing, and plotting as temporary figurations we aim to connect spatiotemporal design with the affordances for (social) acts and experiences, as well as with our own reflexive thinking. This thinking with figurations, we want to suggest, implies the examination of the intersecting connections between act, process, and product before as well as between fixating positions and conclusions—in the midst of the uncertain moment of inter-mediacy.

The examples we have activated here range from the physical to the social, from the mundane to the political, and from the structures of everyday life to the societal structures of inclusion and exclusion. Such manifestations reveal mobility and criticality within these structures. With this, we do not want to suggest they raise questions of equal weight. However by starting on the ground—figuratively and literally: on the streets of the city—we seek from the comparative perspective that is allowed for by the variety of design phenomena around us not only a regulatory but also a creative and critical design base for potential intervention, change, and transformation within the many inter-mediacies of urban, public life today.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
2. Nanna Verhoeff, Sigrid Merx, Michiel de Lange, eds., Urban  Interfaces: Media, Art, and Performance in Public Spaces, Special Issue for Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, 4 (2019).
3. In their book Scenography Expanded, in which they theorize scenography beyond the limits of theatre and the theatre building, editors Joslin McKinney and Scott Palmer distinguish and discuss three key characteristics of expanded scenography: materiality, relationality and affectivity. See Joslin McKinney and Scott Palmer, eds., Scenography Expanded: An Introduction to Contemporary Performance Design (London and New York, NY: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2017).
4. Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink, “Borders and Breathing Spaces: The Porous Interfaces of Urban Scenography” in Nanna Verhoeff, Sigrid Merx, Michiel de Lange, eds., Urban Interfaces: Media, Art and Performance in Public Spaces, Special Issue for Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, 4 (2019).
5. With the choice of the word ‘implications’ we explicitly refer to the upcoming Media Architecture Biennale planned for the end of June 2021 with the theme “Futures Implied,” indicating the futurity, responsibility, and actionability of design.
6. On the principles of plotting, tagging and stitching of mobile Augmented Reality in urban space, see Nanna Verhoeff, Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), 133-166, and more recently on the principle of marking, see William Uricchio, “Augmenting Reality: The Markers, Memories, And Meanings Behind Today’s AR,” in Nanna Verhoeff, Sigrid Merx, Michiel de Lange ,eds., Urban Interfaces: Media, Art and Performance in Public Spaces, Special Issue for Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, 4 (2019).
7. In the introduction to our special issue on urban interfaces, we have pointed out how we use typographic brackets when using [urban interfaces] as provisional searchlight working with temporary and porous contours for indicating this as a group or type. See the opening essay in the same issue: Michiel de Lange, Sigrid Merx, Nanna Verhoeff, “Urban Interfaces: Between Object, Concept, and Cultural Practice.” In the same vein, we use “bracketing” here also in both a spatial and temporal sense underscoring what we have above called the temporary and interfacing character of these urban scenographies of inter-mediacy.
8. See, for example Erkki Huhtamo, “Messages on the Wall: An Archaeology of Public Media Displays,” in Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin and Sabine Niederer, eds., Urban Screens Reader (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, INC Reader #5, 2009): 15-28; Shannon Mattern, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Malcom McCullough, Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).
9. See: https://mashable.com/article/white-house-babygate-fence-protest-signs/?europe=true.
10. For more scholarship about the use of projections in relation to questions of property and occupation, see: May Chew, “Phantasmagoric City: Technologies of Immersion and Settler Histories in Montreal’s Cité Mémoire,” Public 58 (2018): 140–47; Zach Melzer, “Territorial Expanded Cinema in The Neo-Liberal City: Curating Multiscreen Environments in Yonge-Dundas Square and Quartier Des Spectacles,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 27, 1 (2018): 88-107.
11. On media architecture and urban screens as critical spatial practices, see, for example, Dave Colangelo, “We Live Here: Media Architecture as Critical Spatial Practice,” Space and Culture 22 (2019): 1-16.
12. See: https://www.rtlnieuws.nl/editienl/artikel/5157751/estafette-demonstratie-dam-amsterdam-racisme & https://www.zolanghetnodigis.nl/.
13. From dictionary.com.

Leave a Reply

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.