Chris Berry

King's College, London

Public Screens in London, Cairo and Shanghai, and the “Adjacent Possible”: From Ontology to Practice in the Digital Era


In this talk, I will reflect on some comparative research on public screens in London, Cairo, and Shanghai, which I have been conducting together with various colleagues on and off for over a decade now. My aim with these reflections is to ask what the disciplinary and research implications are of research into public screens. The public screen has become established as a new place where moving images appear – a sort of junior object of study adjacent to both Film Studies’ cinema and Media Studies’ television. If the public screen can be considered, in Steven Johnson’s borrowing from Stuart Kauffman as an example of the “adjacent possible,” what new possibilities does it usher into our established patterns of thinking and research?

Comparing public screens and their everyday deployment in London, Cairo, and Shanghai, certain patterns emerge. These patterns vary from city to city and confirm the importance of Anna McCarthy’s insistence in her work on ambient television in the United States – that their deployment is also highly site specific. Comparing them to television and the cinema, other differences appear, such as the potential ubiquity of screens rather than confinement to rooms, and the passing glance that replaces the gaze when we move amongst screens rather than sit down in front of them.

How should we understand these differences? McCarthy was writing in the era when television still meant the specific medium based around the cathode ray tube receiver. Instead, I will argue, in the digital era, medium specificity understood ontologically as either a technological or philosophical abstraction is less useful than the idea of practice, understood as patterns of behaviour determined by and responding to configurations of power.


Chris Berry is Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London. In the 1980s, he worked for China Film Import and Export Corporation in Beijing as a translator. Prior to his current appointment, he taught at La Trobe University in Melbourne, The University of California, Berkeley, and Goldsmiths, University of London. His curating work includes the 2011 Cultural Revolution in Cinema season in Vienna (with Katja Wiederspahn) and the 2017 Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema: Recovered and Restored project on taiyupian (with Ming-Yeh Rawnsley). Film Festival jury service has included Golden Horse, Hawai’i, Pusan, and Singapore. Primary publications include: (with Mary Farquhar) Cinema and the National: China on Screen (Columbia University Press and Hong Kong University Press, 2006); Postsocialist Cinema in Post-Mao China: the Cultural Revolution after the Cultural Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2004); (co-edited with Luke Robinson) Chinese Film Festivals: Sites of Translation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); (co-edited with Koichi Iwabuchi and Eva Tsai) Routledge Handbook of East Asian Popular Culture (Routledge, 2016); (edited with Janet Harbord and Rachel Moore), Public Space, Media Space (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Chinese Cinema, 4 vols, (London: Routledge, 2012); (edited with Lu Xinyu and Lisa Rofel), The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010); (edited with Kim Soyoung and Lynn Spigel), Electronic Elsewheres: Media, Technology, and Social Space (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); (edited with Nicola Liscutin and Jonathan D. Mackintosh), Cultural Studies and Cultural Industries in Northeast Asia: What a Difference a Region Makes (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009); (edited with Ying Zhu) TV China (Indiana University Press, 2008); (editor) Chinese Films in Focus II (British Film Institute, 2008); and (co-edited with Feii Lu) Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005).