The Public as Co-Producer
Coordinator of the Bright Cityscapes mediation programme, Miha Tilinca, reflects on how the exhibitions created surfaces for content and exchange. This offered an opportunity for the public to not only participate and engage with the initiative, but co-produce the exhibitions, influencing their content and energy.
‘O expoziție foarte bună cu un concept îndrăzneț. Felicitări!’
‘I was impressed by the exhibition. Its content and concern for a better future. I hope we are getting to a better future. We should start building it in the present.’
‘Very good job. Hugs from Cluj.’
‘Une exposition très intéressante qui mêle histoire, technologie et art. Présentée de manière intelligente. Merci aux personnes qui la présentent, avec compétence et gentillesse.’
‘I admit that the exhibition is not exactly my cup of tea. But what I did understand I liked!’
Whether I merely transcribe the feedback left by the public, or share the daily observations made by the young team that mediates the two exhibitions showcasing the work and processes behind Bright Cityscapes, or whether I go deeper into analysing practices, discourse, or agency around the programme, the result remains constant: the audiences were open to and intrigued by the opportunity offered to them by the programme, starting with its titles and central themes and continuing with the perspectives, presentation, and modes of engagement they could choose from.
Since this volume is meant to document the programme and offer its stakeholders and readers a snapshot of what the Bright Cityscapes encounter meant for different people and for the city, I am going to shape my reflections as a ‘freeze frame’ or snapshot that aligns with one of the principles of good mediation: ‘don’t tell them, make them feel’. Therefore, I will incorporate many voices and words from different stakeholders and people who engaged with the programme, while signalling some key points regarding mediation and the public that warrant further analysis and discussion.
This text is written while the programme and the two exhibitions emerging from it are still in progress, so it is too early to assess and measure its impact. However, there are two factors which set this programme apart from every other cultural and educational programme happening in Timișoara or at a national level, worth highlighting here. Firstly, Bright Cityscapes is a programme with a progressive and dynamic approach to mediation, thoroughly integrated from conception to implementation. And secondly, the public (all publics) have actively assumed the role of co-producers of content and sponsors of energy for Bright Cityscapes, as envisioned by the core team of the programme.
While examining how Martina Muzi, the curator of the programme and its exhibitions, and the programme team have designed Bright Cityscapes as a programme of, by, and for the public, I will use the working definition from Maria Lind’s essay ‘Why Mediate Art?’ that states that cultural mediation ‘is creating surfaces of contact and exchange between audiences, artists and their practices, curated projects, institutions, organisations and cultural spaces and the world in a diversity of forms, rhythms and intensities to provoke questions and dialogues around art, about art, the self, the other and the world’. (1)
Surfaces of contact and exchange
As all the texts in this volume show, Bright Cityscapes has been built as a multi-layered and dynamic surface of contact and exchanges among different professionals and people, among different generations, among different organisations and institutions, among different geographies and histories, among different cultural spaces, and for each of these contact surfaces the curator and her team have thought a multitude of forms, rhythms and intensities in order to provoke curiosity, questions, and dialogue around some of the urgencies of our times—industrial heritage, digitalisation, resources, labour practices, ecology, etc.
What I am saying is that Bright Cityscapes is not only a design programme that draws on research, anthropology and art to provoke discussions about a better and sustainable future and produce change. It is also to some extent itself a state-of-the-art mediation programme that contributes to a new paradigm of how mediation and the public should be seen. In this paradigm, one cannot but recognise ‘the public’ as pluralistic.
In the particular case of Bright Cityscapes, the public is a constellation of all the stakeholders of the programme—researchers, designers, academics, industry professionals, cultural managers, mediators, diverse audiences.
In different words and ways, they all speak about how their experience in and around the programme provoked them, led them to unexpected dialogue and discoveries, made them co-producers of new knowledge, and about how transformative Bright Cityscapes has been for who they are and what they do.
Raul Ionel and Jing He, an engineering researcher and a designer respectively, have worked together and explored how they can recontextualise Printed Circuit Board (PCB) manufacturing and the inspection process around it, giving a glimpse into the city’s industry. When they speak about the impact their dialogue had on themselves, on the design object, and on the public at large, they mention new perspectives, self-discovery and the creation of new knowledge.
‘I come from a world of electronics, a world that is anchored in standards, in fixed ideas; a world where there are few deviations from the rigour of manufacturing. But our project in the exhibition, these objects from the world of PCBs and inspection processes, are embraced in the colourful light that Jing has brought. Objects with otherwise little prospect of gaining public interest and little chance of triggering emotions, appear to the public in a completely different light because of their design.’
‘I tried to find a way to connect this new technology with daily life, because I knew as an outsider how I see this knowledge, this technology. I also wanted to show the audience my feelings and emotions regarding what I have learned—the curiosity, my confusion, and the conflict I noticed between technology and economy.’
The projects in the Turn Signals—Design is not a Dashboard exhibition represent such dialogues between technology and design. These collaborative practices that the researchers and designers engaged in, are not only noticed by the audience visiting the exhibition, but they also provoke the public to revisit their own views and knowledge, as the notes on the reflection cards confirm:
‘The “skeleton” of the machine [“Synthia”] impressed me most because it combines art with technology, offering a new perspective on ‘industrial’ things.’
‘“Synthia.” An interesting combination of design and technology.’
‘“Synthia.” It creates a state directly linked to the interaction with her voice, a state that somehow transports you into the madness of life connected to the steering wheel.’
‘“Composition of Stress and Balance N. 1.” I was surprised by the association of physics with the emotional and personal balance part.’
When asked about how their exploratory work with the designers and the results of their collaboration will impact their professional practices, the four researchers from the Politehnica University in Timișoara—Cristina-Sorina Stângaciu, Versavia Ancușa, Ioan Both, and Raul Ionel—all said that they will certainly incorporate this perspective into their classes. They plan to integrate the design projects from the exhibition into their presentations, classes, and labs.
Bright Cityscapes’ impact extends beyond only the academic researchers. Anastasia is one of the 54 students who participated in the educational strand of the programme—Atlas of Distances. She speaks with passion and gratitude when she describes the transformational experience that took her from just seeing the drawing board, to seeing architecture as a social encounter and discovering herself as an activist artist. The Atlas of Distances exhibition and the workshop that developed it, are the results of a pedagogical collaboration between the Faculty of Architecture from the Politehnica University of Timișoara (RO), Studio Technogeographies from Design Academy Eindhoven (NL) and Borders & Territories from TU Delft (NL). By employing radical pedagogical approaches, students were guided by artists and teachers in an experiential journey centered around the exploration of distances within the city. This journey led to profound reflections on the urban ecology of Timișoara.
One of the mediators, Maria, remembers that the exhibitions uncovered themselves to her gradually and that even after seeing them daily, her interest and curiosity is still high:
‘Finding the name in my mind was a whole debate with multiple hypotheses that I couldn’t wait to test. At the opening I encountered a space that instantly made an impact—how cool—and the red thread of the story started to connect. Now, although all the works together form a sculptural and interactive atlas of the perception of distances, [I’ve realised] each work can be a whole atlas, a portal to a world whose facets and depths we keep discovering either through the responses of visitors or through the multiple perspectives I try to have when addressing different audiences.’
The couple of examples discussed above illustrate how through inbuilt attention to dialogue, collaboration and connections, Bright Cityscapes increased the contact surface among a multitude of individual and institutional actors and stakeholders involved in it on different layers, and how these stakeholders and publics perceived their experiences and benefits of being involved in Bright Cityscapes. In what follows I will note figures, profiles, thoughts and notes about and from people who engaged with the programme as members of the audience of the exhibitions Turn Signals and Atlas of Distances, held at FABER and ARChA at UPT respectively. This set of data indicates in what ways people have actively assumed the role of co-producers of content and sponsors of energy for Bright Cityscapes.
Co-producers of content and sponsors of energy
In the European Capital of Culture, with tens of exhibitions and cultural events that tempt the citizens of Timișoara and the visiting tourist daily, over 3 500 people visited the two exhibitions in four weeks. Of these visitors, 85% were below 35 years old; the youngest were in kindergarten, the eldest in their 80s. The groups visiting the exhibitions came from schools, universities, companies and the creative industries, and included seniors who retired from factories and industries that no longer exist.
Some of the self-portraits written by visitors, selected from the wall where they became part of the exhibition read:
‘TC amateur artist and music lover.’
‘CD freshly entered fifth year of architecture at UAUIM.’
‘T curator and cultural manager.’
‘CF MA student University of Oxford, machine learning researcher, part-time tutor.’
‘M currently studying medicine, ex-debater and a very passionate person about human rights, ecology and politics.’
‘AD 30, environmentalist living in London but originally from rural south Germany.’
‘T 11 years old’
‘GC I am passionate about art and support cultural events that take place in Timișoara; I try to attend as many as possible.’
‘A third year student at AC UPT, poet and passionate about relevant and true culture.’
‘R intrigued by innovation.’
‘CO is my name and I like to observe.’
Misa, one of the exhibition mediators, journals her experience with the public:
‘I like the openness of the public, the positive feedback I received, not necessarily in writing, but it was observable to the naked eye. If many stories are told in exhibitions, by designers, by research engineers, by sociologists and anthropologists, we [the mediators] come with our story. Everyone [who visits and participates in activities] is very open to continue this narrative thread. This amazed me. To have extraordinarily interested second graders, in difficult pieces, in statistics, including Norbert Petrovici’s research, it shocked me. Eight-, nine-, ten-year olds are constantly interested in learning from lexicons, from labels, from the texts integrated in works (‘Waste Stream’) or being interested in the ‘Block Networks’ project—what are block networks, and how do they connect to their own experience.
The public were drawn to and responded to the unconventional nature of the exhibitions, as well as the unconventional and emotionally charged spaces where the exhibitions were hosted. FABER is a former industrial building, and ARChA is a former university canteen and club, which hold a lot of personal memories for the local visitors, unlike more conventional museum or gallery spaces. They felt, as Muzi and the entire team had anticipated, that these spaces established emotional and strong connections between the concept of the programme—industry as a part of the city’s identity—and with the lives of those engaging with the programme. The selected spaces also unexpectedly evoked connections with times, lives, and people from the past.
The exhibition at FABER, for instance, is in the former premises of the AZUR factory. ‘I learned from a visitor from Israel, born in Timisoara, that her mother was a doctor, 30 years ago,’ wrote mediator Felicia in a note.
Georgiana shared on the mediation group: ‘A gentleman came by today to see what the space looks like now. He told me that he was a DJ at the disco before 1989 and told me about the cultural events that took place here, very cool!’
One visitor wrote:
‘I’ve only been here for one week… I’ve seen several abandoned industrial areas [with] some really beautiful, intriguing constructions and shapes [and] lots of questions [about] what was there before, who were the people connected to those places, what happened on a local as well as on a more global scheme… many questions. I’m looking, searching, just observing.’
Visitors made these thoughts, memories, histories, and experiences visible through notes left on reflective cards. Taking inspiration from Nina Simon (the initiator of Museum 2.0 and OFBYFOR ALL) and with the endorsement of Muzi, the active participation of the public took the form of a meticulously designed opportunity, inviting people to contribute and co-create meaning. As a result, within the exhibition, there is a mediation corner, crafted and produced with the same level of care as all the other design elements in the space. This corner is arranged and furnished for moments of sitting and reflection, featuring benches, a table, and a wall adorned with cards bearing thought-provoking questions or notes from previous visitors, waiting to be read or used as platforms for further contributions.
Here the public noted what they liked and why:
‘The “skeleton” of the machine [“Synthia”] impressed me most because it combines art with technology, offering a new perspective on “industrial” things.’
‘“Working Class Heroes” because it highlights a much-discussed and tabooed issue in the country—pay transparency, and all the pitfalls you go through when you get a job. I think it’s a very important project that should be extended to cover as many jobs as possible and whose message needs to be heard by more people.’
‘I found the use of scraps to create lighting objects unusual. I find it a beautiful metaphor that something that was meant to be sturdy has turned into such a diaphanous structure.’
‘The light fixtures are brilliant. I enjoy the recycling of existing material.’
The public also expressed their concerns and aspirations:
‘“Working Class Heroes”—I wasn’t necessarily surprised, but I’m glad to see artwork that exposes the social and economic inequalities on the ground. Romania is often looked upon favourably in the West because we don’t have a “pay gap” here—indeed, people are paid the same regardless of gender.’
‘[Regarding the Bright Cityscapes programme] I find it valuable to collaborate with teenagers. I think it’s an important time in our lives when we need anchors, including related to the space we live in.’
The public offered their take on themes in the exhibitions. For instance, a trigger question, ‘There is an increasing discussion about job automation. What impact do you think digitisation has on your profession?’, provoked the following responses:
‘I don’t have a job yet, but I dream of becoming a YouTuber and I think that AI will make the job easier, especially editing.’
‘As a future biology teacher or researcher, I don’t think digitisation will change my profession a lot, but I think it will improve it and help us with a bit of inspiration and help for science.’
‘I’m more into analogue photography because I think it’s art and you can’t make true art with machines. Also, photos don’t have meaning anymore (because everybody has a phone now.)’
‘If there will be machines that can design specific shapes out of stone, the people won’t appreciate the design made with a human hand. A machine makes a perfect imperfection, while a human hand makes an imperfect perfection.’
‘I work in software testing for a bank. We do software automation, but I am hopeful that AI will not take my job in the next 8–10 years. “Digitisation” in my domain is just a means of doing things faster.’
‘I work in the food industry as a quality manager. I expect more manual steps in the preparation of vegetables to be replaced by infrared technology and other new innovations. Simple tasks will diminish in number.’
‘This is an interesting question for people that drive the automation process. As an AI researcher, I can definitely envision major parts of my current work being replaced, particularly data-centred tasks. Some may argue that, one day, A61 may research itself.’
How would the public see the next steps of the programme?
‘Through a book. A book dedicated to the same type of audience. Through an exhibition adapted to the “cultural literacy” level of the “working class heroes”.’
‘I would attempt a documentation of young people’s perception of the city’s industry. There could be two methods, through art students (open call and proposals) and run independent theatre spaces, poetry circles.’‘
‘As a permanent residency for several series of artists exhibiting installations, stories, concepts, making us smarter, more creative and... [more] us.’
‘I’d love to link these great exhibits with a suite of factory visits, continuing the connection.’
‘It would be nice if the exhibition could circulate through factories and companies.’
For a start I would tour this exhibition in other university centres and in parallel I would post a video of the exhibition in online environments!
The response of the public, their contributions, and the openness with which they entered into dialogue, confirm that the programme and the exhibitions have been opportunities for conversations that otherwise would not have happened.
The programme and the exhibitions opened big conversations about where we all have been, where we all are, and especially where we want to go.
Felicia, Georgiana, Maria, and Misa—who are quoted above—are part of the team of ten mediators, along with Anastasia, Elena, Ioana, Karina, Nicoleta, and Tudor. This team is coordinated by Claudia Bucsai, and they collectively facilitated and enriched the public’s experience, within the two exhibitions and the spaces hosting the projects that showcase the findings and results emerging from the programme.
Text by Mihaela Tilincă
- Maria Lind, ‘Why Mediate Art?’ in Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating, ed Jens Hoffmann (Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2013)