Programming The Tiananmen Big Screens

image from this week, via chinafotopress/getty

The eerie photo of the sunrise on a Beijing flatscreen cutting through the smog has been making the rounds lately, but it turns out it's nothing new. The giant screen is one of a double-sided pair installed in the very center of TIananmen Square in 2009, for the 60th anniversary of the PRC.

image from the last time the Beijing smog was this bad, Jan. 2013

They flank the Monument of the People's Heroes in the center of the Square, in line with the Great Hall of the People. From what I can tell, they're around 42 meters long, and maybe 4-5 meters tall. They typically show tourist info from Beijing and the provinces of China--places not as smoggy as the capital--as well as party and military propaganda: Glorious provinces, beautiful Nature, happy ethnic minorities, thriving Industry They're the updated, officialized equivalent of Kodak's Colorama billboard in Grand Central Station, [which were 18x60 feet, and changed weekly.]

image via therealjimbot's flickr stream

One amazing aspect of them is their sheer, permanent presence, in the heart of the most symbolically important space in China. Each screen is comparable in scale [except in thickness, obv] and street-level experience to Richard Serra's Tilted Arc. Doubled.

"The Glamorous Beijing," image via worcep on panoramio

Of course, Serra's work doesn't have content or subject beyond itself, its mass, shape, and volumes, and the spatial conditions it creates. The Tiananmen Big Screens, 天安门大屏, [Tiananmen Da Ping, I think] have all this, plus the content as determined by the Party. Which can be beautiful or banal or informative or, as someone on Twitter put it, "eerie and sadistic." They give the provinces a prominent presence in the symbolic heart of Chinese political power. Which, for all their size, or maybe because of it, the screens can't escape their context. Or the weather.

Anyway, the screens are so prominent, I wonder if anyone's tried to hack them as a protest. Or to turn them into a photoshop meme on weibo or wherever. I don't have the search ability to find out just now.

looks like Marlboro Men at 1:05

What would be more interesting, though, is getting some kind of public art on there. Sort of the Beijing equivalent of the 59th Minute in Times Square. Which, am I reading this right? Does this site say that the Shun Civic Media Company Ltd books commercial space on the screens for Y240mm/year? Yes, there are 525,600 minutes in a year, but let's imagine that just a third of them are viable. That's still only around $225/minute. That cannot be right. On the other hand, wouldn't be more awesome to program them at off hours? Maybe no one sees it but the security guards and phonecammers.

What would you put there? What could you put there? Would the hoops of Party approval be too hard for worthwhile content to make it through? Maybe the way to enter them is by working with a particularly sophisticated province? Maybe we should do some dry runs by projecting onto some Richard Serra sculptures in the mean time.

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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greg [at] greg [dot ] org

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first published: January 18, 2014.

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