A shadow of use of public spaces From a certain distance the building already appears transformed, illuminated by the powerful spotlights that have been installed next to it. The white beacons wash its façade out, as if they were cleaning the structure not only of the traces of passing time, but also of its distinctive features. Thus, although it retains a familiar outline, the sidewall of the Pathé cinema in Rotterdam seems to be turned into a sort of architectural tabula rasa. At first the passers-by might not notice the change. The cinema is situated in a corner of Schouwburgplein, a square whose horizons remain open to the city skylines. The central station is just a few blocks away and distractions are all around: urban landmarks such as the city theatre and the concert hall, along with cafés and corporate buildings. In the throbbing heart of Rotterdam, the spotlights seem to make little difference. Nevertheless, as people stroll pass the cinema, it is impossible not to pay attention to them – or yet, to their luminous effects. It is a question of positions. The spotlights are placed on the ground, perpendicular to the everyday flow of pedestrians across the square. As people walk by, they inevitably interrupt the beams of light, casting a myriad of shadows on the building. The passers-by are suddenly surprised by their own silhouettes, transformed in projection. By making people aware of themselves, these dark doubles lead them to notice one another. Thus, the inhabitants of the city seem to realize how their collective trajectories could affect its agora. In that very moment, a peculiar form of social engagement emerges. Individuals that might have never chatted before might begin to commune in shadowplay. They tango, shake hands and feign karate fights. The gigantic outlines of one bounces another like a basketball. More than a mediatic occupation of the urban space, these performances seem to operate a negotiation of personal boundaries within the public structure, as bodies merge together, reform, and break apart in the bi-dimensional plane. Given such description, the activity might seem like a spontaneous appropriation of public infrastructure. However, it is not. It is a media art piece called Body Movies, made by the Mexican artist Raphael Lozano-Hemmer. Far from an
anarchical experiment, the work is part of a series of high-tech installations called Relational Architectures – to be more precise, it is Relational Architecture number 6. It was set up on Schouwburgplein in 2001, as part of Rotterdam’s programme as the Cultural Capital of Europe for that year. What I have been describing is a video documentation of it. Lozano-Hemmer defines relational architecture as ‘large-scale interactive events that transform emblematic buildings through new technological interfaces’ (Lozano-Hemmer 2000). Such mediatic complexity becomes obvious when Body Movies is activated by the presence of the public. While blocking the powerful spotlights, people reveal digital video projections that were being outshined by them. These projections comprise a set of portraits chosen from a database of thousands, taken from the streets of different cities around the world. A computer system tracks their positions on the wall; as soon as all portraits have been revealed by the shadows of the passers-by, the system randomly chooses and displays another set. Thus, Body Movies seems to fulfil a destiny to which the Schouwburgplein has been prepared since 1996, when it reopened to the public following a huge reconstruction. Before that, the square was described as a dead, underused urban area. With the redesign planned by the landscape architecture office West 8, it was meant to become an ‘interactive public space, flexible in use, and changing during days and seasons’ (Geuze 2006). The renewed layout of the square, with tall ventilation towers and crane-like lighting elements, reflected that of the Port of Rotterdam, situated nearby. At the same time, it alluded to the place’s theatrical character, with the floor slightly raised above the surroundings so that it resembled a sort of floating stage. In that sense, the project – which has been commissioned by the city government – metaphorically welcomed every citizen as if they were actors, whose simplest actions would be endowed with disproportional relevance. By supplementing the historical façade of the cinema with the actual presence of people, Lozano-Hemmer’s work brings this scenographic dimension of the place to life. Enabled by digital projection, the public seems to acquire an immediate agency over the simultaneously physical and symbolic set-up of the city. The movie theatre’s rigid architecture is made fluid by both the activity of local citizens (performing virtual uses of the urban space through shadowplay) and the profiles of a global crowd (collected by the artist from places where he has previously been). Through their interaction, these representations indeed transform the emblematic building, mesmerizing the passers-by with the evident power their gestures have in the surroundings. Nevertheless, while admiring the dramatic effects that occupy the façade of the movie theatre, one might be led to question how deeply its structure and meaning are being affected. As the public become actors on that stage, are they enacting any meaningful dramaturgy? Is the city really paying attention and reacting to their performance? And after the installation has been disassembled and tucked away, will these shadows leave any mark on the square?