Ambient Media: The Production of Atmosphere in Urban Public Space


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date5 Jan 2024


This dissertation contributes to the field of media geography. Grounding the concept of atmosphere in three empirical cases focused respectively on urban political, commercial and cultural spaces, this dissertation explores how the constellation of urban media, environmental materiality and citizens’ embodied experience conditions the formative impulse of urban public space. Critiques subscribing to the rhetoric of ‘the demise of public space’ often associate the mediated city with the loss of ‘placeness’, the commercialization of public space, and the decrease of social interactions. As much as these works rightly sound an alarm in critical studies of urban media, they run the risk of obscuring the actual, situated dynamics of citizens’ engagements with urban media in everyday context. By attending to atmosphere as a bodily felt quality arising from specific configurations of people, objects, sensations, emotions and practices, this dissertation zooms in on the more-than-representational dimensions of emergent socio-cultural processes involved in urban media events and activities, and addresses their various meanings, restrictions and potentialities for urban public life. In so doing, this dissertation proposes an atmospheric approach to urban media studies which, instead of focusing on media per se, pays more attention to the particular ‘textures’ of media use and their multiple political, social and cultural implications.

This dissertation comprises six chapters. In the introduction chapter, I draw from non-media-centric media studies to advocate an atmospheric approach to the mediated production of urban publicness which challenges the epistemological fixity of normative critiques in public space literature. In the theoretical chapter, I review the concept of atmosphere, discuss its related conceptual problems, and propose a phenomenological approach for conducting atmospheric studies. Chapter three inquires into the atmospheric-ideological media event of urban light show screened at Civic Center in Shenzhen, China, which bore upon spectators’ subject-formation as Chinese citizens. Chapter four elaborates the atmospheric production of marketplace through the commercial mediascape at Laojie, Shenzhen, tracing nuanced forms of mediated social interaction that shaped the publicness of the site. Chapter five addresses the daily cultural activity of Guangchangwu dancing at Jialing Park, Chonqging, unpacking the variegated dynamics of inclusion/exclusion, bodily dressage and affective reciprocity, concession and contestation that characterize Guangchangwu as a crucial site of citizens’ public participation in urban life. In the conclusion chapter, I revisit my empirical chapters and identify the significance of my dissertation in the middle ground between two emerging theoretical approaches to urban public space studies.