on the trickiness of seeing places

I gave a talk at the final meeting of the Nordic Research Network in Digital Visuality last week, thanks to a kind invitation from Karin Becker.  It was a great workshop, full of interesting presentations.

I particularly enjoyed catching up with the work of Robert Willim, an Associate Professor of Ethnology at Lund University in Sweden.  Also a musician and a filmmaker; his Vimeo channel is here, and he discusses the link between his academic and art work here.

I first came across his video series Elsewhereness when he presented a new part at the Visual Methods conference at The Open University in 2011.  He describes Elsewhereness on his website like this:

The works are made solely from audio and videomaterial found on the web, material that emanate from a specific place. The audiovisual pieces are manipulated and composed into a surreal journey through an estranged landscape. The films are based on the culturally bound and stereotypical preconceptions of the artists.

They were a nice play on the idea that site-specific artwork has to be based on a first-hand, intimate – and therefore somehow more authentic – encounter with a place.  He discusses them in the book Anthropology and Art Practice, which came out last year from Bloomsbury.

At the NRNDV workshop, he screened three more recent pieces, all of which again explore the complexity of perception, particularly visual perception.  My favourite was called Fieldnotes, a really beautiful encounter with the otherness of a shrouded, billowing building which also suggest the difficulty of grasping what is being seen.  The effect of the video is considerably enhanced by the music, which to my (non-musical) ear sounds as if it is also trying to avoid any neat tune-making structure.

(I also liked the joke of calling another video Straight Jetty, as opposed, of course, to Spiral Jetty.)

Unlike so many films and videos that are made by academic researchers, these short pieces don’t aim to show, reveal or describe.  Instead, they meditate on the difficulty of doing those things, complicating the aural and visual fields, evoking and provoking.  Lovely.

is imaging software creating a new visual aesthetic?


manovichI’ve actually managed to do some reading in the past couple of weeks, and I’m just finishing Lev Manovich‘s Software Takes Command; you can access the full text online here.

It’s an interesting, provocative read; although, for a book advocating software studies as a new disciplinary field, massively undertheorised.  It argues that it’s impossible to understand media now without understanding the role of software in… well, here is just one example of where a bit of theorisation might have helped the argument, because I’m not sure whether to say enabling, or affording, or creating… a new, global visual aesthetic.  Manovich argues that this new aesthetic permeates all sorts of once-distinct media now, from films to ads to music videos to artworks, because so many are now produced using software packages that share the same functions.

I’ve also just finished putting together a Prezi about the digital visualisations that show as-yet-unbuilt buildings, and I included in it this showreel from the creative agency Uniform, to make the same point.  Uniform create advertising campaigns and architectural visualisations, among other things, and their showreel of projects they’ve undertaken in the past year demonstrates both the sort of aesthetic that Manovich is pointing to, as well as its existence in a range of different sorts of images, from short films to tv adverts.

Glossy, hyper-detailed, fast, using what-were-once multiple media – in this case, animation, film, typography, photography, at least – and three-dimensional: this is indeed a very familiar visual language now.  Indeed, Prezi itself might be seen as one element of its grammar.  And Manovich is a very useful guide to the importance of software in its creation.

However, Manovich’s argument does seem to be that it is the structure of the software alone that is responsible for the emergence of this language: it has “taken command”, after all.  This is an oddly formalist claim.  He suggests that the modernist argument that each art form should develop its own distinctive character, driven by the capacities of its specific materials, is now outmoded because all art forms are mediated by software,  and his own account gives the formal qualities of software considerable explanatory power.  So while there is passing acknowledgement that various users might utilise software in different ways, and that much of the innovation in software that drives visual culture now is commercial and therefore embedded in particular economic imperatives and organisational structures, neither is given sustained attention.

And this is where the theory matters.  Because Manovich is essentially proposing a theory of aesthetics: an explanation of why things look they way they do.  And he’s suggesting, mostly, that their appearance is due to the software that makes them.  The problems for me in this account are threefold, I think.  First, software itself can be theorised very differently: Alexander Galloway’s work on interfaces, for example, tells a very different story about software integration than does Manovich’s.  Rather than emphasise seamless ‘hybridity’ and ‘deep intermixing’ between and within software and media, as Manovich does, Galloway emphasises incompatability, friction and glitch.  While Galloway’s work might be criticised for at times appearing to insist on failure on principle, as it were, driven more by poststructuralist philosophy than empirical investigation, it nevertheless offers an important counterpoint to Manovich’s argument.  Second, there’s the question of whether software itself can be given so much agency in creating contemporary visual culture.  What about the hardware?  And what about the people who use the software to achieve specific, and not always compatible, ends, not all of which are reducible to what the image looks like?

And third, there’s the question of just how far these digital images really do form a global visual culture, as Manovich also suggests.  My sense is that it probably feels all-encompassing, if you live with images created by highly skilled visual designers of all kinds, and view them on a Mac and an iPhone.  But a lot of digital image production is very far from being glossy and dynamic; indeed a lot of architectural visualisations are pretty cruddy.  Drawing conclusions from the good stuff means theorising from the high-end part of the visualisation industry, based in a few cities of the global North, that is desperate to preserve its creative edge from other, cheaper producers elsewhere.  If we are indeed living in a global visual culture (which is also a visual economy, to use Deborah Poole‘s rather more robust term), we surely need to make its diversity and complexity inherent to our theorising, not ignore it.



digital visualisations of new urban developments and the language that frames them

Just found the fantastic Development Aesthetics blog curated by Crystal Bennes (thankyou, Twitter).   Crystal collects examples of the hoardings that surround building sites.  Looks like she’s more interested in (though that should probably read “deeply sceptical of”) the empty advertising language on the hoardings than the visualisations they also display.  But it’s a great site for those of us interested in this new form of imaging urban space.  Here’s one of my favourites, from east London.  I share Crystal’s confusion about what a ‘sky level apartment’ might be…


Like Crystal, I’m also collecting images of hoardings with visualisations whenever I seem them, snapping them on my phone.  What I’m finding though is that a lot of the time, the image is obscured in some way: either something else has been stuck over it (in fact you can seen that on the left-hand side of the hoarding in Crystal’s image above); or a doorway has been cut through the hoarding; or the view is obstructed by scaffolding or traffic; or you can only glimpse the image through your car windscreen or bus windowframe as you zoom past.  And then there’s also the limits of my cameraphone (though I quite like the contrast between my wonky framing and low res photos and the compositional gloss of the visualisations).  I’m going to try and put some sort of photo-essay together on that theme later in May.  Watch this space.

interactive documentary – or interactive cinemascape?

the banner image from the Estuary project at www.roderickcoover.com

the banner image from the Estuary project at http://www.roderickcoover.com

My previous post on interactive documentary really should have mentioned Roderick Coover’s work.  His webpage is here.  He describes his   own visual practice as interactive cinemascape, and discusses it in his chapter in the new-ish book Switching Code: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Arts and Humanities, which he edited with Thomas Bartscherer for Chicago University Press.  As the name probably suggests, interactive cinemascape, as Coover describes it, is less participatory than several of the interactive documentarists mentioned in my previous post.  Which again suggests that the same visual genre can be generated by very different social practices.

participatory video webinar series

My Open University colleague Chris High is involved in running a series of webinars on better participatory video practice: you can find the details here.

‘interactive documentary’ – at last, I found a label for the visual genre that the web was made for!

So the topic of this post probably isn’t new to you, but term ‘interactive documentary’ might be – well, it was to me, anyway!  But thanks to my colleague Joe Smith  putting me onto the term ‘interactive documentary’, I now know how to label the sort of visual genre that seems to me to be invited, even demanded, by web technologies.

That genre is kind of light on text – or at least, its text is easily approachable, not dense but leavened – and appears alongside rich visual and audio content: photos, animations, slide-shows, videos, graphics, soundfiles.

One example Joe mentioned is the story Snow Fall, on the New York Times website and authored by John Branch.  It tells the story of an avalanche; there’s a lot of straight journalistic text but also lots of images, from video interviews to satellite weather images, from digital visualisations to portrait photographs.  In this example, the web allows the writing to be supplemented by other media.  As a viewer/reader, you can choose to watch a lot or a little of this other material; the written text acts as a clear structure to which other material is attached.  Interaction here is about the reader/viewer choosing from a menu of proffered options.

a screen shot from Snow Fall, showing an animated aerial view of the route taken by skiers caught in the avalanche, Branch's narrative, and two archive photographs

a screen shot from Snow Fall, showing an animated aerial view of the route taken by skiers caught in the avalanche, Branch’s narrative, and two archive photographs

Two other examples use the notion of ‘interactive’ to refer not only how a the viewer/read is enabled to interact variously with online material, but also to indicate that the documentary was made via a participatory process, with those whose story it recounts.  The first of these is Kat Cizek’s Highrise project, which now has several strands exploring vertical living globally, variously co-produced between highrise residents and Kat and her team; and the second is Hollow, which describes itself on its project website as “a hybrid community participatory project and interactive documentary where content is created ‘for the community, by the community’.”

Paolo Favera had a paper in the Journal of Material Culture last year discussing interactive documentaries.  Another commentator on interactive documentary is Mandy Rose, currently Director of the Digital Cultures Research Centre at the University of West of England.  The DCRC website has links to various other sites stuffed full of cool interactive documentaries.  You can also hear Mandy here and here, interviewed at the MIT Open Documentary Lab, discussing interactive media and its different forms of interactivity.  She advocates the participatory form – though that isn’t inherent in this emergent visual genre, it seems to me.

One of the many interesting points Mandy makes, though, is how much skill – and money – is needed to make this sort of interactive documentary: Snow Fall, Highrise and Hollow are all highly sophisticated visually, and the latter two have complex and long-term relations with various social groups and organisations.  So not easy to emulate, perhaps.  But thought-provoking nonetheless: how long before an ‘online social sciences journal’ means less ‘uploaded pdfs’ and more ‘interactive documentary’?

Digital Snaps: The New Face of Photography

digital snaps1

I got my copy of a great new collection edited by Jonas Larsen and Mette Sandbye last week, called Digital Snaps.  Lots of the chapters in the book explore all sorts of uses of digital snaps, and I have a chapter in it arguing that much of what family photography achieves happens regardless of whether the camera used is analogue or digital.

This might be rather a conservative argument in the face of Martin Lister‘s very interesting opening chapter on the way so many digital images now are overlooked, rarely looked at or never looked at, and how that offers a profound challenge to how we understand photography as a medium (an argument I completely agree with!).  However, in my defence, I do think that family photography is a very particular form of photographic practice, which remains somewhat distinct from the use of photos on social networking sites that provides the main grist for Martin’s argument.

the university of the air and glorious conversations

The Open University has been celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Harold Wilson, then Labour Prime Minister, first mooting the idea of a ‘university of the air’ in 1963.  The OU teaches its students at a distance, so ‘air’ was one of the first media the university used, broadcasting on radio and television, as well as posting books, LPs and other bits of kit to its students.

The University has commissioned four pieces of public art to mark the anniversary, and the one in Cardiff is focussed on social sciences teaching and research.  Called ‘Trajectory’ and designed by artist Steve Geliot with choreographers Jo Fong and Tanja Raman, it features a bunch of social scientists and dancers and cellists.  Here it is.

Steve also made a video of all the interviews he staged for ‘Trajectory’:

He very kindly titled this video ‘Glorious Conversations’.  I’ve filed this in my ‘evidence of impact for the next REF’ folder – thanks Steve (and apologies to those lucky souls to whom the ‘REF’ means nothing).

Beyond the Frame: The Future of the Visual in an Age of Digital Diversity

A call for papers has just gone out for a conference called ‘Beyond the Frame: The Future of the Visual in an Age of Digital Diversity’, to be held in Stockhom in April 2014 and organised by the Nordic Network for Digital Visuality.  There are more details here.

IVSA 2014 conference: call for panels

The next annual conference of the International Visual Sociology Association will be held in Pittsburgh in June 2014, on the theme ‘visual dialogues in post-industrial societies: transforming the gaze’.  The call for panels has just been issued.  Details are on the IVSA website here.


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