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.

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).

the methods of Visible Mending

I’ve just been browsing through the book Visible Mending: Everyday Repairs in the South West by Steven Bond, Caitlin DeSilvey and James Ryan.  It was published by Uniformbooks earlier this year and is the result of a research project exploring workplaces in the south west of England where people repair things.

vmcover

The book is beautifully designed and produced and full of Steven Bond’s fantastic photographs, which linger on the objects and spaces and light of the workplaces the research team visited.  As Caitlin and James say in their essay that concludes the book, the photographs really do focus attention on the richly textured materialities of these places, and suggest the intimate relations between them and the people who work there, even though very few of the photographs picture people.

That concluding essay is also ponders nicely on the use of photographs in the research project: how they were taken and what was done with them.  I particularly like the reflection on the materiality of the photographs in the exhibitions that Steven, Caitlin and James curated.  They note that the photos seemed to sort themselves into thematic groups, and the researchers went with that clustering, and also decided to print the photos on small metal sheets that could be picked up from the tiny shelves on which they rested in the gallery and held and explored (how does a photo get printed on to aluminium?); the essay also explores the different forms of text that accompany the photographs, in the book, in the guide to the exhibitions and on the project’s blog.  There’s a strong sense of the academic craft in all this, of methods as labour and work.  Lovely.

academics and visual social media

social-media-8

Thanks to David Beer’s great blog, I came across this post by sociologist Deborah Lupton, called ‘Social media for academia: some things I have learnt’.  What caught my attention was her use of Pinterest and Storify to collate visual as well as written materials relevant to her research; she also uses Slideshare to make powerpoint presentations public.  Prezi doesn’t appear in her list, perhaps because it’s not a form of social media; but you can make Prezis public to share them.  I have a plan to develop a public Prezi as part of my current research project.  And, like David, Deborah’s enthusiasm has had the effect of making me seriously consider starting with Twitter…

The other aspect of Deborah’s post that I found really interesting was her sense that her use of various social media were carefully integrated in relation to each other.  Facebook does one thing, Twitter another and Pinterest a third; and she manages each to build a dispersed portfolio of online activity that gives her a rounded presence.  I’d love to experiment, as Deborah did for a year, with all these sites and more, as a way of engaging with the ‘ubiquitous photography’ that saturates all these sites (the phrase ‘ubiquitous photography’ is Martin Hand’s, from his book of the same name).

using a phone as an exhibition guide

So, as a previous post mentioned, I visited a photography exhibition a couple of weeks ago; and it had a downloadable pdf file as its catalogue.  As the relatively new owner of a very smart phone, I decided to make use of it.  Which was an interesting experience…

phonegallery

So, the idea is that you download the pdf onto your mobile device and consult it as you walk around the exhibition.  As a visitor, you thus get more information – for free – about the show than you get from the texts in the exhibition itself.  And the curators of the exhibition were also updating the pdf during the exhibition’s run, as people sent them comments about the various pictures and places on display.  Both great ideas, I thought.

However, on reflection, the whole process was actually rather fraught with all the complexities of digital culture now.  So, the online and editable pdf/catalogue allows the visitors to the exhibition a voice in its interpretation – which is great, and much more easily done with an online pdf rather than a printed catalogue.  However, that particular choice of format also keeps the power to share that voice in the hands of the curators.  An exhibition wiki or blog would have been more interactive and participatory, of course.  But all of these possibilities raise some difficult questions for archivists and researchers about what is/was ‘the’ catalogue of the exhibition: the one the curators wrote? that, plus all the submissions they received from visitors? or only their final version?  Origins and end points get rather blurred in this sort of interactive process.

And then of course there were all the technological complexities (‘smart’ is just one definition of my phone at least, one that only makes sense as an average of ‘too clever by half’ and ‘really confusing’).  First I discovered I had to download the Adobe app in order to be able to read the pdf.  Then the pdf was obviously designed to be read as a document, and wasn’t very easy to use on the phone’s tiny screen; and I kept on losing the trick of swapping between the main catalogue pages and the sub-pages where more extensive commentary on individual photos was placed.  (I’ve also just been struggling to read an ebook on Adobe’s ebook reader Digital Editions, which is also very reader-unfriendly I think.)

Most problematic, though, for me, was the unavoidable sense that, in a gallery, you should be looking at what’s on display, and not at your phone.  As I kept on trying to find more about a particular photograph or photographer on my phone, I felt more and more that I also needed somehow to convey to the other visitors that I was actually studying the catalogue, and not texting my mates about what time to meet at the pub.  In the end, that was what made me give up on the phone and just concentrate on the pictures; which is, of course, what gallery spaces are intended for.  The white cube triumphed again.

a new visual methods book

Sarah Pink has edited a new book on visual research methods for Sage, Advances in Visual Methodology.

In her introduction to the book, she characterises the field in interesting ways.  For example, she points out the parallel development of visual research methods over the past decade and of various theoretical ‘turns’ in the social sciences: the practice turn, the spatial turn, the mobilities turn and the sensory turn.  She also talks about the emergence of new technologies, and the impetus behind some visual research methods work to use visual methods as a way of engaging non-academic audiences in research projects.

As is the way with most introductions to edited collections, these things are touched on lightly.  They do raise some interesting questions, though.  One that occurs to me, for example, is whether visual research methods (which mostly involve photography, I would say) have encouraged or even enabled any or all of those turns.  My own sense is that they haven’t; visual research methods remain too marginal to have done that; indeed, I would suggest that the direction of influence tends to run more strongly the other way and that the arguments often made that visual research methods are particularly good at capturing practice, space, mobilities and the sensory are more about legitimating the methods by associating them with dominant theoretical positions, than about properly identifying what visual methods are best at…

What Sarah doesn’t do is suggest that visual research methods are part of some sort of wider move to the visual in everyday culture.  This is perhaps wise, as that’s a hard argument to make convincingly (not least because it involves defining both visual research methods and contemporary visual culture, neither easy tasks).  Maybe it is about time, though, that the recent popularity of visual research methods was given some sort of analysis that takes into account more than just the thoughts and tools of social scientists.  Just like the methods tracked in Mike Savage’s recent history of twentieth-century social sciences, or the visual anthropology explored in the book Made to Be Seen, perhaps it’s about time that visual research methods need to be embedded in a fuller account of their social field as well as their social practices.

Made To Be Seen

I’ve just been browsing through Made to Be Seen, a new-ish collection of essays from the University of Chicago Press edited by Marcus Banks and Jay Ruby.  Although its subtitle is Perspectives on the History of Visual Anthropology, don’t let that put you off: it has some fascinating material that’s relevant to anyone interested in thinking about visual culture.

This is because anthropologists so often understand the specificities of visuality as a kind of social practice.  And read together, several of the essays exemplify rather different versions of that approach.  For some contributors, visuality ‘as a social practice’ is about the very act of seeing being “a social activity, a proactive engagement with with the world, a realm of expertise that depends heavily on trained perception and on a structured environment,” to quote Cristina Grasseni’s chapter abstract.  The collection’s introduction explores the academic discipline of anthropology itself as one sort of ‘structured environment’ that encouraged particular ways of using specific sorts of images (a history traced in Arnd Schneider’s chapter by looking at anthropologists and others experimenting, not always successfully, with new visual technologies and methodologies).  Here, the ‘social’ is understood more in terms of particular institutions and organisations and the things they do and do not do, allow and ignore.  Then there is Elizabeth Edward’s discussion of emergent ‘vernacular’ photographies, which suggests a somewhat different, more overdetermined relation between forms of social organisation and the use of visualising technologies, which is also implicit in Sarah Pink’s discussion of the arrival of digital technologies in Anthropology-world. Faye Ginsburg, meanwhile, concentrates more on the politics of conflicts over specific visualisations… but you get my drift – all the chapters have something interesting to say to readers who might never think of themselves as interested in the history of visual anthropology, but who are interested in visuality as a social practice (and who are interested in how to conceptualise that approach).

Made to be read, I would say.

photography as participation

My colleague Clive Barnett has blogged about his selfless and entirely acadmically-motivated mission to observe the Olympic torch being carried at the end of his street.  As always there’s a nice picture on his post (I didn’t quite get the relation between ‘justice unbound’ and fairy cakes in the previous one, though, Clive) – a photo which suggests that the torch is a very effective photograph-generating machine since almost everyone in Clive’s photo is taking a photograph of it.  To participate in the event of the torch’s passing is to photograph, it seems, so that by photographing participation is enacted.  What else might be enacted in that participation, though, apart from participation itself, participation as witnessing?  I’m not sure what it is that using a camera is creating here – I guess for that I’ll have to wait until the torch passes the end of our street (well, the end of the street off of our street) and venture forth myself.