Media interventions in the city: assembling new publics of strangers (guest post by Katía Truijen)

Occasionally we post contributions from guest authors. This one below is a section from the interesting MA thesis by Katía Truijen.



Media interventions in the city: assembling new publics of strangers

Katía Truijen – new media researcher

This article is an excerpt of the MA thesis ‘Urban Dialogues. Media Interventions as Assembling Devices’.

KatiaTruijen01Give Me Back My Broken Night by Product of Circumstance and Uninvited Guests.

On a square in Guimaraes in Portugal, several groups of people are gathering. It is already getting dark. In every group a guide welcomes the participants and supplies them with a mobile device, a blank folded paper map and a micro projector that can be hung around their neck. Each group starts a different walk through the city. Along the way the participants hear stories about Guimaraes in the future, science fictions about an imagined city. At a certain site, the groups stop. The guide asks the participants how they would envision Guimaraes in the future, at this particular location. One by one the participants narrate their ideas about the future, while holding the unfolded blank paper map in front of them. As they begin to speak, their descriptions magically appear on the map as a series of glowing lines that form a drawing.

In fact, an illustrator at the other side of the city continuously eavesdrops the participants, via a microphone that the guide secretly carries. The illustrator draws the urban scenarios that the participants describe. These images are projected on the paper maps in real-time. At the end of the walk, the participants meet up in a theatre to discuss the drawings that are now projected as one large image. Along this dialogue, they somehow have to come to an agreement about the future of Guimaraes. Otherwise, they have to agree to disagree.

This story is an example of an urban media intervention, an artistic practice that assembles new urban publics of strangers, by the creative and critical use of media technologies. Urban media interventions can create urban dialogues: a public that addresses a public issue, with the city as a common ground. The urban environment is not only the setting, but also often the subject of these dialogues. Urban media interventions always question – implicitly or explicitly – the reality of the city of today; urban life, architecture, social roles, economic systems and ecologies. Urban media interventions thus can be understood as making things public, but they are simultaneously things making publics.

An Assemblage of Strangers

Cities have always been spaces of friction where people encounter others in physical public space, and must find a way to deal with each other. According to anthropologist David Harvey, the defining of a politics that can bridge the multiple heterogeneities in the city without repressing differences is one of the biggest urban challenges of today (Harvey 437–8).

In 1961, activist and publicist Jane Jacobs argued that big cities are not simply larger than towns, or denser than suburbs, but that they differ from towns and suburbs because cities are by definition full of strangers, who are more common than acquaintances (Jacobs 40). Sociologist Georg Simmel already argued in 1908 that cities are experienced largely through changing relations of proximity and distance. He adopted the figure of the stranger to explain the contradictory experience of what it means to interact socially with someone who is both near in a spatial sense, but at the same time distant in a social sense. A certain distance between strangers can be considered as a necessary attitude in order to cope with the fast pace of urban life.

However, a sense of community can come into being because of everyday interactions in the streets. Jane Jacobs argued that this does not imply a feeling of social cohesion, but a public of ‘familiar strangers’ (40). Altough most of the little public contacts in the city are ostensibly trivial, the sum of these contacts is not trivial at all. According to Jacobs, “the sum of such casual public contact at a local level is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust.” (67). The emergence of such a ‘web of public respect and trust’ is dependent on certain catalysts. Next to a particular street grid that provokes incidental encounters, Jacobs emphasized that key players like shopkeepers are necessary, who are familiar to most of the passers-by and who can keep an eye on the street. These ‘public figures’ play an important role for the street to become a familiar environment (De Waal 55).

The city should thus be understood as a space of permanent friction, where new urban publics may emerge through the (temporal) enactment of collectivity. Here, new media technologies can play a significant role.

Urban Scenarios in the Age of Everyware

Since the 1990s, wireless networks, digital technologies and mobile devices have increasingly shaped the way in which cities are organized, both politically and socially. Metropolises are connected through these networks in a so-called ‘global city’, where international labour markets are constituted, and cultures from all over the world are both de- and re-territorialized (Sassen 220). The global city is driven by efficiency and profit-making, which corresponds to a specific scenario of the city, that of the smart city. This scenario advocates an urban environment that is particularly efficient, user-friendly and personalized. Local governments and large technology companies already work together to organize urban processes more efficiently. For example, sensor and network technologies help to optimize transport and logistics and to measure and improve the quality of the environment. At the same time, electronic loyalty cards and narrowcasting turn the city into a place for optimized consumption (De Lange and De Waal 7).

At the other side, we find the social city scenario, where digital and mobile technologies are consciously deployed as media for strengthening social relationships on a local scale. Here, new media are considered to have capacities to reinforce relationships between citizens and allow for a feeling of ownership in urban public space. A good example that resonates this perspective is the blog I Love Noord, that has reinforced the strengthening of connections between citizens that live in the city district of Amsterdam Noord. People use the blog to stay informed about what happens in the neighbourhood, share their ideas about local activities and discuss the challenges that Amsterdam Noord is facing (I Love Noord n. pag.). Both the scenario of the smart city and the social city assume that digital networks and technologies play an important role in shaping urban life and change how people live together in cities. According to Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge, the urban environment has become more and more driven by software. At the office for example, one is dependent on applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, and intranets. In order to enter the office, you need a card with an RFID chip. To travel by public transport, you need a similar card that is tracking you wherever you go. Kitchin and Dodge state that these omnipresent ‘code/spaces’ lead to an age of ‘everyware’ (19).

This ‘age of everyware’ becomes very tangible through mobile devices with wireless networks. Smartphones are used to navigate through the city or participate in networked publics on social media. These media are used within physical public space, but at the same time a private space emerges when one focuses on the ‘media space’. A question that arises then, is if physical public space becomes merely a transitional space, and a backdrop for interaction via digital networks. Kazys Varnelis argues that these networks of communication can constitute a ‘telecocoon’ (Varnelis 22). In this sense, cell phones can be seen as ‘territory machines’ (Fujimoto 10).

It is important to point out that global networks are only accessible or used by a certain part of the population, while most inhabitants of many cities do not (yet) participate in these networks. So while some may speak of an age of ‘everyware’, not everyone has the agency to participate and make use of digital networks. Mobile devices can sometimes be seen as telecocoons that emphasize a ‘digital divide’, an inequality between people in terms of knowledge and access to digital technologies and networks. While many cities have become ‘hybrid’ in terms of digital technologies that are highly shaping urban life, the agency to make use of these technologies is not obvious at all. One could state that through this digital divide many urban publics are not assembled. Here, mobile devices operate as dividing devices since they emphasize a digital divide between urban residents. Simultaneously, dividing devices prevent urban publics of physical proximity to emerge. Instead, dividing devices strengthen the domains of like-minded people.

I would like to argue that – considering the social challenges that cities of today are confronted with – new kinds of connections should be made that address the city as a diverse public of familiar and unfamiliar strangers. These urban publics then, should be public in the sense of accessibility because at least a large part of the urban population has to be able to participate. An urban dialogue can emerge when a public issue is adressed. Such dialogues usually do not emerge by themselves. A question that arises is if and how media technologies can be deployed to function as assembling devices that allow for urban dialogues.

Intervening in the City

In the Laumeier Sculpture Park in Saint Louis, one can stumble upon a signage that is attached to one of the trees. It reads ‘this area is under 23 hour video and audio surveillance’. One might think that the signage is a spelling-mistake. Or, if this is not the case, one might be wondering which hour of the day the area is not being monitored. Maybe it has to do with cutbacks of the municipality.


This Area is Under 23 Hour Video and Audio Surveillance by Ahmet Ögüt.

In fact, the signage is an intervention by the artist Ahmet Ögüt. He took the standard security signage that can be found in parking garages, banks, parks and other public places, and simply altered one single character (the number four) so that it would read ‘this area is under 23 hour video and audio surveillance’. Most of the passers-by don’t recognize the signage as an artwork, because of the ready-made format. When someone photographed the work and posted it online, many people commented about how or why that sign with the spelling mistake might have come to be (Ögüt 407). The intervention somehow managed to instigate an urban dialogue, an enactment of an online public of strangers that addressed an urban issue.

Ahmet Ögüt’s work is an example of a tactical media intervention. Tactical media could be considered as a specific fusion of art, politics, technologies and media. It is concerned with making temporal connections between people, here and now. Instead of making proposals for the future, it explores what one can do on the spot with the media one has access to. Tactical media interventions can be powerful temporary disruptions, but they often disappear equally fast as they appeared. Ned Rossiter and Geert Lovink (who has coined the term tactical media) have proposed the scenario of organized networks to deal with the constraints of tactical media. However, as they admit themselves, organized networks are quite likely to retain the status of the what-if-scenario. Online networks all too easily become domains of like-minded people that link to each other, but not to strangers. Online, one is most likely to find what one is looking for. By the logic of search engines like Google. Or social media where one only encounters the opinions of friends.

On the other hand, tactical media interventions address the city as a space of friction, because someone that applies tactics by definition operates within the space that is somehow oppressed to him1. Tactical media is about addressing publics that might not agree with each other. Social, political and economic realities can only be addressed and changed when opponents somehow encounter one another. How to make use of the disruptive quality of tactical media interventions, and somehow scale them up?

In my opinion, tactical media interventions offer possibilities for urban dialogues, which might be distributed further by the participants. Stories are shared via social media, or discussed at home, at school or in other groups. This way, the interventions might be copy/pasted, and pop up elsewhere, where they again have the chance to proliferate. For example, when I blog about an urban media intervention, someone in Mexico City might be inspired to undertake a similar intervention. In this way, urban media interventions might transcend the locality of the intervention. This too should be considered as a scenario, but I think it is important to combine the power of tactics and online networks (i.e. ‘networked tactics’) to make a difference.

Urban Media Interventions: Give Me Back My Broken Night, Saving Face and INSIDE OUT

Three examples of very different urban media interventions that operate in today’s cities are Give Me Back My Broken Night, Saving Face en INSIDE OUT. All three of them are participative works of art that assemble urban publics of strangers in a collective experience. They all operate on a different scale, by means of a variety of media.

As I have mentioned before, Give Me Back My Broken Night (Product of Circumstance & Uninvited Guests) uses micro beamers, eavesdropping devices, a drawing application and mobile devices, in a setting of a guided walk through the city and a discussion in a local theatre. It is a carefully orchestrated immersive theatre piece, but it is simultaneously open and entirely shaped by the contribution of the participants. The work deliberately sets up an urban dialogue, by a collaborative speculation about the future of the city. This is a public issue that addresses all urban users, and serves as a common ground upon which a substantive dialogue is being built. At the same time, Give Me Back My Broken Night is a very poetic experience, that temporarily connects participators into a public of people that pretend to be urban planners for a while. It is a tactical and a volatile intervention that operates within the physical public space of the city, while it leaves no (physical) traces. It would be interesting to see how this project will evolve and change when applied in different contexts. The piece requires quite a lot of effort and time from the participants, but is has a low threshold in terms of economic means or knowledge. A wide audience is able to participate. So far, Give Me Back My Broken Night took place only in a few cities, but one can imagine that when the idea (for example in the form of the online video) is distributed online, people might copy the concept and use the same media devices to create a similar experience. This way, the impact of the intervention might grow, as new events arise.


Saving Face by Lancel & Maat

The installation of Saving Face (Lancel & Maat) makes use of quite different media technologies, and manifests itself as a large urban screen and installation in urban public space. Saving Face has invented a particular kind of scripted interaction with the installation. One touches one’s own face in order to contribute a portrait picture to the urban screen. While the installation merges these pictures, an image of a ‘networked identity’ of all contributors on the square emerges. The installation can be seen as a playful tool, but it can also be understood as a critical reflection upon today’s surveillance technologies and online networks, that unnoticed capture and store our personal data.

The INSIDE OUT project by the artist JR also uses a camera to capture the portraits of participants. The artist has set up a couple of guidelines, and by following these one can participate in the project. A group of people can send their portrait pictures that express a statement of choice to the studio in New York, where the images are printed as posters and shipped back to the group. By placing the pictures in urban public space, the participants become part of the worldwide network of local group actions of INSIDE OUT. The interventions of these posters so far resulted in different kinds of urban dialogues. The posters have been judged with wonder or with anger. Often, the pictures refer to statements and stories that are politically and emotionally motivated. The language of these monochrome posters of portraits is universally understood, which makes it such a powerful project. The website of INSIDE OUT and the camera as a medium are used as assembling devices to create urban publics at different scales.


INSIDE OUT at Times Square

All three interventions in one way or another script the participants to engage with the intervention. In every intervention, the participants are addressed as a specific urban public, respectively as fake urban planners and experts about the future city, as the urban public of a certain square, or as a local group of people that shares and expresses a specific statement. By the enactment and articulation of these urban publics, in the form of a collaborative design for the future city, a face of a networked identity, or a collage of monochrome posters in public space, an urban dialogue is established and visualized. The imagination of the artists, together with a clever use of specific media devices and networks, can turn the city from an assemblage of strangers into temporary urban publics that collaborate together.

A Common Ground

Today’s cities should be understood as complex, dynamic and multiple objects, that are manifested in temporary urban publics. These publics emerge because of physical proximity between strangers, common issues, digital technologies and global networks. Digital devices such as smartphones sometimes operate as dividing devices, since they do not address the city as a public of strangers, but constitute networked publics of like-minded people. Consequentially, I have argued that new connections should be made, in order to develop actual urban dialogues; publics of (familiar) strangers that address a public issue together. Media technologies and networks that may operate as dividing devices, can also be deployed as assembling devices, to create new urban publics.

Urban media interventions can operate as these assembling devices, by a tactical and creative use of (new) media technologies. Urban media interventions are tactical, which characterizes them as flexible and disruptive, but also as volatile. There might be an opportunity in the combination of tactical media interventions that have the power to assemble publics of strangers, and online networks and other groups that might be used to disseminate these practices, and expand the networks and impact of urban media interventions. The interventions sometimes operate as test cases to show what might be possible. They can function as a language that everyone understands, if only for the duration of the event. This requires a careful alignment between a directed and demarcated framework, and room for the participants to operate in. Urban media interventions are particularly strong if they cleverly combine powers of artistic imagination and public participation. This can be established by the creative and critical use of media with a low threshold for participants, although the interventions might actually consist of complicated hardware and software constructions. The interventions tactically address the city as a space of friction and strangers, and introduce or emphasize a common ground from which an urban dialogue can grow. Here, artists operate as clever mediators and catalysts for the city to become a familiar environment.

Today’s cities are facing many challenges and structural problems that will be extremely hard to fight in the coming decades. Nevertheless, the city as an assemblage of urban publics offers many opportunities for meaningful urban dialogues. In this process, urban media interventions can play an important role as assembling devices.

This research continues on Katía Truijen’s research blog


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1 Here I refer to the difference between tactics and strategies as Michel de Certeau explains in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984).


The Mobile City website is maintained by Martijn de Waal and Michiel de Lange.