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.

smart-vid

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.

being provoked by an essay on ‘what is 21st century photography’

I commented in passing in my previous post on the freedom that a blogpost offers: to write more loosely and widely than you can in an academic paper.  And along comes an outstanding blog post – well, a blog essay really – that demonstrates that in spades.  The post is Daniel Rubenstein‘s ‘What is 21st Century Photography‘ and it’s on The Photographers’ Gallery website.  It’s racy, provocative, covers several centuries, is stuffed full of quotable aphorisms, and has a clear argument to make.

I think that argument is very interesting.  Its key claim is that:

in a post-Fordist society the locus of political agency and of cultural relevance has shifted from the object – as visually arresting as it might be – to the processes that (re)produce and distribute the object. Processes, however, by their own nature, are less visible and less representational than objects. For that reason, it seems to me that if photography mainly concerns itself with representations of objects in space, it is losing its relevance in a world in which speed, acceleration, distribution and self-replication acquire a significance that overshadows the visual appearance of spaces.

Which leads to probably my favourite line in the whole essay.  If a photograph is now something that is just occasionally assembled from a wave of data that continually shapes all kinds of visual forms – then, says Daniel: “it has little in common with prints in black frames – these coffins of photography”. ‘Coffins’.  Fab.

The post has lots of insights and pleasures then, though I wasn’t sure about the ‘invisible puppet masters’ who are our ‘real rulers’, and I did feel that its recuperation of photography in its very final line – “photography is not a stale sight for sore eyes, but the inquiry into what makes something an image. As such, photography is the most essential task of art in the current time” – was bit of a failure of nerve.  Maybe photography is just past it?

All this interesting provocation is in sharp distinction to what I was going to discuss on this post, which is Nicholas Mirzoeff’s new book on visual culture, modestly called How To See The World.  I was sent this by the publisher so I perhaps shouldn’t look a freebie too directly in the mouth… but.  The book is bit of a mess, I think.  It attempts the sweeping overview but there’s no clear analytical framework, let alone theory, to guide it, and there are also some quite irritating – well, to be frank, just plain wrong – generalisations.  One of which is that images now are all about time. (We know this because an artist made an artwork with lots of clocks in it, apparently.)  As for example Hito Steyerl, and many others, myself included, argue, it is absolutely necessary now to have a sense of the spatiality of (what is better understood as) visual data, as well as its temporality: its form as a swarm, population or wave; its immersivity; its materialisations; and its geometry as a network.  I think one of the difficulties in Mirzoeff’s book is actually that he remains fixed on images as the problematic rather than these sorts of spatialities that articulate their production and circulation and use, so that he flits from place to place, example to example, without thinking about they might (or might not) join up in some way.

But that’s my query to Daniel too: what are the geographies to his account?  Where does the data move, pause and decay?  How is it circulating, and with what effects in different places?  And how are places themselves being reconfigured in this process?

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?

the production, composition, audiencing – and circulation – of images

I’ve been spending the first few weeks of this year thinking about how to revise my book on Visual Methodologies for its fourth edition.  Among other things, I’ve been thinking about what difference digital technologies – as both topic and tool – are making to its arguments.  And I’ve decided on at least one significant change for the fourth edition: the three sites through which the book organises its discussion of visual methods are now four.  The site of ‘circulation’ has been added to the sites of the production of an image, the image itself, the site(s) of its audiencing.  ‘Circulation’ is intended to emphasise that all images, to some extent or another, travel.  Images are mobile, and how they travel matters to what effects they have.

This isn’t an insight created by the development in the past few years of massive, extended social networking sites that now carry vast numbers of images between all sorts of different screens.  In fact, the keyword that I’ve attached to it in the book is the idea of a “visual economy”, which comes from anthropologist Deborah Poole‘s book on the way images travelled between the Andes and Europe between the seventeenth and the early twentieth century.

However, I do think that there are some methodological issues involved in looking at – or even thinking about – those huge hoards of online images that require an emphasis on their circulation.  I think it’s important that we pay attention to the work that goes into enabling that circulation, for example, in the workplaces where the labour is done to make those platforms feel so easy to use: the coders and the checkers, the servers and the cables.  Also, images on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook aren’t stored in some ginormous virtual contact sheet, and not every image has an equal chance of appearing on a Google Images search result screen.  Instead, how those images get seen is shaped by algorithmic patterns.  Search results are shaped by your previous searches, by your location, by what other people are also searching; and what you see on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat also depends on your social network.  I think we need to figure out methods that can show us, somehow, the patterns and processes through which those image collections are structured, just as twenty years ago Foucauldian historians like John Tagg and Alan Sekula showed us how filing systems and labels organised earlier forms of photography archives.

This is a problem with Lev Manovich‘s cultural analytics, I think: it engages with the huge numbers but does so by adding them all up, and creating collages of the total.  This shows us some interesting things – what Tokyo looks like in 50,000 Instagram images is provocative in terms of thinking about what a photograph now is, I think – but it doesn’t engage with the uneven distributions that shape the circulation of social media images at all.

50,000 Instagram photos from Tokyo, organized by brightness mean (radius) and hue mean (perimeter).

50,000 Instagram photos from Tokyo, organized by brightness mean (radius) and hue mean (perimeter). from phototrails.net

I don’t know where methods might be emerging from that could do that, or what they might look like, though – so please post a comment below if you do!