The Urban Communicate: From T-Mobile to the Love Police via the Reichstag

Having just been reading up on the ‘Media City’ (the academic fundamentals of which are articulated very acutely by Scott McQuire’s 2008 book, which I have just finished reviewing for the Urban Geography Research Group), the ways in which technology, consumption, networks and the city collide in contemporary society are becoming increasingly apparent, yet no less complex. This thought process has been catalysed by spending the last few weeks in the company of peers involved in the urban subversions ‘meme’ (for want of a better phrase). As such, it is evermore apparent (if it was ever not so), that the city is the crucible of experimentation with the splicing of media and communications techniques, viral networks and subversive ‘tactics‘ (to use a De Certeauian neologism). As much as “the city is the striated space par excellence”  as argued by Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 481), this striation forces the city to fold in on itself creating medial experimentation space par excellence.

If you still need convincing then all you have to do is watch commercial television long enough for an advert to come on. More and more television adverts these days are using ‘viral’ or ‘flash-mobing’ campaigns a lá an Improv Everywhere-style. Probably the earliest example was the T-Mobile dancing advert shot in Liverpool Street Station. One that is more recent (so recent in fact, I can only find a flikr page showing stills of behind the scenes) is where Homebase dress Carlisle station up like a showroom, to the apparent delight and amazement of the early commuters. Mass ‘art’ or urban intervention movements like this are not new, such as Christo’s work (stretching back to 1972 – with the Umbrellas in California and Japan, or the Wrapped Reichstag probably his most famous work, pictured). However, their use in the promotion of commercial goods, at least ‘in the mainstream’ is a relatively new phenomenon. The surreptitious nature of these adverts are increasing, with this offering (if anyone thinks that this isn’t an advert for Coke is either stubborn or just plain wrong).

It probably says more about the nature of the advertising industry, but there is a sense that using the city as the arena for these ‘playful’ ways is becoming more acceptable, if not to city authorities, then to the every day consumer-in-the-street. The progression of media delivery from the idiot box in the corner to technological ‘viral’ communications forces innovations in advertising and communication techniques to keep pace with the shifting prevailing winds of societal change. The city is hence the playground of such events as, I would argue, urbanites are becoming more attuned to a reaction against the ‘striation’ of the urban apparatus, which rebukes the non-place ethic which Augé argues is prevalent in urban societies.

The ability of companies, individuals and political groups to spread their message through Web 2.0 (or is it Web 3.0? I’m losing count…) techniques is broadening our informational horizons and the appreciation of the city as a place for derivé. While this opens the door for the creep of commercialisation, it brings with it the ability for such urban ‘tactics’ to gain momentum, which if used effectively (such as the Love Police’s successful rebuttal against a ‘stop-and-search’ attempt by the Metropolitan Police) are creating a more inclusive and democratic urban environment.

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