Emotional Cities - Essay

John Peter Nilsson

The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan published a book in 1964, the seminal Understanding Media, in which he coined phrases such as “the global village” and “the medium is the message”. But he also writes about the difference between the industrial society and the information society. McLuhan proclaimed that the industrial society can be understood as an extension of human muscular power. The machine does what we had to do with our muscles before. And it does it better and faster. The information society (or the media society as it was called then) can be interpreted as an extension of man’s central nervous system. The camera sees better than our eyes, the microphone hears better than our ears, etc.

In today’s information society, McLuhan’s observations have become our everyday reality. Radio, TV, newspapers and the internet are not only carriers of information and knowledge – they also register and sometimes enhance private and collective emotional states. The media can be both deputy mourner and cheerleader for us in the events of our lives.

Erik Krikortz’ project Emotional Cities uses, reflects and reveals our fascination, not to say our dependence, on the information society. In short, he has created a website where you can log in and report how you are feeling according to a scale. The project comprises all the cities of the world, and the responses are compiled automatically. The average for Stockholm specifically is converted into a colour that will illuminate the facades of all five high-rise buildings at Hötorget in central Stockholm, as well as being shown on the website emotionalcities.com and on a plasma screen at Moderna Museet. Krikortz simply takes the emotional pulse of Stockholm. Or, as he himself puts it: “The result is a psychological diagnosis of society.”

Naturally, the interactivity of the project is essential. Krikortz was one of three initiators of the light installation Colour by Numbers in 2006. Using a mobile phone, anyone could dial a number and control the coloured lighting of the ten top stories of the former LM Ericsson telecom tower at Telefonplan in Stockholm. The primary object was that the democratic nature of the project (anyone could influence it) would provoke a general discussion about the urban space. How can the individual citizen influence the urban landscape? Is it possible, without breaking the law, to influence the public space, which is largely dominated by commercial and political forces?

Emotional Cities poses a fairly commonplace question: How are you? But it is a question that seeks to make us reflect carefully. Someone cares. But it is not another person who is asking. By allowing the public domain, both the Hötorget buildings and the internet, to ask the question and display the answer, Krikortz adds complexity to the implication of caring. I can’t help reflecting on the interactive services available on the internet. Without encountering a single human being face to face, I can ask questions, for instance, about my health, and receive an answer, signed by a name but nevertheless anonymous.

Yet, I don’t perceive that Krikortz is levelling any unequivocal critique against the depersonalised media technology. He uses technology as a means of communication. There is, however, a critique against the use of the public domain. As he himself puts it, “Advertising dominates the public space, points at our shortcomings and tells us what we need in order to feel good. Our economy is an ‘economy of deficiency’, based entirely on dissatisfaction. Through this light installation, the city’s denizens can demonstrate collectively how they feel, using Stockholm’s largest projection surface.”

The project is a straight-forward, honest appeal to us to reflect and care about one another. Even if Krikortz uses new technology, he pursues an established tradition in art to distinguish the shortcomings and merits of the city. Many have portrayed the collective desires of urban life, along with the tragedy of literally living so close without getting nearer one another. As in Colour by Numbers, how-ever, he adds the potential of new technology for interaction. The city appears like an organism, a perpetually transmogrifying organism. But the work of art that emerges as an equally transmogrifying, organic body is just as remarkable. Emotional Cities exists solely in how the project is received and used. “The city speaks to us through ourselves”, he points out.

A dominant human trait is our longing for acknowledgement, not merely in our quest for happiness. I will perhaps feel a little less bad if other people feel bad too. There is an ironic point in allowing the computers to structure and communicate human feelings. The attendant question – why are we happy or sad? – is never asked in Krikortz’ internet investigation. Perhaps the result is that we are prompted to actually start talking to one another? Not in polite phrases without meaning or compassion. But for real.

Translation: Gabriella Berggren

The essay was published in a poster-brochure for the exhibition ”Emotional Cities” at Moderna Museet.