The Mediapolis Q&A: Marcos Dias’ The Machinic City

Screenshot of one of the short films from 2097: We Made Ourselves Over by Blast Theory. Source: Blast Theory.
Screenshot of one of the short films from 2097: We Made Ourselves Over by Blast Theory. Source: Blast Theory.
In this installment of our Q&A series, digital media and society scholar and Editorial Board member Tanya Lokot interviews Marcos Dias on his recent book The Machinic City: Media, Performance and Participation.
The Machinic City: Media, Performance and Participation. Source: Manchester University Press.
The Machinic City: Media, Performance and Participation. Source: Manchester University Press.

Tanya Lokot: Your book, The Machinic City: Media, Performance and Participation (Manchester University Press, 2021), comes at a time when we are being forced to renegotiate our relationship with urban spaces, as well as our relationship with digital technology and media. The COVID-19 pandemic has arguably made the need for creating welcoming, engaging, inclusive outdoor spaces in cities even more evident. It has also made clear the important role of engaging artistic work and art objects as foundational to our mental health and wellbeing. In your book, you argue that performance art can help us to understand contemporary urban living and to reflect on our urban lives. What do you see as the central claim or argument in this book? What key ideas do you want readers to take away from it?

Marcos Dias: Our experience of urban living is heavily mediated by ubiquitous digital technologies, to an extent that we barely reflect on their impact on our lives. Nigel Thrift describes this as the technological unconscious.1Nigel Thrift, “Remembering the technological unconscious by foregrounding knowledges of position”, Environment & Planning D: Society & Space 22, no.1 (2004): 175-190. While visionaries such as Mark Weiser have theorised about this outcome since the early nineties,2Mark Weiser, “The Computer for the Twenty-first Century”, Scientific American 265, no. 3 (1991): 94-105. the advent of the smartphone was the real game changer. It is hard to imagine how we lived prior to these assemblages of social media, locative media, and information databases, but they’ve only been around for less than fifteen years. Yet artists were already experimenting with these assemblages in the early 2000s, uncovering emerging forms of social interaction through what I call aesthetic machines.

The key argument in my book is that performance art—through its ability to engage participants in embodied performances where fiction and reality collide—is a great way of enabling reflection on the effect of digital media technologies on our urban lives by incorporating these technologies into the performance. In these performances, urban space operates as both a collective of actants—some of which emerge unexpectedly—and the stage for the performance. The clever use of ambiguous and challenging narratives in the projects that I describe in the book has the ability to trigger the imagination of participants so that banal actants—bystanders, urban furniture, CCTV surveillance, and ‘atmospheric actants’—are all drawn into these performances, sometimes generating unexpected meaningful encounters that highlight the importance of embodied interaction in urban space.

The aesthetic machines that emerge from performance art are not statements against the increasing influence of machines in our everyday lives, but rather reflective probes that explore and foreground the increasing intermingling of human and machine agency. Central to my argument is the connection between media, performance and participation, the three main subthemes of my book. This is driven by three assumptions: cities cannot be dissociated from the media forms that represent them, every interaction in the city is of a performative nature, and we cannot not participate in the city. I hope that the case studies in the book help readers understand the role of performance art as a probe into contemporary urban living that both reveals the impact of digital media on everyday life and points towards the more positive aspects of the assemblages of human and machine agency that define our existence.

TL: I’d very much like to hear what inspired the book. How did you get the idea for it and how did it develop over time?

MD: While studying architecture and city planning in Sao Paulo, Brazil, I was continually interested in the user experience of urban space. Architects and city planners have always planned the future use of urban space by envisioning the average or universal citizen whose needs and desires can be reasonably predicted or moderated. This vision, which I mention in the book, is associated with the model of modernist urban planning that was consolidated in the early decades of the twentieth century, but it is also associated with the model of the smart city and the increasing influence of artificial intelligence (AI) on urban living. Yet while these models reduce (in theory) citizens to ‘machines’ through a predictable set of actions and interactions, they fail to capture the unpredictability of what I call the ‘human machine’. During a visit to a favela (shantytown) in the suburbs of Sao Paulo to do fieldwork for my degree, I was surprised to see that the people living in the improvised shacks, which looked rundown from the outside, had modern appliances inside. These were their priorities, regardless of what the architect and city planners thought they would be (i.e., the standardised brick and mortar houses being built next to the shantytown for its inhabitants by the local government).

Justin McGuirk’s book Radical Cities makes this point quite clearly;3Justin McGuirk, Radical cities: across Latin America in search of a new architecture (London: Verso, 2005). if you don’t involve citizens in the development of their own cities, you are building these cities for developers, architects, urban planners instead. This element of citizen involvement is also present in performance art in urban space, where artistic narratives are experienced by participants in many ways, regardless of their level of prescriptiveness. The rich narratives developed by performance artists merge with the narrative of everyday urban life and the actions and interpretation of participants who—as Jacques Rancière would argue—‘translate’ these narratives with unpredictable results.

After transitioning from architecture to web design, I ended up studying interactive digital media at Trinity College Dublin and developed a strong interest in digital media installations and performances that repurposed urban space through temporary but powerful interventions. During that time the Science Gallery Dublin—an exhibition space working at the intersection of science and art on the Trinity campus—developed an exhibition entitled Lightwave,4Science Gallery Dublin, “Lightwave and Lightwear Exhibition Highlights – part 5”, Science Gallery Dublin, February 11, 2008. Youtube video, 4:47. which showcased a series of artistic interventions in public space that benefitted from the use of powerful projectors. One of these was Laser Bombing by Graffiti Research Lab, which I describe in the introduction of the book as a key project in its conceptualisation. Laser Bombing encapsulates the three main themes of the book: using a combination of cutting-edge media technologies, it encouraged participants to perform by augmenting their expressive capabilities and generated an emerging form of participation where strangers were able to collaborate spontaneously. Participants were given a laser pen that enabled them to ‘draw’ images, messages, and slogans onto the façade of Trinity’s Berkeley library, an iconic architectural landmark. Their scribbles were captured by a web camera and projected onto the façade of the building by a powerful projector. The equipment used in the intervention was situated on top of a trailer pushed by a bike and could be easily redeployed to ‘hack’ other large urban surfaces around Dublin.

Laser Bombing at Trinity College Dublin by Graffiti Research Lab. Source: Marcos P. Dias.
Laser Bombing at Trinity College Dublin by Graffiti Research Lab. Source: Marcos P. Dias.

Bypassing the architectural narrative of the building (a well-known symbol of Brutalist architecture), Laser Bombing enabled participants to develop their own narrative: a group of citizens, mostly strangers, assembled in an ad-hoc way to share the pen informally. Occasionally, the computer connected to the projector would wipe out the inscriptions and provide a clean slate for the next participant. In the book, I describe my own experience of the project as empowering, and the impact of the performance could be felt on many levels: individual, social (the ad-hoc groups assembled by the performance) and spatial (through the large-scale impact of the technological assemblage). The book lists several other similar examples, operating in different spatial contexts, guided through assemblages of fictional and real narratives, and focused on both present and future scenarios of contemporary urban living. I argue that these ‘aesthetic machines’ are types of not-so-efficient machines, yet they are as essential as the precise, prescriptive and impersonal machines that mediate contemporary urban space.

TL: Can you unpack the concept of ‘the machinic city’ a little more? How did it come to be at the center of your book?

MD: The term ‘machinic city’ has been used previously and draws from many different sources, such as Lewis Mumford’s conceptualisation of the Great Pyramid of Giza as a megamachine,5Lewis Mumford, “Tool Users vs. Homo Sapiens and the Megamachine”, in Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek (eds.), Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition: an Anthology (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014, 381-88). or a collective of several ‘machines’ with a clear outcome: forced labour, divine command, military coercion, and vast material resources. Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift also refer to the term ‘machinic city’ in their book Cities: Reimagining the Urban,6Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, Cities: Reimagining the Urban (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002). where they envision the city as a ‘mechanosphere’, or a series of systems or networks that combine different categories (biological, technical, social, economic) in a constantly evolving process.

In the book, I describe Adrian Franklin’s use of the term in his work City Life to define the influence of the machine as both a physical contraption and metaphor for life in early industrial-era England,7Adrian Franklin, City Life (London: Sage Publications, 2010). where the machinised cityscape—despite its dreadful side effects—was interpreted as a sign of progress by its inhabitants. This fits in with what John Law describes as a form of machinic pleasure that involves a renunciation of agency coupled with the normalization of ‘being cared for’ by the machine.8Adrian Franklin, City Life (London: Sage Publications, 2010). This resonates with contemporary urban living and the machinic pleasures of the information age, except the negative impacts are not immediately visible (and breathable) but transmitted through invisible waves of digital information manipulated and distorted in ways that are well beyond our understanding.

My interpretation of the concept of the machinic city is based on the broader definition of the term machine, prior to its interpretation as a technical and mechanical apparatus since the early days of industrialisation. As Gerald Raunig points out,9Gerald Raunig, A Thousand Machines: A Concise Philosophy of the Machine as Social Movement (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2010). the term machine can be traced back to its Latin and Greek origins as a contrivance or device, which in turn lends it a performative ethos, such as in the deus ex machina of ancient Greek theatre, a machine-device that appeared in the aid of narrative closure in seemingly unsolvable plots.

I also draw inspiration from Félix Guattari’s definition of machinic subjectivity, where agency emerges from the assemblage of several machine-components—human agency, technical machines, urban space, and non-human actants.10Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis: an Ethico-aesthetic Paradigm (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995). Guattari emphasises the key importance of the aesthetic machine as a performative assemblage that can extract meaning from the complexity of contemporary life while also revealing to us its implications and generating ‘mutant percepts and effects’. In my book, I attempt to conceptualise some of these machine-components—performative, capitalist, human, and urban machines—and to analyse the unpredictable relations between them. All these components are changeable, and therefore we can only partially understand their full impact on urban living. The same applies to performance art projects and their multiple machine-components, such as Blast Theory’s A Machine To See With, a performance art project that I analyse in the book. It involves a fictional bank heist in urban space that is mediated through a cinematic narrative relayed to the participants’ mobile phones. I unpack its multiple design, technology, and city actants and trace the relations between them to reveal its social and spatial outcomes.

Participants in A Machine To See With by Blast Theory planning the bank heist near the BMW prop used in the performance. Source: Marcos P. Dias.
Participants in A Machine To See With by Blast Theory planning the bank heist near the BMW prop used in the performance. Source: Marcos P. Dias.

TL: In the book, you enter into conversation with various scholarly fields and disciplines, from performance art to political economy. Where do you situate your contribution in this interdisciplinary space?

MD: While my book is grounded in the analysis of performance art projects in urban space, my analysis of the machinic city is informed by multiple disciplines: sociology, philosophy, urban studies, media studies, digitally mediated art, performance studies, machine aesthetics, and posthumanism. In my research of contemporary urban life through performance art projects, I also delved into areas related to digital media studies, such as artificial intelligence, gamification and pervasive surveillance. I bridge these disciplines to unpack the relations between citizens, urban space and digital media and to conceptualise current and future urban life in non-prescriptive ways. My analysis reveals the potential of emerging and unpredictable patterns of participation, which I illustrate through the several case studies described in the book.

For example, some participants in Blast Theory’s A Machine To See With described how they ‘played it as a game’ or how it enabled them to have meaningful interactions with strangers and urban space, but didn’t quite understand or engage with the main themes of the performance stated by the artists (cinema, the tyranny of choice and consumerism and the financial crisis). In Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Body Movies, large-scale projections of images onto urban façades were obscured by powerful light sources and could only be seen through the silhouettes of passersby standing in front of the light sources. Yet participants used this affordance to creatively engage in improvised shadow plays with strangers.

TL: Let’s talk about fieldwork. Can you describe your process of engaging with the artists, the artworks and the public spaces? How did you approach selecting the material for the book, and did your personal aesthetic sensibilities influence your approach? Are the art projects in conversation with each other?

MD: The projects described in my book certainly engage in conversation with each other. My initial approach was informed by my interest in both urban space and digital media, but also by my curiosity about how performance is able to ‘hack’ urban space and everyday life. The work of Blast Theory, a well-known UK artist collective that has developed groundbreaking digitally mediated performance art projects for over twenty years and has its roots in theatre, features prominently in my book. Blast Theory’s aim to explore the social and political consequences of the use of digital technology in everyday life particularly resonates with my own aims. But I also analyse key works from other highly innovative artists, such as Rimini Protokoll, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Dante or Die and Liam Young. Where possible, I provide personal accounts of my own experience as a participant in their projects. The works that I describe from these artists use a variety of digital media forms and always question the implications of our digitally mediated lives. They deal with the nature of contemporary functional spaces (Rimini Protokoll), increased levels of surveillance in public space (Lozano-Hemmer), our online legacy (Dante or Die) and how future urban spaces are increasingly geared towards machines rather than human beings (Liam Young).

Blast Theory’s promotional postcard for A Machine To See With. Source: Blast Theory.
Blast Theory’s promotional postcard for A Machine To See With. Source: Blast Theory.

My fieldwork was informed by several investigative methodologies and approaches. These include George Marcus’ definition of a multi-sited ethnography study,11George Marcus, Ethnography Through Thick And Thin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). Büscher, Urry and Witchger’s Mobile Methods12Monika Büscher, John Urry and Katian Witchger (eds.), Mobile Methods (London: Routledge, 2011). and Steve Dixon’s firsthand account of his participation in Blast Theory’s Uncle Roy All Around You in his book Digital Performance.13Steve Dixon, Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007).

I spent a week in Brighton researching Blast Theory’s A Machine To See With, and I was fortunate enough to be as close to the performance as possible, engaging in the performance as a participant, being invited by the artists to participate in the user testing of a section of the project and to attend a project meeting to fine-tune one of the interactions between participants and the narrative. Blast Theory also provided me with access to their studio archives and facilitated my interviews with participants and collaborators. This enabled me to analyse and describe this project in great detail and this made the case study more compelling and impactful.

TL: The idea of agency is central to the book, but it is also placed in the context of capitalist systems and smart cities permeated with technological agents. Can you elaborate on the potential of meaningful participation in urban life, and how the ‘machines’ of technology, media and art can both limit and expand those opportunities?

MD: My conceptualisation of the capitalist machine in the book refers to Guattari’s argument that capitalist subjectivity homogenises expression and commodifies desire. This impact is augmented by its assemblage with the media machine—or the information revolution as Guattari puts it—and the ability of the capitalist machine to adapt and resist any critique directed towards it. The rise of the concept of the smart city encapsulates this process, as large technology conglomerates provide systems to local authorities that purportedly facilitate the efficient management of cities and improve urban life. However, the design process of these systems largely ignores or idealises the needs and desires of citizens.

In the book, I provide several examples of how the capitalist and media machine assemblages in smart cities demand reflection and deliberation, as they commodify urban life and delegate autonomous decision-making power to technology systems in the name of efficiency and an idealised form of consensual citizenship.

One example of this could easily be interpreted as a performance art project or a ‘candid camera’ intervention but is a governmental initiative: the installation of automated toilet paper dispensers equipped with facial recognition in public toilets in China, ostensibly to prevent stealing. To avail of a ration of 60 centimetres of toilet paper, citizens must let the machine scan their faces. An article in The Guardian described how a software malfunction had forced some users to wait over a minute for the toilet paper to be dispensed. On occasions, the dispensers themselves broke down and the bathroom staff had to hand out the toilet paper. Such ‘performances’ might only emerge in particular political and cultural contexts, but they are a reminder that technologies seemingly installed with the interests of citizens in mind are not necessarily desirable or supportive of meaningful participation in public space.

TL: In many global cities, as gentrification and economic divides become more entrenched, both secure housing and public space are becoming a limited resource, and access to digital technologies and smart spaces is growing more uneven. This means that agency and the power to shape their cityscapes are also unevenly distributed among urban dwellers. How does your book bring gender, class, race, education, and age into the context of the machinic city? And do you see performance art as a machine that has the potential for resistance and for advocating on behalf of the disempowered?

MD: Performance art can provide an expressive and impactful platform for highlighting legal issues and citizen empowerment. In the book I describe 100% Berlin, a project by Rimini Protokoll where they cast 100 Berlin residents representing a cross-statistical section of the city to perform on a circular revolving stage as ‘experts of the everyday’. As Fordyce points out,14Miriam Dreysse and Florian Malzacher (eds.), Experts of the Everyday: The Theatre of Rimini Protokoll (Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2008). the performance provides ‘a way of socially looking at the world as more than zero-sum competition’ and showcases the diversity of Berlin citizens while providing them with a means of expression as they introduce themselves to the audience and collectively answer questions presented by the narrative.

An example of how performance art can advocate on behalf of the disempowered is the Across and In-Between project, led by Suzanne Lacy and Cian Smyth, that provided a platform for the Irish border communities to express their needs and desires against the backdrop of Brexit. This involved a series of collaborative performance interventions, including the ‘Border’s People Parliament’, a citizen-driven political initiative inside the Stormont building, where the Northern Ireland Assembly is based. During this performance, participants drafted the Yellow Manifesto, a cross-border manifesto that acknowledged the different points of view of the border communities while highlighting their desire to preserve difference, peace and stability while growing together.

However, I believe performance art, in its role as an aesthetic machine, does not operate as an autonomous agent against inequality and injustice emerging from technical, capitalist, political, or media machines. Instead, it operates by traversing these machines; or in Guattari’s terms, ‘Universes of value’. In this process, the aesthetic machine of performance art reconfigures these machines while triggering reflection. In that sense, performance art is well situated to reveal the impact and extent of the mediation and control of urban life by computer systems that are often promoted as beacons of freedom and agency. In doing so, it can provide a critical lens on what it means to inhabit cities that are increasingly geared towards the life of machines (as they become increasingly humanised) rather than human beings (as they become increasingly machinised).

TL: Technology is a central part of your book, so what kind of technological imaginaries are you drawing on when you discuss art-based regeneration in urban contexts? Are location-based technologies such as smartphones and VR/AR the key ones? Is there anything more exciting on the horizon?

MD: Predicting what technologies are going to be dominant in the near future is a guessing game. But performance artists are known to experiment with technologies prior to their release as commercial products. For example, in Blast Theory’s Can You See Me Now and Uncle Roy All Around You, they experimented with the use of locative media a few years prior to the arrival of the iPhone.

The chapter on future machines discusses several projects that envision the technologies that will mediate future urban living. The work of Liam Young is very interesting in this sense, as his projects speculate on the future of the city through what he defines as an ‘exaggerated present’. In his collaborations with science fiction writers such as Tim Maughan, Young unpacks technologies such as drones, autonomous cars, Lidar (laser distance measuring technology) and conceptualises their future potential. Young’s vision of cities catering to the needs of machines rather than humans permeates many of his projects, as he describes dystopian scenarios with some glimmers of hope (usually provided through the hacking of machines). Blast Theory’s vision of future cities in their project 2097: We Made Ourselves Over involves a process of consultation with residents of two cities (Aarhus in Denmark and Hull in the UK) and with experts in several areas, such as a human geography lecturer, a food consultant, an urban planner, and a cognitive science scholar. And while their vision—relayed through a series of performances, films and an app—is also slightly dystopian, the overall narrative also foregrounds citizen empowerment and collaboration through embodied interactions.

Another interesting project that speculates on future issues emerging from current uses of technology is Dante or Die’s User Not Found, an innovative performance where participants are seated in a real café while the main actor—Dante or Die’s co-artistic director Terry O’Donovan—discusses the important issue of how we will manage our online legacy. In the performance, Terry is faced with a digital media dilemma: his former partner has assigned Terry as his digital executor, and he must decide what to do with his partner’s digital assets (keep them or delete them). Participants are given headphones and a mobile phone with a customised interface that mirrors the interface of the phone that Terry is interacting with throughout the performance. Through the headphones, they can listen to Terry’s voice and to all his interactions with the phone. The combination of the virtual interface and the intimate physical space of the café helps participants to empathise and connect with Terry’s dilemma, while challenging them to reflect on how they would deal with their own online legacy.

Terry O'Donovan acting in Dante or Die's User Not Found. Source: Justin Jones.
Terry O’Donovan acting in Dante or Die’s User Not Found. Source: Justin Jones.

TL: The pandemic moment has led to a lot of conversations about how we should be reconfiguring cities and public space to create something better, something more equitable. From new cycling infrastructure to more trees and better lighting, cities are exploring a number of options. How do you see the role of performance art and public art interventions in this process? And how can these interventions lead to more inclusive and meaningful relationships between the many urban machines, human and non-human?

MD: Performance art is great at highlighting the potential of digital media in public space, while also experimenting with and speculating broadly on how technologies might transform urban living. Performance art has a strong track record of assembling with everyday life through embodied practices that enrich the world we live in: from Luigi Russolo’s Futurist experiments with noise machines, to the Situationists’ playful suggestion that streetlamps should be equipped with switches, to contemporary projects that involve drones, Lidar, locative media, and artificial intelligence. In all these visions and projects, technical machines are assembled with aesthetic, human and urban machines to reflect on current and future urban living and also to propose new ways of enriching our lives through embodied experiences.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on urban living and on performance art in general, but the latter’s response has always been inspirational in challenging times. For example, I recently spotted the online trailer for a project by Dante or Die entitled Skin Hunger, inspired by the creative use of ‘hug tunnels’ made from plastic for loved ones to embrace their relatives in care homes in Brazil. Skin Hunger is also created out of plastic and assembled with immersive sound design and a one-on-one interaction between a participant and a performer that involves a plastic embrace. To me this encapsulates the potential of performance art as a means of expression and reflection on contemporary urban life and the challenges associated with it. As I mention in the conclusion of the book, this potential triggers what the Brazilian Neo-Concretists defined as vivência, the kind of lived experience that cannot be quantified.


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