Luc Pauwels is again directing an intensive seminar on visual methods at the University of Antwerp next summer. Details here. Still slightly surprised that there are no women among the five faculty leading the seminar…
I’m getting interested in how so-called ‘smart’ cities are being visualised. ‘Smart’ is a recent way to describe how cities might run better – more sustainably, more efficiently, even more democratically – by using data gathered in various ways by digital technologies of various kinds. There seems to next to nothing that’s considering how ‘smart urbanism’ is being imagined visually, though, which is odd. Because they are being visualised, not least by the large corporations who are trying to sell ‘smart’ technologies to cities all over the world; and those visualisations are interesting because ‘smart’ and ‘data’ are not things that are intuitively easy to see in urban spaces.
I wonder if this absence is because most of the more theoretical and critical literatures on the digital technologies that are deployed in ‘smart’ cities draw on the new materialist realism. They thus focus on the ontological status of technology and media, on the symbiosis between human bodies and technologies – technogenesis – on the agency of the technologies, and on technologies as extending bodily sensoria. In that theoretical scenario, there doesn’t seem to be any room for accounts of human creativity reflecting back on technologies, as it were. Only cities remain sentient, it seems.
An exception is a very interesting report on a UK government website that explores how future cities have been visualised, by Nick Dunn, Paul Cureton and Serena Pollastri. You can download it here. It’s full of fantastic images of all kinds: drawings, diagrams, paintings, collages, maps, digital visualisations. (Actually, the website is pretty interesting too – it’s the site of a bit of the Government Office for Science, itself part of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, called Foresight, which is looking at urban futures fifty years from now.)
Dunn and his co-authors have produced a very interesting graphic, too, which puts their chosen images on a timeline.
This suggests that we are in a particular historical moment; enthusiasm for new cities peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, it appears, and then faded for two or three decades, before re-emerging strongly in the early 2000s. Which suggests to me that, even if a lot of cutting-edge work on the digital seems to disagree, there’s a clear need to think about how smart and sentient cities are being brought into visibility, and with what effects.
My recent request on this blog and on Twitter and Facebook for references to work done by cultural geographers on digital technologies provoked many generous responses from a wide range of geographers, telling me about their work and the work of others. Thankyou! I thought it might be useful to share the resulting bibliography.
Please note: I am sure this is not complete in any way. I’m know some references are missing; some significant pieces are in the journal special issues that are listed rather than individually named; for some prolific authors, you should go to their websites or blogs for a comprehensive list of their publications.
And of course I haven’t resolved the thorny issue of just who is a ‘cultural geographer’ and who isn’t. My rule of thumb when I started to gather items together is that a paper or a chapter had to discuss ‘culture’, ‘representation’ or ‘meaning’ fairly centrally. However, that’s rather a traditional reading of what cultural geography is about, and one of the things I’m still thinking about as a result of all these studies is just what happens to those concepts when the work of creating representations and meanings is distributed between specific combinations of humans, hardware and software, and across extended networks of their combined agency.
Anyway, for what it’s worth, the list is on a separate page on this blog – click the ‘bibliography’ tab above. Thanks again for all the help putting it together.
I don’t very often blog just to enthuse, but today is an exception. I’ve been to see the film 20,000 Days on Earth, directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard about a sort-of day in the life of Nick Cave, and it is just fantastic. Visceral, funny, weird, lots of rain and sea stuff, amazing scenes of Nick Cave singing, a slightly freaky psychoanalyst – my god he listens intently – Kylie Minogue, and a voice-over from Nick Cave musing on memories, performing and writing. If you love writing, go see the film to hear him talk about writing his songs, it’s a beautiful account of the process – even if you don’t like his music – but how could you not. Fantastic cinema.
I’m working on the written version of the Progress in Human Geography lecture I gave at the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers annual conference in London last month. The opening section marvels at cultural geographers’ lack of engagement with anything digital.
The only references it currently contains are:
Bingham, N., 1996. Object-ions: from technological determinism towards geographies of relations. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 14(6), 635 – 657.
Bingham, N., Valentine, G. & Holloway, S.L., 1999. Where do you want to go tomorrow? Connecting children and the Internet. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 17(6), 655 – 672.
Bingham, N., Valentine, G. & Holloway, S., 2001. Life around the screen: re-framing young people’s use of the internet. In N. Watson & S. Cunningham-Burley, eds. Reframing Bodies. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 228–243.
Crang, M., Crang, P. & May, J. eds., 1999. Virtual Geographies: Bodies, Spaces, Relations, London: Routledge.
Holloway, S.L., Valentine, G. & Bingham, N., 2000. Institutionalising technologies: masculinities, femininities, and the heterosexual economy of the IT classroom. Environment and Planning A, 32(4), 617 – 633.
Parr, H., 2003. Research bodies in virtual space. In A. Blunt et al., eds. Cultural Geography in Practice. London: Arnold, pp. 55–68.
Given the long shadow that cultural geography casts across the discipline, of course it’s rather tricky to demarcate who is and who is not a ‘cultural geographer’ – and my list obviously and deliberately excludes the very rich literature on critical GIS, neo-geographies, participatory mapping and so on, as well as Rob Kitchin’s groundbreaking work.
But if any of you are aware of any other publications in cultural geography on digital technologies that are not related to mapping, please send them my way!
I just found out about the Geomedia 2015 conference, which is about spaces and mobilities in mediatized worlds and will happen in Karlstadt, Sweden, 5-8 May next year. It has a great line-up of organisers, keynotes and directors. Something to look forward to in 2015.
I’ve been working on the lecture I’m giving at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers at the end of August, and I want to enthuse about three books which I thought were great first time round, and are all even better second time round as I re-read them to write the lecture. They all look at the pervasiveness of mass online engagement, and they all argue strongly and convincingly that the last twenty years have seen profound changes in popular culture, and they all conclude from this that scholars interested in understanding that culture really need to engage with that pervasiveness, with the online and with the mass. A point that most cultural geographers seem to have missed, and which is my lecture in a nutshell. So a big thanks to:
John Hartley and his book Digital Futures for Cultural and Media Studies. This book goes first because it’s one of the very few academic books that have made me laugh out loud (because it’s deliberately funny, that is). I posted about it here after I read it the first time. It’s a very persuasive argument for looking at populations of images rather than single images.
Helen Grace and her book Culture, Aesthetics and Affect: The Prosaic Image. The first chapter is one of those where you start making notes and realise that you’re pretty much copying out the whole thing. An amazing and passionate argument for those populations of banal images being vital new form of mass cultural expression, written quite specifically from Hong Kong.
Nana Verhoeff and her book Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation, which you can download for free here. Like Grace, Verhoeff explores the pervasiveness of digital screens, large and small, in the urban everyday, and argues for a new kind of spatiality that’s performed when we navigate through the spaces they offer us.
I went to see the Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London yesterday – it was great. Bit of a hotch-potch of early computing history (though when I say early, it really started from the 1970s), digital art, computer games history and some current indie games, clothing+software, movie special effects… which reflects the pervasiveness of digital media now, I guess, and a lot of fun as a result. The exhibition microsite here has several videos and images if you can’t get to London to see the show.
One thing that struck me about it was that, while the first section on media archeology paid a lot of attention to hardware – keyboards, consoles, processors – that attention almost entirely disappeared in the later sections on games, art and special effects. A couple of the art pieces played on the materiality of computing, but most of the works on show were materialised mainly as screens and projections of various kinds. So a lot of the final effects relied on a sort of magic: your ‘projection’ as a shadow with huge wings; your ‘reflection’ with steam coming out of your eyes (that was weird). Not quite sure what to make of that: the conventions of the art exhibition kicking in? the complexity of the software and hardware (which was suggested by a film showing how the special effects of the film Gravity were made)? or maybe that for many, all that would be visible would be a big Apple Mac?
I just came across another take on the task of rendering digital imagery more material, more messy and more fallible. This is a photography project by Meggan Gould, reported by Wired magazine here. It’s volume 5 of a series of works called Surface Tension, and it’s simply called iPad.
What Meggan has done is wait for the screens of her family’s iPads to get all smeared and sticky with fingerprints, then scanned the screen and manipulated the image to remove the screen’s content. The result are images of what is usually completely invisible, and designed to be so, as Timo Arnell points out here: the touchscreen. The screen is made visible by the way that the images show only the traces of the taps and swipes of the fingers that have touched the screen: there’s no sign of the fingers themselves, or of the what the fingers were were getting the screen to show. No bodies and no content, these images are pure interface.
Except, of course, that they are themselves digital images, and there’s no sign on Meggan’s beautifully designed website that their viewers are in turn being invited to smear her images (and our screens). There’s an interesting double-play, then, in these images, in the way that they simultaneously challenge and reaffirm the immateriality of the touchscreen. Intriguing.
I doubt anyone really believes in the visions of future urban spaces that are offered to us in the digital visualisations of new urban developments. Nonetheless, there’s something strangely haunting about those visualisations when they start to look tattered and battered, dusty and faded, when they’re obscured by scaffolding and have other posters and signs stuck onto them. The glossy futures they picture look best on screens; once inserted into the urban spaces they are meant to show (the future of), their seductive gloss immediately starts to tarnish.
I’ve already blogged about one artist who’s worked on the failure of these images to deliver their promise in the very spaces of their imagination: Randa Mirza and her project Beirutopia. Randa takes photographs of digital visualisations in actual urban spaces, and carefully includes signs of those spaces in her photograph – tatty roads and bashed-up cars, real bits of trees and cars and scooters – as well as photographing billboards with their images torn and sagging.
Now, thanks to Olga Smith, I’ve discovered another photographic project also working to disrupt the perfect finishes of those computer generated images. This one is by photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg, and was on show in London earlier this year. You can see some photographs of the installation here. They look in particular at CGIs of a project in London for a 300m high office block, now on hold, paused at seven storeys.
Olga has interviewed Rut about the project for Photomonitor. As Rut notes, “dust unmasks the fantasy of the CGI once it is placed in the public territories of the city. The CGI becomes hostage to the materiality of the city, which very quickly covers the images with dust, dirt, pollution. So the CGI’s smooth surface becomes stained”, and her images play with that staining, its materiality and also its temporality. And in the way many of them stare close up at the surface of the CGIs and play with how various kinds light fall on the CGIs in situ, they also strike me as emphasising the way the CGIs carry a certain theatricality: they provide a backdrop to the staging of urban life.
Rut’s work thus serves explores the specific materiality of these sorts of images when they appear in urban spaces – their placement, their lighting, their relation to the urban atmosphere – and suggests that in all these aspects, the visualisations, for all their embedding deep in the property markets of contemporary capitalism, are also oddly vulnerable.