I was in London at the weekend and amazed by the amount of new building going on, and by the numbers of digital visualisations I saw: every billboard around every building site seemed to be plastered with them.
‘Participation’ is often seen to be one of the key characteristics of ‘new media’ in ‘convergence culture’, particularly in the work of Henry Jenkins, for example. And in their production, these visualisations are indeed collaborations between lots of people, including architects, visualisers and planners (and advertising standards authorities, indirectly, I think. Most of the images I saw in London had a line of text somewhere on them pointing out that they were, in fact, digital images, which I would have thought was obvious given that they are showing buildings that don’t yet exist… but perhaps the developers are protecting themselves against future litigation by people who’ve bought the apartments they’re advertising, claiming that the actual building doesn’t look like the visualisation suggested it would).
What I’ve never come across is any work that ‘participates’ somehow in the final versions of these seductive marketing images, the ones that appear on billboards – until now, when Christoph Lindner kindly pointed me in the direction of Randa Mirza‘s project Beirutopia. She takes photographs of these digital visualisations in actual urban spaces – and carefully includes signs of those spaces in her photograph – tatty roads and bashed-up cars, real bits of trees and cars and scooters – as well as photographing billboards with their images torn and sagging. Her photos interrupt the glossy surface created by the visualisation by the simple device of inserting some other visual texture. (She also titles each image using variations of global property marketing-speak, which makes its banality very obvious.)
It’s a great project, which is careful also not to simply pose the ‘reality’ of existing urban spaces with the ‘virtual’ spaces of the digital visualisations. They’re all constructed images, after all, as Randa says. The project also raises the interesting question of what sort of ‘participation’ this is. Randa’s photographs are themselves displayed as billboards in Beirut, Christoph tells me: so they are participating by intervening in the visual culture of the city’s everyday spaces, as a kind of visual commentary on their neighbours. A bit of welcome rough in the smooth surfaces of these visions of spectacular urbanism.