The Struggle For Media Cities

How digital artists are challenging the commercial use of urban screens and billboards

Federation Square

The long standing conflict in our cities over visual communication, between those with commercial interests and those without, is getting even more intense. Technological advances in digital signage and lighting, are turning every inch of our cities into billboards. Who has a right to visually communicate in a public space?



Places such as Picadilly Circus, Times Square and Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto are all examples of public spaces where advertisers control the medium. They broadcast their messages from there, and from thousands of smaller locations around the world.

Companies such as the Branded Cities Network in the U.S. and global giant Defi, help advertisers reach consumers through Out-of-Home advertising (OOH). These networks own spectaculars, static billboards and digital signage all over globe. They sell advertisers on the fact that their physical assets cannot be ad blocked, skipped, or even avoided depending on its placement. As a result, OOH is seen as a more effective way to reach consumers despite the internet. Even though many of us walk around with our eyes looking down at our phones, advertisers know that we have to look up some time.

Vivid Sydney 2015

Vivid Sydney 2015

The Branded Cities Network even has a name for this strategy: Brandscaping.

On their website they describe brandscaping as “the delicate art of merging brand experiences with people’s lives.” They go on to explain that their brandscaping can be achieved in public spaces, mobile marketing, and social media so that consumers experience brands in a multi-dimensionally and controlled environment. Imagine someone in Times Square standing in front of the almost 250-foot tall Thomson Reuters digital signage, realising that the same ad that just popped up on their phone is on the digital signage. For those of you who hate advertising, there seems to be no escape.

Many of these urban screens are capable of interactive engagement and broadcasting live events. Advertising industry news sites are already informing their audiences how they can take advantage of innovations in urban screens.

Vivid Sydney - The Rocks

Vivid Sydney – The Rocks

What have the proponents of billboards and urban screens for non-commercial purposes done to counterbalance the commercial might of the advertisers? Well, they have been quite busy over the last several years.

The Media Architecture Institute, a non-profit organisation founded in 2009, studies and promotes the work of artists, architects, designers and academics that specialise in media facades, urban screens and other forms of digital communication relative to architecture.

The theme of their 2016 biennale is ‘Digital Placemaking’, which will explore of how technology and digital media can make cities more liveable.

Vivid Sydney 2015, Lighting the sails, Opera House photographed from the Bridge Pylon. 4/6/2015. Photo Credit - James Horan/Destination NSW

Vivid Sydney 2015, Lighting the sails, Opera House photographed from the Bridge Pylon. 4/6/2015. Photo Credit – James Horan/Destination NSW

Connecting Cities, a global network of media architecture entities, has as its goal “to build up a connected infrastructure of media facades, urban screens and projection sites to circulate artistic and social content.” For Connecting Cities, urban media should be a platform for citizens to exchange ideas between themselves and between other cities in real-time. They even live stream events on their website from their partner organisations around the globe.

Essentially, groups like the Media Architecture Institute and Connecting Cities are their own large networks, globally connected to smaller networks, just like Branded Cities and Defi. The main difference is that the former group wants to promote the non-commercial use of urban screens.

Vivid Sydney 2015_Universal-Everything-Exhibition_SOH_Credit-DestinationNSW_ KM_--4333

Vivid Sydney 2015_Universal-Everything-Exhibition_SOH Credit-DestinationNSW

Image during the Vivid Sydney 2015 Media Preview at Central Park on the 18th of May, 2015

Image during the Vivid Sydney 2015 Media Preview at Central Park on the 18th of May, 2015

Entities such as Videospread, The Advertiser and Screens in the Wild, promote the showing non-commercial content on urban screens, with a focus on interactive public art. Videospread, based in Marseille, helps to distribute video and multimedia for public screenings and semi-public spaces. The idea is to encourage and promote critical thinking through these viewings and challenge the way people experience urban screens, which is as an advertising medium.

Vivid Sydney Lighting the sails, Opera House. 22/5/2015 Picture Credit James Horan/ Destination NSW

Vivid Sydney Lighting the sails, Opera House. 22/5/2015. Photo Credit: James Horan/ Destination NSW

In June of 2015, Videospread helped artist and composer, Christine Coulange of Sisygambis, with the Australian screening of her short film, People from the Indian Ocean. The 6 minute film was shown on outdoor screens at Sydney’s Chatswood Concourse and Federation Square in Melbourne.  A combination of rare footage of religious meetings, rituals, seasonal customs, everyday acts, and human interaction, were captured from over 15 years of filming on the Silk Road and in the Indian Ocean.

People from the Indian Ocean

People from the Indian Ocean

In November, British artists Charlotte Gould and Paul Sermon, presented their Peoples Screen in Guanghzou, China and Perth, Australia. People in both cities were able exchange with each other via an artistic real-time performance on urban screens. The artists wanted to examine the creative and cultural potential of participatory urban screens.

Peoples Screen

Peoples Screen

In Spain, the Etopia Art and Technology Center of Zaragoza have a media façade handbook posted on their website, showing people how to use their urban screen. Gestures like these should force us to ask who has a right to visually communicate in a public space? The answer is everyone. Obviously, some messages of a discriminatory nature should not be allowed, but if we can police social media, we can police urban screens to ensure that the message does not harm the public.

Vivid Sydney 2015_Life Story_Argyle Cut_LF_DNSW_ 5

Vivid Sydney 2015, Life Story, Argyle Cut, DNSW

Vivid Sydney 2015_Life Story_Argyle Cut_LF_DNSW_ 13

Vivid Sydney 2015, Life Story, Argyle Cut, DNSW

Vivid Sydney 2015_LifeStory_ArgyleCut_The Rocks_Credit Destination NSW_ KM4539

Vivid Sydney 2015, Life Story, Argyle Cut, DNSW

What we see are urban screens being used to show WildAid videos, documentary style short films or raise awareness about homelessness. We have also seen projection mapping used this way at the Vatican and the Empire State Building as a way to raise awareness about climate change.

Vivid Sydney 2015

Vivid Sydney 2015

These forms of media architecture become opportunities for shared moments. People would not watch random OOH advertising this way. For both the advertisers and the artists working against the commercialisation of public space, negotiating the use of urban screens and projected surfaces as forms of visual communication in the public realm, is a conflict that will continue.

Vivid Sydney 2015, Kaleidoscope, Walsh-Bay. Photo Credit: DestinationNSW

Vivid Sydney 2015_Kaleidoscope_Walsh-Bay_Credit-DestinationNSW

Eventually, I believe that the proponents of non-commercial usage will win and advertisers will simply find more innovative and intrusive ways to capture our attention on the streets of our cities.

Words: Phil Roberts

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