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.

being provoked by an essay on ‘what is 21st century photography’

I commented in passing in my previous post on the freedom that a blogpost offers: to write more loosely and widely than you can in an academic paper.  And along comes an outstanding blog post – well, a blog essay really – that demonstrates that in spades.  The post is Daniel Rubenstein‘s ‘What is 21st Century Photography‘ and it’s on The Photographers’ Gallery website.  It’s racy, provocative, covers several centuries, is stuffed full of quotable aphorisms, and has a clear argument to make.

I think that argument is very interesting.  Its key claim is that:

in a post-Fordist society the locus of political agency and of cultural relevance has shifted from the object – as visually arresting as it might be – to the processes that (re)produce and distribute the object. Processes, however, by their own nature, are less visible and less representational than objects. For that reason, it seems to me that if photography mainly concerns itself with representations of objects in space, it is losing its relevance in a world in which speed, acceleration, distribution and self-replication acquire a significance that overshadows the visual appearance of spaces.

Which leads to probably my favourite line in the whole essay.  If a photograph is now something that is just occasionally assembled from a wave of data that continually shapes all kinds of visual forms – then, says Daniel: “it has little in common with prints in black frames – these coffins of photography”. ‘Coffins’.  Fab.

The post has lots of insights and pleasures then, though I wasn’t sure about the ‘invisible puppet masters’ who are our ‘real rulers’, and I did feel that its recuperation of photography in its very final line – “photography is not a stale sight for sore eyes, but the inquiry into what makes something an image. As such, photography is the most essential task of art in the current time” – was bit of a failure of nerve.  Maybe photography is just past it?

All this interesting provocation is in sharp distinction to what I was going to discuss on this post, which is Nicholas Mirzoeff’s new book on visual culture, modestly called How To See The World.  I was sent this by the publisher so I perhaps shouldn’t look a freebie too directly in the mouth… but.  The book is bit of a mess, I think.  It attempts the sweeping overview but there’s no clear analytical framework, let alone theory, to guide it, and there are also some quite irritating – well, to be frank, just plain wrong – generalisations.  One of which is that images now are all about time. (We know this because an artist made an artwork with lots of clocks in it, apparently.)  As for example Hito Steyerl, and many others, myself included, argue, it is absolutely necessary now to have a sense of the spatiality of (what is better understood as) visual data, as well as its temporality: its form as a swarm, population or wave; its immersivity; its materialisations; and its geometry as a network.  I think one of the difficulties in Mirzoeff’s book is actually that he remains fixed on images as the problematic rather than these sorts of spatialities that articulate their production and circulation and use, so that he flits from place to place, example to example, without thinking about they might (or might not) join up in some way.

But that’s my query to Daniel too: what are the geographies to his account?  Where does the data move, pause and decay?  How is it circulating, and with what effects in different places?  And how are places themselves being reconfigured in this process?

to be invisible or not to be invisible: that is the power. or is it?

I’ve been pondering the rhetoric of ‘invisibility’ that surrounds so much critical discussion of digital technologies, particularly those that intersect with our everyday lives: the software that ‘hides’ behind smartphone screens, for example, or the intangibility of the ‘cloud’ that stores our photos and our contacts, or the invisibility of digital infrastructure. As a both Shannon Mattern and Adam Rothstein have pointed out recently, it’s a rhetoric that’s also used to describe an awful lot of other kinds of infrastructure too at the moment.

Ingrid Burrington, Networks of New York: An Internet Infrasructure Field Guide (2015)

Ingrid Burrington, Networks of New York: An Internet Infrasructure Field Guide (2015)

A number of things niggle me about this.

First, the assumption in a lot of this talk about invisible things is that to be invisible is A Bad Thing. It seems to be assumed that only the powerful hide behind a cloak of secrecy, obscuring their nefarious ways (Rothstein is particularly explicit on this).

Secondly, the rhetoric of invisibility of power implies that the adequate critical response is to make things visible. This creates a politics of revelation, if you like, in which describing something is also to rip away its secrecy and expose the working of the powerful. Algorithms, servers, databases, elites, tax havens, financial trading… all of these must be rendered visible, somehow, brought into the light, and thereby understood, and if that is done then power relations will also be seen for what they are.

Third, the rhetoric of invisibility thus implies that there is only one alternative, which is visibility. It seems to invite a binary positioning in which something is either hidden or seeable. This implies that description is an adequate critical strategy: describe something carefully, bring it out from the shadows, make it visible, will also make it understandable.

Ok, at this point I have to say that this is the sort of writing that the blog post was invented for – I can say these things without needing to reference any specific examples! – and I can also wonder what part the legacy of Latour is playing in all this, with his enthusiasm for description as a research method, again without having to build the citation trail. Still, having started the (most likely) over-generalising, let’s continue.

Because as Shannon’s essay also hints, there are a number of difficulties with this sort of rhetoric.

First, there are different kinds of visibility and invisibility, it seems to me. Sure, there’s the literal/material/physical hiding-behind-some-kind-of-screen kind of invisibility: the unnamed buildings in which high-finance trades, or the military surveills (or refugees hide – see my final point below). But there are also other kinds: material things not visible to the human eye, like wireless signals (has a history been written of the emergence of the the wireless icon, anyone?). And there are also things that are abstractions: commodity value, for example (for an interesting discussion of that kind of invisibility, see Stephen Cunningham’s essay in the Journal of Visual Culture in 2013). This means that making something ‘visible’ is not straightforward. There must be different strategies for it, depending on the kind of invisibility that’s being challenged.

Second, as Shannon and Adam point out, a lot of these things are not in fact ‘invisible’, because an awful lot of (cultural) work is being done to represent them: popular books like Andrew Blum’s Tubes, that describe the internet’s physical infrastructure; the current obsession with algorithms; projects like James Bridle’s recent project Seamless Transitions that used digital visualisation to picture the secret places where UK immigration cases are decided; Timo Arnall’s film Immaterials: Light Painting WiFi; Adrian Mackenzie’s essays on financial trading in the London Review of Books. It seems to me, though, that the criticality being offered of these various projects are not being discussed very much at all, in part because of that prevailing assumption that simply exposing something is enough. But how is something exposed? How is it made visible? What are the effects of different kinds of making visible? And this is not only a question of aesthetic form, it is also a question of how images are seen, displayed, encountered, understood and even – as Shannon remarks – acted upon.

Third, it would of course be possible to argue that equating power with secrecy is a massive red herring because real power lies in full view as the prevailing commonsense. Indeed, ‘power’ can also be exercised in the act of making things visible. Re-reading the first chapter of my book Visual Methodologies earlier this year was an interesting experience in relation to this point: first written in the late 1990s, it has quite a strong line about the importance of seeing to Western and imperialising claims to knowledge (readers of a certain age will remember ‘the god trick’, cited by Rothstein only in order to claim that the artists’ projects he discusses are not guilty of it – or, more accurately, that they say they are not). But obscured buildings and infrastructures are not invisible to the people who work in them; do their views count as Art? And a recent example of the way that making something visible can also be a claim to power was evident in the debates that followed the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices, of course.

Finally, even if it is the case that the dynamics of power are hidden, it’s not only the powerful that require invisibility on occasion, as all the debates about online privacy suggest. Ok, so privacy is not quite the same as secrecy. But nonetheless, I seem to recall a powerful argument made by Peggy Phelan at the height of the AIDS crisis about the right not to be visible, the right to not to be seen. How does that relate to the current suspicion about invisibility?

All that is just to say, really, that the visual field is complicated: certainly more complicated than a simple division between that which is visible and good and that which is invisible and bad.

new publication: ‘producing place atmospheres digitally’

Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and I have a new paper just published online in the Journal of Consumer Culture.  The full reference is:

Degen, Monica, Clare Melhuish, and Gillian Rose. “Producing Place Atmospheres Digitally: Architecture, Digital Visualisation Practices and the Experience Economy.” Journal of Consumer Culture

This is its abstract:

Computer-generated images have become the common means for architects and developers to visualise and market future urban developments. This article examines within the context of the experience economy how these digital images aim to evoke and manipulate specific place atmospheres to emphasise the experiential qualities of new buildings and urban environments. In particular, we argue that computer-generated images are far from ‘just’ glossy representations but are a new form of visualising the urban that captures and markets particular embodied sensations. Drawing on a 2-year qualitative study of architects’ practices that worked on the Msheireb project, a large-scale redevelopment project in Doha (Qatar), we examine how digital visualisation technology enables the virtual engineering of sensory experiences using a wide range of graphic effects. We show how these computer-generated images are laboriously materialised in order to depict and present specific sensory, embodied regimes and affective experiences to appeal to clients and consumers. Such development has two key implications. First, we demonstrate the importance of digital technologies in framing the ‘expressive infrastructure’ of the experience economy. Second, we argue that although the Msheireb computer-generated images open up a field of negotiation between producers and the Qatari client, and work quite hard at being culturally specific, they ultimately draw ‘on a Westnocentric literary and sensory palette’ that highlights the continuing influence of colonial sensibilities in supposedly postcolonial urban processes.

atmosphere, obscured: London, August 2014

expressive infrastructure, obscured:
London, August 2014

The Architectural Review’s first online edition with our essay on digital renders

The Architectural Review has just launched its first digital edition: you can see it here.  Among many interesting essays, it has a shortened version of the paper that Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and I published on digital architectural renders here, retitled “Interfacial relations”, with the byline “Reconceiving the computer-generated render as an interface for human interaction rather than a static object”.  Accurate, if not very snappy.

The full version (which discusses some of the conceptual implications of this sort of imagery more broadly) is:

Rose, Gillian, Monica Degen, and Clare Melhuish. “Networks, Interfaces, and Computer-Generated Images: Learning from Digital Visualisations of Urban Redevelopment Projects.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 3 (2014): 386–403. doi:10.1068/d13113p.

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.

 

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.