Critical Fusion vs. Urban Cosmetics

— Urban Media Art Paradox

Urban Media Art Paradox: Critical Fusion vs. Urban Cosmetics

Maurice Benayoun, Josef Bares

full text published in What Urban Media Art Can Do, Susa Pop, Tanya Toft, Nerea Calvillo, Mark Write editors, AVedition, Stuttgart, Germany, 2016


Artists used to be major contributors to how cities looked and felt, providing both structure and content for public space. Working at the service of political and religious authorities, the Renaissance artist designed the architecture and exterior of public spaces, as well as the interiors, including sculptural and pictorial elements. S/he created a whole parallel world consisting of marble and pigments. The result was a continuous visual experience that coexisted with the citizen’s world, serving both as a communicative tool as well as a representation of a holistic vision of being.



Cosmetics, Playground and Critical Fusion

In highly developed cities, media artists are more and more required to respond to these circumstances. Should they bring liveliness, vibration and excitement into monochromatic urban environments? How should they position themselves in relation to this return of the ornament in urban space? Street art paved the way for the artist or the “left over citizen” to conquer the public space in the interstices that have escaped the valuation of the attention economy. Street art precedes a model of addressing the media city landscape by addressing its critical issues, while staying away from using the medium that generated these issues itself. We find that in some media artists’ turning to low-tech. Yet street art very much adapted the B2B model, especially when the aspect of self-branding using one’s own signature is considered. The signature or tag as a personal brand of those who refuse to be just “branded” and instead try to turn the table over. At the other end of the street art spectra of expression we find the socially engaged protest art motive, which has surrendered the aesthetics of art and instead adopted the aesthetics of politics[7], making itself accountable to moral issues rather than creating measures.

Media artists seem to have appropriated some of these skills while seeking to play new roles in the city. We could identify three categories in the positions offered to creative practitioners, accepted or taken.

Urban Cosmetics


Urban Playground


Critical Fusion

The third position, usually not offered but taken by the artist, is related to the will to engage in the public space, accepting the popularity of media art as a momentum for deploying a critical discourse in the public sphere. This can be the consequence of the gradual increase of the possibility of reverting the gallery, turning the white cube known as a place for ‘critical statement’ inside out, opening an unlimited field of urban pervasion for ‘critical practice’. Critical fusion, the creating of inlays of art-fiction inside reality, with the aim of making it more explicit, is pretty well illustrated by the work developed by the Yes Men[9]. Their intervention-performances in major public places, like the World Trade Organization Conference or the BBC News magazine, presenting fiction as real facts that suddenly reveal the importance of social, political and economic concerns at the world level, constitute an excellent illustration of how critical fusion goes beyond distraction. This practice, based on mass media manipulation, can apply to media art in urban space. As the artist is not necessarily invited to make a critical intervention in the city, this approach becomes closer to urban hacking. It is not always the case of a violent appropriation of the public space but more often a research of consensus with appropriate authorities for building parallel narratives, one fitting the institution flexibility, the other corresponding to the artist’s intention.

We find these parallel, art-fiction narratives employed in urban environments in a number of artworks of Maurice Benayoun from the past fifteen years of his practice. Among these, Watch Out! (Seoul 2002, Athens 2004) that allows passers-by to gaze through a peeping hole of a box and what they see inside are warning messages displayed on a screen, together with instructions for how to submit their own message, while screens in the surrounding area display a surveillance video of the eye peeping through the hole; NeORIZON (Shanghai 2008), an urban interactive art installation or sculpture in the shape of an “IDWorm” – a geometric volume making ID codes (like QR codes) out of people’s faces, which are recorded in the small end of the sculpture and displayed on a rear projection screen in the other end, with the face turned into and ID code; E-Forecast (Paris 2011, NYC 2012), which researches the proximity and locations of “emotion” data from websites related to current events in more than 3200 cities worldwide and from this data forecasts emotional tendencies; Occupy Wall Screens (NYC 2012), a real-time artwork displaying the stock evaluation readouts of major financial institutions next to emotional currents emanating from Occupy sites around the world; and E-SCAPE TODAY! (Seoul 2012) that measures emotion status’s real-time as “stock value”, displaying an emotional cartography of the planet[10]. These examples make installations on urban screens and sculptures in public space that attempt to raise awareness on social and political issues. Also the Open Sky Project, initiated by Maurice Benayoun in Hong Kong in 2013 on the three facades of the Hong Kong International Centre of Commerce, can be considered an urban lab for experimental art and sense making in the public space.

Art to Public (A2P) in the Post P2p Era?

Applying the principle of “critical fusion” of fiction and reality to the media scape of the city would be to rethink the B2C dominant scheme and try to revive the interlocking of P2p and p2P attention flows. Applied to an interpersonal dimension, the P2p and p2P flows conveniently merge into what could or even should become citizen relations “H2H”, that is, Human to Human. One could say that critical fusion is a new form of Gesamtkunstwerk[11] perfected by the Bauhaus and le Corbusier[12], but with an assumed social perspective. Instead of the design of stimuli it would make sense to look back at the Renaissance artist and design an environment that will serve as a sense-making tool for the world and the relationships within it. Jean-Luc Nancy, in a recent interview, presented the role of the artist as making sense beyond meaning. We shouldn’t forget that social engagement doesn’t mean trying to say by other means and media what words express perfectly. What we understand is that we should expect more from art: something like a poetically, critically, visionary enhanced city. However, if we seek to define what should be the nature and impact of the artistic enhancement of the public space, it would definitely reduce or even limit its potential. In that sense, art can be the “unexpected”, providing what we have always been looking for without being able to find the words to ask for it. This probably explains why Nancy added: “the role of the artist is to help us to see that after the mist, there is mist. At least it is not fog”[13]. And this makes even more sense in the city.





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[1] Leon Battista Alberti, The Architecture of Leon Battista Alberti in Ten Books (London: Edward Owen, 1755), 357.

[2] Adolf Loos, “Ornament und Verbrechen,” Cahiers d’aujourd’hui, No. 5, (1913).

[3] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).

[4] Jean-François Lyotard, La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport sur le Savoir (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1979).

[5] Seth Goldstein and Steve Gilmore, “Attention Trust – Principles (2008)”, accessed March 1, 2016,

[6] Christian Jankowski, “Jankowski The Hunt, 1992 97”, filmed 1992, Youtube video, 1 min 11 sec, posted September 26, 2013,

[7] Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury, 2004).

[8] Juvenal, “The Satires. Satire X – The Vanity of Human Wishes (approx. 100 A.D.),” Poetry In Translation website, accessed April 2, 2016,

[9] “The Yes Men”, the website of The Yes Men, accessed March 3, 2016,

[10] See “Maurice Benayoun”, the website of Maurice Benayoun, accessed April 15, 2016,

[11] Karl Friedrich Eusebius Trahndorff, Aesthetik oder Lehre von der Weltanschauung und Kunst (Berlin: Maurer, 1827).

[12] Arnold Wittick, Encyclopaedia of Modern Architecture (London: Thames & Hudson, 1977).

[13] Guy Duplat, “Jean-Luc Nancy. “L’art, pour retrouver du sens””, interview with Jean-Luc Nancy,, accessed March 16, 2016,

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