a sneak preview of the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies

I’ve been working on the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies on and off since January, squeezing it in the gaps between way too many other projects. As a result, it’s rather hard to have an overview of the beast (also because I seem to find it impossible to delete any more than a few sentences and a handful of references from each new edition). But I’m now facing the final run-through of the whole thing, when of course it will be lovingly burnished into a seamless whole, cough cough.

So I thought it might be interesting to note down a few of the things that I have learnt so far in preparing this new edition.  More may follow as I reread things I’ve forgotten that I’ve written.  (Yes, yes, I know, I need a holiday.)

1) one big change (for me at least) is that I’ve added a fourth site to the framework that structures the book. Editions one, two and three were based on the idea that there are three sites at which the meaning/affects of images are made: the site of the production of the image, the image itself, and its audiencing. The fourth edition adds the site – or, better, routes – of an image’s circulation to that list. This was so discussion could focus on how different methods might approach the online platforms that now host and distribute so many images, and through which so much of social life is mediated and performed.

2) adding the site of circulation to the book also gives a framework for introducing debates about ‘convergence culture’ and whether it deals with questions of power adequately or not. It seems to me that one way that ‘power’ in a largely digital visual culture can be thought through is by asking about the ‘power geometries’ that structure its circulations: what sorts of patterns are there in those circulations and how to they structure certain forms of agency while mitigating against others? The Guardian’s recent report on the languages of the Internet is a great example of mapping those circulations to show their situatedness and partiality.

3) the book also now has two chapters, not one, about methods that deal with large numbers of images. The first remains content analysis, which now also includes a discussion of Lev Manovich’s cultural analytics. The second is a chapter on digital  research methods, based on Richard Rogers’s definition in his book Digital Methods. Again, this seemed a necessary response to contemporary digital visual culture – how long can we go on looking at handfuls of images when everyday is mediated by thousands?

4) having said that, digital research methods don’t seem to work as tools for analysing the images carried by social networks – yet. It also seems very difficult to track the patterns of images’ digital circulations.

5) the whole data visualisation thing – so popular in newspapers and on coffee tables – doesn’t really seem to have hit the social sciences yet, either as an interesting thing to study or as a way of presenting data. (Though there are some exceptions to this, including lots of exciting mapping projects by geographers – yay GIS. I never ever thought I would be saying that, having been trained as an undergraduate to see GIS as the epitome of postivist, empiricist tech designed at the behest of the US military, but there you go.)

6) visual research methods people continue to swither between claiming photographs are useful because they carry loads of accurate information, and that they are useful because they evoke nameless affects beyond words. I can’t help thinking that there’s bit of a contradiction here, that somebody somewhere should really think through, particularly in the light of Johanna Drucker’s polemic against visually seductive data visualisations… on the other hand, as I argued in my Sociological Review essay, perhaps this indecision doesn’t really matter – images do all sorts of things in contemporary visual culture, including the small corner of it constituted by visual research methods, so I probably really shouldn’t expect consistency.

7) I am still not sure about keeping the chapter on psychoanalysis in the book. While many social researchers remain interested in psychoanalysis (see the recent collection Psychoanalytic Geographies, for example), it no longer has anywhere near the sway that it had in film studies scholarship twenty years ago, I think. So it seems to have lost some relevance as a method of analysis. On the other hand, it’s the only chapter in the book that systematically pursues feminist insights, and a version of Mulvey’s male gaze actually seems central to the recent resurgence in popular feminism. Plus, why follow fashion. Any thoughts, dear readers?

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

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.


digital revolution at the Barbican London

I went to see the Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London yesterday – it was great.  Bit of a hotch-potch of early computing history (though when I say early, it really started from the 1970s), digital art, computer games history and some current indie games, clothing+software, movie special effects… which reflects the pervasiveness of digital media now, I guess, and a lot of fun as a result.  The exhibition microsite here has several videos and images if you can’t get to London to see the show.

One thing that struck me about it was that, while the first section on media archeology paid a lot of attention to hardware – keyboards, consoles, processors – that attention almost entirely disappeared in the later sections on games, art and special effects.  A couple of the art pieces played on the materiality of computing, but most of the works on show were materialised mainly as screens and projections of various kinds.  So a lot of the final effects relied on a sort of magic: your ‘projection’ as a shadow with huge wings; your ‘reflection’ with steam coming out of your eyes (that was weird).  Not quite sure what to make of that: the conventions of the art exhibition kicking in? the complexity of the software and hardware (which was suggested by a film showing how the special effects of the film Gravity were made)? or maybe that for many, all that would be visible would be a big Apple Mac?



sculpting space with light: the corporate, the popular and the mass

I caught up with Tim Edensor recently, a cultural geographer based at Manchester Metropolitan University and probably the only person in the academy who can greet me with ‘hello missus’ and get away with it (seriously, he is the only person, so don’t even think about it).

Tim has been one of the most significant contributors to the development of cultural geography for some time now, with a series of books, papers and edited collections including Industrial Ruins (and there’s an associated website here), Urban Theory Beyond the West (co-edited with Mark Jayne) and Geographies of Rhythm.

His recent work has been focussing on light, particularly light installations and contemporary artists working with light.  He curates a blog with Steve Millington called MMU Light Research, which is fascinating and eclectic, carrying everything from reactions to James Turrell’s Skyspace in Kielder Forest Park, UK, to enthusiasm for houses swathed in light bulbs at Christmas time.


Tim’s arguments focus on the beauty of light, its affective power to generate strong moods and atmospheres and its ability to engage people, whether to contemplation in Kielder forest or to conviviality along the promenade of Blackpool, a seaside resort in the northwest of the UK (there’s a great blog here on the Blackpool illuminations).

I’m interested in how light is so important now to so many urban redevelopment projects.  Architects work with lighting designers on prestigious new developments; permanent light installations are seen as an effective way to revamp or enliven tired urban spaces; temporary installations are often part of art interventions into urban spaces.  The global company of designers, planners and engineers, Arup, for example, has a whole section of its website devoted to its lighting design work, including this video, which notes that light “in the right hands, light enhances, sculpts and inspires”.

Like Tim, I’m sceptical of critics who would dismiss the increasing integration of lighting into urban redevelopment simply as the latest example of neoliberalism’s spectacularisation of cities; Hal Foster seems to do this in his book The Art-Architecture Complex, for example.  Tim points to the continuing vitality of popular forms of urban lighting to challenge this dystopic account.

And I wonder if this might be one context in which to think about the constant stream of photographs that get taken in cities.  After all, LEDs aren’t the only form of technology that ‘enhances, sculpts and inspires’ with light: so do cameras.  And thus so do all those gazillions of photos that get snapped in city streets.  Is this one way to think about the patterns shown in Lev Manovich‘s Instagram Cities, for example, which are part of his Phototrails project?  Instagram Cities shows what a city looks like in 50,000 Instagram photographs by visualising tiny thumbnails of each photo, distributed according to its colours’ hue and saturation.  Phototrails suggests that its visualisations of so many Instagram photos shows the temporal rhythm of mass urban photography, which is true.  But you could also understand the patterns of light and colour revealed in Manovich’s methods as a popular counter to the designed lightscapes of urban capital: each one of those photos a tiny piece of  light, thousands of them accumulating into an alternative urban lightscape.

Architects, lighting designers, homeowners, engineers, artists, cameraphone owners, then, all sculpting spaces with their various lighting technologies.

architectural atmospheres

I’m in the process of starting a new research project with Monica Degen and Clare Melhuish, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council.  We’re looking at how architects are using digital visualising technologies when they design buildings, but also in their pitches to clients and in the branding of their studios; we’re particularly interested to find out if these new technologies are integral to the affective feel of architectural practices.  You can find out more information about the project here.

cruel optimism – in a bookshop near you, as well as everywhere else

I’m very excited to learn that Lauren Berlant’s new book Cruel Optimism is now out.

Berlant’s work has for some time been interested the affect of the everyday, and she argues that most of everyday stuff now exists in a state of ‘cruel optimism’: “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing”.  This is a problematic that many sorts of feminism have grappled with, of course, for a long time, and Berlant focusses very precisely on how we might think about the politics of everyday affect.  Her writing is dense, sometimes, but that matches the paradoxicality of an optimism – about money, love, life – that’s also cruel.  Can’t wait to read her work on this theme gathered together.

I was looking again today at one of my favourite books on family photography (of a sort): Patrizia di Bello’s Women’s Albums and Photography in Victorian England: Ladies, Mothers and Flirts.  Bello also explores how some Victorian women – highly constrained by their gender roles but, in this case, highly privileged by their wealth – used photographs as a way of picturing and performing their own desires, to be ladies, mothers and flirts.  Bello is grappling with the same sorts of issues as Berlant, then, although using a very different body of theory to do so.

What I’m looking forward to finding out in Berlant’s book is, I suppose, a contemporary version of Bello’s problematic: what to do with cruel optimism, and in particular how not to domesticate or privatise it.  I hope that a hundred and fifty years of feminist thought and action will mean that, unlike the women Bello discusses, Berlant is able to envision a strategy that’s more than just making things look different.

visual methods and the nonrepresentational

I’ve just read the latest posting on my Open University colleague Clive Barnett’s blog.  The blog is called Pop Theory and it’s great, basically. Read it!

What caught my attention this evening was Clive’s neat dissection of a widespread assumption in a bit of influential human geography theory: that visual methods are somehow better at capturing/evoking/indicating the affective/nonrepresentational/ineffable.  This assumption has taken hold well beyond the small corner of human geography that Clive is focussing on, in fact.  A lot of discussion of visual methods are based on the claim that if people being researched are given a camera and told to photograph what matters to them, the photographs produced will somehow avoid the pitfalls of the ‘representational’ that dog talk.

I’ve always thought this was a very dodgy assumption.  It’s always seemed to me to be pretty obvious that photographs, of course, can be put to work to show the affective/ineffable; but they can also be put to work to make rigorous arguments, celebrate a birthday or describe cell structures.  They don’t inherently show anything in any particular way.  Conversely, talk and written text can be extraordinarily powerful in evoking the affective/ineffable, as well as making rigorous arguments, celebrating a birthday and describing cell structures.

Clive says, “the idea that visual methods somehow avoid the ‘representational’ – let’s call it the ‘interpretative’ for clarity’s sake – is based on a massively embarrassing philosophical error (and that’s leaving aside obvious points about technical mediation and framing): just looking at an event, an action, a scene, is not enough to tell you what that event, action, or scene actually is (i.e. what practice it belongs to).” Images still need interpretation if they are to communicate something.  This is true of all photos, for example: family photos have the family talk; art photos have their critical texts; pictures of the ineffable have affect theory, to make them show some things and not others.

I’d also like to elaborate on another of Clive’s points.  Specifically, why, in order to avoid the representational, are cameras so popular in visual research methods?  (Maps, for example, or scatter diagrams, never seem to feature in discussions of the affinity of ‘the’ visual with ‘the nonrepresentational’.)  I wonder if it’s because making photographs is seen as both easy and popular.  Indeed, I wonder if making photographs is seen as easy because it’s so popular.  Which leads me on to one of the most irritating things about current discussions of visual methods: which is that they pay very little attention to the skills and savvy that research participants might bring to the method.  Participants are asked to draw maps and take photographs and make films as if they had never opened an A to Z, seen a family snap or been to the movies.   This uninterest in the visual skills of research participants might be understood, then as another example of what Clive describes as “the disdain shown towards the viewpoints, opinions, perspectives – the words – of ordinary informants in cutting-edge cultural theory these days”.

Now, in fact a lot of visual research methods use photographs as ways of generating informants’ talk – talk about pretty much anything, in fact, which is rather different from the particular body of work that Clive is criticising.  Nonetheless, there is a sense in which visual research methods are being defended as being able to get more and better data for analysis by researchers, while too little attention is being given to the ways in which research participants themselves might use visual images for all sorts of effects, including creating articulate knowledge as well as inefffable emotion.  Perhaps a little more attention to the fact that social scientists are not the only ones creating diverse understandings of ‘the social’ might not go amiss.