visualising the smart city as flow and glow

Earlier this year, I wrote a chapter for a book called Compact Cinematics – it’s edited by Pepita Hesselberth and Maria Poulaki and will be out from Bloomsbury early next year.  The chapter is called ‘Screening smart cities: managing data, views and vertigo’.  It’s a short chapter – Pepita and Maria hit upon the conceit of asking contributors to write compact pieces on examples of compact cinema, so we were given just 2,500 words – and it focuses on just one example of how smart cities are being visualised now: a promotional digital animation created by ISO Design for Siemens called Future Life.  What I explore in that chapter is why the animation is a really interesting example of the spatial and visual relations through which the smart city is being imagined into existence.



As well as on YouTube, you can view the animation on a panoramic screen in Siemens’s exhibition space in London, The Crystal.  It purports to show London, New York and Copenhagen in 2050, and it’s really provocative for thinking about how future cities are being imagined now.  And while in some ways the visuals are very familiar, with lots of pale white and grey buildings, lots of windows, thousands of trees and screens of all kinds, sunny skies and happy people, all managed from control centre using a holographic model of the city, there are also some rather more interesting aspects to this vision.

In my chapter I focus on the visuality and spatiality of the animation.  I think the visuality exemplifies what Thomas Elsaesser suggests are the ‘default values of digital visuality’: an immersive mobility in which the frame dissolves and the spectator is transported into the image.  The spatiality is thus highly and smoothly mobile, as the animation’s point of view shifts and glides up and down and over and through.  But there’s more to say about this animation, which in a longer chapter I would have explored.

For example, throughout the animation its types of visual content smoothly morph from one to another, from landscape photograph (or at least a photo-realistic computer generated image) to a 3D massing model, to a luminous flow of data or energy in a black empty space, to an aerial photographic view.  This visual profligacy – in which what were once very different kinds of images, wtih distinct materialisations, uses and ways of being seen are now available to a digital visualiser as a kind of drop-down visual menu, to be selected and used at will – also seems to me to be typical of digital visuals, though not many exemplify it to the extreme as this animation does.  There’s also a lot of interesting things to think about in terms of the temporality of this vision.  It’s a vision of the future seen through the current favoured aesthetic of architectural and real-time data visualisations; and a future which seems to have no past but also no sense of its own time passing, since nothing in its urban environments seems to have aged.

And in terms of things ageing – that chapter has already aged in my eyes, after I talked about the animation in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago, as a guest at the University of Amsterdam’s wonderful School for Cultural Analysis.  It’s not the first time I’ve shown the animation to academics, and  audiences always bring their own interpretations to the animation, of course.  A favourite game that developed in several previous audiences has been ‘spot the visual reference’: audience members like to discuss what influenced the animation, and the list they’ve developed collectively is long, from Disney to Bauhaus, from Hollywood superhero movies to nineteenth-century panoramas, from computer games to maquettes – and as I’ve already suggested, that eclecticism is part of what makes the animation uniquely digital I think.  It’s a high-end, smoothly edited, elegantly visioned, visual mash-up.

In Amsterdam, though, I got rather different kind of questions – closer to what the animation might be doing with audiences less familiar with the relatively recent cultural history of a small part of the world, I think.  My favourite came from Judith Naeff from Radboud University.   I’d always thought of the floating point of view that’s performed by much of the animation, hovering in a slightly wobbly way, engine buzzing quietly in the background, over cities pictured in various ways, was the viewpoint from a helicopter.  Judith, though, made a different and much better suggestion: that the animation inhabits the viewpoint of a drone camera.  Absolutely.  It’s a machinic vision, mediated not only by a camera (apparently) but also by a mobile machine: a hypermediated vision that’s increasingly shaping urban spaces.

You can read my chapter on the Future Life animation  here.  And here’s the Elsaesser reference:

Elsaesser, T., 2013. The “return” of 3-D: on some of the logics and genealogies of the image in the twenty-first century. Critical Inquiry, 39(2), pp.217–246.

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.


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.


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.

photomediations machine dot net


I came across this website in my travels over the summer: Photomediations Machine.  It’s a “curated online space” that hosts reflections on photography and other media as forms of mediation, reflections which are mostly heavily visual (though, quite rightly I think, every submission has to include “a short description or a contextualisation piece”).  It’s very nicely put together, easy to navigate and robust; all the links worked fine, all the videos played.  Nice.

And it’s robust in another sense: submissions are peer-reviewed by the editor, Joanna Zylinska, and a member of the site’s Advisory Board.  It would be interesting to know what sort of criteria they use when they evaluate pieces for publication on the site.  Apart from a skills deficit, I think one reason social scientists are so wary of creating visual pieces of research is the uncertainty about how they will be evaluated.  Well-curated sites like this could inform a fuller discussion than is currently happening about how images can create social science.  On the evidence of this site, for example, they clearly do a lot of things other than ‘evoke the affective’ or ‘display the real’, which are the two reasons most commonly given for creating images as part of a research project, I think.

cultural analytics: to be continued

I spent last weekend at a workshop on ‘visual methods in cultural studies’, hosted by the Department of Urban Culture and the Institute of Cultural Studies at the Adam Mickiewicza University in Poznan, Poland.  It was interesting, and I got lots of pointers from Polish colleagues who approach cultural studies from the humanities rather than the social sciences.  One of them is the Software Studies Initiative site, hosted by Lev Manovich and oriented to/from the digital humanities.

It discusses what Manovich calls ‘cultural analytics’: working with big datasets (of images, in his case), to show differences in a dataset both visually and spatially.  As well as some theoretical discussion pieces (one of which claims that scholars no longer have to choose between depth and breadth in their methodology), there’s lots of hands-on advice for doing this sort of analytics, and even a software package to download and play with called ImagePlot.  (When did it become trendy for one-word titles to have two capital letters?)

a visualisation of a million black and white manga pages

a visualisation of a million black and white manga pages

Having got over my embarassment at not already knowing about this site, I immediately thought about using this package to analyse the digital visualisations that my current research project is examining.  These are visualisations of an urban redevelopment project currently under construction in Doha, Qatar.  There are probably millions of these visualisations, if you take into account all the different versions of every image made as the project has evolved since its initial design work in 2008.  Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to run these through ImagePlot and get some sort of visual description of the lot: the colours, the tones, the hues, the saturation.  This would be interesting because a lot of effort and discussion seems to have gone on about getting these aspects of the images ‘right’: right in terms of accurately reflecting the light in Doha but also in terms of conveying the right sort of ‘atmosphere’ for the development.  ImagePlot would presumably allow us to show these colour qualities directly.

But even if cultural analytics makes the possibility of such an analysis real, there are still difficulties.  In this case, the database itself.  I don’t have access to all those images and I’m not sure I ever would because they are scattered across hundreds of servers and hard drives in the offices of architects, visualisers and developers.  So there still seems to be a crucial issue for big data analytics about access to data; and about the (dare I say it) representativeness of the data that you can get your hands on.

I look forward to delving deeper into the Software Studies Initiative site to learn more about this and – I’m sure – many other aspects of visual cultural analytics.

what does ‘ubiquity’ do to ‘the image’?

handcoverI’ve just been reading Martin Hand’s new book Ubiquitous Photography, which is part of a series on digital media and society published by Polity Press.

It’s an interesting read because it takes an approach to photography which Martin describes as “non-essentialist”: that is, he understands photography not through A Theory of The Photograph, but rather as a practice, a process, which can and does take an extraordinarily wide range of forms.  He backs this up with some nice empirical investigations .  This approach is still all-too-rare in discussions of photography, in my view, but absolutely vital for understanding what photography and photos are doing now.

The book’s conclusions explore three broader consequences of ubiquitous photography: for the intersection of photographical practices with social change; for the making and remaking of memory; and for the public performance of selves.  All very persuasive, I think.

The book concludes by emphasising the “local assembly” of photographic technologies, images and modes of consumption (the latter interpreted pretty broadly).  And it’s here I might want to raise a question with Martin.  Because, although he insists that ‘local’ does not necessarily lead to lots of very small-scale empirical research projects, it is also the case that the empirical work he does is largely based on interviews with people discussing, for example, the photos uploaded to Facebook pages.  As a consequence, his conclusions focus largely on the implications of ubiquitous photography for identity and subjectivity.

burgesscoverThis makes for a strong conclusion to his book.  But it doesn’t engage with the sort of question that the book on YouTube in the same series does, which is written by Jean Burgess and Joshua Green.  Which is that, if something is ubiquitous, are new methods required that engage with one of the key aspects of ubiquity, which is sheer numbers?  Burgess and Green advocate a quantitative approach in order to conceptualise YouTube as a massive system with its own dynamics and agency.  Similarly, if photos are everywhere, do we need a new method to get to grips with that spread-ness?  Quantitative, even?

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, then, now, there, everywhere


I visited a great exhibition at the Djanogly Art Gallery in Nottingham at the weekend.  It was called Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: The Authentic Moment in British Photography, and although it closed on Sunday, you can download the catalogue as a pdf here.

The show focused on the interest in regional British working class culture – and poverty – among photographers, filmmakers, journalists and social scientists in the 1950s and 1960s.  There were lots of different sorts of photos on show: documentary photography from the likes of Roger Mayne; architectural photography (of some of Nottingham’s new post-war housing developments); family snaps; photojournalism from the Nottingham Post; local adverts for hairdressers and grocery stores; snaps from local professional photographers of factory shopfloors and local clubs’ christmas dos.  Karel Reisz’s 1960 film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning runs on a loop at its heart.

The mix of visual imagery suggests that this is really a show about a particular moment in British visual culture – and a particular version of visual culture.  It doesn’t try to embed the different visions of working class life in different social locations – there’s no suggestion that different articulations of class, gender and race might be at work in its range of images.  There were quotes on the wall from the author Allan Sillitoe and from the social research Richard Hoggart, both echoing the other.  And there were indeed some interesting cross-overs between the social location of photographers and the genres of photographs they made; an 11 year old boy made some fantastic images of new blocks of flats, for example, and there were research assistants on sociology projects also snapping away.  But the section called ‘Them and Us’ had a lot of proud images of ‘us’, skilled workers mostly, and none of ‘them’, or indeed by ‘them’ who might have been hostile to ‘us’ (and vice versa).

Nor was there much engagement with the particular pathways these various images might have taken as mediated objects in the ’50s and ’60s.  Their circulation through a visual economy was rarely implied, though the adverts were surrounded by their anchoring text and there were some pieces of publicity for the film that embedded photographs of the stars in text and graphics.  So it seems to be the concept of ‘visual culture’ that allows these images to appear in relation to each other, in a gallery space now, rather than an effort to map their non/convergence in an actual historical geography.

The exhibition does, though, locate that visual culture in a particular place: Nottingham, mostly (although there are a few of Shirley Baxter’s photographs taken in Salford, Manchester, and a few others from other towns).  And there were lots of Nottingham folk wandering around like I was, reminiscing about how places used to look like and seeing if they could spot friends, family and acquaintances in the photographs on show.  The exhibtion catalogue also contains quotes from people who lived and worked in the locations the exhibition pictures.   All of which seemed a more significant enactment of that term ‘visual culture’ – making photographs part of ordinary everyday articulations of self, other and the social.

cultural studies and digital culture

hartleyI have just finished reading John Hartley’s hugely entertaining and provocative book on cultural studies past, present and future.  Called Digital Futures for Cultural and Media Studies, it argues that cultural studies as a discipline has ossified into a field where ‘reading’ after ‘reading’ of cultural texts accumulates to no particular end, and where those readings are based on assessments of value (some form of the ‘how critical is this?’ question) rather than any other methodology.

I’m pretty sure if I was a fully paid-up member of the cultural studies club I would be pretty aghast at the very generalised level of his account… nonetheless, a lot of his argument really got me thinking.  Not least because I am trying to figure out a way to plan the ending of a paper I am writing without assessing the value (ie how critical of capitalism/neoliberalism/national identity/) of the images I am writing about.  It’s a hard habit to break.

His book also has some very interesting thoughts on the methods required to deal with the nature of digital cultural production, which means methods that can engage with the mobility and malleability of digital texts and images, as well as understand the systems through which they circulate.  He suggests that the traditional methods of cultural studies – the close reading of specific texts that usually depends on an unremarked mish-mash of semiology and discourse analysis, with which the question ‘how critical…’ gets answered – is simply inadequate to deal with the cultural work being done by the ‘distributed expertise’ of large populations.  His critiques of the guardians of High Culture in England/English is just great, as is his discussion of YouTube viral dance-off videos as the true descendents of the eighteenth century radical presses: sex, scandal, power and all.

All of which means that the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies is going to need a pretty radical rethink, based as it mostly is on the careful analysis of ‘finished’ images…

code/space and digital images

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….