7 powerful ways public screens are changing our cities for the better

“When art is located on the streets, it cannot be ignored.”

A sentiment that rings especially true for the electronic artworks created by some of the most influential artists, politicians and architects across the globe. From Jenny Holzer’s provocative, text based installations to Beyonce’s nation-stopping LED performance, it’s undeniable that urban screens have the power to connect, shock and enlighten the masses.

Historically, large screens have primarily been used in two ways: as relays for live events (rock concerts, sports) or to provide flexible platforms for information and advertising (McQuire, 2006). But there is also a history of alternative, and often subversive, content being displayed on our screens that disrupt and demand our attention. Here, we share 7 powerful examples of public screens:

1. Jenny Holzer, Truisms, 1985. Times Square, New York
“Electronic LED signs are her best-known, most spectacular method; they also reflect the military-commercial-entertainment complex that, bit by bit, her art exposes.” — Roberta Smith

Boasting a nearly three decade-long career, Jenny Holzer’s work has always served as unsettling, albeit relevant, omens of things to come. The written word is central to Holzer’s work and derives inspiration from common sayings that reflect the outcry and pathos of different communities.

Whether flickering from an electric sign or projected against monuments across the globe, Holzer’s text-based installations asks us to consider the words and messages that surround us in the information age. By presenting messages that reach people outside of museums and galleries, these texts reflect the language of breaking news, advertising and other mass media. They can often provoke strong responses. For example:


Her work suggests that a key issue for large screens in public space remains the traditional issue for all media forms: control, access, filtering of content and censoring. Holzer, of course, disrupts this notion of outdoor screens as being purely for commercial use and instead, places the power back into the hands of the public.

2. Beyonce Knowles-Carter, Beyonce performs in front of the word ‘FEMINIST’, 2014, MTV VMA’s
“I put the definition of feminist in my song and on my tour, not for propaganda or to proclaim to the world that I’m a feminist, but to give clarity to the true meaning” — Beyonce Giselle Knowles-Carter

INGLEWOOD, CA – AUGUST 24: Honoree Beyonce performs onstage during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

Beyonce is considered a living legend in the music industry and is widely credited for her vocal and performing abilities that remain unrivalled today. In recent years, however, the “Flawless” singer has established herself as a strong proponent of women’s rights, alongside a myriad of political standings against police brutality and discrimination that bleeds all over America.

When Beyoncé performed in front of a screen emblazoned with ‘FEMINIST’ in giant wording at the 2014 MTV VMAs, TIME magazine described it as the moment “a word with a complicated history [was] reclaimed by the most powerful celebrity in the world”.

It was at this point in the show that Beyoncé pelted us with an important feminist statement by sampling lines from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Lines from the poem were splashed across the screen in bold, pink letters as she and her dancers took their positions in the dark. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller,” the screen read. “We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man.”

3. Kevin Rudd, National Apology to the Stolen Generations, 2008. Old Parliament House, Canberra
“…the silence in the House of Representatives was replaced by an eruption of whistles, cheers, foot stamping and hand clapping, an outburst of emotion echoing across the land.” — Tony Wright

Crowds of people gathered on the lawns in front of Old Parliament House to listen to Rudd’s speech. CREDIT: JUSTIN MCMANUS

In Feburary 2008, Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, aired a national apology to the ‘Stolen Generations’. Around 20,000 people gathered in front of large screens across Australia to watch the historical event; a pivotal moment for urban screens where we saw the screen become a powerful tool for public protest.

Crowds turn their backs on Brendon Nelson’s response to Rudd’s Apology, on the grounds at Federation Mall. CREDIT: JUSTIN MCMANUS

The urban screen can also be a platform for political discontent. For example, when Brendan Nelson, the then Leader of the Opposition, gave his speech, many people at Old Parliament House and Federation Square turned their backs to the screen, showing their displeasure and disapproval. This gesture was picked up in many news reports, and showed how a large screen in a public space could allow an audience to become actors in the story in a completely different way.

4. Juame Plensa, Crown Fountain, 2004. Millenium Park, Chicago
“…the fountain has survived its contentious beginnings to find its way into Chicago pop culture. It is a popular subject for photographers and a common gathering place.

Described as an exemplary feature of the city’s numerous urban parks by U.S. News & World ReportJaume Plensa’s use of human faces from where the water pours, indicates the coexistence that should exist between human beings and nature. It’s also an LED mural that the public travel far and wide for.

Indeed, residents and critics have praised the fountain for its artistic and entertainment features. It highlights Plensa’s themes of dualism, light, and water, extending the use of video technology from his prior works. Its use of water is unique among Chicago’s many fountains, in that it promotes physical interaction between the public and the water. Both the fountain and Millennium Park are highly accessible because of their universal design.

Due to the participatory element of the screen the fountain is a public play area and offers people an escape from summer heat, allowing children to frolic in the fountain’s water. The project won the 2006 Bombay Sapphire prize for its design work with glass.

5. Urban Screen Productions, One Planet unites Australians in shared environmental cause, 2014.

One Planet is an initiative dedicated to providing an interactive, positive and engaging platform that aims to bring about long-term change. Starting with local stories and conversations and building upon our partners community focused teams we can connect individuals and local communities to a wider network to give local values a voice nationally.

In 2014, Urban Screen Productions connected communities across Australia to address key environmental concerns through expert panelists and community feedback. This initiative, One Planet, gathered large crowds in public spaces to communicate about a shared cause.

One Planet aims to engage civic awareness and activate environmental stewardship that cuts across all demographics by delivering a connected and interactive community event across the country – linking together the public screens in the UTV network.

Their theme of ‘Think Global, Act Local’ aims to enable and educate the general public on tools they can use to secure our future cities. Components incorporate on-site activations including workshops, an engaging participatory arts and documentary program and our expert speakers on the interactive panels.

6. Asif Khan, MegaFaces, 2014. Winter Olympic Games, Sochi, Russia

Dubbed the “Mount Rushmore of the digital age”, Asif Khan’s MegaFaces facade functions like a huge pin screen where narrow tubes move in & out, transforming a flat facade into an interactive three-dimensional surface capable of morphing into the shape of any face.

Images show people huddled in awe before the great faces, like some mesmerised cult, worshipping at the altar of the selfie. Quite how far the faces will be censored remains to be seen, but it could have rich potential as a wall of protest, displaying the anguished grimaces of the slaughtered Circassians or exploited construction workers – and perhaps we can look forward to the first eight metre-high gay kiss.

7. Fans gather in front of the large screen to watch the finale episode of Seinfeld, 1998. Times Square, New York

On a less political note, urban screens can also be a hotspot for gathering spaces that foster a sense of community and camaraderie through a shared experience; just as much as screens can be a tool to disseminate political discourse and a stepping stone towards social change.

Nearly 5,000 people gathered in downtown St. Louis to watch the finale.

More than just being a corporate cash grab, the proliferation of urban screens in our cities has dramatically shifted the way we relate to each other. Through the insurgent and thought-provoking works of these artists, we as an audience are implicit in these messages plastered onto our screens. We unconsciously take in these phrases, mantras and symbols flashing on electric signs and, whether we choose to accept these notions as our own, we are undeniably made aware of the injustices, consumerism and unfavourable realities that many of us choose to ignore or sweep under the rug of wishful thinking.

In an increasingly digital era, urban screens gives us an opportunity to imagine uses of screens which don’t simply operate to produce advertisements and corporate noise, but are directed to producing new forms of public relationships.

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