Programming video art for urban screens in public space
First Monday

Programming video art for urban screens in public space by Kate Taylor



Abstract
Using the case study of The Bigger Picture, a public art project in Manchester, UK, as its basis, this paper will discuss the practical experience of curating and commissioning moving image artworks for a large urban video screen in an outdoor environment. It will address the challenges of negotiating the relationship between a non-immersive exhibition point and a transient audience in a public space. Detailing experiments with content and scheduling, it will illustrate the potential pitfalls and possibilities for models of programming.

Contents

Introduction
The Bigger Picture
Audience and Spectatorship
Scheduling and Duration
Content and Themes
Curatorial Ambition
Political Space
Switching Off
Conclusion

 


 

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Introduction

With the proliferation of large-scale video screens in public spaces, many new opportunities are emerging for programming cultural content. These screens offer a unique set of challenges and potential rewards for artists and audiences. When developing an approach to curating work on these screens it is important to ask questions. What is this new medium? What are its features and idiosyncrasies? What are its limits and its significance?

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The Bigger Picture

In May 2003 the BBC, in partnership with Philips and Manchester City Council, installed the first Big Screen in Manchester, and began its Public Space Broadcasting (PSB) experiment. The Big Screens are 25 square metre Light Emitting Diode (LED) television screens, located outside in public space. They broadcast 24 hours a day, with sound muted between midnight and 7am. The primary content displayed is BBC television programmes, with no commercial content or advertisements. In addition to this, Cornerhouse, Greater Manchester Contemporary Art Centre, initiated a project to curate film, art and community content for the Manchester Big Screen and this was launched in October 2003 entitled The Bigger Picture. The observations in this paper are drawn from the practical experience of coordinating that project between September 2003 and October 2005, curating and commissioning short film and video art.

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Audience and Spectatorship

Examining public art in the public sphere, Simon Sheikh advances the call for new notions of spectatorship, following the debunking of Habermas' model of the harmonious bourgeois public sphere (Sheikh, 2005; Habermas, 1962). Sheikh offers three categories for examination; work, context and spectator. He sees these categories as variable, each influencing the definition of the other, and each conflictual and agonistic. This discord and multiplicity in the formation of distinct publics chimes with the first and most enduring problem with The Bigger Picture – how to quantify the audience. Who is watching?

Exchange Square, where the screen is situated has an estimated daily footfall of 50,000 people. The difficulty of capturing quantitative data on audience figures in a dynamic public space means there is currently no way of knowing how many of these people look up each day, how long they look, if they enjoy what’s on or would rather turn it off. My own observations suggest that the majority walk past and ignore the Big Screen, with a small minority paying variable amounts of attention to the screen.

The biggest factor in audience numbers and attention is weather. In summer the square is a popular place to linger, while the rain that is a major feature of Manchester’s climate results in people rushing past without stopping. There is also a huge difference in audience attention between the everyday ambient mode of the Big Screen broadcasting BBC television and The Bigger Picture, and the event mode of big sporting events, or the Manchester City Council festivals where a stage is put beneath the Big Screen and there is live music and performance.

But artistic projects are not judged on audience figures alone, and when turning to the question of public value, and indeed, the value of exposure for artists on this platform, it is appropriate to turn to theories of how audiences already relate to public art. A useful reference point here is Audientia, a project that took place in 2002, investigating the function of public art in Birmingham, UK (Audientia, 2005). Using the methodology of ‘action research’, it enabled a core group of artists, curators, funders and bureaucrats to record and discuss reactions to existing public art via interventions and creative activities. With emphasis on reflection over time, rather than the instant answers of clipboard questionnaires, the project showed the value of anecdotal and experiential audience evaluation when placed within a suitable framework.

Many of the project’s findings confirm Sheikh’s readings of Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, depicting a proletariat public sphere fragmented along lines of experience (Sheikh, 2005; Negt and Kluge, 1972). One interesting observation the project made was how people tend to view public art as part of a wider personal narrative.

"Through observation, and being attentive to the everyday life of the city, we recognized that there are different qualities of experiencing the city. Public art is part of a competing visual landscape, and yet, public art can simultaneously create 'perfect moments' which are embedded in that same everydayness of people's lives. Indeed, people appear not to differentiate the public art object from the place or space in which it is located: people appear to find it easier to talk about 'places' rather than 'public art', using the language of the 'everyday'." (Douglas, 2002)

This element of perfect moments fitting into the story of a day bodes well for the dynamic nature of video, and a programme that changes weekly or fortnightly with works showing at different times, existing in a constant state of temporariness. Although it lacks the cumulative impact of a static and constant piece of public art such as sculpture, moving image work can still be effective public art.

However, the study has no easy answers on how to define and address a particular public as an audience, and The Bigger Picture settled upon a (utopian) concept of the audience as attentive urbanists. A body of neo-flaneurs seeking, selecting and taking pleasure in various stimulus on their journey through the city. For if, as according to Paul Virilio, every city dweller is an unwitting urbanist (Virilio, 2005, p.7), adept at the spatial relations of moving through the metropolis, it is not a leap to suppose a possible demographic based on the characteristic of cultural curiosity, that covers the cosmopolitan and diverse inhabitants of a city.

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Scheduling and Duration

The short films and video art works on urban screens are encountered casually. The audience is mobile with limited time and this leads to consideration of the scheduling and timing of the programme.

The Bigger Picture programme is a compilation that generally lasts 20-30 minutes, as this seems to be the maximum time people will stay in the square. It screens five times a day (Monday – Friday; 9am, 12pm, 2pm, 5pm and 10.35pm), catching different users of the square at different times of day. On weekends the screening times vary depending on the sporting and news coverage.

A major priority of PSB is to enable collective moments in the city centre where large groups of people can gather and experience something for free. The most effective format for this is the broadcast of sports, where major games events can attract audiences of more than 3,000 people to the Big Screen. Consequently, when the BBC has sports coverage The Bigger Picture is moved or squeezed out of the schedule. During periods of increased sports coverage, such as the two weeks of Wimbledon tennis, which goes on all day, an overnight mute loop screens artists’ loops that are intended to be silent. This continuously repeats from midnight to 7am, catching a nighttime audience leaving the nearby clubs and bars.

Creative Time’s 59th Minute programme in Times Square, New York, USA[1], is an effective example of scheduling, duration and marketing. Established as a regular exhibition point in 2000, the concept is highly memorable; an artists film, a minute in duration, will play on the NBC Astrovision screen in the final minute of every hour. An active audience in the area knows exactly when to look up, and if arriving early can wait with confidence.

Out Video, the International video-art festival in public spaces, takes place in Ekaterinburg, Russia, showing films on the IgRek Cinema network of screens in the city centre, throughout the month of June[2]. Films screened are silent, 30 seconds in duration and have an essentially punchy impact. Alongside the increasing number of screening programmes on commercial advertising screens, such as the Subvision strand of the bitfilm festival in Hamburg, Germany[3], screening silent shorts of 20 seconds on screens on underground trains, the format of the micro-short film is emerging as an adept form for the medium. Certainly, when screening the depict! 90 second films on The Bigger Picture, the speed and intensity with which micro-shorts have to communicate, and often their quick wit, result in audience members looking around the square to check who else has seen them and exchanging smiles.

This content has a lot in common with material that is effective on mobile phones, and some telecoms companies are keen on sponsoring film competitions that publicise and generate cheap or free content for their 3G services, such as Orange’s support of depict! and Nokia’s 15 second short film competition, billed as the shortest film festival in the world. While the format is not new and exhibition points such as Croatia’s one minute movie cup have been around for years, it will be interesting to note the parallel future development of the fixed urban screens’ content with their mobile counterparts.

Without the pressures of on-screen advertising, the BBC Big Screens offer a more flexible approach to duration. However, there has still been a shift away from screening narrative short films of longer than five minutes on The Bigger Picture. Any longer than this and it can be frustrating for filmmakers, as stories that need to be viewed for their total running time do not suit transient audiences. Narrative films work best if programmed as part of an event, such as a collaboration with a film festival rather than the Big Screen’s general ambient state.

Abstract artist’s works, and occasionally documentaries, where the release of meaning rewards audiences who enter at any point (as well those who view them in entirety), prove most effective on the Big Screen in its ambient mode.

These can play for much longer than traditional narrative films and there is also potential for experiments with films that explore the limits of duration, along the lines of Andy Warhol’s ‘Empire’ or ‘**** (The 24 Hour Movie)’. Films using time-lapse photography are highly effective on the Big Screen, particularly those dealing with the urban condition. The sprawl, growth and demolition of cityscapes play well in the environment of a city centre square.

Slowness is often more striking than frenetic works, with inaction on screen a contrast to the pace of life below and the dynamics of the people traffic in the space. This could also be seen in Lumen’s Midtown project with Wolfgang Staehle in 2004 where a web cam trained on a view of midtown Manhattan was projected nightly onto a screen on the façade of a building in Leeds, UK[4]. The real-time immediacy, vast difference in time zones and the still nature of the framing formed a compelling installation.

Envisaging a viewer who may pass the screen at roughly the same time of day, and take 45 seconds to walk across the square, two films commissioned for The Bigger Picture dealt directly with the condition of their public by developing an episodic structure. Researching ‘Hopes, Fears, 20 Years’ Kartoon Kings interviewed fifty Mancunians asking their biggest hope and biggest fear since 1985. The results are illustrated in a slow release of text, so a passer-by will read at least one hope and one fear on their journey past, possibly a different pair each time. Meanwhile the Desperate Optimists film ‘Now We Are Grown Up’ was shot in two single continuous takes, the camera moving slowly round in a circle, passing the faces of a collection of young people participating in a group discussion. The short monologues and close up faces are engaging for those passing briefly, and the impression is given that the circle could continue indefinitely.

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Content and Themes

The ideal content for The Bigger Picture looks and sounds as different from television as possible, and serves to engage, grip and enthral. In the search for work that will create ‘perfect moments’ the programmer is looking for films that will resonate with the audience’s experience in the square, either through direct exploration of the urban condition or through works that contrast and highlight the fragmentation of that condition.

A particularly fruitful partnership developed with the North West Film Archive (NWFA), which preserves the region’s filmed heritage. Material from the NWFA is successful in making people stop in front of the Big Screen and pay attention, as it is recognisably local and looks different from the normal BBC TV programming. The Big Screen audience is narcissistic, and enjoys seeing themselves and their area, hearing their accent and having their history reflected on the screen.

In 2005 Cornerhouse placed Louise K Wilson as Artist in Residence at the Archive. Her resultant piece; ‘Euphony’ is a city symphony and homage to Dziga Vertov’s ‘The Man with a Movie Camera’. Consisting of a mixture of new and archive footage spanning the twentieth century, it features amateur footage depicting leisure, industry, birth, marriage and death as captured by Super8 enthusiasts of the region.

Beyond the direct locale of the square and its city, a wider theme of urbanism arises. In other Cornerhouse commissions, the concept of navigating the city is constant. One film is a psycho-geographic journey through Manchester using only streets beginning with the letter ‘C’[5], another draws attention to the urban debris that marks our paths[6] and another forms an animated portrait of the gestures and movements of the skateboarders and subcultures that inhabit Exchange Square[7]. These all engaged directly with the experience of the viewer, who would be moving around the city immediately before and after encountering the works on the Big Screen.

More conversant with the environs of VJ-ing and live audio-visual installations, The Light Surgeons brought a fresh perspective to the site-specific format of the Big Screen. ‘In Passing’ offers a displaced sensory account of the city centre, the soundtrack of a partially sighted woman explaining her journey through the city illustrated by a layered mix of live action, animation and motion graphics. This alternative orientation enables the audience to imagine the city centre anew.

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Curatorial Ambition

It is not the curatorial role of The Bigger Picture to entertain, although sometimes it may. Instead, the programme’s aim is to offer a necessary ambiguity in a controlled and commercialised space or as Charles Esche puts it, “creating the conditions for thinking otherwise than they are now.” (Esche, 2005, p.122). The ideal video works offer the viewer a new language, and present a different or incisive way of viewing the world.

Discovery of what is effective in this manner has often come from establishing what the screen is not. Via various video pieces that playfully explore the spatial qualities of the Big Screen, we have discovered it is not a CCTV monitor, nor an analogue printing press, nor a window, nor a board game, nor a puddle, nor a wooded glade in a forest, and yet temporarily it has been all of these things.

Of course, creating a space to allow new social and individual imagination, can not be proposed without also taking into account Esche’s qualifier of the inevitable failure of such endeavours (Esche, 2005). To this extent, the video works on big screens are subtle interventions and do not overcome the politicised nature of the specific environment in which it is situated.

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Political Space

Exchange Square, where the Manchester Big Screen is situated, was regenerated after a devastating IRA bomb in 1996, and is part of the City Council branded Millennium Quarter. The quarter consists of upmarket shops, chain restaurants, a garden and Urbis, the museum of urban living.

The area is inscribed with the political values of the City Council and the commercial businesses operating there. While the marketing managers of Triangle shopping centre on which the Big Screen is attached have a strong view of their target customer for the area; ‘the young urban achiever’, the behaviour of people in the space is physically regulated with the City Council’s anti-skateboard partitions and a no-alcohol zone.

This branding and regulation exclude certain people and behaviours, and counter-publics emerge in the form of homeless people, young skateboarders and activists. To some extent, the Big Screen – with its overtones of the big brother state - can encourage such fragmentation, both in terms of social groupings and normalised patterns of behaviour.

This is due to the nature of the screen’s interface and institutional make-up. Using Raymond Williams’ four modes of public communication as a basis (Williams, 1961 and Kwon, 2005), it is clear the Big Screen is placed somewhere between paternalistic and democratic modes, bypassing the commercial.

Moving towards a democratic model, the screen offers local people the opportunity to show the films they have made and this can be seen in the wider context of the BBC’s shifts towards community-created content, emphasising access. It plays a role in the cultural life of the city by acting as a focal point for festivals and events and there is also a drive to develop interactive elements whereby the public can play with the screen.

Showcasing educational and community filmmaking projects in the city forms an important part of The Bigger Picture programme. However, there are difficulties finding and filtering content, as these groups are not always working in an appropriate format. For example, films made by local school children often feature simulated violence and swearing at a level that would be unsuitable on the screen. It is an ongoing task to build proactive links with community filmmaking groups so the Big Screen can be established as a screening venue and its unique restrictions considered when projects start.

But there remains a strong paternalistic atmosphere with the Big Screen broadcasting from high above peoples heads, the BBC as the nation’s broadcaster and the Cornerhouse as the artistic expert. Both act as arbiters of content quality and acceptability, their manner “authoritarian with a conscience” (Williams in Kwon, 2005, p24). And while it is possible to represent some of the excluded groups, such as via a season of skateboarding films on the screen, the inability for dissenters to make their voice heard remains a problem.

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Switching Off

With Big Screen’s embedded in the imagination from so much science fiction depicting them as a futuristic media, it is possible to confuse their existence with a social progress as well as a technical one. It is easy to overestimate the impact of art on the screens and difficult to accept it as a distraction with potential to offer tiny jolts in public life. Can big screens be accepted as a low impact medium? If so they are a very expensive one.

It can be tempting to forget that we do not need to grab people’s attention. The aims of the PSB are noble; to use the Big Screens to engender collective moments in public space and animate a square in the city. But with The Bigger Picture’s aim of inspiration we must have faith in the integrity of our audience and be prepared for them to take it or leave it.

The Big Screen is not immersive – it is physically impossible to view the Big Screen in isolation or to hear only its soundtrack. It is far from the black box of the cinema, and far too from the destination of the gallery with its interpretive materials and art experience context/expectations. In public space it is essential to remember the difference between an intervention or interruption, and an unwanted interference. Otherwise we will have to offer the audience the most interactive communication there is with the screen – the ability to switch it off.

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Conclusion

Currently the screening of video work on urban screens is an immature and emerging platform lacking in the reflexivity that sustained observation and further diverse experience will provide. It is not yet possible to illustrate the difference between public video art and simply video shown in a public arena, and this is a valid distinction to aim for[8]. Neither work, context nor spectator is currently fixed and following Sheikh’s argument they will necessarily face constant (re)negotiation. This makes it an exciting time affording curators the chance to continue to be playful and experimental, albeit with a requisite sense of responsibility and self-scrutiny.

It could be said that we are in a similar phase to the early stage of TV Art, such as David Hall’s interventions in the Seventies, where a medium is discovering its own potential. In the end it will be the artists who choose to engage with the medium who are the most capable of definition. If organisations continue to take creative risks with the medium, offering continued access, commissions and residencies for artists, Big Screens can offer much to art and much to audiences.End of article

About the author

Kate Taylor is a freelance writer, curator and film programmer, and is Co-Director of the Halloween Short Film Festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and Curzon Soho in London. She has been working in short film and moving image exhibition since 1998, working for the British Council and onedotzero among others.

From September 2003 to October 2005, Taylor was the Big Screen Coordinator at Cornerhouse. Launching The Bigger Picture, Taylor was responsible for curating video art and short film on the Big Screen in Exchange Square, and developing the project via commissions and research.

Email: kate [at] shortfilms [dot] org [dot] uk

Acknowledgements

The Bigger Picture was great to work on due to the talent and enthusiasm of Sarah Griffiths at the BBC. I am also graciously indebted to Dave Moutrey and Kathy Rae Huffman at Cornerhouse, Bill Morris and Mike Gibbons at the BBC, Sarah Fisher and Will Carr at Arts Council England, Mike Parrott at Manchester City Council, and all the artists who participated. Thanks to Jon Jordan for advice on editing this paper.

Notes

  1. Creative Time at http://www.creativetime.org/programs/archive/59/index.html, accessed 22 December 2005.
  2. Out Video at http://www.artpolitika.ru/outvideo, accessed 19 December 2005.
  3. Subvision at http://www.bitfilm-festival.org/cgi-bin/festival.fpl?op=category&category=subvisions&partner=bitfilm_en, accessed December 14 2005.
  4. Lumen at http://www.lumen.org.uk/projects/midtown.html, accessed December 5 2005.
  5. Paul Melia, 2005. ‘Manchester by C’ film.
  6. Hilary Jack, 2005. ‘Turquoise Bag in a Tree’ film and installation project.
  7. Adele Prince, 2005. ‘Natural Habitat’ film.
  8. Video in the Built Environment (VIBE), are currently taking a practical approach investigating this distinction at http://www.v1b3.com/, accessed 20 December 2005.

References

Audientia at http://www.audientia.info, accessed 22 December 2005.

Anna Douglas, 2002. In http://www.audientia.info, accessed 22 December 2005.

Charles Esche, 2005. “Temporariness, Possibility and Institutional Change,” in S. Sheikh (editor). In the Place of the Public Sphere?. Berlin: b_books, pp. 122-141.

Jürgen Habermas, 1962. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge, Mess.: MIT Press, 1989.

Miwon Kwon, 2005. “Public Art as Publicity,” in S. Sheikh (editor). In the Place of the Public Sphere?. Berlin: b_books, pp. 22-33.

Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, 1972. Public Sphere and Experience – Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Simon Sheikh, 2005. ”In the Place of the Public Sphere? An Introduction,” in S. Sheikh (editor). In the Place of the Public Sphere?. Berlin: b_books, pp. 6-19.

Raymond Williams, 1961. “Communications and Community,” in R. Gable (editor). Resources of Hope, London: Verso, 1989, pp. 19-31

Paul Virilio, 2005. City of Panic. Oxford: Berg.


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Programming video art for urban screens in public space by Kate Taylor
First Monday, Special Issue #4: Urban Screens: Discovering the potential of outdoor screens for urban society
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1555/1470





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