What yellow umbrellas and "mesh networks" tell us about public space

Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators celebrate the one-year anniversary of last year's protests. Image: AFP/Getty.

Last year, I set a research project for my spatial design students. As part of the “Digital Activism” project, they were to design a democratic space based on our experience of digital networks.

One of the reasons for the project was to allow them to critically evaluate our network culture and the way our built environment has been transformed. The other was the Yellow Umbrella Movement, a 79-day protest in which protestors in Hong Kong took over several planned spaces and made them their own.

This was a very unusual occurrence in Hong Kong. The whole experience, a powerful means of expressing popular discontent to the government, expanded the imagination of the city’s people.

But what really intrigued me was the use of digital social network to coordinate and organise the whole protest. Facebook was used, but the game changer was FireChat: an app that uses your phone’s WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities to build what’s called a “mesh network” with other phones.

Most phones are connected to each other through a centralised network. Whenever you text, send an email or make a call, you’re doing so through cellular networks first: communication can be remotely intercepted, monitored, or even blocked altogether.

With a mesh network, the actual network is decentralised. Devices just connect to other devices, and anyone can become a node with an anonymous screen name in that network, as long as they’re within 70 meters of just one other node.  

But the real advantages of mesh networks have nothing to do with anonymous communication. While mesh networks are harder to infiltrate than centralised networks, their real strength is holding up, even when someone may not have a reliable internet connection.

That is what drew in the student activists of Hong Kong’s recent protests. The protesters were using it to share messages off-the grid, to avoid any censorship or tracking via their on-location service in their smart phone. This app also enabled the protesters to create a new form of “public space” in a private digital network. The network is open, yet you can protect your anonymity; anyone can come and go from the network; and there’s no option for private communications. Using FireChat is more like tweeting than chatting among trusted confidantes.


With the emerging new form of communication in the digital network, our public space is extending and evolving, adapting itself between our physical and digital worlds. The intensive use of AR (Augmented reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) has already transformed our physical experience, giving us extra layers of information where our physical eye can’t find them.

In the digital world, public space is organic and spontaneous, collective and responsive, sometimes – in the case of the DarkNET – even hidden. People are finding ways to express their ideas though different channels. And these channels – WhatsApp, SnapChat and surespot – are increasingly being designed to become more instant and encrypted.

To make the point, I want to share two projects created by my students who graduated from my digital activism studio last year. The first, “The Embassy – The freedom of expression” by Yuuki Teraoka creates a digital version of an existing physical embassy.

It was inspired by the embassies on London’s Exhibition Road, which in 2011 underwent renovation via a project called “Shared Space” implemented by the Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington. Yuuki’s project used the site to challenge ideas of public space, and suggested the digital embassy is the ultimate “access” for the freedom of information.

The second project “The Imprisoned Mind – the Internet in our city” by Sean Koo, is based on the everyday surveillance activities. Rather than repackaging the concept of George Orwell’s 1984, the students adopted Orwell’s concept to explore the privacy in our everyday digital life.  

Sean suggested that, via our extensive digital connectivity – such as data tracking, or the Internet of Things – that surveillance activates were far more extensive than we could imagine. His final design was a museum on Exhibition Road which exhibited our surveillance data via hacker’s channels.

Zhu Tao, an associate professor from Department of Architecture at Hong Kong University, used the title “Regain – the Spatial Revolution” to describe his thoughts of Yellow Umbrella Movement. He said regaining roads and streets in the movement was a form of power negotiation:  negotiating the space and returning it for its people. He added that the nature of public space should be free: free from commercialisation, free from any political expression.  

My students’ projects provoked me to consider how we find that democracy in our “public space” in the digital world. The power negotiation will soon be extended to this digital public space. The question for me is, who has ultimate control?

Cyril Shing is a senior lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts, a part of the University of Arts London.

He will be taking part in tonight’s Design Salon: On Public Space Now at Somerset House, part of this year’s Inside Out Festival.  To book your free place, click here.

 
 
 
 

On boarded-up storefronts, muralists offer words of hope

The murals on closed storefronts aim "to end ugly wall syndrome." (Courtesy of Beautify)

In Los Angeles, Melrose Avenue has a new mural that reads: “Cancel plans, not humanity.”

It’s an artwork by Corie Mattie, a street artist who kindly reminds us of our togetherness under quarantine. She and many other artists are putting murals up across the US as part of the Back to the Streets campaign, which aims to add some color to the streets – specifically on boarded up storefronts and abandoned streets that feel deserted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal is to bring some beauty to the streets while everything is boarded up – “to end ugly wall syndrome,” says project founder Evan Meyer. “It’s to get people to care about their communities, be part of the process.” 


Many of the murals are painted on plywood panels that cover the entryways to independent businesses that have shut down during the pandemic. The project aims to prevent a sense of decay, especially as some businesses start to open back up while their neighbours remain closed.

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places quickly, when places are abandoned and don’t feel like they have love or life,” says Meyer, who is also the CEO of Beautify, a company that connects artists with places to make murals. Among the murals made during the pandemic, one at a department store says “Togetherness,” while another says: “You can’t quarantine love.”

“We’re seeing messages like hope, positivity and community,” Meyer says. “More than ever, it’s a time for community.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

With artist-led projects in L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena, and others, the goal is to get 1,000 murals up across America. Murals are also being painted in small towns in Iowa, like Council Bluffs and Dubuque, and an earlier mural in New York City’s Rockaway Beach was created in 2014 with the same goal of bringing some life to neglected buildings that needed renovation after Hurricane Sandy

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places with broken windows, tagging and crime,” says Meyer. “A lot can happen if a place feels like it’s unwatched.” 

Los Angeles councilmember David Ryu endorsed the initiative in a recent blog post, saying it has helped boost morale on the streets of L.A. “When we brighten blighted walls, we improve neighborhoods,” he wrote. “It’s critical to have more business owners enlist their walls here to bring some much needed love and recognition to their establishment and their neighborhood.” 

The effort stems from a sister project called Beautify Earth, which has helped address a litter problem in Santa Monica’s commercial district. In addition to a cleanup force, the project has painted more than 100 murals on walls, dumpsters, utility boxes and garbage cans across the city.

On the Beautify website, artists can find business improvement districts, real estate developers, landlords and business owners who want to see something on their empty walls. Each artist who gets a commissioned wall through the Beautify website is paid 78% of the stipend, and Beautify takes a 22% administration fee. 

Meyer says he often explains to business owners that art can help their business.

“A lot of people have white empty wall space on their liquor stores, condos, park walls, even residential spaces,” says Meyer, adding that many are afraid to put something on their walls. “It’s not a liability, it’s an asset. Art protects walls, it is a graffiti abatement strategy.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

Beautify isn’t alone in its field. Among the other cities that have similar mural projects, ArtPlace America has supported over 200 art murals across the US. Wynwood Walls, a public art project in Miami spearheaded by local developer Tony Goldman, has helped create a popular public art hotspot with murals by artists Shepard Fairey and Ron English. 

Chicago’s city government, too, has publicly funded over 500 murals through its Percent-for-Art program, which pays artists to paint walls on municipal buildings. A grassroots street art project in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, has artists painting murals in violent and marginalised neighbourhoods. Similar crime prevention ventures have been initiated in Topeka, Kansas, in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Toronto, Canada, which has placed over 140 murals across the city over the past decade. 


Artist Ruben Rojas has painted murals saying "You Can't Quarantine Love" in several spots across Santa Monica, California. (Courtesy of Beautify)

One artist working with Beautify’s project is Ruben Rojas, who is overwhelmed by the response to his mural, “You Can’t Quarantine Love,” which has been painted in several spots across Santa Monica and beyond.

“Every day, I see the shares, photos of my murals, amazing captions and direct messages from folks that are truly heartwarming,” Rojas says. “I’ve seen this particular mural go around the world with ‘thank you’ messages from Johannesburg, Germany, and Italy. It really is humbling.”

Meyer says that kind of social media engagement shows how a mural can turn a plain old wall into a landmark. 

“Murals get seen,” he says. “People take photos and share them on social media. Nobody takes photos of your ugly white wall. Murals are the story of the local community.”

Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City.