Culture & Conversation

Animating the 21st century city

Susa Pop of Berlin's Public Art Lab speaks at the Connecting Cities Symposium for EM15. Photo by Diego Cupolo.

Susa Pop of Berlin’s Public Art Lab speaks at the Connecting Cities Symposium for EM15. Photo by Diego Cupolo.

If you’ve ever walked around other cities at night, you’ve probably been disappointed to realize that the virtual playground thing past nightfall is in fact not the universal urban experience. You’ve also probably been somewhat bored after noting that the facades downtown don’t leap to life as excitedly as ours, and that they miss a certain je-ne-sais-quoi… or possibly, the animated light projections that make you feel like the star in a videogame. And well, if that was just a hunch, it’s been confirmed.

Montreal’s MUTEK became the first non-European organization to join the international Connecting Cities Network, created to encourage the transnational exploration and promotion of technologies for the artistic and civic animation of public space. The Quartier des spectacles (QDS) has also joined, bringing to two the number of North American organizations among the network’s current 23.

The network was conceived of by the Public Art Lab in Berlin, in conjunction with ten other media arts organizations including the Ars Electronica Futurelab in Linz, the Medialab Prado in Madrid and Liverpool’s Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT). Their first ever International Connecting Cities Symposium began yesterday right here at the PHI Centre in Montreal, and is being live streamed over their internet site to the world. It goes until Wednesday, and is free to attend as part of this year’s daytime programming for the EM15 festival.

MUTEK’s early and eager participation in the network is an inspiring mark of the organization’s broader cultural and intellectual mission. The Connecting Cities Network exists at the intersection of urban creativity and civic engagement, and works in opposition to the corporate and commercial use of large-format media in public spaces. Indeed, if there is a single phrase to sum up the fascinating talks held yesterday, it would be that the way we animate the public domain is inherently political. That the Quartier des spectacles would also join is thus another dose of cautious encouragement for those who feared grassroots artists would be forgotten in the glittering new development.

The themes selected for the inaugural symposium have brought together some of the most timely and prescient topics affecting the city of the 21st century: the Networked City, the Participatory City, the Visible City and the Smart City. Yesterday opened with the first two, hosting speakers from participating organizations in Montreal, Berlin, Sao Paolo, Mexico City, Liverpool, New York, Melbourne and Riga.

The Networked City

It suffices to attend just one of these to remark just how searingly relevant the Connecting Cities Network is. The talks on the Networked City provided fertile ground for a range of wider reflections on the emerging social and cultural structures of this networked century. In the era of the Internet and globalized communications, old hierarchies of state and bureaucratic power are being circumvented and pushed to the sidelines by direct linkages between people and organizations. The Connecting Cities Network itself is evidence of these growing cultural flows, but it is also a laboratory for the political and social potential of these technologies.

Mario Ballesteros of the Mexico City government’s new Laboratorio para la Ciudad is striving to bridge the endemic divide between government and the people of the Mexican megapolis through creative interventions in public space. The innovative projects exposed the underlying theme, crystallized most succinctly by fellow panellist Nina Colosi, of New York’s Streaming Museum: she asked if the growing resort to ground-level networks was an answer to the failure of our 18th century representative structures to tackle the issues of our times.

In the wake of Québec’s Printemps érable – or Mexico’s Yo Soy 132 youth movement, or Chile’s student uprising, or Brazil’s revolt in the summer of 2013 – the pertinence and legitimacy of these traditional hierarchies is being repeatedly challenged, and most vigorously by the youth of the network generation. The world’s crises are today not bound by borders, and increasingly, neither are the responses by the denizens of the global village.

But the paradigm shift towards networks is even larger than that, and inflects every element of our culture, from the ground up. From music and film downloading to crowdfunding of artistic projects, everything about the way we interact with each other and with cultural creation has undergone a seismic shift. And it’s all just getting started. So far, the old corporate and government structures have managed to maintain a large degree of their hegemony over the public domain, but cracks are showing, and initiatives like the Connecting Cities Network aim to fully exploit them.

The Participatory City

The second talk, on the Participatory City, hinted at another facet of our urban environments: namely, their loneliness. Melissa Mongiat of Montreal’s Daily tous les jours spoke about her organization’s interactive art projects which aim to enable human connections in the city, including cellphone-controlled animations on the UQÀM façade for MUTEK one year, participatory projections on the side of the new Planetarium, a current installation as part of McLaren Mur à Mur outside Saint-Laurent metro station, and most notably, the musical Balançoires in the Quartier des spectacles that are now in their fourth year. And she made a special mention too of Moment Factory’s Megaphone project, which was also on the Promenade des artistes in the QDS. Her motivation was projected in her final slide, which read: “Bring magic. Create places. Enable connections.”

Each of these phrases is crucial, but the idea of creating places through interactive art installations jumped out at me. Not because enabling connections isn’t perhaps the very magic of which she speaks, but on the contrary, because ultimately, it all leads back to this: creating places, but more, creating a sense of place that is anchored to the human connections that give it life and meaning.

If contemporary urban spaces feel like conduits and resting spots all built around consumption, then bringing art into the public domain can only serve to warm these spaces gone cold from the materialist individualism of the marketized city. “It’s not just politicians who can change the world, but artists too. They have always done so,” said Xavier Dolan upon accepting the Prix du Jury for his film Mommy at Cannes – which he dedicated, pointedly, to the youth.

It was a different context, but the sentiment is equally vital, and apt. Indeed, if enabling human connections through public art can start to slowly change the way we view public space and how we engage with each other in it, then art will have once again proven its political – even revolutionary – potential.

The International Connecting Cities Symposium continues today and tomorrow at the PHI Centre (407, rue Saint-Pierre). Click here for more info and here for the schedule. EM15 officially launches tonight at the MAC, and runs until June 1st, full info here.  

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Shawn Katz is Editor of Rover. His upcoming book on the Printemps érable will be released with Fernwood Publishing (date to be determined). Find him on Twitter @shawn_katz.    


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