After Urban Screens – Dave Colangelo on Massive Media

The first time I encountered Dave Colangelo’s work was in the summer of 2014. The developer Castlepoint Numa was hosting a party in a stripped-bare Automotive Tower that will be the future home of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MoCCA) here in Toronto, and two artists were projecting scenes of labour and resistance onto its façade: Colangelo and Patricio Davila. A researcher and artist focused on the role media plays in the city, Colangelo is all about large scale projections, public art, LED screens; he bundles up all these techniques and technologies and addresses them as something he calls ‘massive media,’ and his reading of these experiences and their effects are quite nuanced. Beyond his participation in the amorphous Public Visualization Studio, Colangelo is a freshly-minted Assistant Professor of Digital Culture at Portland State University in the School of Theatre + Film. Also a co-chair of the Media Architecture Summit 2016, that takes place in Toronto this week (and is looking quite promising), Colangelo engaged in a chat about media and the city with CAN that touched on everything from the Empire State Building to Pokémon Go.

In your 2015 article “Curating massive media” you describe a new visual regime in urban space that was enabled through the propagation of LED displays and powerful projectors – you call public art executed with these technologies ‘massive media’. Can you unpack this term a bit for our readers?

Let’s start with the massive part. Scale is crucial. These things need to be BIG in two ways: their physical volume and the size and number of the networks they engage. That’s part of what makes them relevant as elements of a contemporary public sphere. Massive media needs to be highly visible so that it can broadcast its message to large groups of people. When you add the element of social media, massive media starts to engage what Arjun Appadurai referred to as the “trans-local” (see his 1996 essay “Sovereignty Without Territoriality: Notes for a Postnational Geography”), that is, a sizeable collection of connected likers and lurkers (or trolls) that are engaging with a site (on- and offline). The Empire State Building’s LED façade is a great example of this, especially when it is being used as a huge data visualization for public sentiment. Not only does it broadcast its messages (various colours tied to causes, events, and commercials) to the millions of people that can see it in NYC, but images of these states are published on social media where they are circulated and acted upon by another, intersecting public.

That, of course, leads nicely into the media part. Media (images, sound, video) abound in these agglomerations of space, technology, and people. They are the connective tissue that allow us to communicate with one another and our environment in unprecedented ways. It doesn’t hurt that the term also sounds and looks a lot like ‘mass media,’ since this situates it within a discourse of media and communication studies, which is where I think it should be, among other places (New Media Art, Art History, Architecture, Urban Studies).

↑ Ryoji Ikeda, test pattern [times square] (2014) / Lateral Office, Impulse (2016) photo: Ulysse Lemerise

In the same article you set up a bit of a dichotomy between Manhattan’s Times Square and Quartier des spectacles in Montreal, which respectively describe urban media as ultra-commercialized and a little more closely interwoven with cultural production. Globally, what other urban spaces or initiatives can we look to for lessons on how we deploy and regulate media in the city, and how we activate it culturally?

One of the most important factors in getting things right when it comes to massive media and has to do with the support of the “host” organization. So, if the host organization is the Times Square Alliance, then their focus is going to be encouraging shopping, tourism, and economic development, so art will not be their primary objective. If the host organization is a municipal or provincial government, as is the case with Quartier des spectacles, then you’ll have programming that is a little more community focussed, not to mention more frequently presented for more than just the three minutes at midnight – as is the case with the “Midnight Moment” artistic takeovers of Times Square.

The best scenario is when a massive media environment is hosted, owned, and operated by an arts institution, as is the case with Medialab-Prado in Madrid and the Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria.


One of the best projects I’ve seen is Medialab-Prado’s #ProgrammaLaPlaza (2014). The project allows participants in any location (with an internet connection) to write code for their public media façade which can then be viewed on it immediately thereafter. The venue then selects the best of the contributions to be shown as part of a one-week exhibition.

“Are media façades purely aesthetic embellishments and superficial gadgets layered over architecture, or do they signal an important shift in urban fabric?”

One of Ars Electronica’s projects, NOX (2013), consisted of a pull switch suspended in the middle of a viewing area in front of the façade that, when activated, turned all of the pixels on the building on or off like a lamp. The simplicity of the installation posed a simple, yet crucially relevant and brave conceptual question about massive media: are such façades seen as purely aesthetic embellishments and superficial gadgets layered over architecture, or do they signal an important shift in our urban fabric that seeks to make buildings more performative and expressive of the actions and desires of citizens?

While the technology and urban setting at Ars Electronica and MediaLab-Prado may be quite different, what they have in common, and what sets them apart from other examples, is that they pay very close attention to the space around the screen by creating dedicated seating and viewing areas for their digital displays, as well installing and supporting other infrastructure such as built-in motion detectors, cameras, speakers, and multimedia kiosks that allow for diverse and nuanced interactions. They also treat massive media as something that needs to be curated and programmed as you would an art gallery or film festival. They produce and present creative and critical work year-round, as well as opening up their spaces to the community through hands-on workshops and open-calls.

These programs by Ars Electronica or Medialab-Prado are undoubtedly cultural infrastructure, and their scope and impact is tied the affordances and vision – and of course economic realities – imposed by their local benefactors. If we are going to talk about activating Times Square for a few minutes each night another ephemeral ‘takeover’ that we might discuss is all night arts festivals like Nuit Blanche. Does the aggregation of spectacle-type projects in urban space fit into this discussion about massive media? Or are they too ephemeral?

Too ephemeral! The projectors and other infrastructure used for these events cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. With a little foresight, money could be invested in more durable, permanent infrastructure (permanent projection booths, media façades, embedded sensors and speakers, plug-and-play interfaces with massive media), and instead of having one opportunity a year to get outside and have a digital art party, we could be doing it every night. Some might say ‘we can’t afford an art party every night,’ but I say why not? If you find the right way to get citizens and arts organizations involved these spaces can be animated year round and that brings money and cred to cities. It also gets local studios involved, helps them up their game, and puts their work on a public pedestal.

Others might say ‘we don’t even want an art party every night, we want to just hang out in a public park or square!’ My answer to that is, ‘yes, there’s still a need for the old fashioned agora, but at the same time, what it means to be public has changed immensely.’ It has a hybrid dimension that has to be acknowledged, and that’s something I think massive media does well. If audiences are respected and introduced to new ways of being public by great long-term projects like Quartiers des spectacles’ McLarena (2014), then the appetite and appreciation for this way of bring public will grow.

I am familiar with McLarena, I remember seeing it during the tail end of its two month run. What are some other urban installations (say seasonal, or permanent) that you believe were/are similarly successful?

One seasonal work that has always caught my attention is Andrea Polli’s Particle Falls (2010-). It’s an artistic, public data-visualization of invisible pollution: when a plane flies overhead, or when a bunch of cars approach a nearby intersection, sensors pick up an increase in particle pollution and a glowing, pulsating stripe projected on the side of a building begins to change colour and vibrates dramatically. This pieces resides permanently at the University of North Carolina, but also tours around the world, often stopping in places where it’s message fits within larger civic or cultural events like the Paris climate change talks.

Another permanent piece (these are rare), and definitely a classic of the genre, is Crown Fountain. Jaume Plensa’s dual monolyths (dilyths?) have been captivating (and soaking) visitors of Chicago’s Millenium park since 2004. The faces of local citizens that appear on the screens serve to humanize the otherwise hard edges of the piece. The water adds a few things: nature, play, and reflection. This piece is a key example for a paper I’m working on that unpacks the role of the face in massive media, situating it within a history of face-centric monuments (massive media means we can see our own faces instead of the faces of a few political figures).

In the Air, Tonight (2014) photo: Maggie Chan / The Line (2013) photo: Will Pemulis / Tent City Projection (2014) photo: Joe Fuda

Beyond considering the theoretical implications of media architecture you work with a host of collaborators in the Public Visualization Studio to create it. In the Air, Tonight used a media façade to spark a dialogue about homelessness in Toronto in the dead of its (very cold, at times lethally so) winter; The Line saw the projection of images of urban sprawl on the side of a two-century old barn in a pioneer village in the middle of Toronto’s ever-expanding suburbs. Is the common thread in these works that architecture can become explicitly polemical? The undercurrents in this work suggest a more critical relationship with the city, one that is not that present in a lot of the projects we have discussed thus far?

With the projects we do at Public Visualization Studio we definitely look to use these technologies critically and creatively. But mostly critically. We can afford to do so since most of these projects are funded by grants instead of paying clients. It’s a conscious decision for us to follow this route, because it allows us to make the work we want to make, and that we think is vital. Really, for us it comes down to a politics of representation, which is something that one of our favourite philosophers Jacques Rancière talks about: who can speak? Where? And how? When you look around at the urban environment, the answer is going to be either “nobody” – that is, individuals and groups, for the most part, have little say over the what they see around them – or “corporations,” in the form of ads or buildings that seem to promote capital accumulation first and community needs second. Projects like In The Air, Tonight and The Line, and even more so Tent City Projection and Parkdale Versions, are ways for us to show that buildings, with the help of a little massive media and community engagement, can amplify, reflect, and relay real concerns.

A combination of poor form factor and no explicit use case saw Google’s Glass project sputter into oblivion, but now people are crazy for Pokémon Go. The comparison is a little apples and oranges but from the outside it seems like the general utility to augment urban vision failed, where a specific application (for entertainment no less) tied to the smartphone is a big hit. What do you think these two projects show us about how we may augment our vision (of the city) in the near and more distant future?

Here’s why Pokémon GO works and Google Glass doesn’t: collectivity. Google Glass is (was?) about tailoring contextually-relevant information to individuals. Pokémon is about a common playing field that depends on a shared physical and virtual reality that gets stitched together by mobile computing devices. It’s something people can do in small groups and imagine themselves to be doing as part of a much larger networked public.

One thing that I think is special about the massive media projects I make and write about is the collectivity that is built into them by virtue of physical and networked visibility. Collectivity remains part of the magic of public space: that we experience the same thing at the same time and can sense one another doing so too. When technology and media taps into that, then you’ve got something.

↑ Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Voz Alta (2008) / Lozano-Hemmer will deliver the keynote address at the Media Architecture Summit 2016.

This week, you’re convening a global roster of thinkers and practitioners for the Media Architecture Summit 2016 here in Toronto. What are some of the most pressing questions you hope to see posed, considered, and maybe even answered within the proceedings?

The Summit is organized around three themes: Art and Activism, The Relational Spaces of Media Architecture, and 24-Hour Architecture. In terms of our first theme, Art and Activism, I’m hoping MAS 2016 will explore questions like, how can we empower communities, particularly underrepresented communities, through urban media art and massive media?

The Relational Spaces of Media Architecture theme is about asking how massive media can create new registers of meaning and specificity in spaces beyond their physical settings, as well as thinking about the spaces around the screen. These are important as the things on them. How do we design and develop these spaces and respectfully foster audience interest and involvement? How are new technologies transforming buildings into interactive and adaptive displays in which the city turned interface is increasingly responsive?

Finally, 24-Hour Architecture is a bit of a nod (or a stink eye) in the direction of Le Corbusier who famously had no interest in the way a building looked after the sun went down. As cities and their citizens become increasingly nocturnal we have to think about tactics that architects, artists, and lighting designers are using to create buildings that maximize both their day and night-time functions? Hint: slapping a big rectangular, opaque screen on the side of a building is not the answer!

One final question that I hope we’ll get into at the summit: what kinds of new design and planning strategies, narrative structures, aesthetics considerations, and interaction scenarios are required as the real-time mediation of data and information animates buildings and urban environments? That’s a lot of questions, but I’m feeling pretty ambitious about it!

For those unable to get to Toronto for the summit, what books or (open access) online articles would you point them at to familiarize themselves with the current discourse around media architecture?

A few really good books came out recently on the subject. What Urban Media Art Can Do – Why, When, Where & How (avedition, 2016) is a global survey of Urban Media Art compiled and very-intelligently commented upon by some of the leaders in this field, including Susa Pop, the artistic director of Connecting Cities (a Berlin-based organization that supports the commissioning and circulation of artistic and social content across a worldwide network of media façades, urban screens, and projection sites) and Tanya Toft, urban media art curator and critic (she’ll be speaking at MAS 2016!).

Davina Jackson’s book, SuperLux: Smart Light Art, Design & Architecture for Cities (Thames & Hudson, 2015) is another one. This book covers buildings and installations that “animate” architecture, encourage interactivity in urban spaces, and introduce new “smart” concepts for wayfinding and street lighting.

Finally, an open access piece to round out the mix: the Urban Screens Reader (Institute of Network Cultures, 2009), edited, among others, by media scholar Scott McQuire (also speaking at MAS 2016!). This is really the first book to identify and cover this topic comprehensively, and the one that got me into this stuff in the first place!

Dave Colangelo | Public Visualization Studio | Media Architecture Summit 2016
ead photo: Maggie Chan