swipe spaces and the lubrication of visual transformation

I went to the cinema on Saturday and was struck by the visuals in a couple of adverts screened before the film started. They were both very similar in the way that they showed people and locations constantly shifting one to another.

One of the ads was for Barclay’s contactless payment card which you can view it here. The other was for Uber. The Uber ad is called ‘Effortless Night’ and shows a young woman and man meeting, dancing, eating and so on. After each activity they climb into one side of a car, and then climb out the other side into a new location and a new cute event. The Barclaycard ad is very similar. A young woman stands at a photocopier, which folds open into a shop that she walks into, and the rest of the ad is her swiping her card and then leaning onto a surface (a wall) or going through an opening (a door), changing her clothes and location as she does so, ending up in a nightclub before flipping back to the office and her suit.

 

Neither ad uses obviously digital special effects; it all looks like film. (I realise that those distinctions are increasingly hard to sustain but I think you’ll know what I mean.) But it struck me that the constantly shifting locations and costumes were nonetheless influenced by the morphability that’s so central to digital visualisations. A digital film always has the potential to become an animation in which, to quote Suzanne Buchan, space and time become the real characters. In both these ads, the humans are just an excuse, it seems, to demonstrate a sort of hubbed temporality and spatiality, in which moments/locations are  visible and are connected only by the transition between each; there’s no flow or route, just sort of hinge from one thing to another: a car in the case of the Uber ad, and various walls and doors in the Barclays. Swipe spaces, if you like, a spatiality in which one location simply replaces another by an apparently routeless, kind of spaceless movement between them.

It’s the ease of these moves that seem to be the point of each advert, lubricated by the ‘effortless’ purchase of services and commodities, of course (neither of the ads make the workers in these spaces very evident: the Uber drivers are completely invisible). There’s something here about the alignment of flow, pleasure and transformation that much of digital culture seems to be cultivating right now. In these ads it’s sutured all too neatly with the apparently seamless, digitally-enabled flow of money. We’ve long been familiar with images of people constructed through the display of commodities they’ve bought: looks like this is the latest version of space/time being constructed through digitised commodification. Swipe space, anyone?

 

digital visualities in a spy movie

I went to see the film Jason Bourne a couple of weeks ago, the latest instalment in the Matt Damon/Paul Greengrass (mostly) spy thriller saga.  In my defence, it was a quiet week; I have argued that cultural geographers should be a lot more interested in popular (visual) culture (here, if you’re interested); and it was one of Sight and Sound magazine’s films of the month.  So off I went.

Bourne-970-80

Coming out of the cinema, I felt I’d been turned into a sort of visual punchbag, subjected to frequent slapping image impact for the movie’s full 123 minutes and 10 seconds. Once my head cleared a bit, though, it did seem to me that there were some interesting things about that visual experience, several of which are pointed to by Sight and Sound‘s review of the movie, written by Henry K Miller and which you can read in full here.

Henry starts his review by saying that:

The triple crisis of the modern spy movie is the redundancy of human intelligence, of the secret agent, and of spectatorial agency.

Wow.  That’s quite a claim.  But in Bourneworld it’s true: the spy is replaced by digital databases; no one can hide from digital surveillance now; and since what is knowable and visible is mediated by digital tech, the filmic ‘realism’ of classic cinema is redundant.

This has various consequences.  For example, simply looking at the world isn’t enough any more to give movie spectators the evidence they need to figure out the plot; instead we have to be shown endless screens and their information (computer screens, desktop and laptop and wallsize, and phone screens, get a lot of screen time in the movie).

And if what screens show become a crucial part of the action so too, therefore, as Henry also points out, does the control room: the darkened room where CIA operatives stare at screens.  (Interestingly, the more senior the CIA official in Bourneworld, the less glued to a screen they are – though the movie also suggests that understanding the culture of the digital world is increasingly important for such characters).

The aesthetics of those screens are interesting too.  They carry all sorts of images, from photographs to printed text to maps to satellite images to real time data flows to animated algorithmic calculations to graphics of many kinds, and often switch from one to the other with complete ease (there’s no bugs or glitches in Bourneworld, though there are hackers, of course).  They have a visual profligacy which is typically digital (I’ve written about a different kind of example of this here.)  And data is shown in neon colours glowing on black backgrounds, which is very typical too: a lot of smart city visualisations use the same colour range.

In Jason Bourne, it’s screens that appear to offer greater insight into both the events structuring the film and into the films’ characters too.  You don’t go to any of the Bourne movies for extended, introspective dialogue, as several critics have pointed out, it’s true.  But it’s still striking that Bourne’s motivation and even creation is explained in the movie by an online document, which we read on a screen over Jason’s shoulder.  And the camerawork that captures the characters as human bodies (rather than the screen aesthetics that capture them as data) is relentlessly mobile and choppy, fragmenting what can be seen into near-incoherence.

And if the characters are often represented as the data trail that they leave as they move, the final fistfight seems to take particular pleasure in emphasising the embodied human as disposable ‘wetware’, with blood and grunts and close-ups of stranglings, very visceral, and very vulnerable: huge numbers of bodies are simply felled in the movie by assassins of various kinds.

All this happens at speed: everything happens fast in the film.  No-one starts a car slowly, or strolls aimlessly; engines are revved, walking is purposeful and more than likely to break into a run.  The camera wheels and pans relentlessly.  It’s all about flow – just like digital networks.

So, while the movie doesn’t advance the spy movie genre (though the final car chase is a pretty damn fine exemplar), or indeed the conventions of the franchise (as Henry also comments), it does offer an intriguing commentary on some of the visual recalibrations occurring as the visual field is more and more produced digitally.

(Oh I feel I should also mention that in the interests of gender balance, sort of, last week I watched Blake Lively defeat a monster shark in The Shallows.  SPOILER ALERT.  Also by using a screen: she records an SOS on a GoPro camera which then floats ashore.)

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.

Mad Max and its feminist fans

Of the many reasons to be grateful for the journalist Laurie Penny, her review of the movie Mad Max: Fury Road now ranks pretty high for me.  Thankyou Laurie – and Jessica Valenti – for tipping the guilty pleasure of the film much more towards the pleasure than the guilt, by writing fantastic reviews that suggest it’s a really feminist movie.  There’s also a great Tumblr site giving Max new lines, all feminist-y too.

FURY ROAD

The bit I would add to support this reading of the film is when Max sees the five scantily-clad women escaping the mad patriarch washing themselves in the desert haze – I know, I know, but bear with me – whereupon he kind of blinks, like this is a totally stupid hallucination (like his others), entirely irrelevant to the task at hand, which is dealing with the woman who’s engineered their escape.  He doesn’t ogle, doesn’t look, doesn’t even think such a vision can be real.  Woo hoo.  (Unfortunately, not all viewers may share my interpretation of this scene; my 17 year old son among them, who pointed to it as evidence that the film was indeed sexist.)

Ultimately, though, the burning Mad Max question is: how does a professor get to be listed in a Mad Max film credits?!  I swear I saw two profs thanked as the credits rolled.  Who are they, what did do they do to get thanked, and (depending on the answers), can I do it too please?

why you should go to see 20,000 Days on Earth

20000

I don’t very often blog just to enthuse, but today is an exception.  I’ve been to see the film 20,000 Days on Earth, directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard about a sort-of day in the life of Nick Cave, and it is just fantastic.  Visceral, funny, weird, lots of rain and sea stuff, amazing scenes of Nick Cave singing, a slightly freaky psychoanalyst – my god he listens intently – Kylie Minogue, and a voice-over from Nick Cave musing on memories, performing and writing.  If you love writing, go see the film to hear him talk about writing his songs, it’s a beautiful account of the process – even if you don’t like his music – but how could you not.  Fantastic cinema.

on the trickiness of seeing places

I gave a talk at the final meeting of the Nordic Research Network in Digital Visuality last week, thanks to a kind invitation from Karin Becker.  It was a great workshop, full of interesting presentations.

I particularly enjoyed catching up with the work of Robert Willim, an Associate Professor of Ethnology at Lund University in Sweden.  Also a musician and a filmmaker; his Vimeo channel is here, and he discusses the link between his academic and art work here.

I first came across his video series Elsewhereness when he presented a new part at the Visual Methods conference at The Open University in 2011.  He describes Elsewhereness on his website like this:

The works are made solely from audio and videomaterial found on the web, material that emanate from a specific place. The audiovisual pieces are manipulated and composed into a surreal journey through an estranged landscape. The films are based on the culturally bound and stereotypical preconceptions of the artists.

They were a nice play on the idea that site-specific artwork has to be based on a first-hand, intimate – and therefore somehow more authentic – encounter with a place.  He discusses them in the book Anthropology and Art Practice, which came out last year from Bloomsbury.

At the NRNDV workshop, he screened three more recent pieces, all of which again explore the complexity of perception, particularly visual perception.  My favourite was called Fieldnotes, a really beautiful encounter with the otherness of a shrouded, billowing building which also suggest the difficulty of grasping what is being seen.  The effect of the video is considerably enhanced by the music, which to my (non-musical) ear sounds as if it is also trying to avoid any neat tune-making structure.

(I also liked the joke of calling another video Straight Jetty, as opposed, of course, to Spiral Jetty.)

Unlike so many films and videos that are made by academic researchers, these short pieces don’t aim to show, reveal or describe.  Instead, they meditate on the difficulty of doing those things, complicating the aural and visual fields, evoking and provoking.  Lovely.

interactive documentary – or interactive cinemascape?

the banner image from the Estuary project at www.roderickcoover.com

the banner image from the Estuary project at http://www.roderickcoover.com

My previous post on interactive documentary really should have mentioned Roderick Coover’s work.  His webpage is here.  He describes his   own visual practice as interactive cinemascape, and discusses it in his chapter in the new-ish book Switching Code: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Arts and Humanities, which he edited with Thomas Bartscherer for Chicago University Press.  As the name probably suggests, interactive cinemascape, as Coover describes it, is less participatory than several of the interactive documentarists mentioned in my previous post.  Which again suggests that the same visual genre can be generated by very different social practices.

the university of the air and glorious conversations

The Open University has been celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Harold Wilson, then Labour Prime Minister, first mooting the idea of a ‘university of the air’ in 1963.  The OU teaches its students at a distance, so ‘air’ was one of the first media the university used, broadcasting on radio and television, as well as posting books, LPs and other bits of kit to its students.

The University has commissioned four pieces of public art to mark the anniversary, and the one in Cardiff is focussed on social sciences teaching and research.  Called ‘Trajectory’ and designed by artist Steve Geliot with choreographers Jo Fong and Tanja Raman, it features a bunch of social scientists and dancers and cellists.  Here it is.

Steve also made a video of all the interviews he staged for ‘Trajectory’:

He very kindly titled this video ‘Glorious Conversations’.  I’ve filed this in my ‘evidence of impact for the next REF’ folder – thanks Steve (and apologies to those lucky souls to whom the ‘REF’ means nothing).

creating hackney as home

My OU colleagues Melissa Butcher and Luke Dickens have been working on a funded research project called ‘Creating Hackney as Home‘ for the past six months, working with five young people from the London borough of Hackney as their co-researchers.  Michael, Matthew, Monet, Shekeila and Tyrell have been making films to explore their sense of Hackney as home, and the first film by Michael, has just gone up on the project’s website here.  Four more films will follow over the next few weeks, with commentary by each filmmaker.  Looks a great project, both in terms of the quality and diversity of the films, but also because the filmmakers are allowed space to reflect on their own different ways of making each film.

cockneys, zombies and CGIs

I’ve just had a really weird experience.  I’ve spent all day working on a paper about the computer generated images created to picture a not-yet-built urban redevelopment project.  I’ve been working hard to theorise these images not as screens obscuring an entirely different reality, but as interfaces that should be seen as carrying their complex networks of production, reiteration, modifiability, intermediality etc etc etc with them…

With my head full of Latour and Law on networks, Galloway on interfaces, Brighenti on prolongations, Kitchin and Dodge on code/space and Sheller and Graham on splintered urban software spatialities, I sit down earlier this evening to watch a film with my teenage son.  The film is called Cockneys versus Zombies.

cockneysvszombies

But what does the film open with?  I’m sitting there as the opening credits finish thinking, that east London skyline looks very much like a CGI to me… but no it can’t be… I need to switch off and forget about my work stuff… when what does the camera do but pan up, revealing that the skyline is indeed a computer generated image, on a billboard, advertising a new urban development, behind which there’s a massive building site in which a zombie burial chamber is about to be unearthed.

Is this the revenge of the CGIs (actants that they are), telling me that they are in fact just screens?

As for the film, the title sums up pretty much everything you need to know about it.  Quite funny, in the course of leaving just a few of the stereotypes about Cockneys and zombies unturned.