Film festival Rotterdam: What content makes Urban Screens interesting? Let’s move beyond the cinematic.

Photo: jaccodotorgThis week I visited the international filmfestival in Rotterdam. For this year’s edition the festival left the confinement of the city’s film theatres and expanded onto three urban screens erected in the city’s public space. During the festival three specially commissioned films are projected on landmark skyscrapers in the centre of Rotterdam to address the question: ‘What could the language and tradition of cinema contribute to the function and software of urban screens?’ After having biked past the screens myself I would answer this question hesitantly, that is: I would argue that programming for urban screens becomes more interesting if the content moves beyond the mere cinematic.

The festival of course aimed to do more than just move cinema outside the black box of the movie theatre. The idea was that the filmmakers would make site-specific works. I found the experiment interesting and a welcome contribution to the debate, however with mixed results; only one of the three films (Nanouk Leopold’s Close-up) touched me. The other two films (Carlos Reygadas Serenghetti and Guy Maddin’s Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair did not convince me.)

Part of the problem was perhaps technical: the projections were not bright enough and confined to a rectangular space high-up on the buildings. This made it hard to see what was projected in the first place. May be it was because of this that Reygadas’ idea to contrast the urban landscape of concrete, glass and asphalt with images of a women’s soccer match filmed in a ‘surrealistic moutain landscape’ fell flat. But I felt it also had to do with the particular use of the urban screen, as just another ‘screen’ in the vast array of broadcast media we now have, yet another rectangular outlet not unlike the ubiquitous tv-screens found in so many bars, broadcasting distant sport events. Even thought the work meant to reflect on the urban condition, it did not really become part of the urban experience itself, it remained a screen showing something happening somewhere else, without forging a strong link to the here and now.

photo: jaccodotorg
Photo: Jaccodotorg

I find urban screens much more interesting when they do exactly that and are programmed to become a part of the public space, when they engage the space or the audience around it more directly. Nanouk Leopold’s Close-up did that: it showed a six hour long film of a close-up of a human face that looked directly into the camera. The central traffic junction Hofplein now featured the huge face of a man looking down upon the passers by, directly addressing them directly with his gaze. This of course brings al sorts of connotations with it: who is it that actually watches over public space? Are we being watched? Are we watching ourselves?

Overall, I think that at this point in time it is outside cinema that we find more interesting urban screens experiments that engage the public (space) directly (and it was a pity the film festival didn’t connect her cinematic experiments with urban screen endeavors from the world of art and design). I think urban screens could actually play an important part in the making of our public spaces: if the small screen of the mobile phone or satellite navigator provide us with a personalized version of the city connecting us mainly with absent others, then perhaps the urban screen can address us on a more collective and connective level, visualizing for instance collective rhythms, connecting us in someway with a collective mood, or forging connections with those around us that are not in our personalized networks. Experiments with data visualization are a first step in this direction, they lead to artistic content for urban screens that somehow reflects the mood or variety of the public actually in the public spaces.

One work that even goes a step further and directly forges all sorts of public interaction was shown eight years ago(!) in Rotterdam, on the outside of the very cinema building that now hosts a large part of the Filmfestival. This work, Lozano-Hemmer’s now famous work ‘Body Movies’, consisted of pictures of shopping people projected in large format on the outer wall of the cinema on the main square of Rotterdam. These pictures were however barely visible, since a very bright flood-light projected from below washed out their projection. Only when passers-by would stand in front of the flood-light, the original pictures became visible in the shadows their bodies casted on the cinema wall.

I saw the installation myself a year later in Linz, and there people immediately started playing shadow games on the screen, revealing different parts of the pictures. They were even rewarded for that: when the contours of the shopping people depicted in the projections had become visible, a new slide was projected. This way a choreography emerged of people collaborating trying to fill up the outlines of all people in the image with their silhouettes. Could projects like this perhaps in a playful way connect the individuals immersed in their private ‘telecocoons’ in public space?

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)