Vague Terrain 13: citySCENE

'In the center of Fedora, that gray stone metropolis, stands a metal bulding with a crystal globe in every room. Looking into each globe, you see a blue city, the model of a different Fedora. These are the forms the city could have taken if, for no one reason or another, it had not become what we see today. In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe.'1 - Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Even at their most mundane, cities are fantastic assemblages. They aggregate capital and experience, accelerate culture and interaction, incubate negotiations between various stakeholders and nurture a wonderful, unresolvable tension that permeates both geographic and regulatory space. Cities are physical manifestations of societal superstructures and are comprised not only of brick and mortar but asphalt and dirt, back alleys and off-ramps, water and power, raw materiality and flow. Cutting through these infrastructures and routes are property lines, historical rifts, and the imagination of developers, urban planners and architects. Enmeshed within these intersecting frameworks are the lives and interests of an engaged citizenry, one that is packing mobile technology and whose actions in the city are increasingly logged as unique, granular events.2

As the discussion of ubiquitous computing has migrated from hypothesis staged within the pages of speculative fiction to the tech-spotting of design punditry, it is clear that the restructuring of the urban imaginary3 is well underway. This issue of Vague Terrain is founded on two notions - that the city is a stage set for intervention and an engine for representation. The "event cities" postulated by architect Bernard Tschumi in the 1980s and 90s suggested that urban space had the capability to engender narrative. Since writers could "twist vocabulary and grammar" architects could use these same tactics of "repetition, distortion and juxtaposition" to guide the development of not only form, but use.4 That said, it only follows that networked artists are equally capable of co-opting urban networks and flow and using these forces as raw material in the construction of new perceptual models that challenge "top down" conceptions of cartography and notions of urban experience based on passive consumption.

Vague Terrain 13: citySCENE collates the ventures of 20 artists and scholars working with a range of mediums that include: code, the body, text, field recording, mobile technology, static and moving imagery and the application programming interface (API). As evidenced by the contributor geo-histories mapped above, these creative practices have benefited from exposure to a significant number of global cities. As much as was possible, this work was curated to acknowledge the great diversity of urban contexts throughout the world.

This collection of work employs a range of approaches in utilizing the street as a platform5 and (re)presenting urban space - these can be roughly categorized as aggregation, transliteration, intervention, framing views and as parsing the implications of mobile technology and locative media.

Aggregation: Metacity/Multicity

Projects that analyze multiple cities and propose strategies for representing, exploring and moving through these environments.

  • Michael Chen and Jason J. Lee's Cognitive Maps and Database Urbanisms has emerged from research conducted within the designers' Crisis Fronts studio at the Pratt Institute's architectural program. This work considers Jameson's notion of cognitive mapping in an age of GIS (Geographic Information Systems), scripting and dynamic data analysis. This methodology has been tested in a suite of case studies which examine issues of mobility in Los Angeles, favela growth in Sao Paulo and water delivery in Mumbai.
  • Stop.Space: 12 Discontinuous Nonmoments in the Global City documents the wandering architectural thesis project of Yukiko Bowman. Bowman spent the better part of 2007 exploring and documenting a myriad of metropolises that include Hong Kong, Mumbai, Sao Paulo, Bangkok, Houston and a half dozen others. Bowman's work focuses on the notion of the "", a lapse in the speed and production-oriented focus of the global city and uses the dérive to redraw urban space.
  • Conor McGarrigle's Joyce Walks mines the narrative of the quintessential Modernist city-text, James Joyce's Ulysses, as the basis a series of city walks. This crowd-powered work proposes a new hybrid urban experience that combines Leopold Bloom's Dublin of 1904, the Google Maps API and the features and terrain of a global network of cities.

Transliteration: Questioning the Language of Urban Space

The following works revel in translation, each reads their subject city as a composite text and identifies urban narratives while crafting concrete poetry.

  • Ivan Safrin & Christian Marc Schmidt's Pastiche exploits the tension between city space and blog urbanism. This dynamic visualization geolocates neighbourhood names and keywords (culled from online sources) and uses this data to construct a navigable representation of New York City. While the vertical orientation and density of this textscape references the architecture of Manhattan, this project is more akin to a meta-document than any conventional map or 3D model.
  • The illustration of Frank Dresmé demonstrates an acute awareness of the power of architecture and density. With a submission composed of three projects, Dresmé uses exploration, subjective cartography and photographs as source material in redrawing Amsterdam and Rotterdam. These "collage cities" celebrate urban infrastructure and experience as a unified construct, one that is to be moved through and marveled.
  • Olga Mink's video Urban Nature takes ephemeral, transitory city-moments and stretches them into an uneasy realm of pure duration. These interstitial spaces are used to frame issues of surveillance and control in the contemporary city.
  • Hector Centeno exhibits a similar fascination with temporality in What is it? The City Soundscape as a Way of Experiencing Oneness. This work is founded on digital spectral transformations of a series of semi-binaural field recordings collected while walking through Toronto. This composition creates an immersive space of repose that exists somewhere between the shared city and subjective experience.

Intervention: Underutilized Space as Opportunity

Non-place, underutilized, brownfields, sprawl - all names for marginalized space that is a byproduct of growth and urban planning. These projects read such swaths of city space as an opportunity for action.

  • Mattia Casalegno & Michael Langeder's Disturbed City proposes a "guerrilla warfare" version of the urban screens movement. Responding to strips of underutilized "second rate" space that has resulted from city planning in Brussels, the project employs mobile projection to create temporary architectural monuments. Flickering at night while most of the city sleeps, this media architecture highlights forgotten space and suggests the possibility for future occupation.
  • For Sound Sweep: Sonic Territories and Zones of Forgetting, audio artist Abinadi Meza turns to the dystopian vision of JG Ballard for inspiration. Sound Sweep is a mobile pirate radio broadcast that hacks the airwaves and "perforates and reprograms sonic space" in Los Angeles. Collaborators upload collected "sonic residue" and this serves as the base material for new compositions.
  • Andrea Rojas' Urban Voids in Medium Size Chilean Cities puts contemporary, underutilized space in Chile under the microscope. This architectural thesis project examines the notion of the void as phenomenological, functional and geographic entity and proposes an agricultural intervention to reclaim this type of wayward space in the city of Calama.

Framing Views: Iterative Imaging

Photographic and video based serial imaging - each of these projects suggests a new methodology for urban representation that addresses environmental conditions, movement and local variance on the streetscape.

  • Michael Surtees' New York Colour Study is a regimented examination of the Manhattan skyline. Each day Surtees takes a photograph from his highrise apartment and adds the image to a chronological index. This attention on the varying ambient qualities of the same framed view allow us to understand exactly how much the atmosphere colours our perception of urban space.
  • Tori Foster has provided us a window into her ambitious The Mother City project by summarizing the (in progress) first episode of the venture. The Impossibility of Understanding in the Path of a Torontonian prototypes a dynamic system of urban representation which references the architectural cross section and captures the distinct relationship that four individuals have with the city.
  • Watching the Street (Navigator) is a recent experimental photography project by Mitchell Whitelaw. Photographing the same streetfront every minute for a week, Whitelaw has developed a software application which allows users to navigate the entire body of images for one of these days. This tool also provides an abstracted time-lapse, composite image that maps how light, colour and activity vary across a 24 hour period.

Locative Taxonomies: Networks and Cartography

While many of the previous projects are about cartography, this subset of work is explicitly invested in identifying how mobile devices relate to mapping. Through both theory and practice, these works examine mapping, infrastructure and public space in light of locative technology.

  • Thomas Dreher's Participation with Camera and Locative Media is a comprehensive meta-list of urban mapping precedents, GPS drawing and locative media projects. Dreher provides an essential backstory to contemporary web mapping and situates these developments as tools for citizens to express their local agency and trangress global systems of control.
  • With Mutable Territories, Katharine S. Willis delivers a nuanced analysis of the immateriality of mobile and wireless networks. Willis examines the presence of related infrastructure(s) and revisits urban theorist Kevin Lynch's notions of "landmark, districts, paths, nodes, and edges" as they relate to the digital city.
  • David Drury's Hearing There is a interactive soundwalk along Montréal's Boulevard St. Laurent. Participants are equipped with headphones attached to a PDA device and as they move along the street they hear binaural recordings of nearby interior spaces. This project inverts the relationship between interior and exterior space while foregrounding activities and ambiance that are not readily accessible from the street.
  • Greg Giannis' Peripato Telematikos is a platform for creating subjective mappings for individuals and collectives. This web application allows participants to send MMS messages from a mobile device and create multimedia "tracemaps" which annotate movement with photographs and commentary. Giannis situates this work as a counterpoint to cartographies of control and has thus far staged walks in Darebin and Adelaide, Australia.

While these projects can be casually enjoyed as "toys in glass globes", they can also be read as provocations that advocate agency in the city, self-authored cartographies and new models of urban representation.

Greg J. Smith, Toronto
March 2009


1 Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities New York: Harcourt, 1978. (p. 32)
2 For more on "granular events" see Adrian Holovaty's comments in his January 2008 interview with Al Tompkins that coincided with the launch of Everyblock.
3 Soja, Edward. Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions. London: Blackwell, 2002. (p. 324)
4 Tschumi, Bernard. "Spaces and Events" in Architecture and Disjunction. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999. (p. 146)
5 Hill, Dan. "The Street as Platform" in City of Sound. Feb. 11, 2008. - accessed 03/09.