seeing the city digitally, or, animated urbanism

I gave a talk at the Berkeley Center for New Media last November, and the recording and transcript are now available here.

I called the lecture ‘Seeing cities digitally: processing urban space and time – or – animated urbanism’. The first bit of the title was a nod to an open-access book I edited, published last year by Amsterdam University Press. It’s also called Seeing the City Digitally and has what I think is an amazing collection of essays by its contributors. You can find it here.

The second part of the title – animated urbanism – is something I’m working on at the moment, thinking about what it means to live in cities that are increasingly visualised through what Thomas Elsaesser described as the ‘default vision’ of a digital visual culture: urban life as free-floating, anchorless mobility often in non-Cartesian spaces, in a nutshell. The lecture builds on a cluster of advertisements, all but one for apps, that show floating bodies doing just that – the photo above is from a Spotify ad campaign.

Thanks to BCNM for hosting me, the great audience, and to Emma Fraser for chairing. If anyone has other examples of ads that show people flying through urban space, please let me know!

maximal and minimal VFX

I’ve recently watched Andor and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and on the (flimsy) basis of that and my viewing of other movies and streaming series and trailers, I would like to propose that digital visual effects – VFX – the ones that strive for some kind of photorealism – can more and more often be divided into two kinds: maximal and minimal.

Maximal are those movies and series which go all-out for mega-detail at every scale, like Wakanda Forever. Everything seems to be designed to be looked at close up – except that viewers are also continually offered spectacular views of extremely detailed huge landscapes too. Every surface displays some kind of elaborate patterning. Characters’ bodies have incredibly crafted hairdos, jewellry, armour, clothing, weapons, skin. Imagined architecture is florid, covered with neo-neo-gothic-mayan-deco-whatever. Forests and oceans are full of weird vegetation created leaf by leaf, and elaborate fantasy creatures. Streets are packed with crowds of individuals all doing things. Landscapes are full of houses, valleys, peaks, lakes, bridges, flying things, flowing things, cities, weather. I am thinking here of all of the Marvel movies I’ve watched, as well as the Rings of Power (indeed, maybe this was all started by the Lord of The Rings films). Wheel of Time, not quite so much – but the VFX there are still things you have to look at, monsters and magic and such. The Avatar movies definitely. It’s as if the entire screen has to be full of lots of visual-attention-grabbing things all the time.

Whereas one of the reasons I so much enjoyed Andor, and Denis Villeneuve’s version of Dune, is that their VFX are somehow much more minimal. They can be spectacular and detailed, of course. But one reason to see Dune on the big screen is to relish the scale of just a few big things in a frame rather than every scene jostling with endless detail (see also Nope). Huge spaceships, huge deserts, huge cities with lots of enormous blank walls. Just a few people. As for Andor, one of the early episodes – maybe the first – had Andor walking through street at night and passing bubble-type enclosures, inside of which some sort of figures were moving. What sort of figures? No idea. Because the camera didn’t linger on them, I was given no detail, no ‘look it’s an alien doing something weird’ moment. They were just casually there in the background, the viewer hurried past them much in the way that Andor was hurrying. Much of the rest of the series was similar: VFX as background. World-building, necessary, but not flashy, not demanding attention. So minimal VFX seem less fixated on visual details, less interested in making everything totally visible, less concerned to add elaborate detail to every surface. They show less of themselves.

It might also be no coincidence that Dune and Andor are strongly focussed on character and story and are, relatively, really well-written and involving. I have to admit I found The Rings of Power incredibly boring partly because it was so poorly written. But that was maybe also because I was watching it on a laptop rather than an 80 inch tv. To build enticing worlds based on detail, the detail really needs to be visible, I guess, as well as inhabited by characters you care about.

One exception to my minimal-maximal categorisation might be Game of Thrones, which managed both character and cities and dragons pretty convincingly, at least for a long stretch. But hey, you know what they say about exceptions…

PROXISTANT VISION by Bull.Miletic

Ferriscope

PROXISTANT VISION is an installation by Synne Tollerud Bull and Dragan Miletic, on show at the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco til 19 March 2023, but you can get a sense of it from the PROXISTANT VISION website. According to the Museum’s website, the work explores the impact of digital aerial imaging technologies on everyday life, though my sense of it was more that it was a precise dissection of the operation of some of those technologies.

Synne and Dragan created PROXISTANT VISION with curator Carol Covington and various collaborators at the University of Chicago and the University of California Berkeley, as part of their PhD research. The installation consists of three, interrelated rooms, each of which plays with the relation between distance and proximity as it is articulated by various technologies. Ferriscope explores what can be seen from urban observation wheels, from the first – immense! the cabins look like railway carriages – Ferris wheel at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, to more recent versions in London, LA and Vienna. Venetie 1111110001 works with various images of Venice, including a map from 1500, a view by Google Earth and photos of the carved wooden blocks used to print the paper map. The third piece, Zoom Blue Dot, occupies the space in the museum between the rooms occupied by Ferriscope and Venetie 1111110001. A robot moves around the space projecting a video showing a Google blue dot from outer space down to the interior of its phone screen pixel display. All the spaces are lit only by these the various projections, and the projecting equipment is explicit and even rather ostentatious: a robot no less but also complicated arrangements of projectors, machinery, mirrors, a revolving rhombicuboctahedron, cables and scaffolding.

Each room has a light box with a QR code that connects to a considered and detailed discussion on what each piece does. Most of the commentaries focus on the notion of proxistance: the zoom in and out, from proximity to distance, each tethered to the other through various aerial imaging devices: the ferris wheel, the satellite, the microscope, the projector. In that sense, this work is cousin to Laura Kurgan’s meditation over a decade ago on being Close Up At A Distance (now available in paperback I notice), although the focus on the urban view and the smartphone gives an important supplement to Kurgan’s arguments I think. It brings bodies into view rather more directly, for example, just as these technologies have become so much more pervasive in everyday experience since Kurgan’s work. This is given rather literal emphasis in the installation as none of the projections are confined to one screen or frame: all fragment and disperse in various ways over the bodies of the museum visitors, so that we too become screens for these projections.

The project website suggests this is all about surveillance, the view of everything – if no longer from nowhere, rather from a specific set of technologies. My experience of the installations though was rather different. Precisely because each installation foregrounds its own technological devices so fully – indeed, its own technicity – it makes it clear that different technological assemblages will generate different versions of proxistant vision. Even the smooth, seamless, incredible zoom from outer space to the components of a pixel have been patched together from different images created by satellites and microscopes. There is no singular aerial view.

Moreover, each installation suggested to me at least that, just as proximity and distance are conjoined, so too is coherent vision and its failure. Each showed a different version of this. Venetie 1111110001 played with scale and glitch: the image of the map and the Google Earth view became fragmented and shards played across the walls of the entire room, mixing up with glitches in the digitised version of the 1500 map and what were probably photos of its wooden printing blocks but might have been something else entirely, and what was also possibly a computer-generated image of Venice flooded. Or not. The robot wandered around doing its own thing, its projection beaming onto different surfaces and reflecting in random ways off of bodies and the mylar surrounding the Ferriscope room. As for the Ferriscope, that projection starts with very slow images – ferris wheels are slow – but speeds up and up until it starts to swing around the entire room and to lose visual recognisability, fragmenting into what the human eye can only see as the red, green and blue of the pixels.

All of this suggests a much more complex visual field than popular notions of surveillance and spectacle assume. It suggests a multiplicity of such views which, because each relies on a specific assemblage of technologies and bodies, don’t align. And it suggests that each contains not only proximity and distance, but other antinomies too: coherence and dispersal; integrity and incoherence; legibility and glitch. These things need to be thought together, it seems to me, and PROXISTANT VISION – or visions – is a generative prompt to do so.

With thanks to the Berkeley geographers who joined me at the Museum of Craft and Design: Emma, Clancy, Maria, Alexis and Fiona.

Bigger Than Life beyond perspective

I’ve been reading Bigger Than Life: The Close-Up and Scale in the Cinema by Mary Ann Doane, published in 2021 by Duke University Press. It’s a fascinating discussion of the spatial organisation of cinematic film – both classic and avant-garde – and the spaces offered to the spectators of those films. Her discussions of those films are always interesting, and make a distinctive contribution to the current discussions about three-dimensionality, scale and zoom in film and other media.

However, the book feels on much less certain ground when it touches on more recent digital media. These are mentioned quite often but they aren’t really theorised in the way that Hollywood movies or Shanghai cinema or New York experimental films are. I think this is partly a consequence of Doane’s continuing commitment to psychoanalysis as a valuable toolkit for understanding the subjectivation of the movie spectator – and psychoanalysis doesn’t seem to work in quite the same way for digital media, which, as Doane often says, are often viewed on small screens, on the move rather than in a cinema seat, with different kinds of attention from movies seen in a cinema.

Also though, I think the book struggles with digital media because of its focus on the perspectival organisation of filmic space. Doane elaborates this at length and very helpfully. She describes the alignment of the movie camera with the eye as imagined in Renaissance theories of perspective as a technique to represent three-dimensional space on two-dimensional surfaces at some length. This is really helpful, and generates some great insights into different understandings of visual media as ‘immersive’, for example, and different kinds of vanishing points and horizons, and bodies ‘turning’ in 2D space.

As the book progresses, though, an account seems to emerge of digital media (whether on a phone screen or on an IMAX screen) as purely abstract forms of space, as erasing real bodies and geographies (Doane doesn’t use the word ‘real’ of course, but that is the implication). She argues that engaging with digital media means that the spectator becomes delocalised, disoriented, and sucked into the apparently entirely commodified world of social media. Putting to one side the assumptions that social media do nothing but commodify, and that phone screens and IMAX screens do similar things because both are digital: I think this argument only holds because Doane theorises just one form of spatial organisation in relation to filmic images and their viewers, that of perspective. It’s as if the psychoanalytically-grounded alignment of subjectivity with the perspectival organisation of space becomes the only way in which subjectivities might emerge in relation to film. Take away that space, and according to Doane, the subject floats untethered too, defined only by their online data.

But what if perspective is not the only technique for organising the space of an image, filmic or otherwise? It certainly isn’t the only way that films screened on phones, say, are spatialised; those phones are constantly producing geolocated data which do locate their users, by latitude and longitude – they are very much not delocalised, quite the opposite in fact. Indeed, given Doane’s own discussion about the emergence of perspective (and latitude and longitude) alongside capitalist property ownership and colonialism, more attention to other forms of spatial organisation is definitely in order. For example, while I largely share her critique of affect theory and phenomenology in visual studies, I wouldn’t dismiss space as atmosphere quite so quickly. And what about space as network? Or topological spaces.

In short, what other sorts of spaces might be seen in films, beyond perspective? And what might their seeing do to who is doing the seeing? As film-like imagery proliferates digitally, its specific and various forms spatial organisation need more attention.

out now: the fifth edition of Visual Methodologies

Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Working with Visual Materials has been the longest academic project I’ve worked on. The first edition came out in 2001 and the fifth is now out from Sage. Three years ago I wasn’t planning to write another edition, but I decided that working on it largely from home during various lockdowns and post-lockdowns caution would be a really useful exercise for catching up on things I hadn’t read but should have done – though I long ago gave up trying to be comprehensive.

The new edition of the book is re-organised. It now starts with the chapter on how to use the book (with thanks to the reviewer who suggested that that would be kind of logical… only took me twenty years to come to the same conclusion).

It’s then divided into four main sections. The first, contexts, gives an overview of different theoretical approaches to understanding visual culture and develops the criteria for what I call a ‘critical visual methodology’. The second section is on designing a research project using visual materials, and covers topics like research ethics, locating images to research, and referencing the visual materials you work with. The third part is the section on methods – there are nine chapters each discussing one method in depth, as well as distinct discussions of other related visual research methods (a new feature in this edition). The fourth section has just one chapter, on using visual images to engage non-academic audiences with the findings of a research project.

There’s one entirely new chapter – on research design – and the chapters on digital methods, making images as research data and engaging non-academic audiences have been completely rewritten. Several of the other chapters have been heavily revised and the rest refreshed, while the chapter on pyschoanalytic methods has been moved to the book’s website.

I’d like to thank the folk who contributed generous endorsements of the new edition. I do hope the book continues to be useful, as they suggest it will. This one really will have to be the final edition though – not least because the archive from which I’ve sourced all the front covers doesn’t seem to have any more appropriate photographs for me to use…

apocalypse lite

I was looking for something new to read in one of my favourite genres, the post-apocalypse life-after-zombies/killer-flu/climate-revenge novel, and found The Survivors: Pandemic by Alex Burns on Amazon. 4.5 stars from 303 reviews, and only £2.49: bingo.

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It was certainly an easy read. The story bowls along. Killer virus hits; heroine in the city copes for a bit, despite finding best friend and hubbie dead; escapes the city with said best friend’s dog and her own neice (having found sister and hubbie dead); arrives at mum’s farm; gets into self-sufficient life with co-operative neighbours. The sequel – flagged in the novel as a grimmer experience – hasn’t yet materialised as far as I can see.

But.. the apocalypse in The Survivors is weirdly thin. The heroine has a good job (though we’re never told what it is), and her immediate reaction to the end of the world as we know it is to miss grocery deliveries. She has a lovely fiancee and an adoring cat, which are given pretty much equal attention (until her best friend’s dog makes it a threesome). Lovely fiancee gets and sends cute messages, but sadly is stuck in Canada for the duration. You know she’s missing him because she says so. You know she’s grieving because she cries a lot. The fact that her brother and his partner are doctors who left their hospital jobs as soon as the bodies started piling up and went to hide in a country cottage before heading back to their mum’s smallholding, is never discussed as anything like a moral dilemma – it’s just great that they eventually end up at mum’s with the heroine. Mum, by the way, has worried about post-apocalypse life-after-zombies/killer-flu/climate-revenge for decades, and as a result has a self-sufficient smallholding with solar power and water supply: very handy. The possibility that having a mum constantly preparing for the end of the world might have bit of a negative impact on her children isn’t addressed. Instead, it turns out to be very convenient given that the apocalypse has in fact arrived.

The lack of crisis is all deeply odd. Deeply normcore, in fact, and reminded me of this essay on the apparently equally normcore novels of Colleen Hoover. It’s the end of the world but without any real sense of loss or confusion. There’s even a two-women-on-the-road-surrounded-by-dodgy-blokes situation in which the women get away by giving the men a sandwich – yes, a sandwich – hardly Walking Dead territory. Above all, the family is at the core of it: mum, brother, sister and neice are re-united (with various pets) and that seems to make it all ok. As does the rural situation, where food can be grown and harvested and nice people live in nice communities.

A narrative that centres the family is evident in quite a few apocalypse-set books and tv series of course: The Road, the tv version of Station Eleven, Black Summer, Walking Dead itself and many others, not to mention endless end-of-the-world movies on Netfilx. Survival – the good kind – is about preserving families, of various kinds, and that preservation redeems many horrendous acts – if there are any such acts to be redeemed, and in The Survivors these are few and never directly addressed. This is the apocalypse – indeed, life in general – without trauma. Apocalypse lite.

So while The Survivors is not Great Literature, it has made me think a lot about whether the apocalypse, in its early stages at least, might well be a bit like what Alex Burns describes. And therefore what all those much more violent stories of human and nonhuman terror are implying in their repeated demonstrations that families require deathly aggression for their survival.

film and phones in The World’s a Little Blurry

I watched the film Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry at the weekend, which follows her music-making processes up to her Grammy award wins in 2020. Of course there’s lots to say about the film, but one of the things that struck me about it was how smartphones were both ubiquitous yet given no attention by the film.

On the one hand, there are many shots of Eilish’s ‘fans’ (not a term she likes), rather coolly observed in the film, at a little distance – the camera rarely joins Eilish as she enters any crowds for example. Indeed the entire film has rather a casual style – there isn’t a particular narrative arc, things just unfold kind of like they did for Eilish over the year or so that footage for the film was being shot. But the fans are pictured really Intensely experiencing her music, with her, at her gigs; singing every word, tears streaming; jumping in sync with her; and very often holding a phone to record the moment. In some shots of crowds gathered to see her, to witness her just sitting in a bus or getting off a plane, to scream and shout, and cry again, the faces are almost entirely obscured by phones being held up to film the moment, the encounter. The phone, the kinetic body, the software, tears, sweat, the voices and words: while that intense identification with a pop star isn’t new, the intimate incorporation of the smartphone and its camera is (fairly new, anyway).

So the film acknowledges the fans’ phones. It also shows the phone as central to Eilish and her work. She is very often filmed on her phone, writing and reading lyrics, recording songs, phoning, posting. We hear about her rocketing numbers of Instagram followers, and she jokes about The Internet not liking her Bond movie song because it might have a big crescendo; she’s also provoked at one point by the constant demand that she be nice and be seen to be nice online. But the film does not explore the phone as a portal into the immense social media world. We see only see it tethered to bodies, to bodies doing things with it – singing, dancing, talking, crying, filming, using it as a glowing light – but we don’t see what happens when its various harvesting is re-engaged with in different kinds of audiencing in other situations on- and offline. All we see is some bodies using film to record other bodies, particularly the body of Eilish (fantastically styled) but also the bodies of her fans (and family and friends and team). The phone as a recording device entangled in a massively distributed, partly inhuman, not-entirely-visual social media constellation is not allowed to disrupt the intimacy of that kind of filmed embodiment. In that sense, being so uninterested in its ubiquitous rival the smartphone camera, this is very much a film film.

Nope and seeing extraction

Nope is a movie with a lot to show about seeing. It’s packed full of ideas and references. It is also a great cinematic spectacle with a soundtrack to match. I watched it a few days after taking a train through landscape very similar to the Californian scrub that situates the film, and maybe that helped to underline the sense of hugeness in the film’s landscape and its alien. Definitely one to watch in a cinema.

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The alien turns out not to be a spaceship, despite its definite flying-saucer vibe, but rather a living thing. And one of the themes of the movie that I haven’t seen a lot of reviews discuss is its focus on animals. The alien itself is a sort of animal (it eats flesh and eventually develops wings) but the film also focusses on horses, a chimpanzee, and of course humans.

I think the film is divided into sections each of which is named after an animal. And there’s something going on about how different animals see, what they see and what then happens. Key moments in the film include a horse seeing its own reflection. And, in a truly terrifying scene (I thought so anyway), the camera is occupying the point of a view of a character hiding from a chimpanzee that has just savagely attacked several humans. The chimp turns its own intense gaze, noticing and focussing on that character but also directly at you in your cinema seat… the camera cuts. Wow.

While animals like horses and chimpanzees and the alien are shown as looking very directly (the alien can detect what looks at it), the film spends considerable time reflecting on all the technologies that humans use to mediate their looking: mirrors, veils, surveillance cameras, still cameras, hand-cranked film cameras, green screens, smartphones, sunglasses… and demonstrating all the ways that these falter and fail. There’s an acknowledgement of what commodification does to the images produced by those technologies; and also a deathly penalty attached to making direct eye contact with the alien. That bleak paradox is one of the film’s horrors. However you look, it seems, there are risks…

Another horror is the white alien monster extracting flesh from this landscape: horse and human. This extraction is what Daniel Kaluuya simply refuses in another of the film’s standout moments: nope, he says. One of the things I’ve learnt from reading Gray Brechin’s book Imperial San Francisco is the full extent of the massive environmental despoilation that accompanied white settler colonialism in California, and the latter’s profound racisms. The way the movie pictures the whiteness of the monster sucking up bodies and then expelling them as waste matter feels deeply metaphorical of that extractivist racism.

I know some critics dislike Jordan Peele’s films because they invite this kind of multiple interpretive reading – and certainly the readings don’t neatly line up. But – in perhaps the final paradox of this movie’s account of human visuality – the for me at least there is something so compelling about how this film looks, that the readings and interpretations do indeed stumble a little. I’m too busy looking to do too much analysis. (Are the film’s sections really named after animals?) The movie itself disrupts human looking while enticing us to look.

blogging like it’s 2011

I started this blog in May 2011. Around 200 posts later, towards the end of 2018, I pretty much stopped posting. That wasn’t a conscious decision: I just didn’t have the time to keep writing posts, or the enthusiasm to make the time. And blogs started to feel a bit dated too, three or four years ago. I kept up with Twitter instead.

But I would like to start to post again. I always enjoyed the freedom of writing a blog post, the ability to pick a topic and just say something small and provisional about it. And now I’m coming to the end of a tough few years, and an extended sabbatical is hoving into view, I will have the time, I think, and the inclination too.

I moved to the University of Oxford in 2017 and was elected the Head of the School of Geography and the Environment in 2019. One UCU strike later and the pandemic struck. And the REF. And other projects and ‘challenges’. With a large number of amazing colleagues, we made some good changes to the School, I think. But in a highly devolved university, the work needed to achieve those things has been immense.

And not just the labour of doing things: also the emotional labour of trying to support colleagues as they – we – went through all sorts of crises and difficulties. Another head of a department of geography – Professor Jenny Pickerill at Sheffield – tweets wonderfully about taking care of others, and yourself, when you’re trying to lead a group a people in really demanding times. (Follow her at @JennyPickerill.)

I didn’t – don’t – feel able to share my experiences as a Head as generously as Jenny does. But this blog might once again be my different voice. I hope some of the posts might prove interesting to you too.