research > urban > How video shapes urban experience
Anthony Auerbach

‘How Video Shapes Urban Experience’, paper presented at the Humanities and Technology Association Conference, ReConfigurations: Arts, Humanities, and Technology in the Urban Environment, Borough of Manhattan Community College, The City University of New York, 7 October 2006.

This informal presentation was accompanied by a series of photographs and was introduced as follows.

What I would like to do (as far as I can in a short talk) is to unfold the implications of the phrase I have chosen as my headline, or at least suggest how such and unfolding might proceed. Reflecting on how video shapes urban experience, my thoughts tend to spread, to flow into all the places and gaps in daily life which video has infiltrated and inhabits. From the mainstream of public culture to the backwaters of private life, from mass-consumption at home to closed circuits in the street, from fantastic desires to reality-TV, video binds our experience, twisting and braiding the strands normally separated as ‘public’ and ‘private’.

The images you are seeing are an accidental inventory of the urban phenomena of video familiar to everyone. I call it an accidental inventory because it is not a systematic survey. I did not go out of my way to take any of these photographs, although I have to admit I have become something of a video spotter, not to say voyeur. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a TV at home.

The photographs demonstrate how a small set of technologies supports a large set of applications at different scales: from the infrastructure of terrestrial, satellite, cable and mobile networks, through the equipment of the home, the workplace, commercial and public spaces, to systems of surveillance and control. Each photograph offers a document which would repay analysis, tracing the web of interactions between of media and architecture, subject and commodity, identity and desire, the city and its phantasmagoria.

Describing a few of them might serve to underline the complexity of the topic and how difficult it would be to come to a stable generalised conclusion. As Anna McCarthy points out, video is always site specific, but often in unexpected ways.

Shooting an Indian pop video in central London.

(Not) watching a Brazilian soap opera in Bratislava.

Playing real pingpong in virtual Shibuya in a London arcade.

The President in person, screened for/from the public.

Reverent close-up of the Pope and subversion of the architecture of St Peter’s Square.

Sex and the City at the subway entrance.

The question is, what does this have to say to a meeting of the humanities and technology association, or rather, what does it say about the association between humanities and technology?

My heading, how video shapes urban experience, ought to have the stress first on ‘How’. That is, the ways and means: how the technologies and codes of video appear and operate in urban environments. Video is not only or principally an object: a TV set, billboard screen or DVD. Neither is video only or principally a text, a TV show, art work or advertisement. Video is a set of mediating devices and must be counted among what are called ‘pervasive technologies’.

Secondly, I would emphasise that ‘Experience’ implies a subject, a situation and the relationship between them. We would have to take account of the role of video in forming subjectivities, the impact of video on the material and social environments of the city and the potential of video as an artistic medium to give form to experience. Experience is both formed and informed by video, and the subject both identified and conditioned by it. We could pertinently ask whether a given use of video assumes or constructs the subject as a citizen, a consumer or a suspect; a participant or a voyeur; an individual or a member of a collective. We should also ask under what conditions the urban subject conforms with such assumptions. We should examine how we become the subjects of video’s seeing: in front of the TV set, with camcorder or cell phone in hand, and under the watchful eye of video surveillance.

It’s pointless to claim that video is ‘essentially’ about distance, for example, or ‘essentially’ about presence, as one still finds — in my opinion, almost as implausibly — in discussions of cinema and theatre and, for that mattter, karaoke, as if these effects were caused by the technology. Video gives the lie to the claim that can still be heard in discussions of art and literature that reflexivity is the mark of the avant-garde. It is almost the norm on TV. It is the aesthetic lure of surveillance. It is at home in home video.

The meaning of these relations is dependent on subjectivity. That is, it depends who you are ...

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