Not so long ago, at the Netherlands Media Art Institute, I came across an interesting installation by Martijn Hendriks, called ‘video as suburban condition’. The installation shows a loop of Youtube clips that most likeley we are all too familiar with: teenagers popping mentos in coke bottles on suburban cul de sacs, young girls – barely the legal driving age – dancing to music from their car stereo’ on exurban parking lots, or playing pratical jokes in the fluorescently lit isles of strip mall supermarkets.
What was interesting about it, was that through the compilation it all of a sudden became obvious that these movie clips weren’t loose incidents, but part of an ecosystem. Teenagers perform their identity, video tape it with their mobile phone or handheld camera and put it on Youtube. Other teenagers watch those clips and in their own distant yet almost similar suburbs re-enact or remix the performance. Japanese teenagers copy funny dances and supermarket gags from their peers in the US and the other way around. As Hendriks writes himself:
Video as Suburban Condition is a compilation of videos that explores how self-publishing video websites like YouTube change how people imagine typically suburban places as settings for showing themselves to others. The videos show people performing in places that would normally lack all interest, like back yards, parking lots, roof tops and malls. Re-using found videos in two synchronized loops, the installation traces how those everyday places are experienced as places for performance and reenacting the actions of others. Each place, as ordinary as it may be, is re-imagined as a place for doing extraordinary things.
That lead me to the question whether this means that we have to revise classical urban theory? Many theorists claim that the public spaces that are so important for a thriving urban culture are under attack. These public spaces are theorized as stages where people perform their identity, and use other people’s performances in processes of identification (they are like me) or disidentification (they are absolutely not), whereas the copresence of different groups also forces them to be confronted with each other and to relate to each other. Traditional public spaces, the theory goes, are disappearing and being replaced with either privatized spaces such as shopping malls, or by dead (sub)urban spaces that are either unpopulated (parking lots), so there might by performances but no audience. Or if they are populated, they are monocultural and there is no true confrontation.
These videoclips show that performers at spaces like parking lots and strip malls now do have a way to find an audience – although the interaction is not in real time and in real space. These spaces declared dead do seem to come alive and work in a way that is comparable to traditional city squares. At least in terms of processes of performance and identification. Whether there indeed is confrontation and a need to relate to each other, is not yet clear to me.