Hans Dieter Huber
Urban space and the new media

First Installation: 08.01.2001 Last update: 30.01.2010

lecture delivered at the XXXth International Congress of Art History, London CIHA, Section 23: Digital Art Time, 2.September 2000

The World Wide Web exists as we know it since the end of 1993, that is for approximately six-and-a-half years. That is not really a long time. It evolved far more rapidly than normal developments usually require in 'real life'. One quarter of a year of net history has been defined as one year of real life. Thus we have a period of approximately 25 years of net history behind us. This also corresponds well with the speed and rate of distribution of artworks depending on the net.

All newly-developed media are usually not applied in an innovative manner during their formative stage. Generally, they initially serve to reproduce or imitate older media such as text, photography, film or sound. "Faster, cheaper, further" is often the slogan fuelling the development of new media. Only after some time of intensive use of the respective medium do experiences of it begin to become significant. Only then do the specific possibilities of a medium become apparent. The world wide web is only now in the process of discovering, comprehending and testing its intrinsic properties as a medium.xii

The situation is not particularly enlightening if, on the grounds of these theoretical guidelines, one attempts to seek artworks that use the internet as a means of social and/or artistic intervention into urban space. To date there are only very, very few profound, significant works that really function in terms of social interaction between the net and urban space. Most works are only informative or documentary and hardly take into consideration the specific properties or possibilities of the net. Thus, it appears that the net is presently still in an experimental phase of its evolution. Some ideas and concepts seem to be construed in the right direction, but often their realization is doomed to failure due to the conditions and relations both in the net and in real life.xiii

In the past, it has become apparent that net-based interventions worked particularly well in those cases in which they precisely define the interface to real space. If the work not only functions in the internet, but also possesses a significant counterpoint on the other side of the net as it were, in real life, then their specific structural coupling in form of a reciprocal irritation between the two systems appears particularly noteworthy.

The London based net-pioneer Heath Bunting particularly successfully exploits the net as an extension of real life, and real life as an extension of the net. More so than any other net-artist, he picks out the interface between virtual reality and real life as the central theme of his artistic pursuits. Especially those interested in learning about how to establish simple, yet effective structural couplings between urban space and the net should have a good look at his extensive oeuvre.

In 1996 for example, Heath Bunting wrote the URL www.irational.org/x in chalk on the walls of various buildings at different locations all over the world. Those users who noticed the URL and typed it into the location field of their browser were asked to complete a questionnaire stating where they had seen this chalked, who they thought the author was and what the sign means to them.

Another work entitled Closed Circuit Television World Wide Watch employs four web cams used for the surveillance of public spaces. Interestingly enough however, the web cams are used unknowingly by each of the participants, and they are therefore part of an entirely new structure. The first window contains four camera shots. The user is able to access images being broadcasted live from New York, Oviedo, Spain, Broadgate, United Kingdom and Gütersloh, Germany. The user is asked to notify the nearest police station by internet fax if he sees any crimes being committed at any one of these locations. The resulting list of reports may also be accessed.

In 1999, Bunting realized a work at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada employing the possibilities offered by internet radio stations (that can be received world-wide), illegally broadcasting from a pirate radio station in the Banff area. Again, in this work, the artist considers the interface dividing the net from real space. As an intervention it serves to render visible the structural couplings between the internet and urban space.

In connection with the evolution of new telecommunications media, the notion of citizen involvement in processes of urban development and city planning has recently been fundamentally revised. Several teams of artists, architects and urban developers are currently generating new concepts and projects dealing with this topic.

Recently, the Berlin based Institute of applied urbanism presented a proposal via the internet, concerning the application of the 'open source' concept (in use for several years now, particularly in connection with the Linux operating system for the development of computer software) to methods and processes of urban planning and development. In a manifesto they recently published on the net with the title Divercity they have made interesting propositions:

If one were to apply the open source model to the realm of urban planning, this would first of all remove the conceptual sovereignty from the municipal government and its respective developers and affiliated agents in terms of fixed temporal and spatial parameters (the source code needs to be accessible at all times), and would allow all sorts of different people to intervene and participate in the processes determining urban development. Thus, urban space would no longer be predetermined according to certain given rules and regulations, but rather would be treated much like a consumer product, being gradually ameliorated over time through the active participation of various (competent) parties voicing their respective needs and interests.

In September and October 2000, the team of architects has organized an urban design competition for the grounds of the prior O'Brien barracks in Schwabach near Nuremberg. Visitors have been invited to play around with a model of the site built in a scale of 1:87, thus reflecting notions of changeability and constant revision. The movable model, in its ability to show interventions and alternative positions resembled a somewhat playful instrument of planning and communication. Collages made of photographs of the model and of the site itself were published in newspapers, on posters and in the internet, with the hope of inspiring reactions and the urge to participate.

At the same time, a website was installed on which one was able to see the current changes taking place in situ. The grounds were represented in scale. A special software programme made it possible to intervene and participate in the redevelopment and design of this experimental area. The modifications and proposals submitted via the internet were processed as a re-entry to the real, and integrated into the "real" model. Thus, reciprocal interaction and irritation between virtual reality and real life undoubtedly ensued. Those interested could visit so-called "log.lounges" situated in Nuremberg, Erlangen, Schwabach and Fürth, offering information on the current state of the open source planning project and from where supra-regional participation in the development process itself was possible via the net.

In 1998, the Danish group of artists called Superflex (including Jakob Fenger, Bjornsterne Christiansen and Rasmus Nielsen) conceived a virtual 3-D model of the city of Karlskrona in Sweden, 'Karlskrona2', in which inhabitants and guests are invited to erect virtual buildings and other constructs and discuss problems of urban development by means of discussion rooms via the internet. Currently, some 20 people are actively involved in the discussion. In September 2000, a large screen will be installed in the "real" city of Karlskrona showing projections of the developments taking place in Karlskrona2. Recently, Superflex launched a second project dealing with the predicament of urban development in Wolfsburg. There is already a discussion room for this project, and the remaining supplementary tools are currently under work. Norbert Käthler, an urban planner from Wolfsburg has already voiced his opinions on the project:

The approach of Superflex permits an entirely novel form of citizen participation in public planning. The internet introduces a method of addressing groups of people, that are conceivably represented less well in the context of conventional modes of interaction (such as public meetings and political committee meetings). This may result in young people, particularly those who are used to dealing with the electronic media, stating their opinions and suggestions more actively.
As an urban planner, I think Superflex's approach is interesting, especially if it were to be fully integrated in all communication systems, and above all in these areas where the realms of public administration and of the private citizen intersect.

The group of architects, urban planners and programmers calling themselves 'Maila-Push' from Darmstadt have also established a new form of structural coupling between the problems of citizen partizipation in urban planning processes and the popularity of computer games. They created an urban development computer game based on the topography of the city of Offenbach near Frankfurt/Main, in which the player is required to fulfil certain tasks. The group proposes among other ideas that above a given score, the user of the computer game should be invited to take part in a real competition, such as a go-cart race. Central urban problem areas in Offenbach, including the so-called 'Level 1' in the city centre, the 'Tambourbad', the suburb of Lohwald and so on, are thus rendered topical, playfully linked to the possibilities offered by the new media. The young architects hope to achieve a new form of reflecting upon and reacting to central concerns of the city.

Another type of urban space is also becoming increasingly dominant in the world of computer games. According to their own priorities young artists, architects or urban planners may take in using the new media, the accents may be set that variously emphasize aspects of the game, of urban development or of aesthetic pleasure without didactiszism. In any case, the possibilities offered by object-oriented programming enable the generation of an entirely new surface aesthetic. Recently, because of the freely-accessible Quake Level 1 source code, some few artists have started programming new architectonic environments and spaces, permitting up to 16 players to play Quake in real time, either via intranet links from interconnected stations, but via the internet itself. The most interesting aspect of the game is that the majority of its data, including its textures, geometries and spatial determinants are stored on the user's hard disk; a remarkably rapid real time transmission is afforded by the fact that only the respective coordinates of the opponents' moves need to be transmitted. Tom Ehninger, Christine Meierhofer, noroomgallery and Holger Friese contributed programmes for inspiringly vivid virtual spaces to 'Re-load', a show organized by shift e.V. in Berlin in 1999.

The term of urban space functions as a metaphor in the context of the net. For on the net nothing is neither 'urban' nor 'spatial'. It is far more concerned with different terms of observation. Distinctions may be more or less helpful in our attempt at discerning the importance of telecommunications technology in the context of communication. The internet is a highly complex and operationally closed media circuit, entirely dependent on external input provided by the user. Nothing can be put into the net that has not been transformed into the binary code of data, and no data can be put out of the net into the real space without having been converted into a publicly accessible medium by means of specific effectory devices such as screens, printers and loudspeakers.

According to which side of the barrier we are on, the 'surface' of the internet may appear entirely different. We experience the net from an external position, as structurally coupled to both our physical and its technological environment. But what might the net look like from within? We are not able to imagine what the surface dividing the internet from real space looks like from inside the net, as we are not able to cross the border. However, we have every reason to presume that the net is capable of observing us. It records and registers every minute fluctuation occurring between itself and its environment. It processes and stores every tiny bit of incoming data. Seen from within, the microphone, the video-in, the keyboard and the data uploads are the internet's outermost sensory peripheries. These tools are its sensory devices with which it is capable of observing us in real time. In its log files and its routing informations we are constantly being observed and pursued in all the moves we make. The log files know where we are and were we were, when we last accessed the net.

All this would lend itself perfectly to a new science fiction movie in the style of Alien 4. The alien internet watches us secretly and attentively via its log files and its routers. Then, in the next scene, a dumb, unsuspecting user sitting down at his small, tiny keyboard in his dark lonely home in the hills of Virginia to read his latest e-mails unlocks the gateway. Then its too late. Captain Ripley is asking: Quick, quick, bring me the plan of the cable tunnels! Commander Jordan is shouting: Where the hell is the main switch? But its already too late, the alien is in. Therefore I would like to end my lecture with a short audio piece from welcome in wonderland by Julia Scher, a early piece of net-art dating from february 1995.


Hans Dieter Huber