Contradiction of Urban Storytelling

During one of my news shuffling over the Internet I ended up collecting two articles which describe a quite similar topic: the controversy of displaying objects in public space to influence communities’ affection to the nation – and the related sense of belonging – through crafted narratives. One article from the BBC describes how the artist Sebastian Errazuriz “vandalised”  the AR Ballon Dog Sculpture virtually displayed in NY Central Park through Snapchat. The other one describes how monuments, and the reason why they are built, are still top topics of public debate.

Both stories revolve around the “value of public displaying” as an action that imposes a specific narrative crafted by the author and represented by the object. In the Snapchat AR Ballon’ case the controversy is subtle: a private company virtually “occupies” public space which is “vital to open up a dialogue” (Sebastian Errazuriz). For the artist this is worrying because, if not stopped – or at least addresses – it could become a potential trend where private companies are allowed to use public space to generate marketing focused engagement. This action is quite different from a traditional billboard, which generally visualises a message that any passersby might engage with or not depending on interests (nonetheless this is something under transformation as Piccadilly Circus new LED screens demonstrate through embedded sensors which track people to generate interactive content); under this light the human presence in public space is a rich source of data which can be used to target anyone’s life, ie the space people inhabit through identity to influence habits and everyday rituals.

Being aware that contemporary social life takes mainly place in the virtual space of social networks, where personal and professional relationships are built, digital interactions do influence people’s lives. Nonetheless digital space is still an unruled (or under-legislated) territory that can target private citizens to shape and direct tangible choices and decisions. Indeed digital actions are not virtual, they do have physical and tangible effects, even though not clearly acknowledged.
How can digital social space achieve the equal level of public understanding currently recognised to physical spaces? How can digital space trigger behaviour that supports public debate?  For its own terms public space is supposed to be the place that keeps dialogue among and across citizens. It is the space of encounter which members are given an equal rule and right. Nonetheless such equality becomes unbalanced when an object representing a narrative directs and clusters opinions that flat and direct the level of debate. A public monument is indeed the tangible visualisation of a commissioned story. Who owns the truth in public space? Are still monuments media of liable common identification? Are they able to describe the plethora of stories community members share? Do they still work as communication media entitled of tell collective narratives? History per se is a controversial topic, which course of events is written by parties and monuments are the tangible visualisation of such biased realities.

Interactive and experience based contemporary society could perhaps introduce new values that would change both the digital and physical space in terms of public debate. Indeed as place designed for communities public space needs to keep its role of teaching new generations the facts of the past. For what the City Lab article describes is the monument still the right media to use? How can public space become a place capable of hosting the plethora of identities that characterise our cities?

Both the AR Snapchat Dog and statues are interfaces that contribute to enforce narratives from those in power. If in our society private corporations like Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat become the political authorities that own the space where we interact, share ideas and make social connections, what would be our culture? In the near future will be engaged by “branded” Nelsons (Trafalgar Square monument)? Will Nelson serve the politics of Google, Snapchat, Facebook by transforming his history for their marketing campaign? Will we be passing to future generations values associated to brands and how brands would like us to think? There might be another different route to follow, which works through the engaging aspect under which digital reality has been developed so far which can make a different use of public space as the actual place where different historical events, belonging to different culture, take place across time. Public space could indeed display the plethora of cultural identities that built its own agency across time.

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The Ownership of Physical Space

A year ago I started to look at the value of physical space in relation to digital realities and people’s understanding of “space”.

The question I asked myself is: “Does Walter Benjamin’s flaneur make still sense in the hybrid space?”

The kind of hybrid reality that apps like Detour are shaping helps me in the formulation of an answer. Indeed Detour, app created by Groupon co-founder Andrew Mason, de-tours people in urban space via audio stories that portray buildings in the past. Buildings tells stories about their past, about the people that lived there and, occasionally, they show evidences of it.

Imagine to wonder around urban space, in the same manner Situationists invited citizens, and listen to what the city might tell you about its past. However, will stops be “controlled”? Will hybrid cookies detect detours? Will physical space take us to specific routes?

Will physical space become a physical Groupon?

By means of tangible interfaces – like wearable sor “smart” objects” – the physical and material space behave as if digital.

Recently The Economist published an article reporting the Indian protest against Facebook Internet.org.

The ownership of the hybrid portrays a new colonial stage that doesn’t look strictly at territorial sovereignty, but at the ownership of people’s cognitive processes. The Westphalian treaties that defined our contemporary age move to an ontological territory, which ubiquitously transforms physical space in our understanding of material space.

Space is nonetheless physical, but this kind of physical ontological space is the one we embody. It is the kind of space that makes us entities belonging to a physical world. It is the space that shapes our identity; it is the space that political treaties conceptualise with national borders and with the Romantic concept of nation. It is the space that joined entire communities of people together to fight world wars. It is not “physical” per se, but it is physical in the way we understand it.

2.0 geography is one of the most relevant sciences right now. The understanding of the concept of territory is the topic to look at. It is the kind of space that global corporations like Facebook created via communities of people. It is the space that we dwell everyday, it is the space where we make friends, we meet people, we find new jobs.

It is our nation.