seeing the city digitally, or, animated urbanism

I gave a talk at the Berkeley Center for New Media last November, and the recording and transcript are now available here.

I called the lecture ‘Seeing cities digitally: processing urban space and time – or – animated urbanism’. The first bit of the title was a nod to an open-access book I edited, published last year by Amsterdam University Press. It’s also called Seeing the City Digitally and has what I think is an amazing collection of essays by its contributors. You can find it here.

The second part of the title – animated urbanism – is something I’m working on at the moment, thinking about what it means to live in cities that are increasingly visualised through what Thomas Elsaesser described as the ‘default vision’ of a digital visual culture: urban life as free-floating, anchorless mobility often in non-Cartesian spaces, in a nutshell. The lecture builds on a cluster of advertisements, all but one for apps, that show floating bodies doing just that – the photo above is from a Spotify ad campaign.

Thanks to BCNM for hosting me, the great audience, and to Emma Fraser for chairing. If anyone has other examples of ads that show people flying through urban space, please let me know!

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

Ferriscope

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.

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.

out now: the fifth edition of Visual Methodologies

Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Working with Visual Materials has been the longest academic project I’ve worked on. The first edition came out in 2001 and the fifth is now out from Sage. Three years ago I wasn’t planning to write another edition, but I decided that working on it largely from home during various lockdowns and post-lockdowns caution would be a really useful exercise for catching up on things I hadn’t read but should have done – though I long ago gave up trying to be comprehensive.

The new edition of the book is re-organised. It now starts with the chapter on how to use the book (with thanks to the reviewer who suggested that that would be kind of logical… only took me twenty years to come to the same conclusion).

It’s then divided into four main sections. The first, contexts, gives an overview of different theoretical approaches to understanding visual culture and develops the criteria for what I call a ‘critical visual methodology’. The second section is on designing a research project using visual materials, and covers topics like research ethics, locating images to research, and referencing the visual materials you work with. The third part is the section on methods – there are nine chapters each discussing one method in depth, as well as distinct discussions of other related visual research methods (a new feature in this edition). The fourth section has just one chapter, on using visual images to engage non-academic audiences with the findings of a research project.

There’s one entirely new chapter – on research design – and the chapters on digital methods, making images as research data and engaging non-academic audiences have been completely rewritten. Several of the other chapters have been heavily revised and the rest refreshed, while the chapter on pyschoanalytic methods has been moved to the book’s website.

I’d like to thank the folk who contributed generous endorsements of the new edition. I do hope the book continues to be useful, as they suggest it will. This one really will have to be the final edition though – not least because the archive from which I’ve sourced all the front covers doesn’t seem to have any more appropriate photographs for me to use…

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

the horror, the horror: ‘Annihilation’, or not mixing it up

I was one of those fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s amazing Southern Reach trilogy eagerly anticipating the film of the first book. It’s called Annihilation, directed by Alex Garland. The books are about a piece of land – Area X in the books, the ‘shimmer’ in the film – which has  gone very different in the books and in the film is occupied by something alien. Various military/scientific teams are sent in to investigate and only one man ever reappears.  After doing poorly at the box office in the US – apparently because it was too ‘high concept’ – it’s only available via Netflix in the UK.

annihilation

So I watched it and boy was I disappointed. And not just disappointed: actually quite angry. Here’s why.

1 as I recall the Southern Reach books, one of their major themes was perception and its difficulties. In Area X it’s not clear what’s happening: objects shape shift, sounds are inexplicable, time and space warp and fold. You would have thought that film is a great medium to explore awry perception, visual and otherwise. But no. What’s happening in the shimmer is spectacularised in the film so that it’s all about objects that are shown to have changed form. That is, everything is rendered visible, whereas in the books a lot of the fascination is that the visible is no longer a reliable guide to what exists.

2 the main character in the film is given an elaborate back story about her husband. We get happy scenes, we get sad scenes, we get her having an affair (wot? oh yes, we get to see Natalie Portman having sex)… all entirely irrelevant to the central problematic of the books but hey, core to maintaining patriarchal heteronormativity in wannabe Hollywood blockbusters with female leads.

3 the film explains what’s going on in the shimmer. Whereas the whole point of the books (as I read them) is that what’s going on is incomprehensible. Nobody knows, nobody understands, nobody has an explanation, or at least not one that works. But in the film, we get an Explanation. Again, while the books contemplate what an encounter with something radically alien might feel like, the film reduces it to a puzzle that can be solved by science.

4 the Explanation of the shimmer’s effect is genetic mixing. This is the horror, the film tells us. Genetic mixing is what gives animals human voices and bodies writhing intestines and plants more than one kind of flower and trees coloured fungus.

5 and can the film accept this mixing? (The final book of the trilogy is called ACCEPTANCE). Nope. What does the main character do to its source? She firebombs it. Literally, she sets off an incendiary grenade which burns all the effects of the mixing. ANNIHILATION, geddit?

Now I understand that films can’t be the same as novels. That’s why they’re called adaptations, I get that. And yes, I enjoyed seeing a film full of strong, intelligent, diverse women. But what this adaptation has done, I think, is to systematically strip out the really very radical weirdness of the novels. It’s removed every vestige of unknowability, incomprehension and bafflement, and replaced it with convention, science and control.

And that it represents mixing as a horror that must be violently undone is just apalling. I perhaps feel this especially strongly as I spent today reading Simone Browne’s book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, which is a very powerful account of how surveillance technologies of many kinds have both observed and invisibilised black bodies over centuries, and legitimated terrible racist brutality. At one point she discusses how Hollywood versions of biometrics are imagined as tethering people to a fixed identity (and thus also to gendered and racialised hierarchies of power). What Annihilation does, it seems to me, is to visualise the flipside of that desire for biological tethering: the apparently grotesque horror of fluid identity, of mixing it up.

Barbara Creed wrote a book a long while ago about how so much Hollywood horror depends on monstrous, out-of-control female bodies. I can’t help thinking that Annihilation also takes something excessive to dominant norms and makes it horrible. However, as Browne’s book makes very clear, that horror of mixing has generated, and continues to generate, a far more powerful and violent terror than anything Annihilation appears able to imagine.