Vague Terrain 21: Electric Speed

Electric speed is curated by Kate Armstrong and Malcolm Levy for Revised Projects and the New Forms Media Society.

Our interest in working with the form of the urban screen for Electric Speed relates in one part to the catalyst of the McLuhan in Europe 2011 initiative1 in which artists and curators have taken the centennial year of media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s birth as an opportunity to consider the transformative impacts of his ideas specifically in the context of media art. The other component that spurred the development of this exhibition was an interest in partnering with the Surrey Art Gallery to present work specifically geared to the unique context of the Surrey Urban Screen, as it is the largest urban screen in Canada and the only one that is devoted to the presentation of art.2

The variegated ways of approaching speed as a subject, mode, effect or relation that we see in these artists’ projects provide entry points for considering the impact of Marshall McLuhan’s thinking on the subject of accelerated culture. Most importantly, though, Electric Speed presents new works from a group of Canadian artists whose tactics and practices exist within and respond to the state of global media culture. Electric Speed will be exhibited at the Surrey Art Gallery from December 2, 2011 through March 31, 2012, before travelling to other urban screen venues internationally. With this exhibition, we’ve tried to investigate these themes as well as enable the production of vibrant work that responds to the pervasive, variable form of the urban screen, itself an important defining feature of the series.

If urban screens are defined as the “various kinds of dynamic digital displays and interfaces in urban space such as LED signs, plasma screens, projection boards, information terminals but also intelligent architectural surfaces”3, it becomes immediately clear how deeply they have infiltrated the urban environment, and it must be noted that the commercial aspects of this ubiquitous form are fundamental to their existence.

The urban screen as a form typically fluctuates, a bit uneasily, between two poles: Not purely commercial and rarely purely cultural, a common tactic of the urban screen is to deliver culture in interstitial spaces or timeslots, for example showing video or media art in the last minute of each hour or working with public transit authorities to show animation or experimental video on the television screens in trains or subways.

However variable or restricted these sites are, these tactics produce unique if not immense opportunities for delivering art in new ways and new spaces, for example allowing it to be shown simultaneously in 15 cities across the U.K.4, engaging huge audiences in major public squares5, reaching people such as commuters in situ, or allowing architectural surfaces to operate cinematically or socially so that groups of people can gather in public space to interact with a large-scale, shared image.

In response to these complex and multivalent conditions, an international network of artists, curators and theorists has emerged for the purpose of discussing and examining the role of the urban screen and to creating discourse among “artists, curators, cultural managers, architects, government institutions, screen operators as well as theoreticians” so as to rethink “the relationship between architecture and public space in the digital age”6 and to consider the implications of ongoing tensions between commercial and artistic concerns as well as the restrictions that arise from questions of ownership and control in relation to the public context. Whether through the cultural bureaucracy of a municipality7 or a multi-national corporation such as Clear Channel8, screens are regulated, and ultimately cause an examination of what is and is not public.

For us, the networked, global form of the public screen manifestly raises questions about simultaneity, relationships between public and private, issues of centralization and control, as well as causing an examination of the ways in which cultural and commercial spheres intersect - all issues that pierce through and overlay the theme of “electric speed”.

This project might be characterized as an invitation to the six artists - Melissa Mongiat and Mouna Andraos, Jeremy Bailey, Jillian Mcdonald, Jon Sasaki, and Will Gill - to test the formal qualities of the public screen as a medium, because on some level the urban screen implicitly suggests an investigation of the contemporary media environment itself. With all the opportunities and restrictions of the screen, and the attendant factors which are explored in these works as well as in these essays and interviews, it remains for us an active question: Do the formal and contextual constraints that lie at the heart of the urban screen prevent it from functioning as a meaningful cultural space? Or on the other hand, is it even possible to imagine a meaningful investigation of global urban culture or media that takes place anywhere but there?

Kate Armstrong & Malcolm Levy, Vancouver
January 2012


1. A primarily European project initiated by Stephen Kovats and Michelle Kasprzak to create “a conversation that spans art, communications, and technology.”
2. Architecturally the Surrey Urban Screen is in fact more of a façade than a screen, as it possesses a unique exterior with a set of illuminated, irregular windows that challenge it as a traditional projection surface.
3. Mirjam Struppek is the founder of the International Urban Screens Association,
4. The BBC Big Screens initiative is a collaboration between the BBC, LOCOG and UK local authorities in which screens become focal points in the city for sports, news, events and content arising from partnerships with arts organizations.
5. Initiatives to present cultural projects operate in connection with sites such as New York’s Times Square, the large-scale urban screen in Federation Square in Melbourne, and the Collegium Hungaricum in Berlin.
6. Mirjam Struppek,
7. Where public art must be in dialogue with community and the specific requirements and constraints presented by the site in question.
8. Clear Channel is a global media and entertainment company that owns and operates approximately one million screens in 45 countries across 5 continents.