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.

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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.

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.

images, cities, talk and wonder

One of the things I enjoy most about Sight and Sound magazine is the column written by Mark Cousins. Often quirky and always extraordinarily well-informed, they can be interventions or meditations or enthusiasms – though actually, they are always enthusiasms to one degree or another. (I especially remember a fantastic discussion of Scarlett Johansson’s ability to be slow on screen, which totally made sense of her work and presence, not least in the weird Under the Skin.)

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So I was really looking forward to hearing him talk at the excellent Festival of the Future City in Bristol last week. And he was indeed wonderful, talking to a selection of images of cities. Barely an academic reference made, and hugely insightful, using words to pull out particular and striking qualities in his images that a more systematic approach never could. So wonderful in fact that all I wanted to do here was list a few of his phrases. Here they are:

vabble – the visual equivalent of babble                      perspectival plunge

     the city whent it’s too alive, too dense, oppressive. or when it’s dying, toxic, poisonous

am I there yet               the Pompidou Centre is like a cathedral wrapped in elastic bands

           the city as a camera mount                           a centrifugal imagination

At the time, in the moment, they were quirky, eclectic, poetic, funny and powerful: carrying and extending some of the effects of his chosen images into the audience, making us see more and differently. Now I’ve written them down, without the images and outwith Mark’s performance, they don’t seem anywhere near as wonderful. But they were. In the moment they really were. Here’s hoping that his new book, The Story of Looking, achieves something similarly magical.

will the ordinary smart city please stand up?

For all its faults, Twitter occasionally throws up a total, unexpected gem, which is why I stick with it, and this is one: a stonking essay by Jacob Silverman called Future Fail which  I found via a Justin Pickard tweet (thanks, Justin). Silverman takes aim at the utopian techno-futurism of Silicon Valley and venture capitalists and sure hits the target. A sample: “At this apparently late date in our species’ history, as rising seas swallow South Pacific islands and chunks of Louisiana, the reverie of a frictionless, optimally engineered human prospect now demands considerable gall—together with a heaping of political naiveté, mindless consumerism, historical ignorance, and class and racial privilege.” And gendered privilege of course, which he acknowledges elsewhere in his essay.

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As Silverman notes, the flip side to this technologically engineered future utopianism are visions of the future as technological dystopias, horrendous scenarios of technology gone horribly wrong, with horrible consequences (Silverman points to climate change, pandemics and nuclear war – but the widespread fascination with zombies must be part of this dystopianism too).

That dystopia is intimately related to utopia is hardly news of course. In another example, the pair structure smart city discourse all the way down. Smart tech can save cities; smart tech will ruin cities. Smart tech will liberate people; smart tech will surveill and curtail them. Smart tech will make buses run on time; but only at the expense of giving up data privacy. And so on.

Silverman’s conclusion is to reject fantasies of the future entirely. “The future,’ he says, “with all of its ideological baggage, and its smoldering graveyard of unfulfilled dreams, has failed us. We’d do well to abandon it, and start figuring out how we might survive the present.” Well yes, absolutely.

Except that, as many a sci-fi fan will tell you, sci-fi as a genre can be a useful way of thinking how things might indeed be different. In the future, right now, doesn’t really matter it seems to me. Which gives me an excuse to enthuse about a couple of books I read over the summer. Nothing to do with smart cities: they’re both what I thought were really interesting efforts at articulating how it might be to think differently, to be different, to deal with difference differently. Ostensibly in the future but why not now too. The first challenges the current dominance of the octopus as the go-to animal for thinking life otherwise: The Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which won last year’s Athur C Clarke award. The second gradually lets you realise that its first-person narrator is not exactly the kind of life-form that the Western novel is based on: Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Oh, and both do interesting things with gender, too, reversing and refusing it. As this year’s winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, Colson Whitehead, said, “Fantasy, like realism, is a tool for describing the world.”

Which is why I’m wondering (back to smart cities, folks) – what kinds of cultural work is feeding into current visions of the smart city, sci fi, fantasy or other? Techno-futuristic utopianism and dystopianism, for sure. Black Mirror and Elysium and Interstellar, for sure. A series of Philip K Dick short stories are about to air on UK television. (And then there’s the totally weird Netflix film The Circle, which can’t seem to make up its mind about whether total surveillance is a Good thing or Bad.)

But is there other sci-fi that just show smart cities as ordinary? Not horrendous, not heavenly, but just kind of a bit smooth, a bit glitchy, a bit fun, a bit irritating? And if there were, would that help us deal with their technologies? Answers in the comment box please.

(The title of this post was inspired by Hollands, Robert G. “Will the Real Smart City Please Stand Up?” City 12, no. 3 (2008): 303–20.)

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.

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?