SENSING THE SMART CITY – In conversation with Tyler Coburn

by Linda Kronman

Tyler Coburn, an artist and writer from New York, spent a summer in the South Korean smart city Songdo. From his experiences in the city, including interviews with control room data monitors and supervisors as well as workers from the Posco steel company who were among the first to move into the city, he produced U1Coburn, T. (2016). U. Retrieved from: U is a mixed media installation consisting of a video, reupholstered chairs and chair carts. In the video we can observe scenes from a staged Gestalt psychotherapy session. In the work Coburn draws parallels between The Internet of Things, smart city rhetoric, and how the self is conceived as an expansive network in Gestalt therapy. We start our conversation talking about Coburn’s artistic research practice and how different threads of investigation into charter cities (free zones or development regions with more market-friendly jurisdiction than the hosting state) took him to Songdo in 2014. Further on we discuss how Songdo can be seen as both a success and a failure, and how bureaucratic the process of interviewing the data monitors turned out to be. During our talk Coburn also reflects on the incompleteness and the premised futurity of a smart city.

U By Tyler Coburn, Video ( TRT 39 minutes),, reupholstered chairs, chair carts, (detail: video still)

Linda Kronman (LK): The thematics of your artworks are often complex and require intense research. Could you elaborate on how you choose your topics and how it shapes your artistic research?

Tyler Coburn (TC): The topics, project to project, can seem quite different, but the research I do for one often seeds the next. For instance, at the end of my graduate degree, I was looking into new city models that Silicon Valley technolibertarians were trying to produce, such as seasteads in the ocean and charter cities in countries like Honduras. The Honduran Congress even passed a constitutional amendment allowing for the construction of such cities, prompting a Honduran delegation to visit Songdo, which was seen as a model of contemporary city planning. Thankfully, the constitutional amendment was eventually overturned and the cities were never built. As my research about Honduras came to close, I turned my attention to Songdo.

LK: I am especially interested in the research conducted in Songdo. Would you like to talk a bit about how you experienced the city?

TC: Songdo is both compelling and quite banal. On the one hand, I understand how ubiquitous technology potentiates expansive forms of surveillance and capture to repressive and even sinister effect. On the other hand, what has been constructed on this landfill in Incheon is a bland garden city.

Songdo wanted to be a cosmopolitan hub, which happened to be in an economic zone in South Korea but was really facing outwards. It’s “the closest city to the world,” as one advertisement I saw put it. In my interviews with members of different companies building the city, I learned about its attempt to operate as such. For instance, in the early years, tax incentives were only extended to foreign businesses; however, given that Songdo was an untested enterprise, and that Korean economic zones are more stringent than those of certain nearby countries, the businesses never arrived en masse. Finally, in the wake of the global financial crisis, these incentives were extended to Korean companies as well.

Western journalism often focuses on how Songdo is a failure from a business perspective. Some articles even suggest that it’s a ghost city. What I actually found, from the weeks I spent living there, is that Songdo isn’t much of a cosmopolitan hub but is successful as a residential city, primarily catering to upper-middle and upper-class Korean families. Sure, there are still overgrown lots waiting for skyscrapers that may never be built, but when you look closely, you’ll see that many have been turned into ad hoc gardens by residents. I was struck by the difference between the proposed and actual uses of this place.

LK: During your visit you also conducted interviews with data monitors. In your artwork U, the interviews are adapted into a video installation. Can you briefly describe the artwork and what you observed in the meetings with these workers?

TC: Sure. In addition to urbanism, I’m interested in how human psychology and the psyche are being put to work, and how constructs of selfhood, subjectivity, and personhood are interpellated by different fields of labor. Songdo is an interesting case study on these fronts, as it feels as much like a built environment as a new type of sensorium, subject to integrated forms of machinic observation, sensation, and capture. For this reason, I began to focus on the people monitoring the sensory data generated by the city, who work in the Integrated Operations Center. From one perspective, these people are not that different than surveillance monitors working in other cities, but because of the ideology of the smart city and its integration of technology into every tier of urban design, I found the nature of their labor to be rather unprecedented and thus important to study.

U By Tyler Coburn (detail: video still)

My visit to the Integrated Operations Center was difficult to arrange, and I’m grateful to scholar Orit Halpern and curator Doo Eun Choi for helping to make it possible. In fact, though Songdo is a city in an economic zone, I had to go through governmental channels to gain access. I also had to submit my questions for the monitors in advance, which mainly focused on their sense experience on the job and in the city. For example: Which parts of their body get most tired? Which do they forget? Does the experience of surveilling the public spaces of the city change how they physically move through those spaces?

The visit didn’t go exactly as planned due to some miscommunication. Instead of spending time with the monitors, the questionnaires were distributed to them after the fact, and I spent most of my visit talking with the facility supervisors, who were extremely interesting. One of them had built a similar operations center in another Korean city and had a wealth of things to say about the topic. He was also candid about the problem of employee retention, as the monitoring work was demanding, exhausting, and a bit boring. He had considered offering free therapy for employees, which inspired the direction that my video U took.

LK: In U one of the characters becomes a smart building: “I am a very smart building, but I’m incomplete.” I felt that this part of the therapy session reflects on the contradictions between the promise of the technoutopian city and the reality in which the citizens are living. Could you expand on this by describing your impressions of the smart city vision in contrast to its “incompleteness”?

TC: That line was inspired by the apartment where I stayed in Songdo, which belonged to a family friend. She was living in one of the first smart apartment compounds built in Songdo, so all of the smart technology was out-of-date, and you could really tell. If I wanted to dim the overhead light, I had to stand at the wall console and press the screen for a good minute. And if I was using too much water or energy, the console would let me know. It was like having a nagging uncle in the room constantly reminding you what you should and should not be doing.

Stepping back, this anecdote begs the question: If one buys into the idea of living in the future, then when is the future? This is the temporal dilemma of Songdo, a futuristic smart city where you can already see generations of technological futures rolled out in different iterations of building design. So the “incompleteness” is the gap between wanting to buy into the future and feeling either like it has not fully arrived or that there are better futures arriving for your neighbour in the newer building across the street.

Songdo’s master plan was supposed to be built out and completed by 2010, then 2020, and now—who knows when? What you see in the city, in its current form, is not just a practical gap between the master plan and the built environment, but a temporal and epistemological gap of a city that is premised upon an idea of futurity that can never fully arrive nor ever really be complete.

LK: So the technology always becomes obsolete before people are able to move into the smart buildings?

TC: Exactly! The future never arrives when one expects it to, or the future has passed before one realizes that it has arrived.

LK: In the beginning of this interview you mentioned the charter city case in Honduras that you followed. You have also written about the “city-building business” in your text Charter Citizen2Coburn, T. (2014). Charter Citizen. e-flux journal, 52. Retrieved from: Smart Cities, especially examples of greenfield urbanism such as Songdo or Masdar, are built and owned by companies. How do you think life in a city is shaped when it’s governed by private companies?

TC: Part of what fascinates me is that Songdo’s builders see it as both a city and a prototype for a model of city building—for cities that can be scaled and built elsewhere. To visit the city is thus to stand, at one and the same time, in the thing and the model for the thing. When I visited the Integrated Operations Center, I sat in a viewing room partly designed for foreign delegates, like the Hondurans, who would come curious to see how the city works (and if they wanted to replicate it in their home countries).

Honestly, I don’t feel like I spent enough time in Songdo nor did enough research to be able to answer your question properly. And I think it’s a very important question. I will say that I was surprised to learn that Songdo’s Integrated Operations Center was governmental, not private. I guess I had assumed that, in a city that places such faith in private planning and technocracy, governance would be a mere appendage—or governance would be approximated by the management of life by big data. I don’t know. Songdo is a public-private model, but it likely foreshadows even more privatized cities to come.


Tyler Coburn is an artist and writer based in New York. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature from Yale University and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Coburn’s writing has appeared in Frieze, e-flux journal, Mousse, Art-Agenda and Rhizome, among others. His performances, sound works, and installations have been presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; South London Gallery; Kunstverein Munich; CCA Glasgow; Objectif Exhibitions, Antwerp; CAC Vilnius; LAXART, Los Angeles; and SculptureCenter, New York.