Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

I was introduced to the work of William H. Whyte  in Jamie Allen’s Media in Public seminar series at Culture Lab last year. I wanted to include a reference to Whyte’s work here both as an interesting public realm observation study and as an example of ‘unobtrusive’ visual methods in action. Working primarily in New York City, Whyte was an influential advocate for the design of ‘sociable’ urban spaces. Whyte is best known for his detailed observation study of daily pedestrian life in New York City, particularly in the public plazas of central Manhattan  in the 1970’s-80’s. His work was the inspiration for the establishment of the New York based Project for Public Spaces, a not for profit urban design and educational organisation dedicated to helping communities create and sustain positive public spaces in the City.

This short film by Whyte made c.1980 provides an entertaining and stylishly retro visual summary of his research approach, ideas and findings based on his work on the New York City  Street Life Project, including (for my own research project) a particularly relevant section reporting on pedestrian encounters with public artworks (including di Suvero’s Joie de Vivre, Dubuffet’s Groupe de Quatres Arbres and Nevelson’s Night Presence). You’ll have to watch through or skip to the end to find this.


Whyte, W. H. (1998) City: Rediscovering the Centre. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland: Doubleday

Whyte, W. H. (1980) ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’, in  Orum, A. M. and Neal, Z. P.(ed), Common Ground. New York, Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 32-39.


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Role of technology in participation and engagement

Yesterday I attended a seminar hosted by Culture Lab on the role of technology in participation and engagement in the arts, organised by the Participation and Engagement in the Arts Knowledge Exchange Network, coordinated by Leila Jancovich and Franco Bianchini from Leeds Metropolitan University. The event featured informative presentations from Sarah Cook (Crumb), Rachel Clarke (Culture Lab), Georgina Chatfield (RSA Arts and Society) and Newcastle based community design company Roots and Wings, followed by two discussion groups on artists’ digital practice and on digital engagement strategies (the one I joined).

While these may not necessarily be particularly new ideas (in the digital media or museum/gallery worlds) here are some brief notes, questions and points of interest that I took away from the event:

  • how do digital and especially social media problematise / rethink the role of the ‘curator’?
  • what does it mean to ‘like’ or ‘share’ content – is this a basic act of curation? does this make everyone a curator in the Web 2.0 world?
  • curator as one who ‘edits, filters, aggregates’ (Sarah Cook)
  • defining and describing (online) audiences, as ‘Lurkers’, ‘Judges’, ‘Contributors’, etc? (ref: Nina Simon, curator and author of the  Museum 0.2 blog and  The Participatory Museum)
  • the role of digital media in mediating and extending the audience / viewer ‘experience’ – the increasingly ‘long tail’ of the artwork, from the ‘live’ encounter, through to ‘image’ and ‘information’ distribution – does this expand or dilute the ‘impact’ of an artwork (issue raised in discussion group by Chris Bailey)
  • relationship (?) between participation and engagement in the arts and participation in civic life (in discussion of RSA Citizen Power Peterborough project)
  • growing use  Twitter as a promotional/participatory activity (and possiblities as a research tool?)
  • popularity of mobile phone photography as a participatory or engagement medium
  • opportunities offered by ‘hyper-local’ activity e.g. home tourists, staycations (post-tourism), participatory mapping and social-locational apps like Foursquare (all mentioned by Bianchini in his summing up of the Knowledge Exchange discussion programme)

Thinking from this and from previous KEN seminars are to drawn together in the Engagement in the Arts conference at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on 26 June 2012, which I am planning to attend.


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Urban space observation in Prague

Photo of piazza

In looking for examples of visual methods in action I came across this study by Temelová and Novák in the online journal Visual Studies. Here the authors reflect on their experiences of undertaking a ‘micro-scale’ investigation of neighbourhood life in a regeneration area of central Prague. Focusing on ‘structured observation’ methods and a variety of visual recording and reporting techniques (including photography, mapping and spatial diagrams) this study might potentially offer a useful test model for examining daily-life/everyday interactions between people and public art in NewcastleGateshead, or at least some starting points for considering how such work might be carried out.

In their study Temelová and Novák bring together a number of interesting threads or ideas in the consideration of public space, which may help me to think about the context in which public art works are encountered:

  • (Marinotti, 2005) categorisation of city users e.g. as inhabitants, commuters, service users, business people
  • (Gehl, 1989) streetscapes as a stage or ‘scene of action’ for necessary activity (e.g. shopping, waiting for a bus, walking to work), optional activity (e.g. strolling, looking, resting), or social activity (e.g. play, conversation)
  • (Lefevbre, 2004) daily rhythms of public space, including people, traffic, commercial activity, sounds and smells.

The article goes into quite a high level of detail about the researcher’s observational techniques, which involved the setting up of three ‘observation stands’ which were visited by the research team three times a day for one hour each, at fixed times morning, lunchtime and early evening, on weekdays only from July-September 2008.

Map location of observation stands

Diagrams of observation stands

The scene was then observed four times (4×10 min slots) during each hour. Researchers used forms to record or ‘code’ people and their activity within specifically defined physical areas within the space. People were recorded in three main categories based solely on what could be ascertained from their physical or outward appearance: socio-economic (e.g. managers, workers, homeless people); ethnic group (e.g. gypsies); demographic (e.g. the elderly, teenagers, or parents with small children); or as ‘other’ e.g. tourists. Activity was recorded under two main categories: ‘passing through’ or ‘spending time’.

Jana Temelová & Jakub Novák (2011): Daily street life in the inner city of Prague under transformation: the visual experience of socio-spatial differentiation and temporal rhythms, Visual Studies, 26:3, 213-228

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Research questions

Due to the combined distractions of research training assignments, Project Approval and Christmas it’s been some time now since I last posted. But this also means that I now have a project plan to work to, a set of draft research questions and some defined research areas to keep me orientated. I know that these are likely to change and evolve over the next few months again, but at least I have a starting point and a broad map to work with.

My research lollipop

To guide this reading I now have a set of five draft research questions. An overarching question: How do audiences engage with NewcastleGateshead’s public art ‘collection’ and can social and mobile media provide useful tools for enhancing or expanding this engagement? which is then broken down into four subsidiary enquiries:

  1. To what extent can art works commissioned for or presented in the public realm in NewcastleGateshead since 1980 be considered as a ‘public art collection’? 
  2. How do audiences currently interact or engage with the City’s public artworks and how might this be captured or observed?
  3. Can an understanding of the public art works as a NewcastleGateshead ‘collection’ catalyse deeper or broader forms of audience interaction and engagement?
  4. What role might social and mobile media play in refreshing and developing audience engagement with a public art ‘collection’?

In my initial plan, I’ve given myself until the end of March 2012 for reading round (or a first lick at) my research lollipop, and for testing the viability of these research questions, before moving on to more focused and structured research from April.


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