Essay for the second SP Urban Digital Festival, São Paulo


Curatorial essay by Tanya Toft

Whether we are aware of it or not, actively engaged in digital culture or not, we are all digital citizens. Society’s digital dimension might seem invisible at times when we walk around in our analog world, but it is ubiquitous and affects every aspect of our urban reality. The digital layer of coded electromagnetic signals has become a conceptual, imaginary, and operational layer in society. The rules for our participation in society—political, cultural, and affective—are increasingly being written and rewritten by digital technologies.

The theme for the second SP_Urban Digital Festival addresses our participation as citizens in this digital reality. It considers how we, while living in a digital culture, engage in society by virtue of the Internet and digital communications tools; how digital culture affects how we live and act among each other; and how we imagine ourselves and our human capacities. It reflects an urban reality that is augmented with data and digital aesthetics; a social reality in which our lives are monitored and our relationships are simulated and structured by online networks; an existential reality in which our self-portraits, self-images, and sense of identity are manipulated by digital aesthetics turning us into characters of real-world avatars; and a political reality in which new digital platforms and technologies allow for new means of knowledge production and participation in public discourse.

Technologies, interfaces, and society

That technologies affect our lives in society is nothing new. Following Industrialization’s 19th-century engineering innovations, post-industrial society brought changes to the meaning of being citizens in the modern city with the emergence of mass media (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, motion pictures, and so on), which began broadcasting messages to a large number of people. Since the 1970s, from understanding ourselves as part of a history of technologies, we became part of the history of information and communications technologies (ICT’s)[i]. We are now in the beginning of the digital revolution. The city got digitized. Our social relations got digitized. Our self-image and sense of human capacity got digitized, too. The relationship between human beings and digital innovation is inescapable, and the nature of our participation in this urban reality conditions our future.

Information has always had an impact on spatial form. The city is a medium, as Fredric Kittler said[ii]. The city is a medium because networks hook up to other networks, capacity is transferred between them, and digital technologies are beginning to facilitate almost every aspect of our lives in the city, from inhabitation, navigation, imagination, operation, and production, to governance.

Concepts like interface and interaction design were founded with 1960s human-computer interactive concepts and experiments in bringing the computer beyond room-size calculating machines to improve man’s ability to operate and communicate by letting the computer interact with humans through visual displays[iii]. With the interface, the computer became an extension of man, borrowing the famous term of media theorist Marshall McLuhan[iv].

Urban space of the contemporary city is an interface, a web of interfaces with which we constantly interact. Our urban reality is an interface between the technical media and apparatuses, digital infrastructures and their logics, and human interaction. Smartphones, electronic billboards, media façades, and responsive architecture provide a digital, dynamic, and communicative surface of interaction overlaying the material city. Any kind of technologically driven machine we might use to buy tickets, get cash, get information, or read transportation messages are interaction points of the interface—a contact surface between people and system, individual and community, citizen and power. 

The street interface is the topic of exploration in the performative public space intervention by the artist trio Pablo Ena (Spanish), Reza Safavi (Canadian), and Sergio Galán (Spanish), called Sonic Skate Plaza Sao Paulo (2013). The pedestrian street Alameda das Flores becomes a scenario for a “skated orchestra,” by which an interface is activated in the space through different sensors placed on a skate ramp and on the street of Paulista Avenue. The skaters activate sensors and make sound compositions from the skating activity, skating on the ramp and using their skateboards as instruments. This bodily engagement with the censors results in sound pieces all while a camera tracks the skaters’ movements and tricks. This is transformed into realtime audio transmitted through public speakers and visualized on the Galeria de Arte Digital do SESI-SP.

Media façades such as urban screens, screens of our laptops, iPods, and mobile phones increasingly support the urban interface. These are portable entrances to a social, globally interconnected world. So are architectural façades. Contemporary cities are increasingly characterized by electronic displays, with augmented architecture turning built environments into media communications surfaces. One can only imagine how an iconic media surface environment like Times Square in New York City might forecast the visual future of many modern cities. As Robert Venturi has noted, architecture, rather than a space of the Industrial Age, is information surface and has become communication for the Information Age[v].

The multidisciplinary Brazilian artist group United VJ’s explore exactly thatarchitecture as information surface, in the artwork DesenhAR / TocAR (2013). With tools like optical illusion, 3D, Video Mapping, software programming, and sound and video, the artist collective integrates digital animation in architectural design to become a unique, playful multimedia sensory experience. The audience can interact with the SESI building with their most intuitive “command”: their hands and fingers, with which they draw traces in the air that are then displayed on the building façade. The work plays with the audience’s expectations toward interfaces, and with a human sense of control. People’s interaction with the building reflects an increasingly natural integration between man and machine, giving the audience, the masses, the citizens the power to modify the appearance of their surrounding urban environment.

The mediation and animation of architecture by media technology, however, is nothing new, as architecture has always included ornament, iconography, and visual narratives, from cave paintings to medieval mosaics and Renaissance Frescos. Since the Renaissance architect, painter, and scholar Leon Battista Alberti used the architectural figure of “the window” as a frame for perspectival view (1435)[vi], often referred to as Alberti’s window, the frame and its defined space have been the dominant form of the moving, artistic image. Since post-renaissance painting, the cinema screen, the TV screen, the computer monitor, and also contemporary electronic displays have dominantly developed as areas of defined data space.

In the 1990s, the aesthetics of the delimited or defined data space was manifested in the art world as a new practice of video installation. Installations with video or data projectors turned a wall or building façade into a display, bringing the idioms of the low culture movie theatre into the high culture white cube logic. Recent technological developments of the LED screen have allowed for the installation to be completely integrated into the architecture as a “media surface gallery” with new opportunities for digital artworks for inhabiting “screen space” and to explore new borderlines between contemporary art and commercial design.

The LED-carried graphic, moving portraits of the British visual artist Julian Opie, situates walking bodies, rendered with minimal detail in white line drawing in this blurring territory between art and graphic design. The installation for the SP_Urban Digital Festival is a composition of three works: Promenade 3 (2013), 4 people walking (2013), and Dino Crawling (2010). The visual language simultaneously employs a figurative image and a high degree of abstraction, engaging with a wider visual world of images and sights outside of the gallery context. The work references a visual style that seems familiar, one that we have a relationship with in public space that meets our visual literacy and expectations of the fast decode experience. Opie’s works invite for reflection on how we engage with the visual world and its language of meaning, and to question the value system of representation that reigns in our contemporary society.

Networked social citizens

Our relationship with digital culture has become co-dependent. Digital structures in society are increasingly harder to recognize, and our uses of technological devices have become intuitive (we don’t know how it functions, but we know how to use it). We act upon our cities through the digital; we relate to ourselves as “beings” through our profiles and identification with each other in digital networks; we apply the rules of human behavior to digital objects and situations, and adapt the coded logics of digital structures and materiality to our cultural norms.

Brazilian artist Anaisa Franco’s robotic sculptures in Onirical Reflections (2013), developed with Jordi Puig, is an interactive sculpture that maps animations onto the faces of the audience who engage with the work through a reflected image of a mirror. The work interconnects the physical with the digital in the shape of animations and intensities, searching for a chemical between materials. It uses concepts of psychology and dreams and brings the architecture of these dreams out, images that are contained in our brains in the processing of the outside world. The audience’s face is mapped with these images to somehow distort the reality that is building up inside us.

Digital culture has become a significant aspect of our contemporary social and cultural life. In the 21st century, we embraced a new level of cultural participation: We became walking mass mediums. We communicate everything to everybody, we have multiple memberships of cultural groups, we simultaneously participate in multiple social dimensions and hardly distinguish between online and offline anymore. We join the new grand digital narratives that present themselves to us—learn that news is to be consumed online, not in print; organize our social relations in social networks rather than physical clubs or meetings; and develop new realms of taste and aesthetics according to new apps that allow us to distort our visual documentation of reality in new ways. We rarely ask ourselves the question of why we are staging our lives, appearance, and actions on Facebook to collect “likes”—what that means—or why we are all suddenly finding ourselves sharing a video named Gangnam Style in our social networks.

The video-based artwork Touch (2013) by the young Brazilian artist Leandro Mendes, who presents his work under the artist name VJ Vigas, questions the liquidity of visual relationships between people in social networks. Touch is composed of a “gene” central character, which handles “your” virtual life through a large screen. This is illustrated through the shadow of a hand that manipulates content of social network icons and pictures on the façadeicons that are familiar in our everyday online navigation. The artist illustrates the hybrid, artificial universe we navigate within, which makes a blend of reality and fiction, the social and the commercial.

Surveillance culture

Physical space in our contemporary city has become data space, either “filled” with data coming from the Internet that is accessed via one’s mobile phone, extracting data from the environment, or augmenting the environment with data by embedding content into physical objects or computer displays.[vii]  The city is a data map in which every point in space has a GPS coordinate.

That also means that every point in space can be observed at any time, which seems to be the ultimate goal of the modern surveillance paradigm. Michel Foucault’s argument about the operation of the disciplinary society through the concept of the panopticon[viii] has gained new relevance in our digital culture. The concept of the panopticon, a metaphor deriving from Jeremy Bentham’s architectural figure of a prison in the late 18th century, illustrating a periphery and a center with a tower in the middle, facilitates a logic of surveillance by which the citizen internalizes surveillance just by knowing that he or she is being “watched,” mapped, or tracked everywhere at all times. Surveillance is a self-sustaining premise of the digital citizen.

The work of Brazilian artist Paloma Oliviera and Mateus KnielsenMonomito (2013), explores the figure of the hero in society as an archetype of all of us while playing with the logic of internalized surveillance. The work is based on a theory of Joseph Campbell in which the “hero” is an archetype that accompanies humanity through stories, mythologies, and history itself. Since oral culture, through literature, and later by the audiovisual media, the figure of the hero continues to be the icon, the result of a collective yearning to fill certain gaps in human experience. The audience participates in the work through the Monomyth (a performative wearable object), which allows them to exchange eye contact with a performer, a hero figure, through a facial recognition system. This captures the facial image of the participant and sends it to a database, projects it onto the face of the performing figure and onto the SESI façade panels. The hero (performer) is enclosed in a constant process of transfiguration—having his face replaced by the faces of all participants. The work speaks to our beings in social networks in which our clicks, messages, and behavior are constantly being monitored, and in which we are all archetypes of the “I”-collective. The types of revelations, exchanges, and moralism we experience in digital space return as memories in our physical experience.

The interactive installation by Karolina Sobecka, titled It’s You (2012), provokes the privacy questions that are raised by its widespread use of surveillance technology. This installation calls people’s anonymity in public space into question and explores the mechanisms of public behavior by exposing the dramatic mechanisms of spectatorship, public gatherings, and the ways that these affect individual actions. The installation shows a crowd of human figures gathering around something that is obscured from the view of the pedestrian (audience). When the pedestrian tries to look over the shoulders of the crowd from behind, the crowd steps aside to allow him a glimpse of what it is looking at, and the audience becomes part of the crowd. He or she is inadvertently caught up in the social dynamic of curiosity and spectatorship, and invited to examine its nature. However, after staying in the interaction area in front of the window for a little while, the crowd will turn its attention to the audience and he or she becomes the performer—whose movement can now release the reaction of clapping in the crowd, clarifying their role of audience. The installation addresses how people are under suspicion just by standing out—a distrust mechanism of self-surveillanceand leads the audience to examine their relationship to their social and physical environment.

The digital citizen – uniquely human

The relationship between humans and machines has been a condition for the developments of our cities for ages. Lewis Mumford’s critique of the myth of progress that accompanies technology was the first to remind us that every technological advance is not necessarily a step forward in civilization. With his analysis of technology’s social embeddedness in our societal development, he believes that technological progress in society happens in a dialectic process between the material of the city and the symbolic, abstract ideas level—which we can consider the level of artistic practice.[ix]

Our social processes are what make us distinct from machines and also through that we enact our agency. Our capacity to act in the world, our agency, is closely affiliated with our choices of how to act, what narratives to accept, and when to say “stop.” Our agency relates to how we—as individual citizens—engage with society and the cultural organization of society. It is our capacity to make choices.

Our social networks also offer an infrastructure for knowledge production, which in our networked society has become a form of capital. Knowledge is power, technology is the instrument, and while we may think our choices are our own, that is not always the case. We increasingly select our news consumed online via Twitter and Facebook recommendations or comments by “friends” in our social networks. We choose which movies to watch via recommendations on iTunes or Netflix or what books to read from recommendations on Amazon. Algorithms increasingly shape our knowledge and the choices that we make based on this.

Rune Madsen’s conceptual, computational art piece The Artist Is Not Present (2013) reflects a cultural condition in which our lives are controlled by computers and so-called learning algorithms. These are increasingly responsible for delivering the information that powers our decisions: what we consume, whom we interact with, and what we believe. The work is based on a custom piece of software written by the artist to specifically run during the three weeks of the SP_Urban Digital Festival. The software is an autonomous algorithm that generates increasingly advanced unique works of geometric art, which it evaluates and adapts according to the aesthetic taste of its creator. The graphic works can never be re-generated but automatically uploads to an online gallery serving as the final documentation for the art piece, as the software will stop working on the final day of the festival. The work raises the question of our dependence on logical machines in our quest to live uniquely human lives, by turning the computer into something supposedly uniquely human: an artist.

The digital artist, as citizen

We can argue that all art is already media art as all art forms have developed within or across a medium. But there is a potential at hand for the digital artist—what digital artworks can do pushes the boundaries of our understanding of what it means to be digital citizens and live in an age of digital computing.

Digital art production has long thrived around a tendency of affirmation of technology, perhaps in response to the Society of the Spectacle[x] and the experience economy that emerged from this notion, which has organized our society since the early 1990s. With inexpensive, publicly available tools and media, contemporary artists have been able to create spectacular works and push the limits of artistic borderlines. Digital graffiti, user-generated art projects, installations of mass audience participation via social media networks, and grand animations on buildings and façades, among other types of artistic expression, reveal a celebratory, digital avowal, a technological optimism supporting the mainstreaming of a culture in the art world, resting on the daring experiments with the merging of art and engineering in the 1960s but finding its motive in something else.

The media arts has fought for its secession from value judgments, placing digital artistic practices in a category of artes mechanica (activity of the body) and not the artes liberales (activity of the mind)—categories rooted in the Aristotelian distinction between techné (practical skills, craft, art) and epistemé (cognition, knowledge). For too long, the material of media artists, unlike the material of artists of more traditional art forms like painting, sculpture, and performance, has been related to notions of technical reproducibility. This is related to forces of calculation, reason, and mechanical production (and re-production—challenging some of the founding principles of the general art world of originality, authenticity, and aura)[xi] belonging to notions of automation and the machine[xii].

The digital artist, however, has matured through the first phase of the digital revolution. The digital artist is beyond the confusion and admiration of technology’s ease and asks what technology can do for her critical practice rather than how her production can serve the epic of technology.

Such questions are addressed in the piece Spectacle of Change (2013) by James George, an American artist who explores the borderlines between human being and “pixel being,” how we resolute in data space and the use of code to critically engage with emerging technology. Spectacle of Change is an ongoing portraits series depicting artists who are adapting their practice in response to the influences of digital culture. Created using a new video format, RGBD, which combines video with high-resolution 3D scans, the portraits are short loops of captured conversations with the subjects, allowing them to occupy a virtual setting. The spatial information is visualized with graphics algorithms. This work also reflects the theme of a workshop held for the Festival, Digital Citizen – Critical Artist, about artists’ critical reflection on their own artistic practice of making digital and interactive artworks.

Matthew Fuller has proposed three areas for software art and its applications—“social,” “critical,” and “speculative” software. While social software seeks to consciously engage the social aspect of its application, critical software is designed to distort normalized understandings of software. Speculative software explores the potentiality of all possible programming and opens up a space for the reinvention of software by its own means[xiii]. The artistic potential of software art cuts across all three fields. Software art is, according to Andreas Broeckmann, about transgressing boundaries, making strange familiar experience, about dramatizing what pretends to be innocent and exploring technological and human relationships[xiv].

Software art presented in public space confronts us in our current mode of existence in our urban reality. It does this successfully not by achieving our admiration of the aesthetic constellation alone but when the artwork makes us wonder what just happened and confronts our logics and habits. Digital Citizen is an opportunity to anchor digital artworks in a territory of criticality and articulate what digital artworks can provide to our future urban society, by appealing to the audience as a digital citizen. Whether the digital artist relies on light, sound, data, software, mapping, generative, responsive, moving, dynamic, or computational tactics that all belong to the artistic realm of the digital, digital artworks in public space have a potential for confronting this critical condition of our contemporary urbanity. The artworks presented at the second SP_Urban Digital Festival 2013 explore the urban cultural dimension of digital art and interrogate the expectations that we as citizens—artists and audience—have toward technology.


[i] The basic of concept of informations and communications technologies (ICT’s) can be traced in the military/industry alliance of World War II in developments of electronics, computers, and information theory.

[ii]Friedrich A. Kittler, “The City Is as Medium.” New Literary History, 27:4. 1996, 717-29.

[iii]Computer Visionary Who Invented the Mouse,” article by John Markoff in New York Times, July 3, 2013.

[iv] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994 [1964]).

[v] Robert Venturi, Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture: A View from the Drafting Room (MIT Press, 1996).

[vi] Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. 1.

[vii] Lev Manovich, “The Poetics of Urban Media Surfaces,” in First Monday, Special Issue 4: Urban Screens: Discovering the potential of outdoor screens for urban society, February 2006.

[viii] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (New York: Vintage Books, 1995 [1975]), p. 200f.

[ix] Lewis Mumford, Technics and Human Development – The Myth of the Machine, Vol One (Mariner Books, 1971).

[x] The notion of a “Society of the Spectacle” was first presented by Guy Debord in his 1967 publication Society of the Spectacle. With current developments in modern cities’ visual culture this concept is perhaps more relevant than ever when describing the driving forces in areas of capital, culture, and urban planning among others.

[xi] See Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay: The World of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, originally published in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung.

[xii] This argument is shared with Peter Weibel in The Postmedia Condition, in AAVV. Postmedia Condition. (Madrid: Centro Cultural Conde Duque, 2006), p. 3.

[xiii] Andreas Broeckmann, Software Art Aesthetics, in Mono, No. 1, July 2007, pp. 158-167,

[xiv] Andreas Broeckmann, Software Art Aesthetics, p. 158-167.