Media Arts for Community Development in Planning: A Literature Review

“Art, of course, does not produce grand revolutions, but as an event that opens up a new narrative about reality it provides the conditions of possibility for a nascent political consciousness, one born from conviviality, a being-together as a coming-into-being of community: the realization of shared existence.”

Jean Fisher, on Francis Alÿs’ When Faith Moves Mountains, 2007


Today, planning’s esteem for the arts relates primarily to the latter’s capacity as economic engine. Of course, planners admire arts and culture for its notable impact on social and human capital, as well, but the majority of programs bespeak economic development’s continued primacy. I propose planning broaden its creative agenda to include media arts for community development. For one, media arts engage with each of the following crucial planning phenomena: time and space, identity, participation, and process, and uphold context as a decisive factor in all. For another, communication technologies have fast become the basic infrastructure of daily experience for millions. For many millions others, who reside on the other side of the digital divide, I consider this need and opportunity to be even more pressing.

The following literature review, comprising works from two of the last forty years’ most influential planners, and an array of media artists, art historians, computer scientists, philosophers, and sociologists, articulate the myriad benefits media arts can bring to community development in urban planning. In the first section, I introduce what I consider to be Kevin Lynch’s and Manuel Castells’ unwitting championing of media arts for community development. I then use Boris Groys’ 2011 Going Public to introduce context, time-place, identity, participation, and process through a philosophical lens before delving deeper into each of conditions. These literatures and case studies show media arts’ practices, blessings, and cautions are well taken in planning. I conclude by acknowledging there are constraints, but that the opposing benefits merit media arts’ application in community development.

The Planners: Kevin Lynch and Manuel Castells

Two influential planners, Kevin Lynch and Manuel Castells, address community development directly. Lynch remains local, while Castells considers late 20th century local and global social transformation. Neither write about media art explicitly, but they both uphold the importance of key aesthetics of media arts, context, culture, place, and time—and in Castells’ case, technology—as central to healthy community making.

In his 1972 What Time Is This Place? Kevin Lynch maintains that the physical world embodies the markings of time. Our cities are palimpsests. Therefore, we should plan the temporal as much as we do the spatial. The “desirable image…celebrates and enlarges the present (p. 1) and connects with both past and future. We must emphasize the present and understand, however upsetting, that change is necessary and wanted. Time has two conditions, subjective and objective, and we use the environment to make sense of both. When we are secure in our “local time, local place, and our own selves” (p. 89), we feel able to confront the unknown future.

To that end, Lynch is not keen on preservation for its own sake. What is it, exactly, we mean to preserve? What do we agree is important? Who gets to say? As historic preservation converted places of questionable relevance into sanctuaries, urban renewal devastated entire communities at huge social, emotional, cultural, and economic costs. Rather than preserve, Lynch says, we must dispose, program, and conserve advisedly. Thus he proposes “a plural attitude toward environmental remains” (p. 63) to give a sense of stability. Lynch’s methods each evoke practices in media arts. If the aim is science and learning, follow archival and archaeological methods. If education, “unabashed playacting and communicating” (p. 63). To augment the sense of now and movement in time, opt for “temporal collage, creative demolition and addition” (p. 64). Finally, to make personal connections, make likewise selective imprints. The “good” images are those that are “vivid and engaging, have a firm, resilient, and wide-ranging structure, and allow further exploration and development” (p. 241). Media arts don’t just provide images; they invite participants to make them.

Castells’ The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring and the Urban-Regional Process (1989) has a wholly different tone. This is sober analysis details the global set of historic social, cultural, and territorial transformations, and information technologies’ (IT) driving force in all. Castells asserts our mode of development is informational; our favored product is not product at all, but knowledge. Discoveries are innovations, processes. In all this, despite the IT industries’ apparent potential for placelessness, there have been discrete and profound spatial and social repercussions. High tech does encourage more jobs, but it does so by polarizing and segmenting the labor force. Qualitatively, the management-labor power balance has shifted well in favor of the employer. Labor at all levels is necessarily more flexible, abiding the “just-in-time” system. Quantitatively, there are fewer unskilled clerical jobs, just as are there fewer middle-income households. The downgrading of the majority of these jobs maps with the change in the workforce’s gender and ethnic makeup. Women and ethnic minorities today perform the lowest-level labor in the informational economy, often performing informal work.

The promise of work in the informal economy has lured millions to global urban centers, thus constituting, alongside the formal sector, the “dual city.” Comparing the formal and informal sectors, we see the former benefits immensely from state intervention while the other suffers, in favor of capitalist processes, from no labor protection; that they are are equally dynamic and connected through symbiotic relationships, though there is little social mobility between them; and that the more the middle class shrinks, the more we realize chances for upward mobility further diminish.

Castell’s 1989 segregation, diversity, and hierarchy-based spatial structures have only deepened in the years hence, owing to the network society’s space of flows (1989, 1996). In the network society (1996), the informational city is a “process characterized by the structural domination of spaces of flows” (ibid, p. 398). These flows comprise elite micro-networks who assert their interests within global macro-networks, and over time “ahistorical universal spaces” (ibid, p. 417) have proliferated worldwide. The information age has obliterated place and time, and the informal portion of the dual city has grown into the Fourth World (1998). Disconnectedness from the information age’s immateriality has had sweeping material effects. We must close the digital divide.

Groys: Context and the Poetics of Media Arts

“But sometimes, a utopian vision is needed to shake the institutions from shortsightedness and status and to enable people to think the unthinkable, thus enhancing their awareness and their control of the inevitable social transformations.”

Manuel Castells, 1989, p. 353

In the end, Castells remains optimistic, suggesting we can affirm our cultural identities, organize communities, and occupy places in such a way as to make them meaningful. Taken together, Castells and Lynch hint at how we might make our localities socially just, good places, and unwittingly provide the justification for media arts in planning. Next I turn briefly to philosopher Boris Groys’ (2011) Going Public to introduce phenomena primary to media arts and planning, context, time-space, identity, participation, and process. I place context as the leading concept as it shapes and is shaped by all four remaining conditions.

In media arts, the context has become as important as the content itself, in many ways directing and reshaping its meaning. Groys doubts a “real” even exists anymore, but if it does, it doesn’t interrupt the system, but emerges “as a question of the technique and practice of self-design—a question no one can escape anymore” (36). If no “real” exists and art has established “equality between the living and the dead” (p. 19), what does this mean politically? Groys dismays, the political realm has entered the aesthetic field, and so seeks the ideal image, when it should endeavor to perform poetic acts of production and technique. For its unique context and relationship with time-space, Groys celebrates the “Poetics of Installation.” The installation is ephemeral, but it is not immaterial. “More than anything else, what the installation offers to the fluid, circulating multitudes is an aura of the here and now” (p. 63) and inverts Walter Benjamin’s “normative” (p. 65) requirements for art display. So there is no single best, but a proliferation thereof. “The installation is, above all, a mass-cultural version of individual flânerie” (p. 65).

“We are unable to stabilize a copy as a copy, as we are unable to stabilize an original as an original. There are no eternal copies as there are no eternal originals. Reproduction is as much infected by originality as originality is infected by reproduction. In circulating through various contexts, a copy becomes a series of originals. Every change of context, every change of medium can be interpreted as a negation of the status of a copy as a copy–as an essential rupture, as a new start that opens a new future. In this sense, a copy is never really a copy; rather, a new original in a new context. Every copy is by itself a flâneur–experiencing time and again its own ‘profane illuminations’ that turn it into an original.”

Boris Groys, 2011, pp. 66-7

As politics privilege the aesthetic field, so does current art analysis. (Benjamin is foundational to most current critical theory.) Groys asserts this is the consumerist perspective and exhorts us to reject it in favor of the poetic understanding, a turn with potentially profound identity implications. In the poetic view, an individual considers art in terms of its production, its technical constitution. What if we were to turn this analytical approach into an exercise of self-actualization? Autopoetics, “the production of one’s own public self” (p. 16), says Groys, is that much easier in the digital age.

Groys’ examinations into participation and process stem from his proposal for autopoiesis. In “Marx After Duchamp, or The Artist’s Two Bodies,” he notes that in late capitalism, the artist is a hired knowledge worker. (Sociologist Richard Lloyd illustrates this rather well in his 2005 Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City.) Alienated from her body of work, as it were, the artist conceives her own body as a readymade and participates directly in her own performances, videos, and photography. In “The Comrades of Time,” Groys returns to the temporal and upholds documenting time-based art to obscure the difference between vita activa, the life of labor, and vita contemplativa, that of thinking. Documented time-based art, as media art is, stretches a shortage of time into a surfeit, “and demonstrates itself to be a collaborator, a comrade of time, its true con-temporary” (p. 101). “The Weak Universalism” expresses these two conditions, the human “readymade” and the “con-temporary,” at once. The process of “the weak, transcendental artistic gesture” (p. 116) is and should be the planning process. Done this way, planning is “repeated time and again to keep the distance between the transcendental and the empirical visible—and to resist the strong images of change, the ideology of progress, and promises of economic growth” (p. 116, emphasis mine).

Context, Time-Space, Identity, Participation and Process


After Lynch and Castells’ pragmatic sociologies and Groys’ philosophical meditations, we land somewhere between the two to consider various disciplines’ take on context, time-space, identity, participation, and process as they relate to media arts in planning. First: context matters. Media arts echo Groys’ assertion there is no solitary ideal, no one public, and no one place—not even if it’s in the same space (Davenport, 2005; Dourish, 2001; Dourish & Bell, 2007; Grau, 2007; Greenfield, 2006; Groys, 2011; Helguera, 2011; Lovejoy, Paul, & Vesna, 2011; Rush, 2005; Tribe, Jana, Grosenick, 2006).

Context is a “complex construct” (Paul, 2011, p. 103). It subsumes the physical, social, organizational, and economic. Malcolm McCullough (2004) distinguishes between “setting,” an objective, theoretical space and “context,” which is both the encounter with the space “and the bias this space creates for the interactions occurring within it” (as cited in Paul, 2011, p. 104). Contexts form in data spaces (virtual worlds), by networked identities (both embodied and disembodied), and through new models for collaboration and cultural production (Paul, 2011).

Computer scientist Paul Dourish (2001) agrees context is a variegated notion. It evokes a system’s performed tasks, the rationale for their execution, the settings of the attendant research, and so on. Above all, context “is as much social as technical” (p. 57). Like McCullough, Dourish discriminates between space and place. “Space” tracks with McCullough’s “setting;” it has physical properties, is literal and figurative, but is essentially objective. “Place,” meanwhile, howls “context.” It comprises its activities, it “can’t be designed, only designed for” (p. 91), and it refers to a particular “community of practice” (ibid). Dourish and Genevieve Bell (2007) remind us, “Spaces are not neutral” (p. 424). Our interactions with everyday infrastructure in fact reflect social context and the prevailing political economy.

Margot Lovejoy, Christiane Paul, and Victoria Vesna (2011), echo Groys and affirm context is no longer subordinate in the digital age. They believe media art and culture dispute and alter “the creative process and our ways of constructing meaning” (p. 7). Mary Flanagan (2011) submits that since the conceptual structure for Net art is the Network, artists (and I say planners) must assay the system’s operability in totality, and not the single user’s aesthetic experience. For Sharon Daniel’s (2011) part, context provision is a political public art practice.


Media arts provide a uniquely spatiotemporal impression for the user/viewer. Not only can we examine images’ temporal structures and narratives, we gain insight into their programmatic infrastructures, as well (Broeckmann, 2007; Davenport, 2005; Dourish, 2001; Dourish & Bell, 2007; Grau, 2007; Greenfield, 2006; Groys, 2011; Rush, 2005; Tribe, Jana, Grosenick, 2006; Weibel, 2007). Lynch (1972) notes that in film, the “material basis is visible change” (p. 166), and Ron Burnett (2007) tells the story about Jean Luc Godard’s long-enduring complaint about cinema and photography’s apparent kinship and critical differences. Photography resists time and so honors the single image. Film, meanwhile, captures time, narrative, sound, and evokes the other senses, nowhere suggesting an ideal moment.


Identity here refers to both person and place. Just as Glorianna Davenport’s (2005) HopStory engaged with time, it examined the Dublin brewery’s historical place as character. “Authenticity” is a tricky business, however. We know from media arts that there is no one single image or moment, yet people struggle with change in their communities. Kevin Lynch (1972), Frederick Wherry (2011), and Sharon Zukin (2010) all counsel against holding the past too precious. “Authentic” is a perfectly subjective term, delineating arbitrary moments in time and space (Zukin, 2010). Now authenticity is a marker of the symbolic economy (Wherry, 2011; Zukin, 2010): the “authentic experience of local character becomes a local brand” (Zukin, 2010, p. 121).

Zukin holds that if our preoccupation with authenticity is actually social, we must “respect”
(p. 248) one another. Social authenticity, identity, and representation are among media art’s foundational concerns. To wit, media art practice draws heavily from the feminist approach. Human-computer interaction scholar Justine Cassell (1998) writes the feminist software designer’s objective is to arm the user with tools for self-expression through storytelling, self-construction, and emphasis on the quotidian (as cited in Daniel, 2011). A self-actualized person is a participant, and when she contributes back to the system, it becomes genuinely collaborative. Marina Gržinić (2011) believes ours is a time of “fluid identity,” wherein individuals must assume and perform a variety of roles. This flexibility constitutes a corresponding flexibility of contexts, which makes artists not members of “a new proletariat…but…a new precaria” (p. 152), under constant pressure from the information age and “isolated digital creativity” (ibid). The consequent context shapes a decidedly apolitical position, and so we must intervene politically into the digital sphere.


Participation, for media arts, equates to actively sharing authorship—not ceding control. “Interactivity” might well be considered media art’s raison d’être (Davenport, 2005; Dourish, 2001; Dourish & Bell, 2007; Grau, 2007; Greenfield, 2006; Groys, 2011; Lovejoy, Paul, & Vesna, 2011; Rush, 2005; Tribe, Jana, Grosenick, 2006;). Digital art’s constant flow of information raises questions about “origin, authorship, immediacy, and community” (Flanagan, 2011, p. 93). Media artists consider their work to be a “form of knowledge” (Lovejoy, 2011, p. 26), and scrupulous artists and planners know “interactivity…cannot be predicated on or predicted by the design of the game or any medium. The challenge [in this knowledge-making]…is not to make too many assumptions about the behaviors of players or viewers” (Burnett, 2007, p. 310). Artists here are like planners, acting as both interpreters and interventionists. They design contexts that the viewer then interacts with and shapes (Grau, 2007; Kluszczynski, 2007; Lovejoy, Paul, & Vesna, 2011; Rush, 2005; Tribe, Jana, Grosenick, 2006).

Artists’ most successful media projects are those conceived as fully collaborative projects from the start (Grau, 2007; Lovejoy, Paul, & Vesna, 2011; Rush, 2005; Tribe, Jana, Grosenick, 2006). This takes great care. Sara Diamond (2011) maintains collaboration requires mature participants, individuals with a “sense of self that is strong enough to hold opinions but generous enough to allow skepticism and reconsideration” (p. 221). Pablo Helguera (2011) advocates for shared accountability, shared expertise, and encourages works that “provoke reflection” (p. 2). He likens socially engaged art practice to social work, calling it a “working construct” (ibid) aimed at achieving consensus. Stiles and Shanken (2011), for their part, prefer agonistic democracy to consensus. They believe in order for work to be genuinely radical, artists must acknowledge the prevailing hegemony and undertake Laclau and Mouffe’s radical democratic politics and Hardt and Negri’s constituent activity, which subsumes empathy, responsibility, and reciprocity. Agency, yes, and a credible one: “…we suggest agency that sets empathy in motion toward responsible interaction and constructive change is meaningful” (p. 46).


The success of media and socially engaged artworks depend on continued social intercourse for the duration of the projects (Grau, 2007; Helguera, 2011; Lovejoy, Paul, & Vesna, 2011; Rush, 2005; Tribe, Jana, Grosenick, 2006). Digital arts are additionally process-based, operating on and adding to current knowledge in much the way Castells identifies earlier in the paper. Digital artists are determinedly telematics-reliant, interactive, and progressive in the sense they’re early adopters—if not inventors—of new technologies (Davenport, 2005; Dourish, 2001; Dourish & Bell, 2007; Grau, 2007; Greenfield, 2006; Lovejoy, Paul, & Vesna, 2011; Rush, 2005; Tribe, Jana, Grosenick, 2006). Kluszczynski (2007) elaborates, noting interactive art is the ultimate example of the “deconstructive, postmodernist, cybercultural understanding of artwork and of artistic communication” (p. 220). It is not a work at all, but open to every person’s interaction and context, enmeshed in a complex, multivalent network of communication processes” (p. 223).

Andreas Broeckmann (2007) offers three aesthetic categories that fit neatly into our concept of process, particularly as it relates to planning. “Execution” projects refer to the scripts of existing software programs. “Performance” projects are the non-participatory, live art outcomes of earlier executions. Critics of planning often remark community outreach programs are just these two things: performances of pre-determined scripts, tokenistic and hollow at best. The “process” aesthetic, however, differs from execution and performance in that it emerges from “not yet fully programmed sequences of events that build on one another in a non-teleological manner” (p. 201, emphasis mine). Communication tools support such projects; “the aesthetics of process-based art crucially implies this context—it cannot be other than relational” (p. 202).

Couchot (2011) echoes Broeckmann, asserting not all “interactivity” is the same. The more autonomy built into the system, the greater the emergent processes. “Low autonomy” or “low self-organization” refers to performative changes. Events or changes in the system occur because of fortuitous connections not previously programmed in the system. Interactivity, then, is reflexive. Systems with “high self-organization,” by contrast, express performative tasks that occur because of the way that system has evolved. Here we see “action/perception…embodiment, autopoiesis” (p. 186).

Conclusion: Constraints and Opportunities

Constraints exist. First and foremost, the digital divide is real and applies in terms of access, language, and cultural contexts (Castells 1989, 1996, 1998; Dourish, 2001; Dourish & Bell, 2007; Lovejoy, 2011; Grau, 2007). Second, the purported digital immaterial is quite material, and even when price is of no consequence, hardware malfunctions or is “virtually worthless” (Davenport, 2005, p. 4) in certain conditions. Further, a fully “interactive” project can still be both conventional and problematic (Stiles & Shanken, 2011).

Critically, we already know technologies don’t equate to social justice uprisings. Technology is neutral, but just as the city is a social construction, so too is the Net. Its presence bespeaks a certain hegemonic power structure (Castells, 1989, 1996; Dourish, 2001; Dourish & Bell, 2007; Flanagan, 2011; Stiles & Shanken, 2011). To read Alan Greenfield’s (2006) cautionary tale about / love letter to ubiquitous computing technologies, this hardly registers with some. He unconsciously refers just to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) member countries’ middle and upper classes, paying hardly a paragraph’s notice to how the globe’s marginalized might become even more so in this ubicomp world. So, yes, while there is a resounding call for more collaboration at the nexus of art, science, and technology (Grau, 2007; Greenfield, 2006; Vesna, 2011) and there is enthusiasm, we cannot escape these fields are from radically different worlds, real and virtual.

Finally, media arts for community development is not housing. It’s not economic development programming. It’s not a new public transit system. It’s not all the things that we think of when we think of planning.

However. It’s also not art for art’s sake. Using media art in planning practice is a new way into the aforementioned planning topics. As with many information age technologies, media arts devices are fast, mobile, interactive, flexible, and able to store and convey stunning amounts of data. But the intent is different. What media arts can do is offer opportunities to engage communities in “democratic forms of knowledge production” (Lenoir, 2007, p. 357).

In addition, and a bit ironically, media art’s conceptual techniques serve as ideal translators for planning’s bureaucratic abstractions. Planning, for all its opportunities to push the visual and explore new modes of representation, remains regrettably staid, rendering incomplete illustrations of our cities. For example, the colors in zoning maps dictate allowable uses, but how can we show performed ones? I can think of nowhere in the world where activities are constant in a twenty-four hour, much less seven-day cycle. What if community members could communicate how they live already, and make aspirational plans from there? Media art is in some sense an opportunity to use abstractions to unlock the mysteries of the bureaucratic. It’s in turns cinematic, participatory, mobile, and is always context-contingent. Out the Window is a first, large and bold step in this direction. Its collection of few-minute videos, whether aspirational, documentary, humble, personal, poetic, or surreal in nature, manage to say and ask more about Angelenos than many City Planning Commission meetings.

For planning, that cities acknowledge art’s economic might and foster public arts initiatives is wonderfully good. The more pro-arts policies the better in (most) any case, but these stop short at the aesthetic, the consumable image, and art has always been more instructive than profitable. I submit we use art in the poetic sense and for the community-engaged production of our cities.


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