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

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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.

digital visual publics event – book now!

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I’m delighted to announce the second digital | visual | cultural event. It will take place over two days, 7 and 8 January 2019, at St John’s College in Oxford, and will explore what kinds of publics are convened by various kinds of digital visuals. We’ll be paying particular attention to the visualisation of urban pasts, presents and futures. The first day of discussions will be followed by a reception for all participants.

You can find out more about our amazing range of speakers and topics here.

The event is free but we ask you to book via the event webpage here.

I’ve been organising this with Sterling Mackinnon, Adam Packer and Oliver Zanetti, and we all look forward to welcoming you to Oxford in January!

seeing the smart city on Twitter: colour and the affective territories of becoming smart

I have a new paper out! It’s co-authored with Alistair Willis and is Online First in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Here is its main image and abstract:

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This paper pays attention to the immense and febrile field of digital image files which picture the smart city as they circulate on the social media platform Twitter. The paper considers tweeted images as an affective field in which flow and colour are especially generative. This luminescent field is territorialised into different, emergent forms of becoming ‘smart’. The paper identifies these territorialisations in two ways: firstly, by using the data visualisation software ImagePlot to create a visualisation of 9030 tweeted images related to smart cities; and secondly, by responding to the affective pushes of the image files thus visualised. It identifies two colours and three ways of affectively becoming smart: participating in smart, learning about smart, and anticipating smart, which are enacted with different distributions of mostly orange and blue images. The paper thus argues that debates about the power relations embedded in the smart city should consider the particular affective enactment of being smart that happens via social media. More generally, the paper concludes that geographers must pay more attention to the diverse and productive vitalities of social media platforms in urban life, and that this will require experiment with methods that are responsive to specific digital qualities.

digital | visual | cultural

I’m very excited to announce a new project: Digital | Visual | Cultural.   D|V|C is a series of events which will explore how the extensive use of digital visualising technologies creates new ways of seeing the world.

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The first event will be on June 28, when Shannon Mattern will give a public lecture in Oxford. Shannon is the author of the brilliant Code and Clay, Data and Dirt as well as lots of great essays for Places Journal. ‘Fifty Eyes on a Scene’ will replay a single urban scene from the perspective of several sets of machinic and creaturely eyes. That lecture will be free to attend but you’ll need to book. Booking opens via the D|V|C website on 23 April. It will also be livestreamed.

I’m working on this with Sterling Mackinnon, and funding is coming from the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University, and St John’s College Oxford.

The website has more info at dvcultural.org, and you can follow D|V|C on Twitter @dvcultural and on Instagram at dvcultural. There’ll be a couple more events in 2019 so follow us to stay in touch.

So that’s the practicalities. What’s the logic? Continue reading

smart cities on YouTube

I was very happy to receive a copy of a new edited collection last week: Geomedia Studies: Spaces and Mobilities in Mediatized Worlds, edited by Karin Fast, Andre Jansson, Johan Lindell, Linda Ryan Bengtsson and Mekonnen Tesfahuney.

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I have a chapter in it called “Look InsideTM: Corporate Visions of the Smart City”, which discusses the most popular corporate videos on YouTube (or at least, they were the most popular when I wrote the chapter eighteen months ago). These are videos that try to explain and/or sell the idea of the smart city or an urban Internet of Things.

The chapter discusses what the videos show – all digital flow and glow, and (mostly men) explaining digital flow and glow – but also emphasises how easy it is to criticise that representational content. It then suggests that perhaps that’s not therefore where their power lies. Perhaps rather it’s their affective resonances that matter most: that flow, glow, speed, seamless mobility, in spaces where coloured light substitutes for data, everything is mutable and nothing ever seems to stop.

There are lots of other great chapters in the book, and the editors make a strong case in their introduction for the importance of studying geomedia: “an expanding interdisciplinary research terrain at the intersections of media and geography” (p.4). Bring it on.

call for papers for smart city session at the RGS-IBG conference 2018

The RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2018 will take place from 28-31 August at Cardiff University with the theme “Geographical landscapes / changing landscapes of geography”. You can find more information about the conference here. This is a call for papers that address the spatialities of cities turning ‘smart’.

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As smart technologies, practices and polices of various kinds are rolled out by diverse actors in more and more cities worldwide, the need to understand their engagement with each other and with existing urban landscapes becomes more pressing. While many advocates of the smart city conceive the smart city as a rational landscape structured by flows of big data, this session explores a different smart geometry, which comes about when a range of smart things encounter the pre-existing complexity of cities. Here, networks of many different ‘smart’ things – sensors, apps, policy frameworks, citizen groups among them –  emerge, assemble, fragment, collapse and re-form. The session will therefore focus on smart entities as diverse and distributed. It will explore how smart outcomes are achieved between and across diverse actors and spaces, as well as how they fail to be achieved. Questions that might be addressed include:

  • what diverse things compose the ‘smartness’ of a city?
  • how are they distributed and what spatialities do those distributions enact?
  • what are the various forms of social agency that are enacted through smart activities?
  • how do different smart things interact? What are the modalities of those interactions, and what effects do they have?
  • how do smart city projects encounter the social and institutional diversity of urban spaces as they extend and move?
  • how do specific smart entities co- and re-constitute forms of social difference both familiar and new?
  • how do the ideas, discourses and objects of smart travel?
  • what happens when something smart that has been designed in one place lands in another?

Papers are invited which address these and other questions to explore the (dis)connections between different smart activities in a city, between those activities and the social spaces of the city, and between smart in different cities.

Abstracts not exceeding 200 words, including the presentation’s title and the names, emails address(es) and affiliation(s) of the author(s), should be sent to Gillian Rose (gillian.rose@ouce.ox.ac.uk) and Oliver Zanetti (oliver.zanetti@ouce.ac.uk) by 10 February 2018.

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looking for culture in the unlikeliest of places: MK and smart

Milton Keynes, smart cities – and culture?! I’ve caught up with a fascinating video which made me pull these things together: it’s called Looking for Culture Through Economy, Through Capitalisation, Through Milton Keynes (LCTETCTMK for short. Well, kind of short). It’s directed by Sapphire Goss and was made as part of the Journal of Cultural Economy’s tenth birthday celebrations.

A whole bunch of people were involved in its production, including Liz McFall, Darren Umney, Dave Moats and Fabian Muniesa. It starts tongue firmly in cheek, saying that it’s exploring the notion of ‘culture’ in a place often thought not to have any: Milton Keynes. The film then discusses what culture is, how to spot it, how it was planned and designed in MK, and its relation to capital. All of this is animated by the presence of someone who kind of becomes another team member: Stuart Hall. The cultural theorist appears in a range of archive footage, and one of the film’s many pleasures is to see him animated, poised and as relevant as ever.

Another pleasure of the film is its rigour. This is a film about theory as much as it is about MK. Hence that clunky title. The arguments at the heart of the film are that culture remains a vitally important analytical category and that culture isn’t a thing. Culture can be The Arts, but the film is much more interested in culture as Hall understood it, as the ordinary, taken-for-granted meanings and values that animate everyday life. In that sense, culture is everywhere, mediating how we understand and what we see.

The film enacts that everywhereness, filtering its views of the city through odd edits, collaging and splicing, using fuzzy archive film and repeating images. There aren’t that many clear views of the city, and the ones that are offered – the planners’ models, architects’ drawings, drone footage of layouts and geometric patterns below – tend to be shown as existing only in those forms. Once they become realised as part of the city, or the camera gets down to ground level, the clarity of their design and its intentions goes awry. They go fuzzy, multiple, the idealistic plans never quite work out, buildings fail and social markets are abandoned. It’s noted that capital should be seen culturally, as an approach to making value. And then there are a few closing remarks about how culture is now increasingly also capitalised as things are seen more and more in terms of the value they might realise in the future.

All this is great on its own terms, and it’s wonderful to see the city provoking such careful and complicated thoughts.

It also got me thinking about how another of the city’s current manifestations – MK as a smart city – also needs to be thought of in terms of this understanding of culture. ‘Culture’ and ‘smart’ are in one way quite often brought together now, in discussions about various discourses about what smart city should be; there are now several discussions of how talk about and pictures of smart cities are riven through and through with values, visions, interpretations, truth claims and situated evidencing. The smart city as something that can create capital by innovating new products and making efficiencies is a strong theme too.

The more pervasive sense of culture, though, culture as everyday (rather than as something only marketeers and artists do) is less often explored. I was chairing a conference organised by Inside Government last week which was discussing how smart cities might transform service provision, and the day was full of the need to be brave, to take risks, to have vision, to make leaps of faith (as well as much more pragmatic discussions about mechanisms for collaboration between key stakeholders). (You can read my report on the day here.) Organisational culture, then, was actually at the centre of the discussion, that is, the everyday assumptions embedded into workplace practices.

But LCTETCTMK also suggests a more deep-seated relation between smart and culture. The film ends with Stuart Hall suggesting that, after the 1970s, the sphere of culture is in “permanent revolution”. There are no set or stable frameworks of meaning now that can endure without challenge or renewal. Here then is a final thought provoked by LCTETCTMK: how are smart cities part of current cultural transformations? They’re about capitalisation for sure and about changing organisational culture. Perhaps their particular transformation, though, is more about the sort of everyday life that a smart city enacts. Mobile (so much of it is about movement), individualised (the phone screen, the data dot), agglomerated (databases), fast (nobody lingers in smart cities), colourful (all those glowing screens), customisable (what are your preferences?), distributed (hello, platforms)… this is a more pervasive sense of cultural shift, enacted with and through smart things.

Any other thoughts on what it would mean to think of smart MK, or indeed any smart city, through the lens of LCTETCTMK’s sense of culture? Do watch the film and ponder. And you can find more about MK, culture and smart on OpenLearn, here.

 

do we know how to look at VR yet?

When we think about the spaces of VR, we almost always focus on the spaces that the VR user (is that the right word?) experiences while they’ve got the headset on. Equally important, though, it seems to me, are the spaces in which the VR experience takes place. This thought was prompted by Davina Jackson (thanks Davina!), who sent me a link to this video:

Quite apart from the rather groovy VR here – it’s called Mutator and it’s the work of William Latham and many colleagues – the video also shows the gallery space in which Mutator was installed, along with the VR users, tethered by cables and surrounded by large panels with images from the VR printed on them.

The spaces in which images are viewed – galleries, living rooms, cinemas, streets, trains – are not only material spaces but also social spaces, in which certain kinds of practices happen, and this includes specific, embodied ways of seeing.

But the viewing space in this video is quite unlike any other in terms of how things are being looked at. The panels suggest a gallery, except that looking at them is not the point of being there and few people are doing that. Nor can the gallery visitors doing the VR move around like you would in a gallery space. It isn’t like watching a film either; these viewers are totally isolated from other viewers when their headset is on, they’re using hand controls, they can’t see anyone else and they’re all probably all looking at something different anyway.

This profoundly unfamiliar viewing environment seems to me to be one of the major issues confronting the future development of VR. The idea that the images produced by many new visual technologies remediate aspects of old types of images is of course well established. Computer-generated images are often made to look like analogue photos, for example. But the same logic applies, often, to the ways in which new kinds of images are seen. Digital family snaps are looked at in much the same ways as analogue snaps. Google Maps on a smartphone is used in ways not entirely dissimilar to printed A to Zs. Illuminated adverts on large billboards framed our viewing of large digital screens. TV viewing was initially a bit like cinema viewing; and ambient TV (to use Anna McCarthy‘s term) was the precursor of our contemporary urban spaces where ambient screens often feel like they’re everywhere, not least in our hands. We learn how to look at new kinds of images in part by adapting the practices through which we encountered older kinds of images.

But what’s the precursor for watching VR? I don’t think there is one. In particular, I can’t think of another kind of viewing where the viewer cannot see anything of the place in which they are doing the viewing. This surely accounts for the feelings of isolation and – potentially – vulnerabilty – that some VR users report.

This uncertainty about the embodied practice of watching VR is also evident in one of the most amazing, boggling adverts currently doing the rounds: Samsung’s advert for what it modestly calls ‘The New Normal’.

A PhD thesis could be written about this ad, really – visuality, technology, domesticity, familiality, tourism, childhood, pedagogy, nature – it’s riddled with fascinating assumptions about all of these. But for now let’s just zoom into the sequence about a minute in, which shows a group of schoolchildren using VR to experience being chased by dinosaurs. (And let’s add ethics to that list of what deserves discussion in this ad.) What the bodies do in the VR experience, with the dinosaurs, is quite different from what they’re shown doing in the classroom. They run with and from dinosaurs in the VR but they’re sitting on the floor in the classroom; and when they are sitting in in dinosaur-world, it’s in a different arrangement from how they’re sitting in classroom-world. That is, the advert can’t align the bodies of the VR users in their VR experience with their material bodies.

Both the gallery goers pictured doing a VR art experience and the advert making VR part of the ‘new normal’, then, are both struggling with the embodied experiencing of VR. It’s not yet clear where VR can be seen appropriately, nor what embodied practices VR requires.  In a sense, then, both are suggesting that we don’t know yet how to look at VR.