Public Screens and the Transformation of Public Space – Scott McQuire, Nikos Papastergiadis & Sean Cubitt

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Abstract: This article maps and investigates the potential for large electronic screens to contribute to the formation of new modes of civic agency in public space. It examines the ‘Public Space Broadcasting’ project in the UK as an alternative to the predominantly commercial orientation of publicly sited screens. 

 

Introduction

Contemporary public space is increasingly constructed through the articulation of physical and electronic spaces. Since the 1980s, the roll-out of digital networks, the proliferation of mobile phones and the installation of large electronic screens in urban centres has created novel forms of mediated interaction within the public sphere. The emergence of this shift reverses the previous dominant trajectory in which broadcast media such as radio and television ‘privatized’ the public sphere by relocating key processes of civic engagement from public to domestic space (McQuire 2006). It also represents a further stage in the redefinition of cultural institutions such as art galleries and museums, as their content migrates from enclosed sites with defined audiences into the public domain at large (McQuire and Papastergiadis 2005; Papastergiadis 2006). While there are distinct regional and national inflections to these developments, the general trajectory is manifestly global. Large public screens have rapidly become a symbol of contemporary urban development projects across the world. For instance, China has an ambitious program of construction for the Olympic Games, with 162 screens–one for each competitor nation–proposed in the design for the Olympic village.

While the capacity for cultural infrastructure such as flagship museums to break cycles of urban and regional decline is now familiar through the ‘Bilbao effect’, the potential for public screen technologies to address social and urban issues is yet to receive sustained critical attention. The focus of this article is the pilot ‘Public Space Broadcasting’ project in the UK which utilizes a growing network of large screens predominantly based in northern urban centres such as Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. The project involves a series of partnerships between the publicly funded national broadcaster, the BBC, various city councils, cultural and educational institutions and technology providers.  It recognizes the potential for large screen technologies to play a key role in urban regeneration by providing a new dimension of public space and civic agency. Within a policy framework of urban regeneration, public screens are becoming policy tools for a variety of purposes, from enhancing social cohesion, emphasizing the role of culture in constructing positive urban images, developing the tourism industry, attracting inward investment, and strengthening the competitive position of host cities.  From this perspective, it can be seen that public screens represent a new intersection of social and economic interests in the public realm, bringing together diverse stakeholders, including different levels of government, cultural funding bodies, arts institutions, artists, broadcasters, media hardware companies, local businesses, technology providers, content makers and audiences. These partnerships need to be mapped, and their outcomes critically assessed.  The capacity of large screens to contribute to a robust and inclusive public culture needs to be evaluated.  While these tasks are beyond the scope of this essay, they inform the framework through which we approach this phenomenon.

Spectacle, surveillance and the decline of public space

Existing literature analyzing the impact of media technologies on urban space has tended to concentrate around the twin themes of surveillance (Lyon 2003; Elmer 2004) and spectacle (Debord 1970; Sorkin 1992; Cooke and Wollen 1995). A long line of sociological literature has also stressed the demise of public space during the twentieth century (Jacobs 1961; Sennett 1977; Berman 1982; Virilio 1991). Cars, television, over-population and suburbanization undermined the capacity of the city to provide a coherent spatial orientation and unified cultural identity. Demands for mobility and flexibility have now reached such levels of intensity that sociologist John Urry (2000) claims that they are the constitutive features of urban life. The rapid expansion of transnational flows of images, goods and people in the last decades of the twentieth century contributed to the unprecedented heterogeneity of urban populations and the volatility of urban space (McQuire 1997, 2002; Papastergiadis 2000). Architects and urban planners have identified the emergence of de-centred cities lacking a sense of ‘place’. Sorkin (1992) terms this the ‘ageographical city’, while Soja (2000) uses terms such as ‘postmetropolis’ and ‘exopolis‘ to describe the new urban condition. Koolhaas (2004) sums up the transformation with the appellation junk space, aligning the demise of public space with the splintering of traditional forms of collective agency under the rule of marketing. While the generality of these accounts demands critical evaluation, their overall pessimism is significant. The perceived demise of central public spaces, combined with the commercial orientation of first generation large screens, means that public screens have usually been treated as simply another element of visual ‘noise’. This has obscured their potential for civic use.

Historically, the first generation of large public screens in sites such as Times Square, Manhattan and Shibuya, Tokyo had a predominantly commercial orientation. Screens functioned mainly as advertising billboards, punctuated by occasional community announcements or artworks, such as Jenny Holzer’s ‘Truisms’ series  (1982)1 . Electronic screens have been used in this vein to extend and amplify urban spectacle, as exemplified by the more recent integration of large screens into the fantasy environment of Las Vegas. Such examples confine public interaction to passive viewing, to the point that they seem to accord with Debord’s (1970) understanding of spectacular society as fundamentally premised on ‘non-intervention’. However, a new generation of public screens is now emerging. These large screens are deliberately situated in pedestrian plazas in city centres rather than traffic thoroughfares, sports arenas or malls, and offer a variety of more interactive interfaces. This capacity for the public to utilize new media to alter the ambiance of large-scale urban space is historically distinctive, and challenges many assumptions about the distribution of power and agency in public space (Cubitt 2006; Griffiths and Cubitt 2006).

While there is a rapidly emerging literature on the urban impact of networked and mobile media (Castells 1989; Mitchell 2003; Beaton and Wajcman 2004), and substantial bodies of literature on screen culture and public art (Friedberg 1993; Kester 1998; McCarthy 2001; Burnett 2004), there is little literature specifically addressing the emergent phenomenon of public screens (cf Boeder et al 2006). Nor has recent research into creative industries, which has attempted to map the links between cultural practice and urban regeneration (Florida 2002, Yudice 2003, Hartley 2005) addressed the civic potential of large screens.  Nevertheless, some of the perspectives developed in this literature, particularly theories which have addressed the critical shift in the social function of art (Cubitt 1998, Bourriaud 2002) in the context of digital networks,  are useful starting points.

Andreas Broeckmann (2000) has argued that contemporary artists no longer see screens as surfaces that capture attention by means of visual and narrative content, but as sites for the production of new forms of public relationships.  From this point of view large screens can play a significant role in generating a new public sphere mediating physical and electronic space. Here we want to deal primarily with two issues:

  • the capacity of ‘public space broadcasting’ to contribute to civic engagement
  • the role of large screens as focal points in urban regeneration projects

However, these are clearly not the only areas worth researching.  We would also point to:

  • the use of media technologies to create public spaces with differing ambiance
  • the capacity of novel interfaces to support new modes of social interaction
  • the ability of audiences to actively alter the ambiance of public space
  • the formation of artworks in which connections between members of the audience is central to the experience of the work

Public space broadcasting

The ‘Big Screen’ Public Space Broadcasting project began in Manchester in the summer of 2003.  At the time of writing there are 8 screens operating and the pilot phase of the program is drawing to a close.  While the screens predominantly display BBC content, including live events, they also show a range of cultural content, and public information, and are integrated into site specific events programmed by local partners such as city councils. Reassessment by the BBC and its various partners will determine whether the project will be extended after 2007. Up to 70 cities have expressed interest in being included in any future project. 

The BBC’s original desire to program a large screen in Manchester over an extended period (initially a year) grew spontaneously out of the success of the temporary screens which had been used for a series of events in conjunction with the Commonwealth Games and the Queens Golden Jubilee a year earlier.  As Bill Morris (Director, BBC Live Events) recalls:

We managed to secure 10 screens just for a week around the country and put them into lots of different cities, including Manchester.  And in essence they took off.  We saw people turning up to watch the screens, not just for the big events but they were wanting to do other things with the screens — the screens were becoming a bit of a focal point in themselves2

The Manchester ‘Big Screen’ was erected in Exchange Square adjacent to the site of the old Corn Exchange building. The site was redeveloped following the 1996 bomb blast, into a ready-made amphitheatre capable of accommodating up to 10 000 people. This was crucial to the ambition to provide a different range of viewing experiences.  While the ‘Big Screen’ is undoubtedly a screen, the BBC stress its function is neither a large television nor, for that matter, broadcasting.  For Morris:

I think there is a risk that, because the BBC is involved that, until people get under the skin of it, they think it must be a big television on the wall.  And we’re actually working very hard to make sure it’s not that. Because, without getting too pompous about it, what we’re really talking about is a digital canvas  […] There are loads and loads of ways in which you can interact with the screen so it’s not just one way traffic.

Working hard to make sure it’s not ‘just television’ involves drawing on a range of material beyond BBC broadcast television, including internet content and community produced video, as well as piloting interactive experiments such as virtual game playing.  Morris notes:

There are some experiments that John Moore University in Liverpool are doing and another team at a University in Birmingham, working with putting cameras on screen facing the space, the square, where you can play games, you can vote, you can play music, you can interact with one screen to another. We had a virtual golf tournament a couple of weeks ago with a team playing golf in the centre of Birmingham and a team playing golf in the centre of Manchester and there’s no golf courses, no holes, it was all done through virtual games. So they were both playing on the same virtual golf course and meeting with one and other in the two cities. Now we think we’ve only just touched the surface there, it’s really early days but that kind of thing is just really opening up.

A key aim of the pilot project has been to learn more about what sort of programming might work in the context of public space. Dividing the operation broadly between the ‘event mode’ of established crowd pullers like big football matches where the screen is the pinnacle of attention, and ‘ambient mode’ where the audience is more dispersed, transient and distracted, Morris argues ‘the challenge for us is to make sure the screen is earning its keep, I suppose, in both those modes’.  He adds:

The event mode is the obvious one, but what are the range of other content which, when it’s in ambient mode, are still useful in terms of the normal warp and weft of people’s daily life? […] What happens if you put on a soap opera, so there’s Neighbours or East Enders?  Is that actually going to make people stop and watch the screen? Against, say, a news information program?  What happens if you put a local, non-broadcast, non-commercial film, or a professional artist on, will people watch it?

One of the most striking outcomes of the pilot project has been its demonstration of the capacity of the screen to serve as the site for the collective enactment of public rituals including collective celebration and mourning. Morris observes:

We’ve learnt a lot about the fact that there is a really enduring need for people to share some of those opportunities for having a bit of fun, celebrating a great moment, be it a sporting moment, or a cultural moment. We’ve done relays with the opera house and things like that.  Or indeed a moment of concern and sadness.  With the London bombings people–not just in London but in the other cities around the country–were gathering around the screens to watch what was going on. Now, in a few cases those will be people who will simply not have access to the news in any other way, they walk into the city and just want to find out what’s going on.  But in other cases you actually feel that you want to be with other people. When there was the three-minute silence that happened after the London bombings, maybe a week later, people gathered in quite large numbers at each of the screen sites to observe the silence.

Integration of large screens into public rituals has emerged in a social context in which older forms of belonging based on shared experience gained primarily through physical continguity–from life-long jobs or long term residence in a single place, to membership of a union or a church–have become increasingly precarious for many. As the demand to reflexively construct one’s identity ‘on the fly’ grows in intensity, individuals are required to assume greater responsibility for negotiating the risk of ‘life choices’ at all levels, For at least half a century, the radical capacity of electronic media to span time and space has lent media an increasingly important role in reproduction of the social bond.  Television’s construction of a common cultural terrain, albeit unequal and contested, still provides a powerful symbol of the unity of the national community, while the process of watching television–particularly watching live events–assumes a performative role, in which the act of watching enacts the connection of the individual to the wider community.  The relocation of the screen from the home to public space allows this role to assume a new purchase. The loss of many older forms of gathering is generating a need for new forms of collective encounter.  This need can be read symptomatically across a wide range of media phenomena, from the explosion in popularity of social networking technology on Web 2.0 to the emergence of large screens as an accepted focal point for collective gatherings in public space. Morris recalls:

In Liverpool there was a guy called Ken Bigley, a guy from the city who was out in Iraq who was murdered in a particularly gruesome way. They really took it to heart and they held a one-minute silence and there was a service and there were more people gathered in front of the screen in Liverpool than there were at the Cathedral, And to our astonishment, people were putting flowers at the bottom of the screen. Now this wasn’t planned or our assumption at all.  We’ve been constantly surprised and challenged by what people are doing.

The capacity to provide services of this ilk, whose success cannot be measured simply by commercial revenue, grew, in some respects, directly from the BBC’s public broadcasting charter.  For Morris:

The liberating factor for us is that, yes, we are as open to the new technology as anyone with a purely commercial need, but we start from a different perspective with it, in that the people who fund the BBC are the audience, rather than the advertisers or the shareholders.  We are forbidden effectively from making a profit out of it.  We have to create something unique and special that wouldn’t otherwise happen via the marketplace, but that addresses the audience’s needs directly rather than through the intermediaries of shareholders or advertisers.

But, as much as the ‘Big Screens’ reflect the heritage of public service broadcasting, they also represent a significant recasting of that heritage. While the BBC is the dominant content provider in the project, Mike Gibbons points out that ‘we don’t claim it as a BBC project’.  Rather, the BBC has entered strategic partnerships with local councils who provide sites and capital funding, technology partners such as Philips who provide the screens, and arts groups such as the Cornerhouse Arts Centre in Manchester who provide alternative content. This preparedness to develop partnerships reflects a new phase in the BBC’s operation as it recasts itself as a more ‘open’ institution in order to negotiate the more fluid institutional context of ‘reflexive’ modernity.  As Morris puts it:

[T]hirty years ago we could have run the screens entirely on our own.  W would have paid for the whole thing ourselves via the licence fee and we would have said exactly what was going on them at any time of day or night and that would have been it, wouldn’t it? That would have been the way the BBC would have done it. Now, you can argue that not only would that be now be wrong, it just wouldn’t be possible. You couldn’t contemplate it now.  […] Thirty years ago it would have come through the BBC’s marketing arm and it would have been run just with BBC content and we’d have run trailers all over the place and adverts with BBC on it.  You certainly wouldn’t have wanted to worked with community projects, arts projects, run local events and things of that sort. So the approach that we’ve taken is, I think, just one small bit of evidence that the BBC has to work in that more porous way now and that it’s two way street. 

If the key advantages to the BBC of forming partnerships are new relationships to different audience fractions and the community in general, their strategic partners also perceive a range of benefits.  Morris argues that the attitude of Dave Moutrey (director of the Cornerhouse in Manchester) is illustrative:

Firstly, the work that he sponsors and curates gets to a completely different audience to what he would otherwise get and that in turn is attractive to the filmmakers he works with because he can offer them a profile that they couldn’t get working with anybody else. Secondly, it has brought him closer to the city council because of working in this consortium and actually getting some money off them for something he wouldn’t have otherwise have done. And thirdly, thankfully, he finds it useful to be a bit closer to the BBC.

For the City Councils, the benefits range from having a new platform for local information and publicity, and a new facility for staging central city events, to longer-term strategies for ‘urban regeneration’.  It is the latter which explains the distinct ‘northern’ orientation of the pilot ‘Big Screens’ project.  Morris points out that where northern cities ‘have had such a need and an urge for urban regeneration […] London doesn’t have quite such an urge, isn’t so hungry to attract that investment because it’s flowing in anyway’. While not commercially-oriented, the screens have demonstrated their capacity to deliver commercial outcomes.  Gibbons notes, somewhat ironically, that installation of the Liverpool screen in 2004 was originally opposed by the local shopping centre manager ‘who basically did the over my dead body speech’.  He adds: ‘He is now captured on camera saying over my dead body if they take it away, because it’s had such a positive impact on the way in which people view this bit of the city’.

Nevertheless the longer-term viability of the project remains to be seen.  Despite technological changes, the screens are not cheap.  They occupy valuable city centre space.  They require significant capital  investment, on-going maintenance and technical support, as well as provision of specialised content. The ‘Big Screens’ initiative is unique both in the scale of its attempt to provide a linked network of public space screens, and also in its non-commercial orientation. While the screens are sponsored, they do not run advertising or aim at making a profit.  Instead of producing an income stream, their pay-off is to be measured in civic terms.  As Morris puts it:

We would like to think that this project is creating something that is a new bit of civic architecture a bit like a decent size city expects to have its art gallery, its culture, its swimming pool, it’s library–that we’re in that kind of territory, rather than just creating another means of contacting target consumer groups.

The Art of Public Intimacy

While the UK initiative is currently the most advanced in developing a network of large screens, it is by no means an isolated example in its decision to display artistic and cultural content. The eleven-storey SPOTS media façade in Berlin began showcasing large-scale interactive artworks in November 2005.  The first large public screen devoted exclusively to electronic art and alternative cultural content has already opened in Amsterdam. There are also ambitious plans for mixed commercial and public content projects, such as the Digital Media City project developed by the Seoul City Council. Victory Park which opened in Dallas in 2007 includes a range of large screen displays that can carry large-scale digital artworks as well as customized retail content. Victory Media Network operate 11 large screens in Victory Plaza including two sets each comprising four screens which are mounted on rails on building facades on opposite sides of the plaza).  The screens are planned to display 40-60% art and cultural content, including specially commissioned videos and what is touted as the world’s largest collection of digital art for display in a public space.  Curator Fritha Kndusen (in Brill 2007: 92) argues:  ‘The Media Walls have become a cultural enabler for Dallas in putting it in an international spotlight as the leading provider of a major outdoor digital and video art gallery’.  According to David Gales (Vantage Technology, which provided assistance in integrating the technology):

A new public media paradigm is being created and, in some ways, still being defined.  Whatever it will become, Victory Park is not intended to become another Times Square.  Culture and art, rather than advertising, is the driving force of its content engine (quoted in Brill 2007: 92-93)

The common theme linking these projects is their receptiveness to the use of artworks to generate new social relationships in public space. In this respect, large screen operators stand to learn a lot from a range of contemporary public space art projects, such as ’10_dencies’ by Knowbotic Research (Tokyo and Berlin, 1997), and the various ‘Relational Architecture’ projects of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, where the intent is to develop experimental interfaces capable of producing a range of experiences, including promotion of qualities such as sharing, co-operation and negotiation between individual and collective agency.  Works such as ‘Body Movies’ (Rotterdam 2001) provide exemplary instances in which strangers are invited to participate in a project that stretches communal relations in a public space.

This turn towards more innovative, interactive content is now being adopted at the ‘Big Screen’ at Federation Square in Melbourne, the only permanent large public screen in a city centre location currently operating in Australia. One simple instance is the system which enables SMSs to be displayed on the ticker running across the bottom of the large screen in Melbourne’s Federation Square; another is the roving camera which can allow those in the square to make an appearance on the screen. While it is easy to dismiss such initiatives in terms of the ‘triviality’ of the messages (which have to be manually filtered for offensive content), or the clichéd behaviour most people exhibit when faced with a camera, it is worth recognizing that most users of these services are teenagers whose voice and presence is traditionally marginalised in public space. While the limits to such interactions are evident, the social effect of the capacity to make a ‘mark’ in the city, by writing on or appearing on screen in a public space, should not be discounted. Visibility in the media stands as an increasingly important affirmation of subjectivity in media-based cultures.

The sustainability of both publicly funded and commercially driven models remains to be seen.  Where the UK project involves recognition of the need for public investment and subsidy, Victory Park is predicated on exclusive screen sponsorship arrangements.  Like other commercial media, the bottom line will be the capacity to attract ‘eyeballs’ — or rather visitors– to the site.  Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear that the dissemination of contemporary visual culture is no longer confined to traditional art institutions. New sites such as large screens have a growing role to play in this development. Moreover, as nodes linked to digital networks, they have the potential to intervene in the process of cultural exchange in unique ways.  A number of studies have explored the agency of the artist in the context of globalization (Papastergiadis 2003; Fisher & Mosquera 2004; Cubitt 2005). While these texts have chronicled the artistic responses to polarization and resistance in the cultural domain, they have also pointed to the need for deeper understanding of the shifting boundaries of the social context. According to Enwezor (2004), new art collectives have turned to face the ‘global public sphere’.  What remains to be seen is the extent to which large screens can be interlinked, not simply on the national scale pursued in the UK, but across national borders.  In such linkages lies the potential for constructing a new dimension of the transnational public sphere.

A more affirmative understanding of public space may result from a closer understanding of this emergent public culture. While we take a critical view towards the rhetoric of technologically led urban renewal, we do not assume that civic culture is necessarily in a state of demise.  The key question to ask is: does the utilization of screen technology in public spaces reverse the experience of atomization, and does it contribute towards new forms of ‘companionship’? Can activities such as public space broadcasting or public space media art contribute to new forms of ‘public intimacy’?  Do the ephemeral and heterogeneous ‘publics’ produced offer a glimpse of utopian sociality–what Hardt and Negri (2004) dub ‘multitude’–or are they mobilised for primarily authoritarian or commercial forms that offer the cultish experiences of false unity Kracauer (1995) dubbed the ‘mass ornament’, and thereby only further deepen the experience of atomization?

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Notes

1. ‘Truisms’ was a series of text-based works Holzer initiated in 1977 comprising one-line statements.  Her appropriation of the Times Square Spectacolour Board in 1982 to display texts such as ‘Private Property Created Crime’ and ‘Abuser of Power Comes As No Surprise’ brought her international attention. 

2. Interview with Bill Morris and Mike Gibbons (Chief Project Director, BBC Live Events) was conducted by Nikos Papastergiadis in London, on 14 November 2005. All further quotes from Gibbons and Morris are from this interview.

Author Bios:

Dr. Scott McQuire, Associate Professor Nikos Papastergiadis and Professor Sean Cubitt all work in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, and are joint Chief Investigators on the Australian Research Council Discovery Project ‘Public screens and the transformation of public space’ (2007-2009).

Comments

  1. Alexandra Kennedy says:

    I myself am an architecture student in the university of limerick and came upon this site via the urge to learn more about public spaces, how to revive them in a time when techonolgy is so advanced, and has had such an impact on society and social networking today. The idea of this “ring donut”, so-to-speak, as a symbol of Irish cities and cities all over the world, as uninhabitated places that no longer have strong senses of place, is a massive concern that i am trying to understand more. I am currently working on a proposal for an unused public space, in which I am proposing to reactivate the space through the construction of a large screen, and by connecting the very central site to the streets and allowing for a place of human connection and civic engagement. This article has proved very insightful as I now have even more belief in the idea of the big screen unlocking the social engagement that is so badly needed in a city like Limerick. I want the screen to show the big munster and irish rugby matches, as limerick is such a big sporting city with a massive sporting capacity amongst the public. I want to propose a place that allows this sporting community to gather and engage with one another via the screen, thus proving how important electronics are to social networking. Do you have any feedback yourself on my proposal? I would be incredibly appreciative. Also, I apologise for such a ridiculously lenghty comment(if you could call it that), but as i said, this article is extremely interesting and insightful. Thank you.