The Art of Software Cities

The purpose of the panel is to investigate the aesthetic and cultural implications of a situation where new interfaces appear in public urban space (networked, mobile, ubiquitous, etc.).
Thursday, 15 September, 2011 - 13:00 - 14:30
Chair Person: 
Christian Ulrik Andersen
Chair Person: 
Søren Pold
Saul Albert
Seda Gürses
Cretien van Campen
Hacienda ('Home Sweet Dome') Launch, Craylands Estate, Basildon, Essex (1)
Hacienda ('Home Sweet Dome') Launch, Craylands Estate, Basildon, Essex (2)
and the robots (from animation)

Chair: Christian Ulrik ANDERSEN
2nd Chair: Søren Bro POLD

The purpose of the panel is to investigate the aesthetic and cultural implications of a situation where new interfaces appear in public urban space (networked, mobile, ubiquitous, etc.). The urban media theorist Scott McQuire argues that with this development, ‘the media event’ is in the process of returning to the public urban domain. The main question is in what way? Does digital media merely provide new forms and new public spectacles in the city, or does it also propagate public activity? If so, what kinds of activity?

In the panel we propose to see this development of public interfaces as an introduction of not just media but also software into the city. Today’s media cities are software cities. A distinct characteristic is that the representations of media do not just imply new aesthetic forms and representations but are always connected to underlying computational processes that change the complex life forms of the city.

With a focus on new forms of creative production panelists will present their take on how relations between public and private realms are affected and how alternative uses and relations around public interfaces appear in software cities.

The following statements operate as points of departure: Whilst experimentation and developments in the culture of free software reflects emergent and self-organizing public actions, how can we extend free software principles into software cities? Does the concept of a ‘software city’ offer a way of further examining the cultural regeneration agenda and public art? What is the interrelationship between software and surveillance in software cities? Does the software city provide new understandings of the relationship between creative production and the economy? How does the possible dissolution of the public and private spheres relate to bio politics and contemporary forms of power?

The panel emerges from ongoing research around interface criticism at Digital Aesthetics Research Center and Center for Digital Urban Living, Aarhus University, Denmark.

Paper Abstracts

The Kind of Problem a Software City Is

by Christian Ulrik ANDERSEN & Søren Bro POLD

The final chapter in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities from 1961 is entitled “The Kind of Problem a City Is.”  Jacobs accounts for the relations between urban development strategies and the progression of science. Through statistical material, science in the 20th century became capable of managing cities as comlex organisms. Unfortunaltely, urban planners at the time did not know much about the actual interactions making up the organism. Jacobs stresses that urban planners need to think in processes that explains the general by the specific rather than in statistical information that oppresses both the process and the specific.

Today, digital media changes the cityscape with media facades, urban screens, mobile screens, computer generated architectural forms and so on. However it is not only media that is introduced to the city but also software. A distinct characteristic for software cities is that the representations of media are always connected to underlying computational processes that change the complex life forms of the city.

Understanding software cities we must compare the city with the software at a specific level. The presentation will seek to do this by including the architect Christopher Alexander’s idea of a ‘pattern language’ (that has been much more influential in software design than in architecture) and argue that we must look beyond the form and spectacles software imposes and begin to pay attention to the activity it fosters.

The presentation will present a view on the patterns of software cities and furthermore reflect on the accessibility of software cities as a public domain. In what ways does software in cities responds to our life?

The Hacienda: The Conversational Aesthetics of Liquid Architecture

by Saul ALBERT

“The architecture of tomorrow will be a means of modifying present conceptions of time and space. It will be both a means of knowledge and a means of action. Architectural complexes will be modifiable. Their appearance will change totally or partially in accordance with the will of their inhabitants." (Ivan Chtcheglov, 'Formulary for a New Urbanism', 1953,

'The Hacienda' is a mobile, inflatable, pop-up public space with a domestic interior, and a flexible stack of equipment and software that can transform it into a creche, a sports stadium, a meeting hall or a dance/performance space. It is the outcome of a 3 year conversation convened by artist group 'The People Speak' as part of the large scale regeneration process of the Craylands Estate, an impoverished suburb of Basildon, in Essex, about 60 miles East of London.

The story of 'The Hacienda' is an account of how the bureaucratic imaginary of a public/private partnership of developers, 'non-profit' housing associations, and local government is articulated through software, services, signage, community events and spaces in negotiating and sanctioning the creation of hybrid public/private places.

Analysing the roles of the various groups involved in the project: residents, property developers, children, community representatives, artists, professional service providers, politicians and government bureaucrats, reveals how they interfaced to each other through meetings, surveys, community publications and events, architectural plans, and social policy decisions.

This talk will present the tools and performative techniques employed by The People Speak to re-mediate those relationships in fun and engaging ways through the production of new community interfaces as public media events, leading to re-negotiations of those relationships, and the production of 'The Hacienda': a platform for the development of public interfaces.

Focusing on the failures of communication and the friction generated by individuals, groups and institutions breaking down and reforming around mediated representations of themselves as a community should help to stimulate a wider discussion of the potential of platforms for public interfaces, and the pitfalls of reifying community relationships as art in software cities.

Pushing The Boundaries Between The Digital Publics And Privates In The City-Surveillance Matrix

by Seda GÜRSES

Digital and mobile technologies create a sparkling blanket of diodes, silicon and lenses over cities, reconfiguring understandings of both physical and digital space. While the interfaces of this diverse set of technologies, from cctv cameras to smart phones, are layered with active-matrices that are sensitive to our actions and/or desires, they also become the entry points into a matrix of databases that are just as actively used to re-organize public and private life. As Christian Andersen notes "public participation in the city as software is mostly characterized by either surveillance or configuration", suggesting that these configurations cannot be accounted for without addressing the surveillance aspects and vice versa. Computer scientists, companies and artists have tackled this underlying city-surveillance matrix in different ways. The objective of this talk is to explore some of the different approaches to engaging or disengaging with this city-surveillance matrix.

We will start our investigation with an analysis of the construction of the surveillance and location privacy problem in computer science. Researchers of privacy and surveillance have dug into methods for making individual's traces in the city invisible or anonymous in response to the matrix of surveillance. In doing so, they render the digital public as a risky place full of "powerful and strategic adversaries". They put their focus into creating an invisible or unidentifiable private space in the public, imagined as something separate from the public that this private is disentangled from. A similar desire to create anonymity or unidentifiability is seen in the work called I.-R.A.S.C. of U.R.A./FILOART (, an infra-red DIY device which protects against infra-red cameras. As the city-surveillance matrix is used more and more by companies as a one-to-one representation of our actions and desires and of mechanisms of discipline, these privacy technologies make sense and are indispensable.

However, as David Phillips underlines, "location privacy” "may be an inadequate frame through which to understand these issues and to fashion appropriate responses." Instead, he sees the problem in the creation of a digital public which is dominated by commercial activity and general privatization. The location privacy approach favors disengagement, leaving the public up for grabs. Here, Michelle Teran's work 'Buscando al Sr. Goodbar' provides an alteranative strategy to collectively narrate digital cities, questioning the use of the city-surveillance matrix to re-create private and public absolutes and to claim that the only public is the one that is commercial or privatized.

Finally, we will look at eye'em, a mobile application for bringing "together mobile photographers from all over the world to create a stream of mutual inspiration and creative expression". We will look at the way in which this application blurs the lines between the public and private. The application allows its community of users to collectively create a new semantics, questioning our conception of an "event" in the city, expanding it from its classical description as a crossing point of place and time. We will analyze eye'em's conception of participation, as well as its relation to labour and privatization in the city-surveillance matrix.

Bios of the Participants

Christian Ulrik Andersen

Christian Ulrik Andersen is associate professor and chair of Digital Aesthetics Research Centre, Aarhus University, Denmark ( He researchers within digital aesthetics, software cities and computer games. Together with Søren Pold he is the editor of a new book: “Interface Criticism – Aesthetics Beyond the Buttons”. He is also a researcher in Centre for Digital Urban Living, Aarhus University (

Søren Bro Pold

Søren Bro Pold is Ph.D, Associate Professor of digital aesthetics at IMV, University of Aarhus, Denmark, part of DUL ( and founding member of DARC (Digital Aesthetics Research Center, He has published in Danish and English on digital and media aesthetics – from the 19th c. panorama to the interface, e.g. on electronic literature, net art, software art, creative software, urban interfaces and digital culture. Together with Christian Ulrik Andersen he edited the anthology "Interface Criticism - Aesthetics Beyond the Buttons" (2011).

Saul Albert

Saul Albert is a researcher/artist from London whose work grew out of the intersection of 'net art, DIY culture and the Free Software movement in the 90's and continues to develop forms of participatory culture, technology and governance. In 2006 he co-founded (with Michael Weinkove) The People Speak: a participatory public art, media and technology collective that creates 'tools for the world to take over itself' ( He is currently a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London on the Media and Arts Technology Programme.

Seda Gürses

Seda Gürses is a researcher working in the group COSIC/ESAT at the Department of Electrical Engineering in K. U. Leuven, Belgium. Her topics of interest include privacy technologies, participatory design, feminist critique of computer science, and online social networks. She has a keen interest in the subject of anonymity in technical as well as cultural contexts, the spectrum being anywhere between anonymous communications and anonymous folk songs. Beyond her academic work, she also collaborates with artistic initiatives including Constant vzw, Bootlab, De-center, ESC in Brussels, Graz and Berlin.
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