Art in the Intelligent City

John Craig Freeman, Virtual U.S./Mexico Border (2017), Augmented Reality (AR) public art, with sound, Visualization of Virtual U.S./Mexico Border. Commissioned by Screen City Biennial. Courtesy of the artist.


How may art, as autonomous manifestation and a domain intimately related to human experience, take part in the technological development of cities today?

The Screen City Biennial developed out of curiosity and attention to the meeting between expanded moving image art and the urban domain. While the urban context is undergoing profound transformations with the implementation of ‘intelligent’ technologies, furthered by political visions of a technologically optimized near-future reality, new queries arise that exceed dusty goals of the avant-garde of how art can act as necessary counter-element in the power structures of urban space. This article takes a look at the contemporary, technological context, considering potential current roles for media art in the urban domain of the intelligent city.

Intelligent Cities – New Urban Contexts for Art

When we point at the biggest current factors of change in the world’s cities, these not only concern expanding high-rises, urban mobility and other symptoms relating to population growth or decline. Cities today are drastically changing with intelligent technological functionality – implemented in urban surfaces, as infrastructures and as facilitating communicative spheres. So-called smart city visions are racing our cities to the future, making them more efficient, intelligent and predictable, along with continuous advancements in mobile devices enabling new apps, life navigation services and socio-cultural experiences to structure our everyday lives.

The notion of the ‘smart city’ embodies a dominant imperative in contemporary global thinking about city development, one of improving the ‘intelligence’ of cities as a conditional support structure for our contemporary urban reality. Urban environments are augmented with intelligent lighting schemes and (mostly commercial) moving ‘images’ on urban displays, screens and façades that increasingly respond to our presence with visuals, sounds and various algorithmic procedures. Our data is accumulated via mobile phones and sensors and implemented in algorithms, which design and run the city’s services and environments. At the same time, media aesthetic interfaces of ‘virtual spaces’ – such as online platforms and mobile applications – accompany our activities in physical space. These interfaces are designed to connect, inform and entertain us in continuously new ways, integrating with our physical environments while increasingly dissolving our distinction between real and virtual. With mobile devices in our pockets – with which our whereabouts are conveniently assisted with GPS navigation and augmented with virtual information, connecting us to any networked activity – we have few moments left in which our awareness, behavior and actions are not somehow tied in with or immersed in media aesthetic experience in the increasingly intelligent city.

The city of Stavanger holds the European status as ‘smart city lighthouse’ – as one among nine cities in Europe. The intentions are good – focused on lowering emissions, improving the quality of public transportation, applying energy control, safety and comfort systems to private houses, lowering energy consumption in both dwellings and public buildings – and the investment is exhilarating: NOK 200 million is granted by Horizon 2020 to the five-year Triangulum project with Stavanger, Manchester and Eindhoven as ‘smart city lighthouses’. The University of Stavanger is involved and will develop a cloud data hub for gathering and analysing big data from the project. In the midst of good intentions however, what we can hardly know is what consequences these intelligent technological upgrades will have on people’s everyday lives.

While smart city solutions and technologies are focused on optimising the infrastructures of intensity, intelligence and immersion in cities, oftentimes little attention is given to the human being. The question is increasingly raised, how citizens can be part of these urban processes of ‘intelligent’ transformation, and how citizens can be encouraged to meaningfully ‘involve’ in everyday life’. But what is sometimes missing from pragmatic and result-oriented conversations is acknowledgement of the citizen as cultural being – not ‘user’, but someone who feels ownership of a place, experiences transparency in political processes, and possesses the sense of agency necessary to act and react in a democratic system.

Intelligent or ‘smart’ upgrades not only bring more efficiency into our lives, they also have a bi-effect: The implementation of intelligent, algorithmic functionality and logic make our lives become increasingly measured, quantified and potentially micro-managed. Moreover, the technical mediation of our environments might involve that we are more open to the discourses and knowledge paradigms we are presented with – not always to the benefit of our own good.

While we are increasingly experiencing a state of being human in closer, intimate and emotional contact with technology, we need to ask: How do we insure that the so-called ‘smart citizen’ is also a critical citizen, one who cares and dares to point out potential errors in smart city initiatives at a micro scale, and one who is not indifferent to the intentions behind them, or to long-term consequences of new technological inventions?

At a deeper level of the human cultural nature, we can ask: how does the intelligent city affect our intuitive, impulsive habits, and our modes of behavior (how do our environments affect what we do, or how we react)? What are the needs and curiosities that are evoked in us (e.g. for the sensational and ‘the new’, rather than for inventions of cultural sustainability)? What are we paying attention to, or rather, what mechanisms make us pay attention to certain things over others? And, what are the long-term measures of the intelligent city – by way of these more intimate dimensions of our lives with technologies – in affecting the socio-political reality of citizens?

It is when addressing these deeper layers of the impact of ‘smart’ upgrades on the citizen as human being that we may point to an important role for art in the context of the intelligent city – a role that is not didactic, instrumental or simply communicative.

Art – Between Science and Everyday Life

What critical, interrogative, and co-constructive roles might art take when interfering with the technological development of our cities?

Firstly, we need to remember that the taking up of a space in which the lines between art and everyday life are blurred is nothing new. Art has interfered with everyday life – and our everyday ‘media surfaces’ at least since the making of medieval mosaics and Renaissance Frescos. In the 1910s the vanguard artists demanded that true art go beyond the intellectual and transform daily life – in reaction against the innovative rhythms and images of the industrial marketplace, mass media and urban popular culture. In the late 1960s, the Situationists enacted tactics of dérives and détournements in attempts to create spaces for alternative appropriation towards goals of eventually transforming them.

The link between art and science (in everyday life) is nothing new either. These fields used to be collaborative. In the Renaissance era – the era of philosophical, scientific and religious “rebirth” during which one began to question the reasoning behind theories – art explored the natural and physical world, e.g. how art could demonstrate curiosities about the origin of science. Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist. Also Pablo Picasso was a scientist, developing an art technique around dislocated and geometric figures – making lines and shapes a basic design for our ‘natural environment’; and Goethe worked at the intersection of art and sciences developing his ‘science of colors’.

Today, artists employ the ‘intelligent’ technologies of our times to examine new configurations of science in everyday life. Artists make use of existing (interactive) urban screens, mobile media, urban infrastructures, digitally controlled lighting systems, sensors and open source software; they write their own software, establish their own data streaming networks, and develop smartphone applications as the interface for artworks. Sometimes, art takes up urban space as a living gallery with which it can engage with everyday life, its meanings, cultures and rhythms. Oftentimes, art enters urban space in critical response to what is perceived as instructive mechanisms in digital culture and existing networks, applications or interfaces of the ‘intelligent’ city.

Art in the urban context can interfere with everyday life in very direct ways – replace or disrupt mediated messages, create temporary spaces for social encounters, introduce alternative truths or ways of inhabiting public space, or transform urban appearances (of e.g. architecture) and manifest long-lasting memories of alternative appearances or meanings in public space. However, art is not an instrument, but an impulse. Along the lines of thinking of Jacques Rancière, art intervenes in everyday life as a sensible impulse that interferes with our ‘ways of doing and making’. Citizens live in a society in which they perceive how to make sense of things and go about life in order to cope with society, and thus the sensible order of our world and cities within it are governed by implicit, ‘sensible laws’ that are common to people. The distribution of the sensible in a city informs our perception and experience of things that we can understand: our habitual ways of seeing, of saying, of feeling and doing – and being – that determine people’s sense of agency to act, their possibilities for political participation, and forms of participation within a community.[i] When art enters the public domain it infiltrates the sensibilities and cultural, invisible laws within which we form our understanding of our surroundings, which characterizes the rules of those surroundings and our agency and opportunities to act within it.

We can point at some scenarios in which art in public space operates by way of distributing ‘the sensible’ in the intelligent city:

First, artworks can exist as various forms of ‘interfaces’ for experimentation or social engagement: As aesthetic encounters in the urban domain, art might provide a kind of ‘test bed’, for example examine the impact of electronic lighting on the experience of urban space or how technologies may impact human social relationships. As ‘experimental interfaces’ in public space, art may promote new forms of public agency or ‘teach’ public sociability, which is not natural but must be learned, nurtured and practiced.[ii]

Secondly, art might provide citizens with ‘moments’ that bring about awareness of their surrounding reality; unmask the urban constructs or people’s behaviors and how these might be conditioned in a particular space.[iii] This might also entail that the artistic experience conveys emotions or stories to us, which when encountered in the urban domain directly mix with our everyday experience of that place and bring perspective or diversity into it.

Moreover, art may act as forms of ‘social interfacing’ and help to articulate the new public domains that connect physical urban spaces and the public spheres of electronic networks, as aesthetic manifestations that can occupy, extend or create new public domains in between virtual and physical layers, in which democratic forms of agency can be developed.[iv]

Then, perhaps the most important role of art in the urban domain is one that is less concrete, can be less instrumental and which “effect” cannot be immediately measured. This is the situation where the art comes to ‘act’ as a kind of supplementary state of mediation that can bring the operation of technical media into our purview in order to make it available to our conscious experience.[v] That is, artistic interfaces may “translate” complex experiences in technological environments into experiences that we can understand, and thus facilitate mediation of ‘transparency’. For example, an interactive art installation allowing for an intimate experience – by spooling forward or backwards of a projected narrative – of how the mechanism of ‘interaction’ relates to our memory structures and time. Or, an augmented reality installation bringing a politically intense, life size environment from another place into your everyday (and very different) urban context may – by way of ‘enlarging’ the presence of the conflict – makes us experience the power of augmentation. As put by curator Inke Arns, “The more people shift activities to the realm of data (for instance, to the Internet), the more important an awareness of the empowering or, as applicable, obstructing attributes of the code on which these virtual realms are based becomes”.[vi]

Like art has been intimately connected with science and everyday life up through history, also today there is a role for art in the increasingly scientific environment of everyday life: the intelligent city, at the citizen level – the cultural level – of testing, enlightening, facilitating, ‘mediating’ or in other modes examine and convey the complex experiences in technologically upgraded urban environments. Also, a role of making a human dimension – emotion, creativity, wonder and objection – present to us in urban space. This makes for constructively complex urban environments that seed democratic processes and engage citizenship.

Of course we need to be vary of protecting the art from being swamped into development schemes that see a useful potential in art as a generator of growth but with little concern for the artistic intention or the long-term public good. The easy way is to treat art as basically a marketing tool for promoting cities as attractive and culturally vibrant. When doing so, however, we miss out on the opportunities in art to participate actively in the development of the intelligent city – at a citizen level.



On 27 September 2017, Screen City curators Daniela Arriado and Tanya Toft Ag will share their thoughts on art’s participation in the ‘intelligent city’ and the biennial’s role in facilitating this, at the Nordic Edge Expo in Stavanger. The conversation will be published on SCB Journal in early October 2017.



[i] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, ed. and trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

[ii] Scott McQuire has elaborated on this in The Media City (London: SAGE, 2008).

[iii] Catrien Schreuder has described how video art in public space bring about ‘perfect moments’ in Pixels and Places, Video Art in Public Space, (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2010).

[iv] This has been suggested by Andreas Broackmann in “Public Spheres and Network Interfaces,” in The Cybercities Reader, ed. Stephen Graham (New York: Routledge, 2004), 378-384.

[v] Mark B. N. Hansen, Feed-Forward: On the future of twenty-first century media (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 43.

[vi] Inke Arns, “Interaction, Participation, Networking: Art and Telecommunication,” What Urban Media Art Can Do: Why When Where & How, eds. Susa Pop, Tanya Toft, Nerea Calvillo, and Mark Wright (Stuttgart: av edition, 2016), 210.