Bigger Than Life beyond perspective

I’ve been reading Bigger Than Life: The Close-Up and Scale in the Cinema by Mary Ann Doane, published in 2021 by Duke University Press. It’s a fascinating discussion of the spatial organisation of cinematic film – both classic and avant-garde – and the spaces offered to the spectators of those films. Her discussions of those films are always interesting, and make a distinctive contribution to the current discussions about three-dimensionality, scale and zoom in film and other media.

However, the book feels on much less certain ground when it touches on more recent digital media. These are mentioned quite often but they aren’t really theorised in the way that Hollywood movies or Shanghai cinema or New York experimental films are. I think this is partly a consequence of Doane’s continuing commitment to psychoanalysis as a valuable toolkit for understanding the subjectivation of the movie spectator – and psychoanalysis doesn’t seem to work in quite the same way for digital media, which, as Doane often says, are often viewed on small screens, on the move rather than in a cinema seat, with different kinds of attention from movies seen in a cinema.

Also though, I think the book struggles with digital media because of its focus on the perspectival organisation of filmic space. Doane elaborates this at length and very helpfully. She describes the alignment of the movie camera with the eye as imagined in Renaissance theories of perspective as a technique to represent three-dimensional space on two-dimensional surfaces at some length. This is really helpful, and generates some great insights into different understandings of visual media as ‘immersive’, for example, and different kinds of vanishing points and horizons, and bodies ‘turning’ in 2D space.

As the book progresses, though, an account seems to emerge of digital media (whether on a phone screen or on an IMAX screen) as purely abstract forms of space, as erasing real bodies and geographies (Doane doesn’t use the word ‘real’ of course, but that is the implication). She argues that engaging with digital media means that the spectator becomes delocalised, disoriented, and sucked into the apparently entirely commodified world of social media. Putting to one side the assumptions that social media do nothing but commodify, and that phone screens and IMAX screens do similar things because both are digital: I think this argument only holds because Doane theorises just one form of spatial organisation in relation to filmic images and their viewers, that of perspective. It’s as if the psychoanalytically-grounded alignment of subjectivity with the perspectival organisation of space becomes the only way in which subjectivities might emerge in relation to film. Take away that space, and according to Doane, the subject floats untethered too, defined only by their online data.

But what if perspective is not the only technique for organising the space of an image, filmic or otherwise? It certainly isn’t the only way that films screened on phones, say, are spatialised; those phones are constantly producing geolocated data which do locate their users, by latitude and longitude – they are very much not delocalised, quite the opposite in fact. Indeed, given Doane’s own discussion about the emergence of perspective (and latitude and longitude) alongside capitalist property ownership and colonialism, more attention to other forms of spatial organisation is definitely in order. For example, while I largely share her critique of affect theory and phenomenology in visual studies, I wouldn’t dismiss space as atmosphere quite so quickly. And what about space as network? Or topological spaces.

In short, what other sorts of spaces might be seen in films, beyond perspective? And what might their seeing do to who is doing the seeing? As film-like imagery proliferates digitally, its specific and various forms spatial organisation need more attention.

apocalypse lite

I was looking for something new to read in one of my favourite genres, the post-apocalypse life-after-zombies/killer-flu/climate-revenge novel, and found The Survivors: Pandemic by Alex Burns on Amazon. 4.5 stars from 303 reviews, and only £2.49: bingo.

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It was certainly an easy read. The story bowls along. Killer virus hits; heroine in the city copes for a bit, despite finding best friend and hubbie dead; escapes the city with said best friend’s dog and her own neice (having found sister and hubbie dead); arrives at mum’s farm; gets into self-sufficient life with co-operative neighbours. The sequel – flagged in the novel as a grimmer experience – hasn’t yet materialised as far as I can see.

But.. the apocalypse in The Survivors is weirdly thin. The heroine has a good job (though we’re never told what it is), and her immediate reaction to the end of the world as we know it is to miss grocery deliveries. She has a lovely fiancee and an adoring cat, which are given pretty much equal attention (until her best friend’s dog makes it a threesome). Lovely fiancee gets and sends cute messages, but sadly is stuck in Canada for the duration. You know she’s missing him because she says so. You know she’s grieving because she cries a lot. The fact that her brother and his partner are doctors who left their hospital jobs as soon as the bodies started piling up and went to hide in a country cottage before heading back to their mum’s smallholding, is never discussed as anything like a moral dilemma – it’s just great that they eventually end up at mum’s with the heroine. Mum, by the way, has worried about post-apocalypse life-after-zombies/killer-flu/climate-revenge for decades, and as a result has a self-sufficient smallholding with solar power and water supply: very handy. The possibility that having a mum constantly preparing for the end of the world might have bit of a negative impact on her children isn’t addressed. Instead, it turns out to be very convenient given that the apocalypse has in fact arrived.

The lack of crisis is all deeply odd. Deeply normcore, in fact, and reminded me of this essay on the apparently equally normcore novels of Colleen Hoover. It’s the end of the world but without any real sense of loss or confusion. There’s even a two-women-on-the-road-surrounded-by-dodgy-blokes situation in which the women get away by giving the men a sandwich – yes, a sandwich – hardly Walking Dead territory. Above all, the family is at the core of it: mum, brother, sister and neice are re-united (with various pets) and that seems to make it all ok. As does the rural situation, where food can be grown and harvested and nice people live in nice communities.

A narrative that centres the family is evident in quite a few apocalypse-set books and tv series of course: The Road, the tv version of Station Eleven, Black Summer, Walking Dead itself and many others, not to mention endless end-of-the-world movies on Netfilx. Survival – the good kind – is about preserving families, of various kinds, and that preservation redeems many horrendous acts – if there are any such acts to be redeemed, and in The Survivors these are few and never directly addressed. This is the apocalypse – indeed, life in general – without trauma. Apocalypse lite.

So while The Survivors is not Great Literature, it has made me think a lot about whether the apocalypse, in its early stages at least, might well be a bit like what Alex Burns describes. And therefore what all those much more violent stories of human and nonhuman terror are implying in their repeated demonstrations that families require deathly aggression for their survival.

film and phones in The World’s a Little Blurry

I watched the film Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry at the weekend, which follows her music-making processes up to her Grammy award wins in 2020. Of course there’s lots to say about the film, but one of the things that struck me about it was how smartphones were both ubiquitous yet given no attention by the film.

On the one hand, there are many shots of Eilish’s ‘fans’ (not a term she likes), rather coolly observed in the film, at a little distance – the camera rarely joins Eilish as she enters any crowds for example. Indeed the entire film has rather a casual style – there isn’t a particular narrative arc, things just unfold kind of like they did for Eilish over the year or so that footage for the film was being shot. But the fans are pictured really Intensely experiencing her music, with her, at her gigs; singing every word, tears streaming; jumping in sync with her; and very often holding a phone to record the moment. In some shots of crowds gathered to see her, to witness her just sitting in a bus or getting off a plane, to scream and shout, and cry again, the faces are almost entirely obscured by phones being held up to film the moment, the encounter. The phone, the kinetic body, the software, tears, sweat, the voices and words: while that intense identification with a pop star isn’t new, the intimate incorporation of the smartphone and its camera is (fairly new, anyway).

So the film acknowledges the fans’ phones. It also shows the phone as central to Eilish and her work. She is very often filmed on her phone, writing and reading lyrics, recording songs, phoning, posting. We hear about her rocketing numbers of Instagram followers, and she jokes about The Internet not liking her Bond movie song because it might have a big crescendo; she’s also provoked at one point by the constant demand that she be nice and be seen to be nice online. But the film does not explore the phone as a portal into the immense social media world. We see only see it tethered to bodies, to bodies doing things with it – singing, dancing, talking, crying, filming, using it as a glowing light – but we don’t see what happens when its various harvesting is re-engaged with in different kinds of audiencing in other situations on- and offline. All we see is some bodies using film to record other bodies, particularly the body of Eilish (fantastically styled) but also the bodies of her fans (and family and friends and team). The phone as a recording device entangled in a massively distributed, partly inhuman, not-entirely-visual social media constellation is not allowed to disrupt the intimacy of that kind of filmed embodiment. In that sense, being so uninterested in its ubiquitous rival the smartphone camera, this is very much a film film.

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.

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.

 

seeing the city in digital times: a lecture

I gave a keynote lecture at the Neue Kulturgeographie XIV conference a couple of weeks ago, at the University of Bayreuth. My topic was ‘seeing the city in digital times’. I talked about the challenges of keeping cultural geography relevant as a critical project when so much visual culture is now digital, and I shared my recent work looking at how so-called ‘smart cities’are pictured on YouTube and Twitter.   You can hear my talk and see the presentation that accompanied it here.

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Listen through til the end if you can (or indeed just skip to about an hour in) because I got some great questions afterwards.  It was a privilege to speak as such an energy-filled event – thankyou to my hosts Matt Hannah, Eberhard Rothfuss and Jan Hutta.

ten top tips for making a smart city promotional video

I’ve just finished writing a chapter discussing the ways in which ‘smart cities’ are pictured in promotional videos. I’ve been working with twenty-one videos, all on YouTube, made by seven US and European companies: IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, Siemens, Thales and Vinci. The chapter is heading for a collection edited by Karin Fast called Geomedia, out next spring I think. It continues my efforts to think about how cities are being visually mediated in distinctively digital ways, and also in ways that are both representational and operative.

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In the meanwhile, I’d like to offer these ten top tips for the makers of these videos.

  1. make sure that your video starts with an aerial view – of the planet or of a city, it doesn’t matter, just make sure you start from on high and zoom in.
  2. ensure that every single image – apart from talking head interviews – moves. Film must picture things moving, animations must constantly transform, and if you’re stuck with having to film something that doesn’t move, overlay some animated graphics onto it.
  3. make sure you only film crowded public spaces, preferably with lots of kinds of transport. Then add some more transport.
  4. you must have at least one shot of traffic, at night, streaming through a glowing urban landscape. In fact, make as many things glow and flow as you can.
  5. don’t interview women, unless they are so important that it’s really unavoidable (which means a national CEO or the director of strategy of a national organisation at least). If you have to interview a woman, see if you can get away with not naming her.
  6. use as many kinds of imagery as you possibly can: photorealist aerial views, massing study fly-throughs, panoramas (pan across them), maps with things moving across them, powerpoint bullet points lists (again, these must be animated), app interfaces, systems diagrams, electric circuit notation, documentary video, etc etc etc.
  7. if you have to mention the health sector in relation to smart cities, or retail, make sure you picture only female nurses and shoppers.
  8. avoid any suggestion that there might be any discussion about the purposes, merits, functionality, reliability, unintended consequences or cost of smart tech.
  9. avoid any suggestion that a smart city has surburbs or houses. If you must show a house, make sure there’s a female figure in it either cooking or with a child. In fact, all children must be shown with female figures regardless of location. If you feel like adding a pushchair to your urban scene, make sure it’s being pushed by a female figure, and if the children are in school, ensure the teachers are female.
  10. finally, use music but use it carefully. It must either be uplifting and orchestral, of the we-are-moving-into-glorious-futures kind (though try to avoid it sounding too much like Lord of the Rings); or, preferably, it must be the plinky plonky cutesy sort of soundtrack popularised by Apple some time ago.

Hope that helps, guys…

new paper on CGIs as postcolonial visualisations

Earlier this month, Clare Melhuish, Monica Degen and I published another paper from our ESRC-funded project ‘Architectural atmospheres’, which looked at how computer generated images intervene in the architectural design process.  This paper focusses particularly on how such images might be the sites for the postcolonial visualisation of urban redevelopment projects.

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a model and CGIs of the Msheireb Downtown project, photographed in early 2011

The paper is called “‘The real modernity that is here’: understanding the role of digital visualisations in the production of a new urban imaginary at Msheireb Downtown, Doha”, and it’s out in City and Society volume 28 number 2.  Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores how Computer Generated Images (CGIs) have enabled the visualisation and negotiation of a new urban imaginary in the production of a large-scale urban development project in Doha, Qatar. CGIs were central not only to the marketing but also the design of Msheireb Downtown. Our study of their production and circulation across a transnational architectural and construction team reveals how their digital characteristics allowed for the development of a negotiated, hybridised urban imaginary, within the context of a re-imaging and re-positioning of cities in a shifting global order. We suggest that CGIs enabled the co-production of a postcolonial urban aesthetic, disrupting the historical Orientalist gaze on the Gulf region, in three ways. Firstly, they circulate through a global network of actors negotiating diverse forms of knowledge from different contexts; secondly, they are composed from a mix of inter-referenced cultural sources and indicators visualising hybrid identities; and thirdly, they evoke a particular urban atmosphere which is both place- and culture-specific, and cosmopolitan. The study emphasises the importance of research into the technical and aesthetic production processes which generate new urban spaces in the context of global market-led growth; and, by considering the circulation of CGIs between sites, contributes to the development of “a more properly postcolonial studies” (Robinson 2011, 17).

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.