Spontaneous Art, Technology and Urban Spaces

by Min Li Chan

Watching a Current TV episode from a year back on "shadow art" in Brooklyn made me consider the role of spontaneous art in urban spaces, and the way they shape and transform the neighborhood ethos. In its most malicious form, spontaneous art is a euphemism for vandalism. But with the right motivations and nuance in execution, spontaneous art - especially if ephemeral - can renew an urban environment. Small strokes of unexpected ingenuity spotted on the side of the street can provide a sense of (re)discovery - they save us from being jaded, from failing to be tourists in our own home cities, provoking us to regard our urban environments with fresh eyes.

Imagine if the technologies that enable mass-scale digital art became as commonplace as the paint brush or wads of papier-mache - instead of art mimicking life, it could well be the case of the concrete and tangible aspiring to the liberties and improbabilities of the virtual world. In one example, the folks at Urbanscreen provide a glimpse of what digital art can do to transform buildings on the fly through projection technologies.

 To take the idea train a little further, imagine what mass-scale digital art could do transform difficult, bleak, poorly designed, urban spaces. Not too long ago, la crise des banlieues, a meme resurfacing as a result of the French riots in 1995, compelled us to ponder over the role of architecture and design in contributing to unhappiness and dissent in urban/suburban life. Could mass-scale digital art such as these projections play a larger role to retroactively alter and fix where the concrete world failed? Or is this purely naivete, without the completeness of systemic changes, that address deep-seated sociopolitical and economic issues that often lie at the heart of the matter?


  1. I really like the idea of street art opening up new and unique experiences in the places we live. And now I can really picture a concrete wall wishing to take on the capabilities of the digital world. :) Even if it doesn't resolve entrenched social/political/economic problems, allowing people to create and enjoy this kind of thing would definitely be a benefit to cities.

  2. These are provocative points. I would like to offer a couple of countering perspectives for debate.

    A "bleak, poorly designed concrete" space may be perceived as derelict by outsiders, but for its residents it may be the home of a rich, thriving community full of personal narratives and local traditions. Such may be the case, without the need to make the place into an aesthetic product. Why is art a necessary antidote for a problem that may not even be there to begin with?

    When the artist moves from the city – where he discovers his palate of expression - to the gallery – where he makes his expression into a commodity – something interesting happens. His artistic production is transformed from a spontaneous act to a consuming product. Can we attribute the same transformation to urban development?

    I ask this question, because as planners, artist and designers we tend to place emphasis on the visual aspect of the physical environment in order to find clues to solve its perceived problems. Art may serve as one of this toolkits. Does the physical determinism that defines the “urban revitalization” of impoverished neighborhoods, share the same ideology of “aesthetic determinism”. Does thinking about the urbanism as a work of art leads to consider the city as a blank canvas with the possibility of transformative brush strokes? What then is the ethics of art in the city?

    Please feel free to disagree.