Media Views in China: How Culture and Politics Shape Connected Media Interfaces
Outside of China, media outlets often appear as proud individuals vying at night for attention. However, in China, you can find large collections of media interfaces with a common message in many urban areas. These media interfaces visually integrate multiple skyscrapers into a panoramic entity. But what are the reasons that make this phenomenon unique to China? How did it start? The Media Architecture Biennale linked culture and politics to provide an answer to the emergence of media scenes in China.
With China’s increasing desire to present itself as a major player in the international community, the government has searched for a representative stage to welcome guests at important national and international events. In this way, panoramic lighting shows emerge as an ideal platform to convey cultural identity and technological leadership and to send this message to global media. Brilliant light shows, for example, the G20 Hangzhou summit in 2016, the BRICS summit in Xiamen in 2017, or the 40th anniversary of Shenzhen in 2018, clearly confirm the political ambition. In Shenzhen, it has created more than 40 buildings connected by a colorful dynamic panorama of the city’s glorious history in recent decades, landscapes and technical innovations.
Philosophical concepts such as Confucianism and yin and yang led to notions of harmony and balance in urban design. Moreover, Christopher C.M. Lee in his book Common Frameworks: Rethinking the Development City in China suggests that the Chinese city be considered an impact in its entirety. However, modern China has adopted the large scale and the concept of maximum quantities in urban development. The new panoramic media facades seem to combine the traditional concept of the entity with the large scale and high technology of illuminated night entertainment.
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The combination of panorama with a variety of signs and motions can indeed be seen in traditional Chinese landscape paintings such as Wang Ximeng’s masterpiece “A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains” when the scroll is rolled in a horizontal direction. Despite this, the shapes and texts in contemporary urban lighting displays are more expressive than in historical paintings.
From a technical perspective, it is notable that the previous leadership role of large entertainment lighting installations in the United States appears to be diminishing. New York with its billboards in Times Square, and Las Vegas, with its illuminated canopy screen for casinos on Fremont Street, has achieved a special status. However, with smart skyscrapers connected, China appears to be dominating the ground for large, high-tech urban experiments at night. The state also shows great interest in a large and unified image rather than a plurality of smaller subjects. Comparing these nighttime portraits seems to embody two opposing political stances: a capitalist representation of individuals versus a unified PR story driven by the tight organization of the Chinese Communist Party.
The media interface’s animated tale is of a complex kind. The video sequences with nature, architecture, people, text and sound symbolize an optimistic future in megacities. In this way, two structurally distant worlds are fused: urbanization with high-tech skyscrapers stands in strong contrast to the perception of romantic landscapes untouched by the construction industry. In addition to their political significance, light shows also have significance for tourism as a catalyst for the nighttime economy. Economic considerations should not forget the investment costs, with the budget for large clusters of luminous skyscrapers sometimes running around $100 million—perhaps a challenge for a country plagued by rising social inequality. Moreover, environmentalists and select lighting designers say the brightness of Chinese light shows is out of control. The Chinese government is aware of the negative lighting effects and issued a notice against extravagant landscape lighting fixtures in 2020. This has led to a cautious evaluation of large-scale new media facade projects in China.
This unique cultural and political development in China has generated a situation in which the government has received the power to control nighttime urban design in terms of lighting displays. Huge investment, strategic planning and political ambition show that China regards this urban form of media interface as an important nighttime tool. While opening a bright and colorful window on the world of the Internet of Things, China is trying to communicate its national identity and technological leadership indistinctly but effectively within the country and to a global audience.
For further reading:
Thomas, T. S., Shelke, and Lynn, L. M., MA. 2021. Media Landscapes in China: The Empire of Characters Transforms into Connected Media Interfaces. At the Media Architecture Biennale 20 (MAB20), June 28-July 02, 2021, Amsterdam and Utrecht, The Netherlands. ACM, New York, New York, USA, 6 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3469410.3469436
Light is Important, a column on light and space, written by Dr. Thomas Shelke. Based in Germany, he is fascinated by architectural lighting and works as an editor for the lighting company ERCO. He has published numerous articles and co-authored the books “Light Perspectives” and “SuperLux”. For more information see www.erco.com, www.arclighting.de or follow him at @arcspaces.