There is a collective us, in particular when we speak of cities. Parisians and Paolistas. These are the names we use when our cities reach scale and we stop referring to ourselves as from somewhere and instead as part of something. I’m a New Yorker. All of a sudden the bustle on our streets hits a fever pitch and our collective attention pervades the air so heavily that contracts are drawn up to determine who will be responsible for the accumulation of all those eyeballs and what percentages will be offered in return. Out of thin air and a saccadic frenzy, value is created in the cohabitation of a shared plot of land.
Walk around any major metropolis and you will recognize the network of signs, often connected to public infrastructure, set up to mine this resource. Pay attention. 10,000 impressions a day. 10,000 attentions paid. Put a sign there. And so it goes, expanding outward from the centers of density until the attention dissipates and it simply isn’t cost-effective to build a structure to focus our thoughts. Calculations must be made. Entrepreneurial businessmen must lose sleep chasing their imaginations.
And yet this resource isn’t like the others. This resource is human. When you sift through the soil, I lose nothing, but when you dig into my mind, I lose my train of thought. See what you pay attention to is what you are thinking about, and what you are thinking about makes you who you are. The two inextricably linked. The development of your thoughts, a direct linear result of the things you have attended to along the way. Which is one way of saying that what we put in front of our faces should be worth the price.
I guess we could simply decide that despite our numbers we don’t want to mine the hills of our attention, leaving us instead with extended vistas of avenues and alleyways. The absence of signification, a welcome respite from the daily intoxication of our mediated world. It’s a worthwhile consideration, like leaving some trees in the forest, or some oil in the ground. But ask a Muscovite or Angelista, whose attention has created so much potential, to leave untapped the bounty of their creation and you will understand why our cities look the way they do. A constant roar blankets our streets and our bodies vibrate in proximity to one another. Who could stop us from erecting signs?
And so they appear one after another along the horizon, heavy machinery erected downtown to tap the ferment of our minds. Each bus shelter, every taxi topper, billboard, flyposter, lollipop, phonebooth, and info kiosk is an industrial excavator mining your thoughts, momentarily distracting the trajectory of our thinking and converting that moment into a valuable resource. In truth, I find the whole thing a bit miraculous, like a well that doesn’t produce unless we all stand around watching it. Look away and the flow stops, turn back around and a steady stream of value comes pouring out. This is the great alchemy of our cities and the foundation upon which to make our demands.
Today the lion’s share of the attentional resources collected in our cities are siphoned off and sold to advertisers. Promotion swoons for opportunity and an exorbitant amount of money is exchanged to orchestrate what we are thinking about, if only for a brief moment in time. Repeated over the geography and infrastructure of our cities, those brief moments cohere into a meaningful focus, the echoes of which reverberate in our heads. One could take issue with this fact, the echoing, and I do. It bothers me to think about all the neurons we have encoded with the rambling logic of commercial myopia. The sustained focus we offer up to the machinations of consumer culture. Remember that the price for the intrusion is not only our distraction but the needing it leaves behind.
And yet the weight of these impositions pales in comparison to the forfeiture of our collective resources and the missed opportunity to let the combustion on our streets reflect the inner dialogue of our minds. As it stands now those advertisers, intent to arrest your eyes and momentarily lay the groundwork for your thinking, empty their coffers into privatized hands. Multinational landlords of our shared public spaces collect the bounty of our attention and haul it off to shareholders and investment bankers. Modest revenue sharing schemes and public infrastructure contracts obscuring the obvious fact that the electricity between us has quietly come to serve someone else.
As a New Yorker, I am always surprised how the clarity of this grievance escapes us. Our willingness to squander the abundance produced by our cohabitation, given the limited resources with which we make due. But what if the harvesting of our collective attention paid for something more than a blanket of consumerist propaganda? What if the alchemy of living in such close proximity to one another, for crowded trains and bustling streets, for gathering together on an island, or building a life together at the rivers bend, was that the network of signs on our streets championed the public’s interests? Each bus shelter, every taxi topper, billboard, flyposter, lollipop, phonebooth, and info kiosk, an opportunity to think for ourselves.
This book documents a small selection of posters made using PublicAccess keys. It is a crude attempt to daydream into reality a more utopic future and promote a fleeting revolution from which the incantations on our streets burst with locality. Those who participated represent a small portion of the public with the time and privilege to dedicate to such activities. It does not escape me that a democracy of our voices would look a lot different than the pages of this book. But these efforts guide my belief that there are new models on the horizon for the redistribution of what we create by being together, tightly packed and with so much to say. Models that tap the wealth of our collective project and offer it back up to us as raw material with which to shape new cities. Each sign, an opportunity to distract us from ourselves, in the search for one another.
Image at top of page:
NDA installation, Stavanger, Norway, 2016, photo by Mark Rigney
Essay in PublicAccess 2015–ongoing
For more information visit: www.publicadcampaign.com/PublicAccess