09. Jan 2015

A conference and workshop event on
media architecture and interaction design held in Aarhus/DK

Text: Alison Ritter

There are a number of adjectives that would describe the Media Architecture Biennale 2014, MAB14 aptly and at the same time appear to contradict one another: fascinating, refreshing, academic, innovative, pioneering, participatory, challenging, inspiring, questioning … The conference and workshop event took place from 19. to 22. November, 2014 in Aarhus Denmark and was hosted and organised by Martin Brynskov from Aarhus University and Gernot Tscherteu from the Media Architecture Institute in Vienna, supported by specific colleagues and a band of willing students.

A number of presentations given at the conference were by internationally renowned speakers, but a large part of the programme comprised breakout sessions where attendees had the opportunity to gather in groups to discuss relevant topics and share comments and ideas on the state of media architecture today.

Just as architects are involved with building materials and technologies, so lighting designers are driven by their passion for light and the skills they have in applying lighting technologies. Media architecture is an area where both meet. Architecture is used as a medium, sometimes quite bluntly as a screen. But who decides on or creates the content? And what is the role of city planners in this development?

Interaction with media architecture or light art installations on a large scale can be disturbing or overpowering, which is why such projects are often only on a temporary basis. Public clients who opt for dramatic media interventions in their cityscapes are likely to have to deal with vandalism as a consequence. In general, public and private clients need to understand more about developments and possibilities in the field of media architecture to be able to make educated decisions. Of course, there are business opportunities within urban interaction design, but you can be sure that for lighting manufacturers who produce the relevant material: selling a media façade is quite different from selling products.

There was a lot of discussion at MAB14 about “smart cities”. Erik Jespersen from the Planning and Environment Department in the City of Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark, admitted that a smart city is based on partnerships, collaboration and openness. The latter is a task in itself. Urban development today incorporates planning and participation. The “powers that be” have to know about sensors, apps, and scanner technology to be able to cope with “smart mobility”. Public-private partnerships (PPP) are not easy to handle either. Public clients are not entrepreneurial and innovative collaborations often cannot pinpoint mutual benefits in advance. The city wants to solve a challenge; the commercial company is interested in doing business.

Aarhus is lined up to be the European Capital of Culture in 2017, and investments are being made in significant building projects, including the largest university hospital in Northern Europe. It is easier to gain public approval for this kind of project, which in turn will contribute to the common good through research findings – on light and health …

The general consensus was that municipalities (smart cities) will be in control in future when it comes to lighting design, media architecture and even energy supply. Right now a lot needs to be learned. The market is in relative turmoil, the situation complex, the software revolution ongoing. Media architecture will continue to have a huge impact, hopefully in a more controlled, conscious way to be able to curate and choreograph activities and engage the community in the city they inhabit.

Cities who have a basic urban lighting strategy have a better chance of integrating purposeful media architecture than cities who do not have techno-savvy staff or regular night-time cultural activities in the public realm. The answer is not to suddenly introduce an annual lighting festival. Lighting festivals can lead to specific sites being illuminated on a permanent basis, but the task at hand needs to address life in urban centres of various sizes now and in the future. Media architecture and interaction design is not only about entertainment. There is enormous scope for improving and enhancing life in our cities that may not be overly demonstrative.

MAB14 provided all involved with a lot to think about. There could have been more questioning. The wiser we become, the more we can question.

My opinion:

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