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Now published in Hothaus Papers: Perspectives and Paradigms in Media Arts, edited by Joan Gibbons and Kaye Winwood, Birmingham: Vivid/Article Press, pp. 155-162.


Video as Urban Condition
Hothaus Seminar presentation by Anthony Auerbach
hosted by Vivid and University of Central England, Birmingham

On 4 December 2004, I attempted to distract the attention of the seminar audience from my speech by showing simultaneously a series of video clips and a rolling slideshow (view images). My point was that if we are capable holding a conversation while walking down a shopping street, while simultaneously negotiating the multitude of images and messages which accost us through various media including video, then there would be no special reason why a seminar presentation should be restricted to a single channel. The receptivity of an urban-conditioned subject is hardly diminished when speech, text and moving image, information, narrative, polemic, suggestion and seduction are constantly interrupting one another. Here, in a book, I have to rely on you, the reader, to distract yourself. Or, at least, I do not flatter myself with your undivided attention. I do not know what screens flicker in the corner of your eye, what message alerts vibrate in your pocket, what entertainments beckon, what thoughts or anxieties might reduce your gaze to an empty stare, when appointments or fatigue will interrupt your reading, whether you are channel-hopping and have already skipped to another chapter or whether you are going to fast-forward to see whether I have any conclusion.

‘Video as Urban Condition’ is the headline for a project exploring how video shapes urban experience. I am going to describe in broad terms what I mean by that, what I and my collaborators have done about it up till now and, in practical terms, how we expect the project to develop in the future.

On the one hand, Video as Urban Condition acknowledges the ways in which video has become part of the urban fabric: that is, the infrastructure of terrestrial, satellite and cable networks; the ubiquity of video equipment in the home, the workplace, commercial and public spaces; the role of video technology in the surveillance and control of urban environments. The photographs which accompany this article document a number of these urban phenomena of video.

On the other hand, Video as Urban Condition is about how our knowledge, perception and fantasy of urban environments are mediated by video: for example, through television, Hollywood recycled for the small screen, drama, fiction, documentary, news; through the urban fantasies of SimCity or Grand Theft Auto; through camcorders in the hands of tourists, artists, activists and amateurs.

Compared with the ‘locative’ or internet-based media which other seminar contributors spoke about, video is ‘old technology’. Television has a history dating from the 1920s. It has not lost its place at the forefront of the mass-communications society and consumer culture it helped to create following the Second World War. Video, broadly defined, has continued to absorb and colonise data- and transmission technologies from magnetic tape to digital satellite relays. The applications which have brought about perhaps the most remarkable shift in what we could call the relations of representation in recent years are: the proliferation of closed-circuit television surveillance systems and the spread of portable video camera-recorders in the mass-market. Video is therefore a medium of mass production — that is, mass participation — as well as of mass consumption. The accessibility of video technology has encouraged not only the private interests of home video and independent artistic activity, but has also prompted community and educational initiatives putting the medium in the hands of underprivileged or excluded groups in society. Video technology has moreover become established among the tools of communication and witness at the disposal of activists and campaigners who maintain a position beyond the mainstream. At the same time, the power of video as a means of controlling desire and space continues to grow.

For artists, such a condition represents a challenge because video fails to provide what most artists want from their media, namely, the security of the work’s being framed and recognised as art and hence its ability to produce the particular kinds of subjectivity and receptivity associated with art. Crudely contrasted: an oil painting in a frame instructs the viewer that what you are looking at is an art work and that you should be appropriately reverent and attentive to the surface in front of you (even if in practice we are not). But video does not do that. To be sure, the video screen captures eyeballs, but doesn’t by itself dictate a particular mode of viewing. We are capable, indeed trained, to adjust our subjectivity, perception and receptivity instantaneously — almost continuously — as quickly as we flip the channels with a remote control.

We are accustomed to the idea that video images assert a multitude of different claims, that the same LCD or plasma screens, cathode ray tubes or projectors convey a multitude of different messages and will ambush us in almost any location. This condition seemed to me to present a more exciting set of possibilities than the battle for artistic credibility. What strategies would emerge if we could create the chance for artists to make use of the existing video infrastructure? In other words, not to offer a TV set on a plinth in a white cube or a projection in a black box, but instead to remove the protection of such institutions, expose the work in urban space and accept this less reliable frame; to accept that video will not support an artist’s claim to exceptional status or of itself command respect.

That seemed like a good idea and I began investigate the practical possibilities. It will be no surprise that in probing the structures which regulate public space and artistic production, I soon discovered the naivety of my proposition. To ground the project better, it was necessary to devise a means of gathering more information and mobilising critical reflection. The first outing of Video as Urban Condition therefore consisted of a presentation of what we called the Video-pool Archive and an international symposium (Austrian Cultural Forum, London 2 July 2004).

The emphasis in this first phase was on the diversity and complexity which could be hidden behind an apparently simple title like Video as Urban Condition and on understanding both aspects of the topic — video and the city — as interdisciplinary and public. The contributors to the symposium, who drew on experiences, from architecture to activism, touching on a wide range of practises, interests and locations within the field, reflected the diversity of approaches we wanted to bring together:

Anna McCarthy, a media historian based at New York University, interprets the urban geographies of television at the crossroads of visual and material culture. She spoke about the origins of television as an urban phenomenon, how TV assembled people for communal viewing before TV sets could be found in nearly every home and the fascination exerted by live broadcasting before videotape. She considered the ways in which video is a tool for the production of knowledge: how ‘site-specific’ commercial television networks — for example, channels directed at airport lounges or doctors’ waiting rooms — commodify their captive audiences and how mainstream news reporting, documentary and reality-TV (in the US) identify and objectify specific urban populations and urban geographies. She also considered the ways in which this ‘knowledge’ is contested.

Manu Luksch founded ambientTV.NET, a collaborative platform which, as the name indicates, combines television (seeing over distance) and network architectures with a mise en scène which does not recognise a definite entrance or exit, beginning or end. She spoke about works which appropriate video images from existing urban networks: for example, Broadbandit Highway, ‘an endless road movie’ which hijacks the streams from traffic webcams posted on the internet; or a project for a movie shot on location not by a camera crew, but by the surveillance cameras already in place. Footage is recovered by the protagonist herself as a citizen under the provisions of the UK’s Data Protection Act.

Paul O’Connor is co-founder of Undercurrents News Network, one of the organisations for whom the term ‘video activism’ was coined. In addition to producing and distributing programmes in support of a variety of local and global campaigns and supplying broadcasters with video images from its unique archive, Undercurrents has helped to bring camcorders on to the street to confront the police and mainstream media. Paul mentioned an incident when activists came to a demonstration armed with remote controls which they used to switch off the police surveillance officers’ camcorders (the same consumer products that everyone uses). In more ways than this, video activists have played an important role in protecting non-violent protesters and opening alternative channels of information, although it has to be said the scope of this work is severely limited outside of affluent liberal western democracies. However, a measure the potential power of video would be suggested by imagining the risks an activist would run in filming popular protest or police action in a country where the mainstream media are under the strict control, for example, of a military government, occupying forces or a one-party state.

Juha Huuskonen is a founding member and chairman of media art collective and is also the director of Pixelache electronic art festival based in Helsinki. He described the do-it-yourself, collective-competitive approach to the ‘creative misuse’ of new media technology which is behind the emergence of the VJ (videojukka in Finnish). VJ-ing is creating and mixing video material in a live situation in connection with music. In the hands of a VJ , video appears unrecorded and unrepeatable, uninhibited by traditional content (as we might expect, for example, from TV or from art, however abstract), but is embedded in a specific social situation both in its mode of production and of display.

Ole Scheeren is director of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) Rotterdam office. As an architect he is one of minority to have taken video seriously and to have attempted to integrate it in the process of interpreting urban situations and in design. He has also been involved independently in various art projects and exhibitions, such as Cities on the Move (London and Bangkok) and Media City (Seoul). I persuaded him to speak about OMA’s biggest project to date: China Central Television Headquarters (CCTV) and Television Cultural Centre (TVCC) of which he is partner in charge (with Rem Koolhaas). In many ways at the opposite end of the scale from what Paul and Juha were talking about, this project makes the presence one of the world’s most powerful broadcasters spectacularly felt in a city now undergoing extraordinary development and change. A huge building with an equally daunting technical and cultural programme, the project has to negotiate the future of television amidst the upheaval of rapid economic and social change, under a still repressive communist regime ambitious for capitalist development. Nonetheless, the structure of the building seems to anticipate the kind of undercurrents which emerge as portable video and communications technologies escape the control of centralised authorities.

The aim of the symposium was to open the field of enquiry by examining the implications and applications of video against the background of the myriad forms in which it appears in urban spaces. The speakers’ contributions and the discussion they provoked helped to bring the challenge of video I mentioned at the beginning of this article into focus.

Curating video is still a problem even though conventions such as I mentioned earlier have evolved in the effort contain this slippery medium within norms of art institutions. These conventions attempt to assimilate video with sculpture (TV on a plinth) or a cross between monumental painting and cinema (big screen but no comfortable chairs) — in any case they attempt to resist the ways in which people ordinarily encounter and use video in daily life, or indeed in other parts the same gallery or museum building: on information screens, CCTV monitors, in the cafe, shop or lobby. These conventions moreover have influenced and been supported by artists. Nam June Paik’s irreverent incorporation of TV into sculpture with the watchword, ‘I make technology ridiculous’ seems isolated. At the other extreme, Bill Viola provides his videos with all the paraphernalia of ‘serious art’: monumentality, authority, fear, suffering, nudity etc. Jeff Koons’s work would have been a much more troubling and difficult to interpret had he chosen television sets instead of vacuum cleaners.

The Video-pool Archive is an attempt to step away from the kind of anxieties a museum curator might have had. We wanted an interpretative method which would, in the first place, be informative for us. A definition of the meaning Video as Urban Condition was neither the starting point nor the goal. We needed a networked approach to gathering a collection of works and a more flexible way of presenting them. An open archive of video and other documentation, the Video-pool comprises compilations put together by artists and curators, informed by individual interpretations of video as an urban condition and based on particular areas of interest, experience and expertise. The Video-pool Archive therefore represents a variety of approaches and methods, forming a constellation of points of reference. It includes works by: Blast Theory, Martin Bruch, Ursula Damm, Tomislav Gotovac, Juha Huuskonenen/Pixelache, Klub Zwei, Kristina Leko, Manu Luksch/ambientTV.NET, Anna McCarthy, Isa Rosenberger, Carlo Sansolo, Ran Slavin, Hito Steyerl, Axel Stockburger, Superflex, Surveillance Camera Players, Milica Tomic, Undercurrents News Network. The aim is to maintain the anti-reductive approach, welcoming diversity as the collection expands.

The Video-pool Installation functions as a self-service videotheque. Users are able to select tapes from the Archive and view them using a group of players and monitors. The equipment (as far as possible cheap, reliable and easy-to-use: monitors, TVs, VCRs, cameras, DVD players of various shapes and sizes together with a library of VHS tapes and DVDs) is arranged in a way which suggests a miniature model of a city, an urban configuration hinting at aspects of video as an urban experience such as shifts in scale, duration and attention, networks and closed circuits.

The project is now developing on parallel lines:

1. working towards a presentation of the Video-pool Archive in a UK touring exhibition, as a growing, migratory resource. The difference between this project and most touring products is that it is designed to encourage local input, with participating venues contributing collections to the Archive reflecting local or specific thematic interests and concerns.

2. developing more informal international contacts with a view to presenting Video as Urban Condition events in co-operation with artist-led and independent organisations (from Bratislava to Tokyo) including screenings and discussions.

3. I have also been invited to develop the project for a museum in Austria. An exciting aspect of this project is the possibility of presenting a video installation using an outdoor space at the museum, simultaneously giving this space an identity as a public space within the city and generating a urban model within the museum. This installation would be the location for presenting a range of video works we have explored in the project.

Consumer culture is often blamed for the homogenisation of urban experience, through domination of global brands and the insidious effects of the entertainment industry and media corporations. Video is at the heart of this process and is perhaps the pre-eminent means of propagating norms. Video has also produced the subjective hybrids which we know as infotainment, docudrama and reality-TV as well as the diverse, unnamed alterations of perception and behaviour which are mediated by the video screen. Such alterations certainly influence, but do not necessarily bind the ever-growing number of people who are video-makers. The distribution of video technology suggests the possibility engendering as many approaches as there are users. Among them, perhaps, ways of contesting the conventions and habits which video persuades us are second nature, and means of making the specificities of urban experience perceptible.

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