​How media facades will become a new communication tool

Urban media curator Susa Pop talks about how media facades may change the relationship between people.

Media facades are often associated with advertising. But urban media curator and co-founder of  Public Art Lab Susa Pop believes that their potential is much greater. It was the topic of her lecture organised in Moscow by V-A-C foundation. In an interview to Strelka Magazine she explains what media facades and Ancient Greek agoras have in common, and how digital screens can connect neighbours or people from different countries.

— How do you use media facades?

We already have media art, which is displayed mainly in museums. With the introduction of smartphones to the worldwide market in 2008, tpublic space transformed into an augmented reality stage where art is to reach a new dimension. Urban media art is a new hybrid exhibition format in the interface of urban space and the virtual digital world. A lot of artists start to work in public space with the support of new media technologies.

It is a challenging medium as it is normally used for advertisement. For us it was interesting to understand the socio-cultural potential of these facades. Step by step we opened these infrastructures for the arts and developed projects for participation and social interaction.

The main question is how to include the audience into creative processes? Media facades and urban screens provide a lot of possibilities of shared experience and interaction between people. During the action research period from 2012 to 2016 we investigated three curatorial themes: how to create networked scenarios between people who are not living in the same cities. The city-to-city dialogue we call it the Networked City. The Participatory City is the second one which focuses on artistic scenarios of social interaction and community building in the neighbourhoods. And the third one is a more citizen's science approach, which considers how to make invisible generated data visible on urban screens and urban media environment. Data generation and visualisation through crowdsourcing and surveillance technologies are the playground for artistic interventions.

So media facades are platforms for visualisation of scientific investigation as well as a platform for social interactions and translocal networking.

— What media facades can give me that other communication tools cannot give?

We all have smartphones and we are all connected with the whole world. In the subway you can often see people who are neither here nor there. They are physically here but they are not in contact with the people around them. They are always somewhere else — in social networks. So what can urban media art do? – they can create a moment of shared encounters. Participants of media facades projects are involved in the same scenario and appreciate the moment of union. This is something very unique. I can compare it with Ancient Greek agoras or market places where people used to meet. So today in some curatorial projects you can use media facades as agoras – places where people meet, share moments and at the same time get connected with other cities.

Everything depends on the context of the media facade. For example if you implement a project in migrating areas with very high cultural diversity, a mixture of different cultures. With screens as community platforms you can include people in local context to represent themselves for better understanding their issues. If you combine it with a dinner in front of these urban screens then you create really nice intercultural moment. For our society with a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of political issues is a very interesting tool.

— Do you have projects for suburbs or neighbourhoods with poor infrastructure?

Of course not every place can have a media facade or a screen. Connecting Cities has a huge diversity of partners. Some of them have permanent urban media environments, others don’t have media facades at all. In this case they use projections or light sculptures. Every “Wall is a Screen” is the name of a famous German artist group. If you have a projector you can easily build your digital environment everywhere. There is a very nice project called  Videopainting. The artist uses an interactive painter roll to paint videos on the wall. If you have a live stream to another city, you can paint someone else’s face on the wall and start an intercity dialogue. This is an interesting example of how you can immediately build your own infrastructure.

It’s always an important question where to install urban media environment. We strongly recommend to include a place in front of the screen where people can meet. Good example is Australia. Most of these cities use screens as community platforms. They are often based next to museums.

With every project there are always positive and negative issues. And if you think of media facades you have to consider the light pollution problem — especially in a living areas. So maybe it’s better to use small infrastructure elements. For example, what UCLA in London did. The research project “Screens in the Wild” installed screens in the neighbourhoods where they tested networked scenarios. For example, kids could play music together. The most important thing is to create this shared moment of experience and encounter.

And another thing is that we have to include people in the programming from the very beginning. There is a nice example. I was invited by Medialab-Prado in Madrid to participate in a workshop to discuss and reflect on different scenarios for their new media facade. Medialab-Prado (MLP) is based in a neighbourhood where lots of people are living and of course not all of them want to have this huge illuminating infrastructures. So MLP held this workshop with experts from all over the world to reflect on this problem. One idea which came up was a community garden. The idea is to start with a black screen. Every neighbour could digitally plant a flower. Step by step it turned to a digital garden. Starting from a black screen and planting flowers created a good suspense. All the neighbours couldn’t wait to see the whole garden and fully illuminated screen So it is very important to create a scenario where neighbours can participate and co-create their environments.

— You say that these facades are connected to smartphones. What if I don’t have one. Can I participate anyway?

We always try to provide devices that are available to and accessible for everybody. Of course you could download artistic applications on your smartphone, but usually we have tablets, which people can use as an interface device. Usually it depends on the context. For example, if this is the project based in an environment where people just pass by, it is very difficult to ask them: “I’m sorry, could you please upload an app? It takes only 3 minutes”. No one will do this. So in this case we use our tablets. But if it’s a festival where people want to participate, it is ok to ask them to download an app. The audience is very open to do it.

Project "Saving Face" / Connectingcities.net
Project "Binoculars to… Binoculars from…" / Connectingcities.net
Project "Connecting monsters" / Connectingcities.net
Project "Saving Face" / Connectingcities.net

— What programs are you working on now?

We and my team are currently preparing the publication “What Urban Media Art Can Do — Why, Where, When and How?” which documents our activities of the Connecting Cities Network. In 2010 we held The Media Facades Festivals to connect seven European cities and their citizens through digital urban infrastructures. Our goal was to create a network of sharing knowledge and experience. We managed to build this network, and now we have nearly 40 partners and different infrastructures. They share knowledge how to create a program for the neighbourhoods or for a mass audience of 1000 people.

Another theme we focus on at the moment is the project Future Heritage. Future Heritage wants to enhance traditional handcraft with new technologies. For example, recently we had a workshop in Ramallah, Palestine, with potters who worked together with media artists from Berlin. We had traditional tools and a 3D clay printer. We wanted to make an exchange between traditional craftsmen and new media artists.

Our third theme is climate and energy art. We collaborate with artists who use solar or wind energy to create a public project. For example, Julius von Bismarck and his team created the project “Fake Star” which is a kind of flying windmill which produces energy in the sky and charges an LED lamp which illuminates in the sky like a star — a Fake Star.

Cover picture: Connecting cities