The visual identity of our cities is largely shaped by advertising. Although there are exceptions like São Paulo, where public administration decided to rid the urban landscape of all commercial displays via a “Clean City Law” (2007), such examples remain few and far between.

Over the years, outdoor advertising has evolved with technology, complementing tradi-tional print ads or static displays with screens that show a variety of dynamic contents according to situation (and resolution), from basic animations to complex videos. Known to advertisers as Digital Out of Home (DOOH), cultural operators and architects tend to call such displays urban screens, media facades, media architecture, or urban media.

Against this background, the Berlin based Public Art Lab has established a growing international network to build a connected infrastructure of media facades, urban screens, and projection sites to promote artistic and social content: Connecting Cities.

Videopainting, interactive projection by Blake Shaw at Goethe Institute Academy of Arts Berlin, April 2013
Videopainting, interactive projection by Blake Shaw during the annual Goethe Conference, April 2013 at Academy of Arts Berlin

Now present in many European cities and beyond, the project currently goes from strength to strength in Istanbul, Liverpool, Brussels, Helsinki, Madrid, Montreal, Sao Paulo, Melbourne, and many other metropolises.

We spoke to Susa Pop, the project’s founder and director of Public Art Lab, in her Berlin-Mitte office about Connecting Cities and public art displays.

What is the story behind Public Art Lab and Connecting Cities?
Public Art Lab is an NGO that was founded in 2003 among a lot of nomadic projects like mobile studios and mobile museums. Turin based urbanist Mirjam Struppek and I started with the Media Facades Festival Berlin in 2008, followed by a European version of the festival in 2010 to explore the networked possibilities of urban screens and media façades. We wanted to launch a debate on reappropriating public space for the public and, at the same time, facilitate creativity, encounters, and discussion. We realized that most of the media façades are somehow tied into the internet, so we turned them into windows between stories and ideas of different cities. The festival taught us a lot about how to involve the public in creative processes and the inherent challenges the urban environment presents for art projects.

Who supports you?
Both the Media Facades Festival 2010 and Connecting Cities are funded by the EU Culture Programme. Connecting Cities is part of a multi-annual scheme and co-financed for four years.

Dancing in the rain, by Pfadfinderei + The Constitutes, Sao Paulo
Dancing in the rain, by Pfadfinderei + The Constitute for Germany + Brasil 2013-14, May 2013 in Sao Paulo

How do you involve the audience?
All over Europe, we organize workshops with our partners to share our insights on urban practices and the development of interactive urban media projects.

These interactive concepts also need to have social relevance. Take Julian Oliver who hacks systems on a activist basis to show what is technologically already possible today. For the Media Facades Festival 2010 he created a future scenario called Men in Gray, where two men moved around with briefcase-mounted monitors which displayed the captured data of the audience’s mobile phones. This was an appalling way to show how easily private information can be appropriated by others.

Which cities make the most of their media façades?
Montreal offers a permanent network of projections to serve as a platform for festivals and non-commercial initiatives and to revitalize the city center, called Quartier des spectacles. Sidney and Melbourne are also good examples. São Paulo has the first curated media façade in Avenida Paulista, the Galeria de Arte Digital SESI-SP. It looks like a hive-structured pyramid built out of 27k LEDs.

Binoculars by Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet Sola during the Connecting Cities Event at Bauhaus Dessau 2013, photo: Ruthe Zuntz
Binoculars by Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet Sola during the Connecting Cities Event at Bauhaus Dessau 2013, photo: Ruthe Zuntz

Tell us about your artwork selection process.
Artists can apply through an open call for proposals and will be selected by our curators. Each year, we pick around twelve projects that are co-curated and co-produced by us. From this general pool of projects, each city/curator makes their own program referencing local context. The next call will focus on “Visible Cities” through artistic visualizations of data mining and open data.

What is the relationship between project and politics?
If you work in and with public space – and especially urban screens – you are always dealing and negotiating with administrations like the city development and planning department – and this is where the politics come in.

Saving Face by Karen Lancel and Hermen Maat during the Connecting Cities Event at Bauhaus Dessau, photo: Ruthe Zuntz
Saving Face by Karen Lancel and Hermen Maat during the Connecting Cities Event at Bauhaus Dessau, photo: Ruthe Zuntz

Check out the Connecting Cities website to find out more about upcoming events like the Participatory City 2014 or the call for entries for Visible City 2015.

Interview: Marcello Pisu
Header image: Stimmungsgasometer – Mood Gasometer – by Richard Wilhelmer, Julius von Bismarck and Benjamin Maus, Media Facades Festival 2008, Berlin