Video as suburban condition

Not so long ago, at the Netherlands Media Art Institute, I came across an interesting installation by Martijn Hendriks, called ‘video as suburban condition’. The installation shows a loop of Youtube clips that most likeley we are all too familiar with: teenagers popping mentos in coke bottles on suburban cul de sacs, young girls – barely the legal driving age – dancing to music from their car stereo’ on exurban parking lots, or playing pratical jokes in the fluorescently lit isles of strip mall supermarkets.

What was interesting about it, was that through the compilation it all of a sudden became obvious that these movie clips weren’t loose incidents, but part of an ecosystem. Teenagers perform their identity, video tape it with their mobile phone or handheld camera and put it on Youtube. Other teenagers watch those clips and in their own distant yet almost similar suburbs re-enact or remix the performance. Japanese teenagers copy funny dances and supermarket gags from their peers in the US and the other way around. As Hendriks writes himself:

Video as Suburban Condition is a compilation of videos that explores how self-publishing video websites like YouTube change how people imagine typically suburban places as settings for showing themselves to others. The videos show people performing in places that would normally lack all interest, like back yards, parking lots, roof tops and malls. Re-using found videos in two synchronized loops, the installation traces how those everyday places are experienced as places for performance and reenacting the actions of others. Each place, as ordinary as it may be, is re-imagined as a place for doing extraordinary things.

That lead me to the question whether this means that we have to revise classical urban theory? Many theorists claim that the public spaces that are so important for a thriving urban culture are under attack. These public spaces are theorized as stages where people perform their identity, and use other people’s performances in processes of identification (they are like me) or disidentification (they are absolutely not), whereas the copresence of different groups also forces them to be confronted with each other and to relate to each other. Traditional public spaces, the theory goes, are disappearing and being replaced with either privatized spaces such as shopping malls, or by dead (sub)urban spaces that are either unpopulated (parking lots), so there might by performances but no audience. Or if they are populated, they are monocultural and there is no true confrontation.

These videoclips show that performers at spaces like parking lots and strip malls now do have a way to find an audience – although the interaction is not in real time and in real space. These spaces declared dead do seem to come alive and work in a way that is comparable to traditional city squares. At least in terms of processes of performance and identification. Whether there indeed is confrontation and a need to relate to each other, is not yet clear to me.

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  1. Great post Martijn! These are very good questions indeed.

    What interests me is the kind of self-presentations that are performed in these new mediatized urban spaces. They seem to be neither about a purely public identity (front stage), nor a private identity (back stage – using Goffman’s well-known distinction). Instead, a kind of ‘playful identities’ are performed, in between work and leisure. The concept of “third places” is often used to denote the new places where urbanites do work ánd socialize at the same time. You have posted about Starbucks urbanism in an earlier post, which exactly fits this idea. Since those places tend to exclude younger people through various mechanisms, and young people in their teens/early twenties don’t frequent these spots for various reasons, teens look for their own “third places” where they are neither at work (in school) nor at home (in their private sphere). Just like their older counterparts in the cafés – who are in the presence of other people yet working on their own laptops while listening to music on earphones – what these young people do is a strange mixture of being within one’s own group, and being on display to others. They both here and there; inaccessible and shut-off physically, yet opening up for- and being available through new media; present at the physical location but also thinking about the media places they are performing for. What this means for new kinds of co-presence is indeed easier to ask than to answer.

    A second thing I find interesting is how a particular type of ‘urban-ness’ is performed by choosing these specific locations. It appears these places seem nodes in a “street culture” mental map of what the (suburban) city looks like. It’s a different kind of urban imagination from the type of social and cultural nodes of the self-proclaimed creative class, exemplified best perhaps – again! – by the coffeehouse. The question is whether and where the “street” and “coffeehouse” conceptions of the (sub)urban meet. Are they totally incompatible? Is it only a matter of age difference? In a funny way, I guess you could see the work you describe as a kind of meeting between both types of urban imagination: street culture brought into the museum/art context (although it seems kind of one-way).

  2. I love your thinking around this topic, Martijn. (Blogged it just now, too — ) It’s somewhat creepy to entertain, but really you’re describing ways that life reproduces, using technology — which in turn is something that has to be taken seriously.

    (Meanwhile, let me continue to dwell in my old-fashioned almost-downtown neighbourhood — I don’t think I could handle the suburbs!)

    @Michiel and the question of 3rd places: great points! There’s an article I saw via Regine’s “We Make Money Not Art” blog, in the Economist (April 10/08): “The new oases; Nomadism changes buildings, cities and traffic,” which you might find interesting, too. See:

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Martijn de Waal

Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He is currently a senior researcher at the Play & Civic Media group at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting.

Formerly he was part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media.

His most recent book are The City as Interface. How Digital Media Are Changing the City (NAi010 Publishers, 2014) and De Platformsamenleving (The Platform Society), co-authored with Jose van Dijck en Thomas Poell (Amsterdam University Press, 2016)