I’ve just been working my way through a book written by Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge called Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. It’s a persuasive argument for the role that softwares play in many aspects of the everyday – the everyday here represented by case studies of air travel, domestic technologies and consumption. They are particularly keen to argue that many softwares ‘transduct’ space, ie their operations bring certain sorts of spaces into being. So a supermarket space, they suggest, is transducted by the softwares that run the checkout tills; if that software crashes so that nothing can be sold, the supermarket is no longer a supermarket but a warehouse.
I was reading the book for a research project I’m currently involved in, which is exploring the role of computer-generated images in the design and marketing of an urban redevelopment scheme (there’s a bit more about the project here). Such images are more and more part of how urban spaces are imagined, and there’s a whole digital visualisation industry out there devoted to creating still images and animated fly-throughs for architects and urban developers. (Hence the photographs of architects’ and visualisers’ offices mentioned in a previous post.) However, Kitchin and Dodge’s project is much more interested in the software embedded in various technologies and objects than in the effects of the digitality of computer-generated images.
So I’m still left to ponder on what the digitality of these images actually is. Which isn’t quite as straightforward as it appears. Obviously they’re made using specific software packages like 3DS Max that import architects’ designs from CAD software and add light and texture; those files are then imported into Photoshop to create the final image. So they’re not photographs (though photos are often added into them in the Photoshop stage and they are often described as ‘photo-realistic’). I’ve just read an interview with a visualiser that suggests they’re closer to prints, given that they are based on integrating layers and layers of different visual and spatial information. They’re also quite like collages, given the cutting and pasting from various image sources that goes into their production. But being digital, they are also more malleable than either photos or collages – they can be endlessly reworked (time and money permitting) – and they are also much more mobile (bandwith and storage capacity permitting). So the sort of images they are is rather new, and lots of our interviewees struggle a bit with describing them and their effects to us.
Such uncertainty, though, doesn’t appear much in the few pieces I’ve read on this sort of digital imaging. Most of those seem to correlate the digital with the ideological position of capitalist urban developers: urban redevelopment projects, especially those for the rich, are pictured with digital images and somehow the digital itself is then understood as inherently ideological too, because it can invent real-looking images that hide an actual reality of displacement, eviction, demolition and exploitation. Indeed, Kitchin and Dodge’s book also depends on that all-too familiar move of cultural critique, which is to point out how X (in their case, software) is in the pocket of capitalism/neoliberalism/government; but that X can also be appropriated for emancipatory/liberatory/creative ends (often by artists, bizarrely, as if art practice is the only kind of radical cultural politices imaginable).
That isn’t exactly wrong. It does seem to me though, at this early stage in the project, that the effects of these images’ digitality are more complicated than that in part because, as visual objects, there’s a fair bit of disagreement between architects, visualisers and their clients about just what kind of objects they are and what they do. Right now, I’m trying to think about how to embed that disagreement and uncertainty into how I see the images, when so often they look perfectly polished and complete….