DIY City Branding @ Cities Methodologies 2012

The article revisions marathon has been completed, so now I can proceed with my summer experiments, of which ‘DIY City Branding’ is the first. The project draws on my research on public engagement with environmental controversies and new technologies, as well as my activist work in London. It emerges from an interactive photography project called ‘DIY Skyline’, in which people modify the skylines they can see from their windows and balconies. By placing objects of their choice in these places and photographing them against the sunset, a ‘home-made’ skyline is produced. ‘DIY Skyline’ could have been restaged with projectors in the gallery in a shadow puppet theatre like manner, but in the end I decided to take the opportunity to emphasise the discussion on city branding a bit more clearly.

What is city branding? After witnessing the success of New York’s ‘I love New York’ campaign’, which has been described as ‘a city branding itself out of a crisis’ (a great book on that is Miriam Greenberg’s ‘Branding New York: How A City In Crisis Was Sold To The World’), other cities are trying to follow this example (e.g. ‘I AMsterdam’). City Branding is not always connected to crisis management, but also to the desire to fix or change a city’s image in the public perception. The website ‘City Mayors’ states that there is nowadays an imperative for cities to become ‘successful brands’ (there is also a short article on the Guardian website here). If you google ‘city branding’, you will find many publications on the subject, including books, free leaflets and critical commentaries. The film ‘This Space Available’, recently screened and debated at the Open City Docs Fest at UCL, gave the example of Houston, Texas, which banned billboards and other excessive advertising signage in order to turn itself into a brand – a brand emphasising quality of life (‘even a tree becomes part of the brand’).

So how does ‘DIY City Branding’ work? Actually, part of it didn’t work! The idea was to put down several coats of a metallic primer (the black paint) which would allow us to paint over it and affix ‘iconic’ buildings made from magnetic sheet (the same that is used for fridge magnets). Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the same paint we used in the trial, so naturally, the paint was too weak and the magnets didn’t stick. We had to make do with white tack. Basically, I took pictures of the London skyline from different places (the initial idea was to take them from ‘privileged views’ and ‘unprivileged views’, but that proved too confusing) and made stencils from them. These stencils were transferred onto the wall and painted over with white, so that, after the masking take was removed, only the black skyline(s) could be seen.

Next, a collection of ‘iconic’ skyscrapers, used in city branding, were turned into stencils (to scale with the skyline, so that sizes could be compared). These stencils were then used to make the magnetic buildings that people could add to the skyline to signify certain characteristics (‘progress’, ‘romance’ etc). They could also ‘commission’ new iconic buildings from one of the architects at the exhibition. Some visitors also used crayons (see last image in the post).

Underneath the skyline, a set of instructions called ‘City Branding in 10 easy steps’ could be found. Based on city branding leaflets available in the public domain, these ironic instructions sought to provoke debate about a very real issue: the role different publics in city branding. City branding publications emphasise the necessity to involve as many stakeholders as possible and not let big money rule (‘brand partnership’) – otherwise the brand is unlikely to work. At the same time, the reality often looks very different. The project tried to ask what could potentially be done with this zone in between: can different groups of Londoners use their role in city branding? Should it be a goal to participate in branding at all? What are the alternatives?

DIY City Branding was shown as part of UCL’s UrbanLaboratory’s Cities Methodologies 2012 exhibition, also accompanied by a public talk called ‘The ImageTM of the City’, which was jointly given by myself and Mireille Roddier from the University of Michigan (more about this in another post – you can see some of Mireille’s images from the exhibit on her Paris Je t’M blog). The talk was recorded for a podcast, so if it becomes available, I will link to it from here. For now, feel free to engage in your own ‘city branding’ discussion – no matter what shape it may take….

PS: Does anyone need any giant fridge magnets of iconic skyscrapers?? ;)

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