Urbanscreen – What is Up? (2010)
This case study engages the literary traditions of Semiotics and Structuralism in a qualitative analysis of the work “What is Up?” by the artistic collaborative team Urbanscreen. Although the content of the artwork is of some interest, the main goal in this study is to analyze how the situation of the work and context of the site affect a reading of the work. I will perform an intertextual analysis on the physical form and presentation of this work (as seen through video documentation), drawing on interviews with the artists and a selection of other works created by the team. This interdisciplinary methodology uses a literary-based approach, but activates semiotic traditions from film, urban and cultural studies in order to develop a better understanding an artwork which is itself a hybrid of all of these forms. It will determine what the signs are, how they are relevant and how the artists disrupt them in order to draw attention to the situation of the artwork.
Urbanscreen is an interdisciplinary team dedicated to large-scale urban projections. Composed of eight artists that work in architecture, music, stage design and media art, the team’s main concern is the “adaptable scope of spatial context, human perception, architecture and methods to enhance them through [their] artistic approach” (Urbanscreen “About”). The work “What is Up?” (2010) was commissioned for the Kunstenfestival GrensWerk (Boundarywork Artsfestival). The transdisciplinary festival ran from 2009-2011, and was focused on the ideas of Gesamtkunstwerk (synthesis of arts) and the city as a backdrop. As part of this event “What is Up?” projected a narrative on the exterior of a historic three-storey Dutch building in the city of Enschede, Netherlands. The projection begins as an imitation of the actual facade. Theatrically lit, the still front of the building is interrupted by a young man walking down the street. He enters the building and flicks lights on throughout the space, and suddenly the scene shifts into a square cut-away on the front of the building. As if it is literally cut through the wall, bare bricks frame the scene and the man sits, squashed into the frame as if it was a small box. From this point on, the man enacts a series of actions, sitting, meditating and interacting with a series of objects that magically appear in his space. He is almost the full three-stories tall, and the scenes in front of us seem to happen out of thin air, as if it were in his imagination. Through all this, the audience is seated at tables in front of the building, as if they are at a burlesque, a sense which is re-iterated by the secondary title for the project: “virtual site-specific theatre”.
Although it is labelled as a theatrical event, I would argue that it is much more cinematic in form. There is no element of live-ness that is generally associated with theatre. Based on a documentation video of the work, all of the scenes are shot in a constructed green-screen set. Like movies that utilize computer-generated graphics, the work is a composite of real and computer generated imagery. The editing also references the cinematic form through non-linear edits like the jump cuts that introduce the character walking up to the house and moving through the building. Special effect objects appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly, an effect which would be impossible in a live-theatrical scene. However, the semantics of theatre versus cinema may be largely unnecessary in this context, as what is important seems to be the reference to a theatrical space. The projected brick frame encloses the actor like the proscenium of a stage and the act of brightening and dimming light to open and close the scene recalls the raising of the curtains and dimming of the room before both cinema and live theatre. In addition, the single-point perspective of the audience in front of a stage containing the action also sets up a particular context of space, which is disjunctive with the normal ways in which we engage with architecture. In the case of this building, most often people would engage with it walking past, looking up or entering. It is a multidimensional engagement that we take for granted, and by turning the exterior of this building into a stage or screen, the artists have disrupted the normal expectations for the space.
This disruption of the normative uses for the architecture and space draws attention to the structures themselves. Frames and screens are designed to fade into the background, simply demarcating the content they contain. However, when the content draws attention to the frame and screen (as Urbanscreen does by using projections that reveal the architectural surface, as opposed to using LED or other forms of screens that cover the surface), it becomes an integral part of the experience. If unusual attention is drawn to a surface, it becomes the point of discussion, rather than just an anonymous vehicle. In the case of “What is Up?”, the projection on the surface of the building not only provides an narrative as content, but by linking the content, and by allowing the surface of the building to be seen behind the projection (one can still see windows, architectural details and even a flag through the image), and by incorporating the building as part of the image within the introduction ad conclusion, it draws attention to the existence of the structure as more than a screen. It has a life that began and continues after the projection event, and brings its own story and history to the event, which affects the ways that we read the narrative within “What is Up?”. Although descriptions of the project describe the space as “a typical Dutch dwelling house in the city center of Enschede” (Urbanscreen “What is Up?”), other histories of the building describe it as a textile factory (after which the building is named “de Pakkerij”, loosely translated as “the packing row”), which then housed the offices of Polariod before being turned into student facilities for the University of Twente. Intentional or not, the disjunction between histories draws attention to the multiple ways that we use urban spaces, engaging them for whatever purposes needed at the time, and modifying them to suit current needs. It also draws attention to the ways in which we conveniently overwrite or erase urban histories through demolition and re-construction, neglect and gentrification.
In their article “Digital Housepaint – A New Class of Ambient Media”, academics Robert J. Wierzbicki, Christian Sommerschuh, and Stefan Bernstein draw attention to the idea of artistic digital projections as a type of graffiti (5). Like an act of graffiti, “What is Up?” merges with the surface of the architecture, temporarily altering it and providing an alternative voice that exists alongside the monumental authority of the building. In addition, most often graffiti is associated with a sort of transience, as an illegal act of rebellion or protest, which is usually quickly erased by the building owners. It is an act of performance that exists in a similar temporality as theatre or cinema, appearing at one moment in time, enduring for a certain period and then ending, leaving only the memory or documentation of it. This stands in stark contrast to an architectural object like the Pakkerij, which was built in 1880 (“De Pakkerij”), and most other architecture which is designed as a gesture of permanency. As such, architectural objects very rarely display any sort of flexibility. They are as they were designed to be, in perpetuity. However, with more temporary additions, like graffiti, facade decorations, and projections, the two states of permanence and ephemerality are able to collaborate, existing separately but coming together to share a surface, and change dialogue about both objects.
“De Pakkerij”. Architectuurgids Enschede. N.d., N.p. Web. 11 November 2013. <http://www.architectuurgidsenschede.nl/Objecten/De%20Pakkerij/>.
Urbanscreen. “About”. Urbanscreen. Urbanscreen. N.p. N.d. Web. 8 November 2013. <http://www.urbanscreen.com/about>.
—. “What is Up?” Urbanscreen. Urbanscreen. N.p., N.d. Web. 11 November 2013. <http://www.urbanscreen.com/usc/831>.
Wierzbicki, Robert J., Christian Sommerschuh, and Stefan Bernstein. “Digital Housepaint – A New Class of Ambient Media”. Academica.edu. Web. 11 November 2013. <http://www.academia.edu/747227/Digital_Housepaint_- _A_New_Class_of_Ambient_Media_2010>.