The Building as Screen: A History, Theory, and Practice of Massive Media

The Building as Screen: A History, Theory, and Practice of Massive Media
by Dave Colangelo

Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2019
192 pp. Trade, € 89,00
ISBN: 9789462989498.

Reviewed by: 
Mike Mosher
January 2022

In July 1983 the North Mission Artists’ Coalition (NoMAC) projected huge slides of a notorious slumlord upon the four-story building towering over the massive pit left years earlier when San Francisco’s Gartland Hotel was immolated in a fire—probably arson—that killed at least 25. And that summer, shortly before the Urban Rats collective “corrected” property management billboards atop their 60’ graffiti installation there, underground filmmaker/Other Cinema impresario Craig Baldwin had projected a 16mm movie about ACORN Philadelphia housing activists upon the below-ground basement walls of the pit. The neighborhood’s young anti-gentrification activists knew that walls could be used for visual, albeit short-term, messages beyond community murals and graffiti.

Subsequently we have seen Jenny Holzer’s commanding messages projected at imposing public scale, her critique of political truisms in an electronic crawl—and tunnel-like “crawl space”—in Manhattan’s Times Square. We have seen huge and sparkling corporate promotions and contests voting which sports team likely to win. The projection of political results and predicted, impending ones is not a new idea, with an artist’s conception first published in a newspaper in 1896 but realized with multi-story projections of the political results of the Presidential elections in 2008 and 2016.

Dave Colangelo is Professor of Digital Experience Design in the School of Design at George Brown College in Toronto. What he terms “Massive Media” is a set of techno-social assemblages and practices that include large outdoor projections, programmable architectural façades, and urban screens. In public spaces, projections upon landmarks affirm fluid “relational spaces” whose functions, imagery and meanings change. Arenas of ambivalence and contingency are ripe for digital overlays, and their erudite devotee Colangelo calls on various practitioners and theorists of the modern urban world to illuminate them.

In 1907 Sigmund Freud viewed lantern slides, “short cinematographic performances” and ads projected in Piazza Colonna in Rome. Krysztof Wodiczko created huge projections in 2001 of the faces women who work in the factories of Tijuana, speaking their stories. Historical personages and scenes danced and were wrapped around massive Quebec City grain silos in Robert Lepage & Ex Machina’s The Image Mill, projected summer evenings 2008 through 2012 upon this monumental agricultural/commercial architecture near the waterfront. Such expanded cinema (a phrase in use for fifty years now) is a hybrid form using three key elements of moving pictures: superimposition, montage, and the apparatus. “Mclarena”, also in Montreal, invites passers-by to dance a macarena along with characters in a 1964 animated film by Canada’s Norman McLaren. Much of author Colangelo’s own work, such as The Line (2013) with Patricio Dávila, has been in Canada, Markham, Ontario and at Toronto’s Ryerson University Image Centre.

In a chapter on large-scale projection and the (New) New Monumentality discusses the effects and implications upon urban living of participation in such public spectacles for “a degree of mobility and nomadic flows of communication and spectatorship.” Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmiewlski mapped the public’s own text messages upon a screen in Melbourne’s Federation Square.

Artists have had often offered projections of still artworks. Tracey Emin was inspired by Manhattan’s Times Square, a region tawdry and carnal 50 years ago, to create neon hearts with messages that, back then, might have beckoned one to a massage parlor or adult cinema. Media facades can also be low-rez, choreographed projection of colors, like a “Mood Gasometer” upon a gas storage tank in Berlin or the Philips Color Kinetics System projecting upon New York City’s Empire State Building.

Toronto’s Canada Life Building bore a flashing light weather beacon seventy years ago, but an instance of light as data visualization was the 2012 Presidential election electoral vote count was represented graphically on the Empire State Building in blue and red lights, courtesy the television news network CNN. Multiple uses of the lights upon the building are graphed by the author, and most of the time it’s to celebrate no occasion other than the tower’s existence and prominence in the nocturnal skyline.

The 145-meter Dexia Bank Tower, Brussels, Belgium was the site of art installations…until the bank’s failure in 2011. Nina Colosi’s Streaming Museum project addressed the curation of imagery in and upon a networked world. The Ars Electronica Center, Linz, Austria has a facade of 1,085 backlit 3’ x 1’ glass panels. Urban screens when networked offer even more possibilities, seeing somewhere else in the world upon the building standing before you. I recall how this was prototyped 30 years ago when Michael Naimark presented an immersive environment at the Yerba Buena Center, San Francisco, showing (though not real time) 360 degrees of video of world historic sites like Timbuktu and Srebenica.

The Building As Screen is an informative book with examples of this exciting active field from several continents. Years ago, I melded my own experience in community murals, and interest in the then-new immerse virtual environments demonstrated by Jaron Lanier and others, to hand-wavingly propose “smartwalls”, community murals that reveal to the touch further text information, video, animation or imagery. I appreciate how Colangelo’s concept of Massive Media is a step in that direction, environments blurring of the boundaries between solid, lasting architecture and the fugitive, fleeting, fluid and evanescent realm of the pixel and projection. His work (sometimes just a suite of choreographed colors, as on Toronto’s CN Tower), its tale herein, and that of the other practitioners’ works discussed in this book, takes us towards my goal.