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how it came to this, explained in full

andrew murphie: scott mcquire’s the media city


Modal Suspension, Relational Architecture 8, Yamaguchi, Japan, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Lozano-Hemmer is one of the subjects of Media City and will be a keynote speaker at the 2009 Adelaide Film Festival
Modal Suspension, Relational Architecture 8, Yamaguchi, Japan, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Lozano-Hemmer is one of the subjects of Media City and will be a keynote speaker at the 2009 Adelaide Film Festival

photo by ArchiBIMing
THE MEDIA CITY PROVIDES A SURPRISINGLY COMPREHENSIVE, BEAUTIFULLY-WRITTEN ACCOUNT OF THE TANDEM DEVELOPMENT OF MEDIA AND CITIES. MORE THAN THIS, HOWEVER, THE MEDIA CITY IS A COMPELLING ACCOUNT OF THE VERY CONSTITUTION OF MODERN EXPERIENCE.

McQuire is quick to dismiss the question of media representations of the city, primarily because this question immediately separates media from the rest of life. He is interested instead in media’s interventions in the midst of life, in the production of forms of living, of material becomings.

The “media-architecture complexes” that are central to these material becomings are an increasingly complex mix of “heterogeneous temporalities” and “relational spaces.” During frequent “transitional phases”, the media city is a kind of ongoing experiment in time, space and living.

It is the often forgotten “medium” of electricity, particularly electric light, that made the media city possible in its full form. McQuire gives a wonderful account of the “electrical sublime.” Electric light transforms architectural forms, which become more fluid at the flick of a switch. Material space is blended with the less obviously material. The city itself becomes performative at the same time as cinematic: a dynamic trade of light and shadows. Eventually, William Gibson’s cyberspace of colour and light are to emerge from this. Electricity is a transformer of experience, not just a simple source of energy.

The rest of the book leads into and out of the electrical sublime. Electric light’s concurrent illumination and deformation of the experience of “home” is prefigured, for example, in photography. Photography plays the role of technological memory (often of home), but in part because of the increasing destruction of actual homes and neighbourhoods, as in Haussmann’s reorganisation of Paris. Both photography and the very concept of city-wide organisation increase the abstraction of experience. This makes the likes of advertising and commodification possible, to what are now generic citizens abstracted from a demolished local culture. Relational space becomes more complex. Objects are subordinated to the more abstract relations in which they find themselves. This in turn allows for the further development of media technologies, and the machinic forms of perception they provide, which are meant to visualise the new abstractions of relational space.

The dynamics between media, urban design and experience begin to pre-figure the cinema in the photographic series. Here the series matters more than individual photographs, because it is the series that responds to the question of how one could possibly get an overall view of the new city. Images now begin to form “an information flow in which relations between images assumed heightened importance.” Social and technical life become increasingly subject to these relations, and not just in some high theoretical way. McQuire convincingly maps out the differential force of relations as they are put to work in the actual material constitution of lived, urban experience.

The increased abstraction and complexity of relational spaces in urban life leads to an entire society which “deals less in truth than probability.” Thus the increasing fascination with detective stories and, later, lived experience based upon statistics, risk management, and population-based performance indicators. What McQuire calls the “territory of images” expands: a series of photographic records; postcards; the electrical sublime’s re-image-ing of urban forms; the cinematic attempt to grapple with mobility in a reproduction of the media city’s ongoing temporal shock; even statistics as an attempt to image an otherwise invisible set of events. Meaning itself “becomes a form of ‘sampling’.”

At a certain point the problem becomes the “the liquid city.” Neither fixed architectural forms nor even relatively fixed media assemblages such as the cinema, were quite able to bring the media city to order. Media, architectural forms, social life, even the “self”, all needed to become “liquid” in order to adapt to each other in increasingly relational spaces. The cinematic edit becomes the more liquid “melt of morphing” and “narrative ordering” is submersed in the “viewing of multiple ‘windows’.” The media city, now conforming to the Futurist dream of a city “composed of different intensities”, is made of events flowing in a sea of shifting currents. The resulting disorientation leads both to new, more hierarchical forms of organisation. It also demands better—whether more or less liquid—participatory forms of social organisation.

Throughout, McQuire is just as informed about architecture and the urban as he is about media, from Boccioni and Sant’Elia, through very extensive discussions of Le Corbusier and Archigram, to Frank Gehry, Nicholas Negroponte and Koolhaas.

The final section of the book delivers a stunning account of the extensive use of glass in architecture. Following this, electronic media are not only seen as an extension of the photographic series’ attempt to give abstract coverage to the new dynamics of urban space. They are also an extension of the new dynamism of glass, of the window as the highly ambivalent opening/barrier between private and public.

The digital home emerges from this ambivalence. This in turn allows the rise of reality TV shows such as Big Brother. Here the ongoing and tactical construction of personal agency, along with the ability to command statistical and pseudo-democratic media attention, become a matter of survival. McQuire elegantly terms this the “the farming of emotions”, which starts with the development of public relations and method acting, and ends with Big Brother. In a similar vein, the famous Jennicam becomes a kind of media-city “transitional object”, because we now suffer from the “fear of not being watched.” McQuire nevertheless sees possible value in these new constitutions of experience, even if this might have to be actualised differently from Big Brother.

Packed with stories, events and ideas, and beautifully argued, The Media City is probably the most lucid discussion of media and the constitution of lived experience around.


Scott McQuire The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space, Sage, London, 2008

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Lozano-Hemmer is one of the subjects of Media City and will be a keynote speaker at the 2009 Adelaide Film Festival, see preview.

RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 29

© Andrew Murphie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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