The newspapers here in the UK carried a story last weekend about a new bridge across the Thames in London. It’s been designed by Thomas Heatherwick Studios, and the news stories all carried various images of what the bridge would look like when it was built. The most commonly used was this one:
Apart from the fact that it looks uncannily like the planet inhabited by the rich and privileged in Neill Blomkamp’s recent film Elysium, this image was both taken entirely for granted in the press coverage and caused some small difficulty. None of the newspapers I read raised any questions about what it shows or how it shows it, despite it being bathed in a un-London light – oddly blue, cold and artificial, which is why it reminded me of Elysium – and it also having a very odd London skyline behind it (surely St Paul’s wouldn’t look that big – and where are all the very tall buildings now scattered throughout the City and beyond?).
At the same time, none of the newspapers seemed to agree on what kind of image this picture actually was. It was called variously a “photograph”, which is patently isn’t, although some photographs were probably involved in its making; an “artist’s impression”, which is probably more like it; and an “image”, which is definitely playing it definitionally safe. This uncertainty about what this – well, image, is, is interesting. It suggests that for all their increasing visibility, digital visualisations of things that don’t exist – whether that’s orbiting space stations or bridges – are still puzzling objects. We don’t yet know how to label them. Which might be to the good; because if we don’t know quite what they are yet, we might be able to question the glossy smoothness with which so many of them present urban futures to us.