Check out this conversation between instructors Jesse Shapins and Brian House about Critical Urban Media published in Urban Omnibus.

Course Description


This ten-week studio/seminar course offers students from architecture, urban planning, and related disciplines an intensive introduction to the evolving field of urban media arts. Over the course of the summer, students reflect on readings ranging from the beginnings of urban sociology with Georg Simmel in Weimar Germany to contemporary essays on database aesthetics and locative media. In conjunction with this classroom component, students conduct a series of urban research experiments designed to introduce multiple methods of critically investigating and engaging the city.

To begin, each student chooses a specific site within New York City to declare as his or her territory. Through seven exercises ranging from ethnographic interviews to Fluxus-inspired non-theatrical performances to short city-symphony films, each student defines terms specific to their space by uploading text, photography and video to Periplurban, an online ‘dictionary’ of urban experience. The larger goal of these collective investigations is to begin re-defining what is a city, and in this process, a new urban language is being created.

The final project draws upon the rich database of knowledge and media collected in Periplurban to create a series of design interventions in physical and virtual space. Writing in this new language, the core component of the students’ final project is an SMS-based walking tour of their territory that poetically connects the words in the new vocabulary they have defined. The walk provides an experiential tour of the multiple layers of physical, social, historical and fictional qualities that have been identified through the summer’s research.

Final Projects


The three final projects by students from Sessions A + B. Click on the link “Download PDF Guide” for each to get instructions for their SMS walking poem.

Priscilla Fraser
Wei-Ju Lai
Joshua Padgett

The five final projects by students from Session A:

Cristobal Amewategui
Eunsuk Bae
Anastasia Choli
Saskia Nagel
Ignacio Senra



Week 1 :: June 11 → Introductions: Mapping, Language, Totality and Specificity

Student introductions and instructor background presentations

Project presentations: The Colors of Berlin, Hundekopf, Case at Kulturhuset, Sign, Berlin by Chance, Boston by Chance, Yellow Arrow, Secret New York, Capitol of Punk
Readings Due:

Questions to Consider While Reading:

  • What is at stake in Corner’s distinction between a “trace” and a “map”?
  • What relationships does Corner suggest exist between maps and reality?
  • Why is the concept of “field conditions” so crucial to Corner’s argument?
  • How does Corner define territory?
  • What are the key differences between the alternative mapping techniques of drift, layering, game-board and rhizome?
  • What does Corner ultimately argue is the value of mapping for architects and designers generally?

Other references:

  • Bruno Latour, Paris: Invisible City
  • You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps
  • Else/Where: Mapping New Cartographies of Networks and Territories
  • Local Treasures: Geocaching across America

For next week: Exercise 01 — Declare and map your territory

Pick a space in New York City to focus your research for the summer. The scale and location is up to you, but you should be able to walk through it in about 10 minutes. It might be a neighborhood, a stretch of a major avenue, a park. While visiting your territory, determine its boundaries and its primary characteristics. After your visit(s), create a map that defines your territory. You may use whatever media you deem necessary, from sketching to photography to screen captures

Week 2 :: June 18 → The Networked City, Ubiquitous Computing and Urban Language

Discuss: Exercise 01 — Declare and map territory
Readings Due:

Questions to Consider While Reading:


  • What is ubiquitous computing? How does it differ from previous model of computing and at what scales does it operate?
  • What does Greenfield see as potential dangers of ubiquitous computing, and how does he suggest we address them?

Tuters and Varnelis:

  • How is locative media a response to net art, and how does it differ? How do Tuters and Varnelis define their two categories of locative media?
  • How do Coco Fusco and others critique locative media, and how do Tuters and Varnelis respond?


  • What is a database and what are some of the implications of this form for new media art?
  • How does Manovich adopt Saussure’s terms ’syntagm’ and ‘paradigm’?

Other references:

Project presentations: Grafedia, TxtMob, Tactical Sound Garden, Zapped!

For next week: Exercise 02 — Re-define 10 words in your territory

Look at ABCDF - The Graphic Dictionary of Mexico City (available in Avery). Choose 10 words to re-define according to your territory. Make sure to pick at least one noun, one verb, one adjective and one adverb. Enter these 10 definitions into the Periplurban online dictionary, including:

  • Word
  • Definition
  • Image(s)
  • Scale (lat/lon, territory, neighborhood, borough, city)
  • Address

Week 3 :: June 25 → The Social Life of Cities and Ethnography

Discuss: Exercise 02 — Re-define 10 words in territory
Readings Due:

Questions to Consider While Reading:

  • How does Duneier explain his methodology? What are the drawbacks he identifies? What are the benefits he hopes for?
  • In what ways can you see his methodology in practice in “The Book Vendor” chapter?
  • How would you describe Duneier’s writing style? What does he pay attention to?
  • How is your territory similar to Duneier’s Greenwich Village? How is it different?
  • How might his methodology be useful in researching your territory?

Other References:

Project presentations: StoryCorps, [murmur]

For next week: Exercise 03 — Mini-ethnography

Spend at least five hours in a single space or with an individual person (e.g. café or street vendor) over at least two days. Observe as much about the place, its inhabitants and your subject as possible. Interview your subject.

Record the details of your observations and interviews by defining ten new words for your territory.

Week 4 :: July 2 → Urban Performance and Intervention

Discuss: Exercise 03 — Mini-ethnography
Readings Due:

Other References:

  • Simon Sadler, The Situationist City

Questions to Consider While Reading:

  • How did Kaprow’s ideas about art in the 1970s break with previous art practice?
  • What is the purpose of a Happening?
  • How do the Fluxus scores relate to public space?
  • What is psychogeography? How does Debord endeavor to change our approach to the urban environment?
  • How is the dérive a performance? How is it psychogeographical?
  • How would you describe Smithson’s understanding of “monuments”?
  • How is Smithson’s work similar to Kaprow and Debord? How is it different?
  • How do each of these readings relate to locative media as we discussed with Tuters and Varnelis? How do they relate to Periplurban?

Project presentations: Homeless Vehicles also here and here, The Bubble Project, The Angel Project

For next week: Exercise 04 — Performative Instructions

Write a series of instructions for people to perform in your territory. Think of ways to incorporate particular features of your territory, whether physical or psychological, into the instructions.

Record your actions by defining ten new verbs for your territory. For each, include the instruction as well as a photo of the performance or the result, if applicable.

Week 5 :: July 9 → Urban Imagination and Representation

Discuss: Exercise 04 — Performative Instructions and Found Texts
Readings Due:

Questions to Consider While Reading:

  • Why is Donald ambivalent about describing the city as a “representation”?
  • What is the relationship between freedom and the city that Donald identifies?
  • Based on Donald’s discussion, how would you describe the differences between Simmel, Lefebvre and De Certeau?
  • What are the implications of Zizek’s concept of the spectre for the space of the city?
  • Why does Bender insist upon the significance of history in urban studies?
  • What is Bender’s critique of Donald?
  • What is Actor Network Theory (ANT)? Why does Bender think it’s useful for understanding cities?

Project presentations: Celluloid Skyline, NYCVisit

For next week: Exercise 05 — Archaeologies of Urban Imaginaries

Your territory is not just the physical boundaries of your site of study. All spaces are conditioned by their lived and representational history. Spend a week studying your territory’s urban imaginary as constructed through media in history. Use libraries and the internet to uncover historical photographs of your space, newspaper clippings relevant to your site, film segments, blog postings, etc. Do not confine yourself to only immediate representations. For example, film scenes set in Chinatown that do not necessarily take place exactly on Canal Street are also relevant to the urban imaginary of the area.

Record your research by defining 5-10 new words for your territory using quotes and images from existing media.

Week 6 :: July 16 → City Symphonies

Discuss: Exercise 5 — Uncovering Urban Imaginaries
Viewings Due:

  • Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, Manhatta
  • Alberto Cavalcanti, Nothing but the Hours
  • Walter Ruttmann, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City
  • Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera
  • Jean Vigo and Boris Kaufman, A Propos de Nice

Readings Due:

Questions to Consider While Viewing and Reading:

  • How does each film construct the imaginary of the city? What do the filmmakers focus upon? What do they omit?
  • How do the different films present the role individuals in relationship to the physical environment?
  • How does editing function differently in each the films? How do the “parts” of the film, the individual shots, work together to construct the “whole”?
  • Do you believe the film is a documentary about a single city or about modern urban life generally?

Project presentations: Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake, Stop Motion Studies

For next week: Exercise 06 — Ciity Symphonette

Approach your territory through the medium of video. Pay attention to those aspects of the city that cinema reveals such as rhythm, pattern, and montage. Make videos for 4 new words. No video should exceed 30 seconds. Video quality is not an issue; the video function on most digital cameras is ideal for this assignment.

  • Register for Vimeo
  • Upload your video
  • Copy the embed code of your video (click the “embed” icon when viewing your video on Vimeo to get the code)
  • Create a new entry in Periplurban
  • Click add video
  • Paste the embed code of your video
  • Click submit

Periplurban Territories

Next to each entry of the index on Periplurban is a link to your territory pages. These pages showcase a description of your territory, your original maps, a list of all your entries, and a Google map of your territory. Building out your territory page is an essential step toward your final project.

  • For the Google map to work, you need to map all of your entries to a specific location. To do this, click “edit” under the Location section of an entry, enter an address, and click “Find”. (Note: once a marker shows up, you can drag it to a more precise location, so you are not limited by a specific address. For example, you might put in “Bryant Park” as an address, and then drag the marker to exactly where you want it.) Do this for all of your entries.
  • Add a description for your territory: click “edit” under the name of your territory on a territory page, and an input box will appear.

Week 7 :: July 23 → Storytelling and the City

Discuss: Exercise 06 — City Symphonette
Readings Due:

Questions to Consider While Viewing and Reading:

- What is the origin and purpose of storytelling according to Kearney?
- How does Kearney understand mimesis, and how does it operate in historical and fictional narratives?
- What is the possible danger in new storytelling technologies, and how does Kearney respond to it?
- How is Invisible Cities a reflection on storytelling?
- How is Invisible Cities a reflection on cities?
- How does mimesis function in Invisible Cities?
- What is the character of Sante’s New York?
- How does Sante understand change in his city?
- On what threads of experience does Sante focus on in his narrative? What is left out?

For next week: Exercise 07 — Territory Stories

Create a series of stories connected to specific places, people or concrete features in your territory. Record these stories by defining 10 new words for your territory.

Week 8 :: July 30 → Physical Cinema and Final Project Brief

Discuss: Exercise 07 — Documentary Fiction
Readings Due:

  • Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (excerpts)

Questions to Consider While Reading:

  • Why does De Certeau begin his text with a description of the view from the World Trade Center?
  • How does De Certeau define the “everyday”?
  • In what ways does De Certeau relate the practice of walking to language?
  • What are the three characteristics of “the pedestrian speech act”?
  • What underlies De Certeau’s metaphor of the “trees of gestures”?
  • What is the relationship De Certeau develops between spatial practice and stories?
  • How does De Certeau distinguish between “space” and “place”?
  • What is the difference between “map” and “tour” for De Certeau?
  • Explain the final paragraph. Is this an effective summary of the previous arguments?
  • How does De Certeau’s thinking about walking, language, stories and space relate to Periplurban?

Final Project

Download Session A+B Final Project Brief PDF

The final project draws upon your rich database of knowledge and media to create a series of design
interventions in physical and virtual space. Using the new language you have created, the core
component will be an SMS-based walking tour of your territory that poetically connects the words you
have defined.

Download Session A Final Project Brief PDF

For those students in Session A, the core of your final project is the creation of a rich Territory Page.

Week 9 :: August 8 → Final Project Mid-Review

The focus of your Walking Poem is the experience of users outside, on the street. As such, instead
of a regular in-class review of work, we will arrange individual meetings with each student on location
in their territory to test and provide feedback on the your progress. For this meeting, you must have

  • Initial draft of Walking Poem using the Periplurban website
  • Initial draft of Territory Map PDF

Week 10 :: August 20 → Final Projects Due

Due: All final projects, including maps and walking poems, due at 9 am.

For Friday: Peer review

In order to prepare for the review, each student is assigned to review another’s Final Project. This
review must include a critique of the experience of the Walking Poem on location, as well as the
database of definitions online.
Review Partners:

  • Wei-Ju reviews Joshua
  • Joshua reviews Priscilla
  • Priscilla reviews Wei-Ju

Week 10 :: August 22 → Final Class

Discuss: Final projects
Guest Critic:

  • Mark Shepard (Professor of Architecture and New Media :: University of Buffalo)


10 minute student presentation of their territory, highlighting:

  • Examples of definitions from each exercise
  • A sequence of cross-references
  • Illustrated walk-though of excerpts from SMS Walking Poem
  • 3 minute response by assigned student

20 minute discussion with feedback from instructors and guest critic

General Feedback: What worked? What didn’t? What to improve for future classes? Next steps for public presentation?

General Requirements


Attendance: All students are expected to attend weekly class sessions. If you cannot make a class, please notify the instructors before-hand. If you miss more than two classes, you are subject to failing the course.

Technology: There is no programming required of students. Instructors will create and edit online and mobile tools for students to record and share content online and on-location through simple interfaces. Students will need a digital camera for photography exercises. And they must have cell-phones with text-messaging plans to complete the final project.

Exercises: Each week students will be assigned a studio exercise. All students are expected to complete these exercises and enter their content into the Periplurban database before the start of class.

Readings: Each class consists of short readings. Students are required to complete the readings and be prepared to discuss them each session. Instructors will email students questions in advance of the reading to guide analysis and prepare for class discussion.

Student presentations: All students are required to complete one brief presentation of a relevant media project during the course of the summer. Instructors will provide a list of relevant projects and times for students to choose. Students may suggest additional projects for specific topics and present on these with instructor approval.

Each presentation should be a maximum of 5 minutes long (this will be timed!) and address the following questions:

  • What is it and how does it work?
  • Who made it and in what context?
  • What is this project critiquing?
  • In your opinion, does it succeed in its critique?

Final Project: In order to receive a grade for the class, you must complete the final project.

Download Session A+B Final Project Brief PDF

The final project draws upon your rich database of knowledge and media to create a series of design
interventions in physical and virtual space. Using the new language you have created, the core
component will be an SMS-based walking tour of your territory that poetically connects the words you
have defined.

Download Session A Final Project Brief PDF

For those students in Session A, the core of your final project is the creation of a rich Territory Page.



Jesse Shapins (http://jesseshapins.net)

PhD Candidate: Harvard University Graduate School of Design (History and Theory of Architecture, Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture)
BA: Columbia University (Urban Studies, specialization in Architecture and Comparative Literature and Society)

Jesse Shapins is an urban researcher, curator, media artist and design educator. Since graduating from Columbia University with a B.A. in Urban Studies in 2002, he has lived and worked primarily in Berlin, New York and Cambridge, MA. He currently is a PhD candidate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where his research is focused on: history and theory of documentary arts in the city, ranging from early radio to film to recent transformations via the internet and mobile phones; the role and impact of these artistic practices and technologies at large in changing modes of social communication and lived experience in the city; and the intersection of these processes with tourism and the commodification of urban representation. He is a co-creator of Yellow Arrow and co-author of The Colors of Berlin, a publication from Prestel Verlag combining photography, design, texts and mapping that presents a new portrait of everyday life in the German capital. In spring 2007, Jesse was an Adjunct Professor at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he taught the seminar “Survey of Design Education Literature: History, Theory, Criticism & Practice” and was Program Director for the Pratt Design Initiative for Community Empowerment. Jesse is also a founding member and director of UnionDocs, a Brooklyn-based 501 (c) 3 non-profit documentary arts collaborative and residency program.

Brian House (http://brianhouse.net)

MS: Chalmers University, Göteborg (Innovative Design)
BA: Columbia University (Computer Science and Religion)

Brian House is an artist, programmer, and conceptual bricoleur investigating computational narrative, psychogeography, and the application of new media to social change. He is co-creator of Yellow Arrow, a project involving cities, stickers, and mobile phones with participants in over 400 cities around the world, and a member of Knifeandfork, an art group that combines nonlinear narrative, embodiment, and technology in site-specific installations. Brian’s work has been presented by MoMA, The New Museum for Contemporary Art / Rhizome.org, The Beall Center, Stockholms Kulturhust, Art Interactive, Glowlab, STEIM, and Dorkbot, and has been featured in the New York Times, Dagens Nyheter, and Wired Magazine. He holds an MS in Innovative Design from Chalmers University in Göteborg, Sweden, and studied computer science and religion as an undergraduate at Columbia University. He comes from Denver and lives in Brooklyn.