three ways cultural geographers can start to think about digital culture

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.

 


digital revolution at the Barbican London

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?

 

 


dust and smears: materialising digital images part 2

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.

one of the iPad images from the Surface Tension series by Meggan Gould

one of the iPad images from the Surface Tension series by Meggan Gould

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.


dust settles on visualisations of failed urban futures

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.

RL_04.tif

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.


cultural geography’s provocations of the present: webcast now available

The OpenSpace research centre at The Open University hosted an event on 6 June which reflected on the status of cultural geography now, and, in particular, how the subdiscipline should respond to the demands of the present moment.  Members of two panels were given eight minutes each to explore ways in which the current context is, or should be, shaping cultural geography as a sub-discipline.  It was a great day, very interesting and, well, provocative.  The whole event was webcast live, and you can now watch those recordings here.  Enjoy.

 


2014 ESRC research methods festival highlights visual research methods again

Interesting to note that the sixth ESRC Research Methods Festival, which runs between 8-10 July 2014 in Oxford, is once again featuring visual research methods in one of its plenary lectures.  Douglas Harper is Professor of Sociology at Duquesne University and is the current chair of the International Visual Sociology Association – and, of course, the author of several key texts on visual research methods.


international urban photography summer school

The Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths College, London, has just announced details of its annual international urban photography summer school: you can find them here.

photo school


provocations of the present: what culture for what geography?

The OpenSpace research centre at The Open University is hosting an event this coming Friday, 6 June, reflecting on the status of cultural geography now, and, in particular, how the subdiscipline should respond to the demands of the present moment.  Full details are here.  The event itself is sold out; you can listen to its live stream online but you still have to register.  From the looks of what my fellow contributors have posted on the Geography Matters Facebook page, it looks like it will be a lively discussion.


Networks, interfaces, and computer-generated images: learning from digital visualisations of urban redevelopment projects

The first paper from the project looking at digital visualisations of new urban developments is now online at Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, authored by myself, Monica Degen and Clare Melhuish. This is the abstract:

Over the past five years, computer-generated images (CGIs) have become commonplace as a means to market urban redevelopments. To date, however, they have been given relatively little attention as a new form of visualising the urban. In this paper we argue that these CGIs deserve more attention, and attention of a particular kind. We argue that, instead of approaching them as images situated in urban space, their digitality invites us to understand them as interfaces circulating through a software-supported network space. We use an actor-network theory understanding of ‘network’ and argue that the action done on and with CGIs as they are created takes place at a series of interfaces. These interfaces—between and among humans, software, and hardware—are where work is done both to create the CGI and to create the conditions for their circulation. These claims are explored in relation to the CGIs made for a large urban redevelopment project in Doha, Qatar. We conclude by suggesting that geographers need to reconsider their understanding of digital images and be as attentive to the interfaces embedded in the image as to the CGI’s visual content.

 


sculpting space with light: the corporate, the popular and the mass

I caught up with Tim Edensor recently, a cultural geographer based at Manchester Metropolitan University and probably the only person in the academy who can greet me with ‘hello missus’ and get away with it (seriously, he is the only person, so don’t even think about it).

Tim has been one of the most significant contributors to the development of cultural geography for some time now, with a series of books, papers and edited collections including Industrial Ruins (and there’s an associated website here), Urban Theory Beyond the West (co-edited with Mark Jayne) and Geographies of Rhythm.

His recent work has been focussing on light, particularly light installations and contemporary artists working with light.  He curates a blog with Steve Millington called MMU Light Research, which is fascinating and eclectic, carrying everything from reactions to James Turrell’s Skyspace in Kielder Forest Park, UK, to enthusiasm for houses swathed in light bulbs at Christmas time.

blackpool

Tim’s arguments focus on the beauty of light, its affective power to generate strong moods and atmospheres and its ability to engage people, whether to contemplation in Kielder forest or to conviviality along the promenade of Blackpool, a seaside resort in the northwest of the UK (there’s a great blog here on the Blackpool illuminations).

I’m interested in how light is so important now to so many urban redevelopment projects.  Architects work with lighting designers on prestigious new developments; permanent light installations are seen as an effective way to revamp or enliven tired urban spaces; temporary installations are often part of art interventions into urban spaces.  The global company of designers, planners and engineers, Arup, for example, has a whole section of its website devoted to its lighting design work, including this video, which notes that light “in the right hands, light enhances, sculpts and inspires”.

Like Tim, I’m sceptical of critics who would dismiss the increasing integration of lighting into urban redevelopment simply as the latest example of neoliberalism’s spectacularisation of cities; Hal Foster seems to do this in his book The Art-Architecture Complex, for example.  Tim points to the continuing vitality of popular forms of urban lighting to challenge this dystopic account.

And I wonder if this might be one context in which to think about the constant stream of photographs that get taken in cities.  After all, LEDs aren’t the only form of technology that ‘enhances, sculpts and inspires’ with light: so do cameras.  And thus so do all those gazillions of photos that get snapped in city streets.  Is this one way to think about the patterns shown in Lev Manovich‘s Instagram Cities, for example, which are part of his Phototrails project?  Instagram Cities shows what a city looks like in 50,000 Instagram photographs by visualising tiny thumbnails of each photo, distributed according to its colours’ hue and saturation.  Phototrails suggests that its visualisations of so many Instagram photos shows the temporal rhythm of mass urban photography, which is true.  But you could also understand the patterns of light and colour revealed in Manovich’s methods as a popular counter to the designed lightscapes of urban capital: each one of those photos a tiny piece of  light, thousands of them accumulating into an alternative urban lightscape.

Architects, lighting designers, homeowners, engineers, artists, cameraphone owners, then, all sculpting spaces with their various lighting technologies.


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