Watching the watchers – programming the Urban Screens Festival, Amsterdam
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Watching the watchers – programming the Urban Screens Festival, Amsterdam
Andreas Templin, As if to Nothing, 2008

Andreas Templin, As if to Nothing, 2008

María Palacios Cruz on presenting work in public spaces.

Since 2007, CASZ has been presenting the work of contemporary audiovisual artists on a 40 square metre urban screen in the Zuidas district in Amsterdam – a business district, where the World Trade  Centre is located. Situated right next to the train Amsterdam Zuid train station, the screen is in full sight of the thousands of office workers that cross the square every day.

CASZ is a collaborative initiative between Virtueel Museum Zuidas and SKOR (Foundation Art and Public Space),  and in September organised the first edition of a two-day Urban Screens Festival.

Whereas in their regular programme throughout the year CASZ (led by Jan Schuijren and Marina de Vries) presents works which are not specifically conceived for an urban screen, but which can function in such a context – they have shown the work of Hans Op de Beeck, Guido Van der Werve, Dariusz Kowalski, Ken Jacobs and Corina Schnitt, just to mention a few – the festival’s intention was to encourage artists to create new works for an urban screen context. And more particularly, for the CASZ Urban Screen context, which is very much marked by the neighbourhood where it is situated. The potential Zuidas public audience is completely different to the audience the screen would have were it to be sited in the touristy Rembrandtplein in the centre of Amsterdam. In Zuidas, people are generally hurrying to catch a train or get to the office, and the audience needs to be seduced, interpellated, puzzled.

As well as a competition programme, the Urban Screens Festival presented an Artist in Focus series, with British duo Semiconductor, London-based Japanese artist Hiraki Sawa and Dutch performance artist Feiko Beckers. There were new commissions by Sema Bekirovic, John Wood & Paul Harrison and Poly-Xelor, and guest programmes, by Filmbank,   the Nederlands Film Museum, the TAX Video Clip Fund and Courtisane.

I compiled the Courtisane selection together with Stoffel Debuysere and as we were putting it together we tried very hard to imagine and anticipate what would make a passer-by want to stop and be interested. Neither of us knew the Zuidas landscape nor had a real experience of Urban Screens. We decided that the urban viewer – a generally invisible spectator – had to be at the centre of our proposal, and we tried to ‘interact’ with our possible audience by choosing a series of works that leave gaps for the spectator to fill in.

For the programme – entitled Imagine, we proposed a selection of videos that we considered called upon the spectator’s imagination, in the hope that that they would intrigue the passer-by enough to make them feel invited to participate. An example is Stephen’s Gray Beep Prepared, which revisits the Road Runner cartoon, but erases its two protagonists, leaving us with their empty landscapes, intact soundtrack and our memories, which are generally surprisingly vivid, allowing us to ‘see’ what we can only imagine to be there.

But the truth is that in an urban screen context, people don’t really watch the screen, they watch the people watching the screen, or what the people watching the screen are watching. I was on the competition jury – together with curator Susanne Jaschko and the Director of SKOR, Fulya Erdemci – and while I waited for the others before the competition programme started, I found myself alone on the Zuidplein. The people rushing to the train station didn’t even seem to notice the screen, or to tell it apart from its environment. But once the ‘festival audience’ began to slowly gather in the square, passers-by started to stop to see what was going on.

Being on the jury was a strange spectator experience. In that urban screen context one doesn’t have the same sort of individual viewing experience one has at a regular screening in a darkened film theatre. When we began our discussions, we each prepared a shortlist of five titles, and were very surprised to discover that four titles were the same on every list!

But it is perhaps not that surprising, for we were all reacting to the works at the same time, and influencing each other’s perception. In an outdoor screening, with the ambient street noise and the sound of transient conversations, one doesn’t feel shy or inadequate responding out loud to the works. Inevitably, the viewing experience transforms itself in a collective one. And if someone appears bored or thrilled with a work, one can’t help but notice it, and to be – consciously or not – influenced by that.

After a very long discussion, we decided to split the award, and reward two very different works, which interacted with the urban context and the urban spectator in almost opposite ways, and which were both – outside of the urban screen context – strong works of art which we would also appreciate away from the Zuidplein.

The winners of the first Urban Screens Award were Andreas Templin for As if to Nothing and British artist duo John Wood and Paul Harrison for Shelf.

Confronted with a diversity of works with hardly a common denominator – different styles, lengths, formats, aesthetics, intentions -  we faced the inevitable question: should we go for the work we consider best (visually, formally, intentionally, etc), or for that which functions best in this specific urban screen context? We agreed on three selection criteria to guide our decision: the intrinsic visual qualities of the works, their suitability to an urban screen in public space, and their interaction with the Zuidas environment.

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