First Monday

Art and social displays in the branding of the city: Token screens or opportunities for difference? by Julia Nevarez

Even though urban screens can be seen as digital substitutes to public space image display, it is my contention that they are additional public spaces that as windows offer the potential of broadening use and participation. Most urban screens such as billboards have the purpose of displaying products for consumption within a cultural logic designed to address consumer audiences. The different strategies used to entice the consumer individual are varied, relying on culturally informed responses that advertisement agencies research. These strategies are also included in the way in which cities – through urban development initiatives – seek to generate a brand that will provide a competitive edge in attracting both a professional class of residents and tourists, to the city.

This paper seeks to illustrate the uses of screens designed for the display of art in Times Square, NYC, their content as well as their role in the branding of the city with the aid of the Times Square Alliance that exemplifies trends in the privatisation of public space. By looking at the Panasonic Screen used by Creative time to display video art in that part of New York City, this paper will: 1) determine the content, purpose and possible meanings that emerge from the use of screens to display art and social issues as well as possibilities for other kinds of community and cultural contents different from the sole purpose of advertisement. A critical assessment of the content these images might offer, the inclusion of context and other pertinent information that could provide a broader perspective in the understanding of the images can be – it is my contention – acquired through the conceptualisation of screens to include the public spaces where they are located as an extension, a physical site for dialogue and public engagement.


The centrality of the image and urban development
Visual pollution
Times Square: the place where all roads meet
Times Square Alliance: privatisation of public space
Creative Time and the 59th Minute
Screen Art Contents: The 59th Minute
Ephemeral Screens




The centrality of the image and urban development

Urban development initiatives - fitting within the contemporary cultural logic of image ridden landscapes - seek to increase the appeal of spaces as sites for the consumption of art and entertainment, but also that the space itself becomes a good where experience is also packaged and delivered as one to be consumed. The emphasis on visual images on display that epitomises Times Square, explicitly entices individuals to consume goods. The presence of art, as a new component delivered by the private management of the area, adds to the area’s appeal. Art is then also included to enhance the experience of place: as both, another good to be consumed and as part of the experience of the city.

Contemporary urban development has been characterised by the marketing of sites for the consumption of leisure and entertainment. Times Square has not remained untouched from this kind of initiative. To the contrary, efforts to improve and strengthen the character of place now include art displays in the mediascape that is so peculiar to Times Square’s geist and raison d’etre. The juncture of place branding and art falls in a very ambiguous interstice. Therein lies the additional emphasis on art content in Times Square. Ads per se have acquired a high standard of aesthetics, therefore insinuating an overlap with art. This, however, is not the same as the lack of consumer oriented purpose art is expected to offer. Branding can help strengthen the image of an iconic space such as Times Square. There, the most recent addition to the urban development initiative includes video art as part of a somehow expected content displayed in the site’s screens (for those who know or have noticed) where art is branded as a strong component in the overall representation of the city. In a post-industrial advanced economy, cities seek to insert themselves competitively to attract a professional service class and tourists for the consumption of goods in the form of culture and entertainment. Seeking higher standards in their quality of life for residents and exciting and entertaining travel destinations for tourists, urban development initiatives cater to these two groups.

The marketing of sites through branding manufactures the idea of the city according to those preferences of the market. In the case of Times Square the new professional class and tourists attracted to the global city: the centre that coordinates finance at the global level (Sassen, 1991). New York City attracts the professional class that provides the services that characterise the global city: finance, advertising, banking, insurance, and legal services, among others. For this professional class the attractiveness of the city lies in the enjoyment of exciting leisure events and spaces that are safe, clean and appealing according to the sensibilities of the professional class. Times Square and the Times Square Alliance provide this quality of life and leisure in the city to the professional residents as well as tourists by the privatisation of public space. Moreover, by adding the art component to the displays of Times Square, a more comprehensive content is integrated into the urban development initiative through branding. Times Square’s representation is also included in New York City’s allure as the Mecca for entertainment and art, traditionally defined - something missing in the media driven screens of Times Square.


Visual pollution

Within the visual saturation of images, designed advertisement for consumption of goods and ideas, art has also become part of the packaging of Times Square’s experience. Virilio introduces the notion of a visual ecology, since environmental movements have made us aware of ecological pollution, he argues for a sense of balance within the pollution of images to which we are exposed (1997). Debord’s notion of the society of spectacle alludes to the power and control images exert in a society guided by consumption and where social life is relegated to the predominance of appearances (1970). Therefore, the spectacle generates a passive role in the consumer as spectator. Despite the fact that most images presented in Times Square are consumption driven, video art content is a first step in displaying contents different from consumption oriented ones, an altering effect to the cultural logic of consumption. Screens can be a key vehicle in the rendering of images both visual and textual by providing narratives not only of consumption but narratives that fracture or even alter meanings. Moreover, screens and the physical context in which they are placed could help simultaneously articulate spaces for dialogue, historical awareness and critical examination of the contents presented (Giroux, 2005). Screen displays should also be linked to physical places where dialogue and critical engagement could take place.

The function of these screens within the environment of Times Square does not only serve to display consumption contents but in doing so, constructing a peculiar character for that area. Imbued in the urban development initiative of branding, issues of representation are key and lead to question: who manufactures the images, for what purpose(s) and who has access to them. Rather than single units, the grouped effect of these images represents Times Square as exciting. The representation of Times Square – similar to other areas of the city - is manufactured with the intention of attracting tourists and the professional class to the city. Understanding the connection between the city as a representation, branding as a marketing strategy to develop areas in the city such as Times Square and privatisation as a reaction to government retrenchment (a mechanism that allocates private funds to maintain public space) is a strategic triad that functions in most cities nowadays. The global homogenisation of landscapes through contemporary urban development initiatives such as branding is also a global trend. This global trend homogenises development where maintenance, surveillance and aesthetics is the formula for “successful” public spaces. What Reichl (1999) refers to as cleanliness, security and visual coherence - is at the core of urban development.

The role of art content as well as other contents such as social and/or community issues that are different from those prescribed to entice consumption practices could be considered part of the careful orchestration of structural components such as maintenance and surveillance that within the context of urban development initiatives help market an area as a desired destination for the consumption of cultural goods such as entertainment and the experience of the city. Despite the fact that these contents could contribute to the marketing of the area, art and other contents could also generate spaces for a critical engagement, and could fracture the seamless display of messages for consumption with which - in this instance - Times Square saturates its visitors’ experience of the city.

It is important to also mention that the quality of contents and high standards of displays also socialise visitors into art contents that are designed for a sophisticated, culturally savvy professional class audience (Creative Time Staff Interview, July 29, 2005). There is just a thin line between the possibility for other ways of seeing in which art impacts both the quality of ads in billboards (highly artistic and skilled) and the art content per se. Between the content and quality of the ads, the difference about the intention to which art and ads are produced and displayed deserves attention.

Art’s intention is usually explicitly non-commercial. The aesthetic experience that art seeks to provide falls outside the boundaries of the intentionality found in for instance, ads that seek to entice the desire for consumption. Even though art has and could become a critique and even a commodity, it does not necessarily follow the explicit intention and functionality of advertisement, at least in its most traditional interpretation. Others have argued otherwise and pinpoint that “Even art, by its contemporary marketing strategies, has been secluded from its actual social context, and seems mainly to have left socio-political criticism for mere tourist attraction” (Cupers and Miessen, 2002, p.24). Despite this possible interpretation about the role of art in public space, the fact remains that the screens have been the very characteristic that has given Times Square the iconic character it still enjoys. Art, social and/or non-for profit, and other different possible contents presented on screens still lay within the frames of the signscape peculiar to Times Square. There, the screens stand by themselves and there is no space designed for a critical engagement where conversations and dialogue about the meaning of the screens, their content and purpose is encouraged. Everyone seems to be in a hurry to buy or to be entertained.


Times Square: the place where all roads meet

Times Square has been known at different moments in different ways amalgamated into the peculiarity it has to offer residents and visitors. According to a writer from Tom Beller's Neighborhood, the drama is in the streets. (Jill Dearma, Cruising Times Square in the 70's, 12-07, 2005). The environment that generates this dynamic interplay of layered experiences developed historically. To Scott and Rutkoff in Times Square, art and entertainment created an ambiance of festive, safe amusement (1999). The Great White Way represented Times Square as the place filled with neon lights and where vice and drugs are abundant. The “Crossroads of the World” characterised Times Square as the place where all roads meet, alluding to the different ethno-cultures that traverse through the streets. The most recent transformation of Times Square has been the designation of the Family Entertainment District lead by the Disney Company. This transformation has tamed previous more dangerous depictions of the area. It is evident that a place such as Times Square does not necessarily retains one identity but rather an overlapping of different representations required to portray new functions of the city within the latest trends in urban development. Safety and family values have taken precedent over “negative” ones in the most recent urban development of Times Square.

Figure 1: Times Square, 'the place where all roads meet'
Figure 1: Times Square, 'the place where all roads meet'

Virilio refers to screens as mediating our experience of reality, a skin or layer between us and the rest of the world where physical presence and abstract remote data coincide (1997). For Luke (1989), billboards and screens are symbols of data processing, I might add that they also represent the surfacing of information to be processed. The content of these screens play a crucial role in the outcome of how we process the information offered, the sense we might make of this information in the way the messages are designed. Similar to the marketing of a site, information is also marketed as a good. Moreover, the vehicles to market the information - specifically in Times Square’s mediascape – are different kinds of screens or billboards.

The billboards in Times Square are: spectacular, spinning spectacular, vinyl, led display, vinyl with blinking border, and neon which display ads for: USPS, Skechers, Planters Nuts, AT & T Wireless, Con Edison, Washington Mutual, Roxy Deli, Hershey’s, Cup Noodles, Coca Cola, Cadillac, Target, Showtime, Nasdaq, and Discover among others. Five thousand ads are displayed per day. ARMY owns Times Square Real Estate; therefore their ad is for free. Media prices depend on spot volume frequency and customisation ((Klassen, 2005). Examples of the prices are for instance, HBO, $150,000 per month, Kodak, $175,000, and Target $850,000, to name a few. Times Square is the only place in New York City where zoning regulations are designed to protect the image of the buildings in the area.

The result of this proliferation of signs, screens and billboards produces what Virilio refers to as the standardisation of vision, a visual ecology where most displays function along with other factors, for the consumption of the city as a cultural good. They epitomise the experience of the city as a good. This experience is branded through urban development to constitute a space as iconic, a site charged with a highly symbolic meaning. Ward and Park (2004) studied from a marketing perspective how the development of a building as a marketing site altogether generates what they call an iconic place, one that characterises specific meanings emphasising people, products and activities. Iconic space is to capture the essence of a site and the way it is represented and identified, usually by generating a brand.

According to Mavrick (2004) a brand name is a cornerstone for expansion through franchising. These brands are developed following the basis of efficiency and streamlining, to differentiate themselves from the competition. Here again the notion of uniqueness remains a basic and most important component in the development of a brand for a product, for a city as well (Hill, 2004). A great design needs to be attained and a ubiquitous distribution, the development of name and brand recognition through advertising that provides the site with visibility for an audience. In the case of Times Square, its history and the new developments and meanings attached to the area make it unique, specifically regarding the proliferation of screens and billboards.

The result of this experience of the city is one that corners people to a less and less active, more contemplative role as consumers, citizens and clients where the product is marketed; the intention of consumption is to seduce the passive spectator (Debord, 1970; Giroux, 2005; Luke, 1989). In achieving this goal, the private sector has also contributed to generate the iconic space that characterises many urban areas and public spaces. From the Great White Way display of lights, to the years of neglect, the Crossroads of the World and the family entertainment district most recently developed by Disney, Times Square has followed a similar path in what now constitutes a trend in urban public space: privatisation.


Times Square Alliance: privatisation of public space

Founded in 1992, the Times Square Alliance works to improve and promote Times Square so that it retains the creativity, energy and edge that have made it an icon for entertainment, culture, and international urban life for a century. The Times Square Alliance provides safety and sanitation services to the area. Similar to other privatised attempts in the city such as The Central Park Conservancy, Bryant Park and the Grand Central Partnership, The Times Square Alliance manages and brands Times Square. The emphasis has been placed on strengthening what I like to call the aesthetics of order: surveillance, maintenance and aesthetics to produced a space that is perceived to be safe and clean. The Times Square Alliance provides sanitation and public safety with The Times Square Alliance’s Public Safety Officers (PSOs), unarmed but fully trained officers that patrol the district on foot seven days a week and who are linked by radio to the NYPD (The Times Square Moreover, they also have created the Midtown Community Court, which handles only quality-of-life defendants: turnstile jumpers, graffiti artists, illegal peddlers, prostitutes and some small time drug dealers. The Street to home initiative, a bi-annual survey designed by Common Ground accounts for the number of homeless people in the area, no indication is offered of other kinds of services provided to the homeless population besides this survey, which seeks only to identify that population. In the hygienic attempt to clean and make Times Square safe, homelessness should remain invisible to non-existent. This is a generalised trend in the development and maintenance of urban public spaces.

This is the private initiative and organisation required to handle the estimated 80% of visitors to New York City who come to Times Square, with an estimated 31.4 million in 2004 (The Times Square Another most recent initiative within the Times Square Alliance is the Art Times Square which provides ongoing public program that seek to “recognise and celebrate the diversity of Times Square, reinforce the area’s authentic and historic character, and creatively express Times Square unique qualities” (The Times Square Alliance). Art in this context fulfils the quality of life standard and sensibilities of an educated professional class and tourists.

Art Times Square purpose is to incorporate diverse elements of art into Times Square’s streetscape, thereby expressing the area’s uniqueness and enriching the pedestrian experience with different kinds of public art. The art initiative in Times Square pales in comparison to the ones implemented to make the area be safer through surveillance and maintenance. More emphasis is placed on the aesthetics of order regarding issues of safety and maintenance rather than art content. However, it is from this initiative that the collaboration with Creative Time emerged to provide the opportunity for video art to be viewed in the media capital of the world.


Creative Time and the 59th Minute

Creative Time originated in 1973, and it describes itself as an organisation that commissions, produces and presents “adventurous artwork s for all disciplines. It identifies artistic production with a movement towards the public realm from galleries and museums and artists experimenting with new forms of media” ( According to their Web site, “Creative Time derives its values from the historic impetus to foster artistic experimentation, enrich public space and the everyday experience, and forefront artists as key contributors to democratic society” ( Along with The Times Square Alliance, Creative Time has produced and developed The 59th Minute: Video Art on the Times Square NBC, Astrovision by Panasonic Screen.

Acknowledging art’s need for discretionary funds for operation from corporations and private funding, Creative Time has ventured into public-private collaboration where The 59th Minute is presented, the last minute of every hour. This arrangement provides opportunities for artists to present their work to a large audience in a public space (Creative Time Staff Interview, July 29, 2005). The NBC Astrovision by Panasonic is a visual centrepiece in Times Square, one of the first screens in Times Square, also called the “Times Square TV,” a classic TV image, on a high definition screen that is changed every five years. According to a Creative Time staff member, it is a unique place to display art outside a museum. The screen is owned by Panasonic and the cost of for the art presentation is of 1.7 million dollars a year for the minute the art video lasts. Measuring three stories high, the screen (which contains 1.5 million LEDs) is capable of displaying more than one billion shades of colour. Panasonic is a brand of New Jersey-based Matsushita Electric Corporation of America.

Figure 2: The NBC Astrovision screen is owned by Panasonic
Figure 2: The NBC Astrovision screen is owned by Panasonic'

One might argue that the video art presented in the Panasonic screen in Times Square could function as an advertisement for Panasonic, if only more people knew about this arrangement or about the Creative Time video art installation. On the other hand, Creative Time staff identifies Panasonic as reaching out to the community and offer, in addition to the art content presented in The 59th Minute, technology to schools with the program “Kids Witness News” (Creative Time Staff Interview, July 29, 2005).

The 59th Minute was launched in 2000 with the work of Tibor Kalman’s “ Tiborisms,” displaying text in a video presentation, such as “Everything is an experiment.” Since 2000, The 59th Minute project has presented five video animations, two videos with a combination of text and images, and twelve videos – movies, portraits, and digital composition of colours. The images and text displayed only once addressed explicitly a political and social issue, AIDS. The videos presented by The 59th Minute are of short duration and seem to get lost in the media forest of Times Square. Even though the 59th Minute is difficult to spot, it is certainly embedded within the representation of the city and of Times Square as a significant place for art and culture in its broadest sense. Art in this context seeks to convey, according to a Creative Time staff member, elements of regularity, consistency and surprise: “Art as ephemeral, that finds you…” (Creative Time Staff Interview, July 29, 2005). The same staff member also pointed out that what distinguishes Creative Time’s view of art is that “We still want to preserve the purity of the experience of art, even though with consumption everything has a purpose, in New York there is more of a sophisticated audience that expects art to still preserve itself outside commercial contents” (Creative Time Staff Interview, July 29, 2005).


Screen Art Contents: The 59th Minute

The messages displayed in Times Square’s screens are part of other factors that also contribute to the character of the area, the brand to which Times Square is recognised. The uniqueness of the art content among other ads for products is somehow diluted in the sparse number of screens with art and/or other contents. At this point only The 59th Minute provides a different content. Many of the videos shown in The 59th Minute show contents that depict aspects and conditions of urban living. These art videos address issues of anonymity, the city as tamed and playful, overcoming the city flying over the city as in a dreamscape, as well as contents allegorical to dwelling and movement.

In Marc Brambilla’s “Superstar’ a man flies over the city, there is an element of overcoming the city by flying, almost floating over the city. There is a contrasting message embedded in Gary Hill’s video between a mechanical object and nature: a scientific looking object going through an apple. The city is represented in a playful manner, therefore easier to learn about in the survey of questions on places known in the city, in PDPAL’s animated video by Maria Zurkow, Scott Patterson and Julian Bleecker. Nature represented by a butterfly in Mary Lucier’s video “Monarch.”

Other urban contents can be found in Cowboy Waltz by Jeremy Blake, where a building turns into ephemeral beautiful images of colour and light. The bed as a site for rest, love making, dwelling in Dream Sequence 1 by Janaina Tschape, explodes with water against a rustic wall. The theme of movement is trapped inside an apartment, offering a stark contrast between inside and outside in Hiraki Sawa’s “Dwelling.” Small airplanes fly inside an apartment, under the light fixture in a room, in the bathtub and over a bed. Dwelling and movement allude in this video to the dweller and the nomad in all of us. Contemporary times beget travel as a condition - either in real time or virtually through the Internet. The here and there are confounded with our perception and experience of place. Safe and dangerous spaces are counterpoised to the different contents Sawa’s show in the video art “Dwelling.” In a society so concerned with terror and the possible agoraphobic reaction to urban living (Carter, 2002) especially towards the increasing militarisation of public space, airplanes flying inside an apartment could be a subtle reminder of possible interpretations where different contexts overlap: inside/outside, safe/unsafe.

Kim Soja’s “Conditions of Anonymity” reminds us of the Chicago School of Sociology observation about the city and urban living where high population density are conducive to social disorganisation, social anomie, estrangement. The anonymous urban dweller is embedded in a sea of unrecognizable faces, confronted with the paucity and slowness of the observer. This space for reflection in observation is one that screens could help develop, therefore expanding the ability of the screen to generate a critical engagement with the content in the spaces of the city where the video is shown. These spaces should then be also designed to accommodate this kind of engagement. Kim Soja’s video, “Conditions of Anonymity” offers a good opportunity to reflect about the spectacle of the urban street on the screen. Conversely, Times Square also frames conditions of anonymity.

The video art contents in The 59th Minute sometimes display nostalgia for innocence, a playfulness as that which cannot be bought but that is however, part of the manufacturing of experience branded through urban development in Times Square. As such, screens proliferate and can be found in many other cities. A kind of travelling public space nomad art (photography exhibits) have appeared in Montreal’s markets, Vienna’s Museum Quarter and in the Luxemburg Gardens in Paris, to name a few. At this point, however, art, social and not-for-profit content or even content that addresses community issues is not that visible. It could be considered tokenistic in that it is still a minimal effort in comparison to the overwhelming presence of commercial content in most screens and billboards.


Ephemeral Screens

Even if what is advertised is not a good as such, video art screens might help sell the experience of the city as a representation of excitement, sophisticated taste that addresses the sensibilities of a professional class and tourists. Other kinds of contents, such as political, social, not-for-profit and/or community issues could also be part of the screen’s content. A higher quantity of those and an opportunity for dialogue and critical engagement (that at this point is non existent in the video art experience of Times Square, for instance) needs to develop. Not all art is necessarily critical nor does it necessarily generate an alternative viewpoint. However, art screens should at least attempt at disrupting or altering the consumer logic prevalent in advertisement. By offering possibilities to question everyday life and current working ideologies, urban development could begin to support a broader and more intelligent experience of the city. As such, screens that display art as well as other social, not-for-profit and/or community contents could provide a critical eye into the different ways of seeing and thinking about what is seen to then consider that which is absent, missing and or lacking (Feinstein, 2005).

Art on screens should provide – even if interactive – spaces for what Giroux (forthcoming) calls: “ dialogue, critical discourse and engagement and historical awareness.” The screen’s impact can be extended to the physical location where it is situated and provide a “real” physical space for critical discourse and engagement. Through the historical awareness that emerges from knowing the origin of the images, multiple possible meanings, the purpose and intentionality of the images’ content and context, a more active experience of the city and of the images could be acquired, one that is critical of both content and context. Screens could extend, in a meaningful manner, the experience of the city. Screens could provide opportunities to tackle issues of representation, branding and urban development, and also provide a better grasp of what lacks to critically help articulate a broader understanding of society’s functioning and trends.



Art and social issues are some of the uncommon uses of screens in public space. In the branding of the city, art and social issues employ, it is my contention, a politics of difference that is tokenistic at this point. Despite the limited uses of art content in the billboards and screens, at least two observations seem appropriate: 1) the visual lexicon provided by urban screens is still mostly limited to contents designed to generate desires for consumption, rather than art, social, not-for-profit and/ or community issues related content, 2) the trend to increase the number of screens in public spaces should include more possibilities for art and other contents that could disrupt the prevalent cultural logic of consumerism. A critical engagement could be attained by extending the screen’s impact to the physical site where it is located, turning the adjacent space into one that is public in that it offers possibilities for dialogue and interaction.

Virilio (1997) argues that there is an industrialisation of images to which art and advertisement – for different reasons – produce. Art and other contents such as social, not-for-profit and community issues could be considered a possible solution to what Virilio calls the “standardisation of vision,” the automation of perception of the world, a standard way of seeing (1997). Extended to the public spaces that screens occupy, art images and the possibility for critical engagement, dialogue and interaction could offer an alternative and opening to a different experience from the ones the images alone could support. The production of desire through the seduction of constantly shifting images, the excitement and thrilling experience they trigger in spaces such as Times Square, or elsewhere for that matter, tend to induce the role of a passive spectator. The praise of the technological sublime through state of the art screens and art content could be enhanced by the critical engagement of broader and more extensive ways of seeing that seek to ask for what is absent.End of article

About the author

Julia Nevárez obtained her Ph.D. in Environmental Psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is currently Assistant Professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Kean University, New Jersey. Her research focuses on Urban studies, issues of representation, globalisation, urban development, public space and technoculture most recently.

E-mail: Jndj7 [at] aol [dot] com


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Art and social displays in the branding of the city: Token screens or opportunities for difference? by Julia Nevárez
First Monday, Special Issue #4: Urban Screens: Discovering the potential of outdoor screens for urban society