dust and smears: materialising digital images part 2

I just came across another take on the task of rendering digital imagery more material, more messy and more fallible.  This is a photography project by Meggan Gould, reported by Wired magazine here.  It’s volume 5 of a series of works called Surface Tension, and it’s simply called iPad.

one of the iPad images from the Surface Tension series by Meggan Gould

one of the iPad images from the Surface Tension series by Meggan Gould

What Meggan has done is wait for the screens of her family’s iPads to get all smeared and sticky with fingerprints, then scanned the screen and manipulated the image to remove the screen’s content.  The result are images of what is usually completely invisible, and designed to be so, as Timo Arnell points out here: the touchscreen.  The screen is made visible by the way that the images show only the traces of the taps and swipes of the fingers that have touched the screen: there’s no sign of the fingers themselves, or of the what the fingers were were getting the screen to show.  No bodies and no content, these images are pure interface.

Except, of course, that they are themselves digital images, and there’s no sign on Meggan’s beautifully designed website that their viewers are in turn being invited to smear her images (and our screens).  There’s an interesting double-play, then, in these images, in the way that they simultaneously challenge and reaffirm the immateriality of the touchscreen.  Intriguing.

dust settles on visualisations of failed urban futures

I doubt anyone really believes in the visions of future urban spaces that are offered to us in the digital visualisations of new urban developments.  Nonetheless, there’s something strangely haunting about those visualisations when they start to look tattered and battered, dusty and faded, when they’re obscured by scaffolding and have other posters and signs stuck onto them.  The glossy futures they picture look best on screens; once inserted into the urban spaces they are meant to show (the future of), their seductive gloss immediately starts to tarnish.

I’ve already blogged about one artist who’s worked on the failure of these images to deliver their promise in the very spaces of their imagination: Randa Mirza and her project Beirutopia. Randa takes photographs of digital visualisations in actual urban spaces, and carefully includes signs of those spaces in her photograph – tatty roads and bashed-up cars, real bits of trees and cars and scooters – as well as photographing billboards with their images torn and sagging.

Now, thanks to Olga Smith, I’ve discovered another photographic project also working to disrupt the perfect finishes of those computer generated images.  This one is by photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg, and was on show in London earlier this year.  You can see some photographs of the installation here.  They look in particular at CGIs of a project in London for a 300m high office block, now on hold, paused at seven storeys.


Olga has interviewed Rut about the project for Photomonitor.  As Rut notes, “dust unmasks the fantasy of the CGI once it is placed in the public territories of the city. The CGI becomes hostage to the materiality of the city, which very quickly covers the images with dust, dirt, pollution. So the CGI’s smooth surface becomes stained”, and her images play with that staining, its materiality and also its temporality. And in the way many of them stare close up at the surface of the CGIs and play with how various kinds light fall on the CGIs in situ, they also strike me as emphasising the way the CGIs carry a certain theatricality: they provide a backdrop to the staging of urban life.

Rut’s work thus serves explores the specific materiality of these sorts of images when they appear in urban spaces – their placement, their lighting, their relation to the urban atmosphere – and suggests that in all these aspects, the visualisations, for all their embedding deep in the property markets of contemporary capitalism, are also oddly vulnerable.

digital visualisations of new urban developments and the language that frames them

Just found the fantastic Development Aesthetics blog curated by Crystal Bennes (thankyou, Twitter).   Crystal collects examples of the hoardings that surround building sites.  Looks like she’s more interested in (though that should probably read “deeply sceptical of”) the empty advertising language on the hoardings than the visualisations they also display.  But it’s a great site for those of us interested in this new form of imaging urban space.  Here’s one of my favourites, from east London.  I share Crystal’s confusion about what a ‘sky level apartment’ might be…


Like Crystal, I’m also collecting images of hoardings with visualisations whenever I seem them, snapping them on my phone.  What I’m finding though is that a lot of the time, the image is obscured in some way: either something else has been stuck over it (in fact you can seen that on the left-hand side of the hoarding in Crystal’s image above); or a doorway has been cut through the hoarding; or the view is obstructed by scaffolding or traffic; or you can only glimpse the image through your car windscreen or bus windowframe as you zoom past.  And then there’s also the limits of my cameraphone (though I quite like the contrast between my wonky framing and low res photos and the compositional gloss of the visualisations).  I’m going to try and put some sort of photo-essay together on that theme later in May.  Watch this space.

roughing up digital visualisations of new urban developments

I was in London at the weekend and amazed by the amount of new building going on, and by the numbers of digital visualisations I saw: every billboard around every building site seemed to be plastered with them.

billboard 1

‘Participation’ is often seen to be one of the key characteristics of ‘new media’ in ‘convergence culture’, particularly in the work of Henry Jenkins, for example.  And in their production, these visualisations are indeed collaborations between lots of people, including architects, visualisers and planners (and advertising standards authorities, indirectly, I think.  Most of the images I saw in London had a line of text somewhere on them pointing out that they were, in fact, digital images, which I would have thought was obvious given that they are showing buildings that don’t yet exist… but perhaps the developers are protecting themselves against future litigation by people who’ve bought the apartments they’re advertising, claiming that the actual building doesn’t look like the visualisation suggested it would).

What I’ve never come across is any work that ‘participates’ somehow in the final versions of these seductive marketing images, the ones that appear on billboards – until now, when Christoph Lindner kindly pointed me in the direction of Randa Mirza‘s project Beirutopia.  She takes photographs of these digital visualisations in actual urban spaces – and carefully includes signs of those spaces in her photograph – tatty roads and bashed-up cars, real bits of trees and cars and scooters – as well as photographing billboards with their images torn and sagging.  Her photos interrupt the glossy surface created by the visualisation by the simple device of inserting some other visual texture.  (She also titles each image using variations of global property marketing-speak, which makes its banality very obvious.)

luxury time and space, by Randa Mirza

luxury time and space, by Randa Mirza

It’s a great project, which is careful also not to simply pose the ‘reality’ of existing urban spaces with the ‘virtual’ spaces of the digital visualisations.  They’re all constructed images, after all, as Randa says. The project also raises the interesting question of what sort of ‘participation’ this is.  Randa’s photographs are themselves displayed as billboards in Beirut, Christoph tells me: so they are participating by intervening in the visual culture of the city’s everyday spaces, as a kind of visual commentary on their neighbours.  A bit of welcome rough in the smooth surfaces of these visions of spectacular urbanism.

The Handbook of Visual Culture

A copy of the new Handbook of Visual Culture arrived on my desk a few weeks ago, edited by Ian Heywood and Barry Sandywell and published by Berg.  The beautiful cover is a painting by Mark Francis called Episodic.

I have a chapter in the Handbook called ‘The question of method: practice, reflexivity and critique in visual culture studies’.  I first drafted it a while back, and the Journal of Visual Culture didn’t like it all; Ian and Barry, on the other hand, liked it a lot and are kind enough to say that it “makes a strong case for other paradigms of meaning and interpretation based upon situated practices, active audience reception and context-sensitive hermeneutics” (on page 535 – yes, 535 – of the Handbook).  While I’m enough of a pedant to have some quibbles with parts of that phrasing (particularly ‘reception’, which sounds rather passive and misses the co-constitution of seer and seen), the chapter certainly does argue against the implicit semiological methodology of much visual culture studies in broadly those terms.

The Handbook is full of interesting essays, including a nice one by Fiona Summers on photography and visual culture.  Recommended.

reading the ‘situation room photograph’

Just looked at Marco Bohr’s visual culture blog and his commentary on the photograph of Obama watching the attack on Osama Bin Laden’s hideout.

Marco has also a collected a great set of spoofs of this photo on that post.  Here’s one I found:

Private Eye is a satirical magazine in the UK. Here it’s commenting rather cruelly on the fate of the Lib Dems, the junior partner in the current national government coalition, in the local elections held earlier in May this year.  Marco describes these sorts of spoofs as constituting “a wave of creativity (and mockery)”, and he’s right.  But what does that do to how we interpret the photograph itself?

The classic cultural studies approach to a photograph like this would be to isolate specific elements of it and discuss how they relate to wider structures of meaning: a mix of semiology and discourse analysis.  (Although of course one of the very interesting things about contemporary visual culture is that an awful lot of people can do this sort of analysis now, not just tenured profs in cultural studies departments: just listen to a radio phone-in about ‘the media’.)  Marco does something like this when he discusses the implications of how the photo pictures the figures of Barack Obama, Brigadier General Marshall B. Webb (the guy in the uniform) and Hilary Clinton. Looking at Clinton, for example, he suggests that her face is showing “tension, shock, and maybe even fear”, and since she’s the only person in the room showing any emotion, he suggests that the photograph is drawing on and reproducing the idea that women are more emotional and less rational than men.

Well, yes, I get that.  Except… is she looking very emotional?  The more I look at the photo, the less sure I am that she is.  Somewhere in his fantastic book on photography, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes says that the photograph is “matte and somehow stupid”, and that the more you look at one the less you see in it.  This photo reminds me of that comment; I’m just not sure how to read Hilary’s face and hand.  So, is there a risk that, as good cultural studies scholars, when we read gender stereotypes into images, we are ourselves reproducing dominant discourses of gender?  Moreover, how are we supposed to interpret the sheer silliness of some of the spoofs of that photo?  What are we to make of the hunk pasted into the back of the room, or the one where everyone is wearing the hat that Princess Beatrice wore to the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William recently?

While it’s tempting sometimes to think that the main reason so many cultural studies scholars have now abandoned the interpretation of representation is because that skill is now very widespread — hence to preserve their mystique they now deal with philosophers and theorists far more abstruse than Stuart Hall ever was — thinking about what’s happened to the ‘situation room photograph’ also suggests some other reasons why critiquing the politics of representation can sometimes seem rather tired now.  First, there’s that concern that, in identifying oppressive representations, we are reproducing the power relations they picture, rather than dislodging them; secondly, there’s a sense that ‘dislodging power’ is rather beside the point of the joyful daftness of the spoofs that so many media images generate; and finally, there’s the perhaps rather more interesting issue of all that spoofing going on.  Perhaps the spoofing is the thing to explore, rather than — or maybe as well as — the meaning of the texts it produces.

I mean, just how did whoever made the hat spoof get all those hats at all those different angles?  How to approach the time, skill and energy that’s put into such spoofing?  And what are the effects when such spoofs travel into all sorts of different contexts, including, heaven help them, visual culture blogs like mine and Marco’s?