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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When totalitarian politics meets society

During the last stage of my PhD, which analysed the relationship between Fascism and Fascist architecture, I became interested in the use of social networks. I started to observe people’s behaviour, how posts change in relations to social networks, how interactions work and which reaction such interactions cause. The reason why I looked in particular at these aspects lays on the value that architecture and urban squares played for the Fascist propaganda. During his government Mussolini “moulded” Rome in order to transform the space of the city in his stage, as theatre does for actors. Pictures of him speaking in Piazza Venezia from Palazzo Venezia’s balcony are striking for the quantity of people he managed to collect in one place. In addition the Fascist year was a sequence of public events people participated to become witnesses and experience the Fascist propaganda. By experiencing and being part of the marches and “Fascist rituals”, people were no longer a passive audience, but active actors, who granted power to the Fascist leader by being there and witness his version of Italian history. Mussolini wanted to be recognised as modern emperor, heir of the Roman great emperors of the past. Nonetheless to be an undisputed leader of modern Italy he needed to bound Italians under one flag and common identity, which was still unclear to the most as Italy became a nation in 1860, after being divided for centuries since the fall of the Roman empire in 476 AD. To achieve his goals Mussolini worked carefully on the Italian shared memories of the past: “What if I am the heir of Augustus, Adriano, Caesar? People would believe it, they will recognise my power with no questions, like religion does.

I am been quite disturbed by the recent history, i.e. the emergence of populism around the world. For my three-ish years spent on reading archive Fascist documents, I’ve got a bad feeling. Is it coming back? It has been disturbing seeing people getting used to the worst, and making the worst the new normal.

Back to social networks and the “urban quality” they have, I observed that people’s behaviour resembles “public space” (as it is not public at all) interactions. If on one hand the value of contemporary physical space has decreased, in terms of the social bound it triggers, on the other hand people got more confident with digital social network interactions. Another element to add is the political engagement in social networks, like Facebook presidential campaigns and politicians’ tweets.

Of course we know who is currently the “campion” “politician” on Twitter. Indeed the recents facts of the United States politics, reminded me my PhD thesis. If in 1930s architecture and urban space played a pivotal role for the Fascist regime, nowadays 140 characters do. The use of Twitter for political propaganda is quite interesting. How to speak in 140 characters?

Back to my thesis. Mussolini shaped Rome as the stage of his propaganda. He worked out how people had to behave, by balancing the relationship between empty/solid space. Fascist marches run at a specific pace; they gave rhythm to people’s experience. Marches and public speeches were sophisticated machines that bridged Italians’ collective memory to the present. A BBC programme analysed the way the current US president tweets. The simplicity of the message is not a case; the rhythm of his tweets either. The two together are well balanced; they enter the threads of social networks’ infrastructure, and the way people use them. None of his tweets sounds out of place. Tweets are not a speeches; they are a comments, as anyone’s else. By reading this article from Politico I noticed another similarity with the Fascist leader. The US president’s presidential speech looks like the Roman empire story Mussolini constructed to be recognised as unique and undisputed leader. By portraying a dark age (not even Tolkien’s “Lord of the Ring”- “The Two Towers” – managed to give such dark picture); Trump ignites the public with dark mood, which makes anyone feel lost, with no direction and hope for the future. Such state of mind returns a tabula rasa feeing, i.e. makes one think: “where do we start? Is there any light? What can we do?”

Then it comes the next bit. Trump said that he is giving power back to American people, i.e. “if you give me power I will help you to go through this dark period”. Hence the answer from the public perception would be: “Great somebody can help, he can drive us out of such grim present. Let’s trust him and he will help us”. Trump speaks at singular; it looks he doesn’t have any team to help. He is the man. People need to trust him.

I am personally feeling quite lost too, but after observing and reading around I need to react. This is all perception. Politics, as many other storytelling based disciplines, is based on stories one can believe or not. The US president’s reality is not mine. I have hope and I think I am not alone. We can contrast the way the present, and the future, have been portrayed to us by thinking – and making- a different future by taking actions through what we do.

New Roots for Democracy

I recently read two articles that attracted my attention. They are different for the topics discussed, but similar in content.

They both take place in China; one describes the accident when Xiang Liujuan has been eaten by the escalator in Jingzhou. The other one is a comment that follows the blast in Tianjin.

Why are they similar? They both talk about the social power that social networks have in China on rising up discussions about topics that are quickly skipped by Chinese authorities. People find their word to say what they think…… in public. The Internet enables discussion and let people comment and argue about event of the everyday. The Internet, which nevertheless is controlled by the Chinese authorities, enables people of a kind of freedom, which else wouldn’t not be possible in a traditional public space.

Is public space migrating towards the digital realm? Chinese dissent artist Ai Wei Wei has been already using the Internet as medium to engage people worldwide. Even tough kept in captivity since 2011 (he recently received back his passport) Wei Wei has been capable of keeping his ideas public.

Space is the place of discussion, debate and confrontation. Ancient Greeks and Romans designed their cities around the space where discussions about politics and philosophy were the everyday. The agora and forum were the heart of the city. People met there to talk.

I am aware that such treat is no longer present in our cities. Nevertheless I am quite happy to see that people find their way, which adapts and camouflages according to the time and technology.