Martijn de Waal, Improving Cultural Public Space

On: December 10, 2009
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About Chris Castiglione
Chris is an alumni of Universiteit van Amsterdam and the New Media M.A. Currently, he is the co-founder of One Month (, and the host of the On Books Podcast (


Urban Screens 09: The City as InterfaceMartijn de Waal is a writer and researcher, who has specialized in the relation between technology, media, and (public) culture. Together with Michiel de Lange he founded The Mobile City, a think tank and knowledge network on digital media and urban culture. At the Institute of Network Culture’s Urban Screen’s conference, held last week at Trouw, Amsterdam, he discussed his ideas on how to improve cultural public spaces.

“What is Urban Culture?”, asks Martijn, “The city is a place full of strangers. How do we shape and express our own identity? How do we relate to others?” He reminds the audience at the Urban Culture conference that the people we live within our cities are not only strangers but that we live side-by-side with these people that have different lifestyles, religions and cultures. For Martijn a public space is a place where people assemble, it refers to an audience, but doesn’t assume that everyone has access to this space: there are always power limits and preconditions for how we can react in these spaces.

A cultural public space could be thought of as an experience where there are collective rhythms and performances as we pass by and interact with each other. Martijn explains, “Not only that you have interactions with others in a public space, but that you have this experience of seeing other people walk by. Just by being in these spaces, even if you don’t interact with them, it builds up a sort of trust – a collective rhythm. It’s more an unconscious process than an active deliberation.”

He went on to present a few examples of these cultural public spaces:

Climate on the Wall (Aarhus, Denmark)
Climate on the Wall is a media installation where people can move around the digitally projected words on the wall to make statements about climate – similar to the magnetic poetry tiles that are on many people’s refrigerators.

Martijn added,

When this began, they hoped it would be a rational debate about climate (because all the words are about climate). They hoped to remediate the public facade with this type of dialogue. So did it work? Not really. No one was too interested in making comments on climate. And in that sense the project was a bit naive, but what the creators did notice: the people standing in front of the screen were having a dialogue about the climate. So the screen inspired and led to discussion – i think that’s an interesting design concept. Maybe we shouldn’t always try to think of the content itself as the conversation, but the project can be used as a conversation piece.

Textales (Amsterdam)
“Textales takes an editorial approach to the public sphere”, Martijn explained. In Textales members of urban and rural communities took photographs addressing housing inequities, anti-smoking legislation and political influences on daily life. They selected and arranged images for large-scale projection in public arenas. Passersby could then use mobile phones to augment the displays by sending text messages that appeared as captions.

SENSEable City Lab Wiki Rome
This was done on the museum night in Rome (it is also called the White Night) what you see (the blue cloud) is where people are in the city. The yellow lines then show where the buses are in the city. So it’s a projection of certain rhythms in the city.

CoCollage broadcasts pictures from your online social network onto a screen in your local cafe (at the moment they are available in twenty cafes in the Seattle area). If you have a loyalty card the system registers that you have arrived, and it begins projecting your photos.

Martijn commented,

If you are a regular at that coffee place, then you can get an idea of who else is a regular. Essentially, CoCollage is reinventing the ways that we can get familiar with people in the public space.

Considering the great percentage of the world living in urban areas – surrounded by, and intermingling with strangers everyday. Martijn’s examples illustrate a few innovate ways that we can become more conscious our the people around us – and perhaps through that awareness we can transform everyday public spaces into better cultural public spaces.

Read more from Chris Castiglione on his technology blog and at One Month (where you can learn to code in 30 days). 

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