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.


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.

 

 


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