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

looking for culture in the unlikeliest of places: MK and smart

Milton Keynes, smart cities – and culture?! I’ve caught up with a fascinating video which made me pull these things together: it’s called Looking for Culture Through Economy, Through Capitalisation, Through Milton Keynes (LCTETCTMK for short. Well, kind of short). It’s directed by Sapphire Goss and was made as part of the Journal of Cultural Economy’s tenth birthday celebrations.

A whole bunch of people were involved in its production, including Liz McFall, Darren Umney, Dave Moats and Fabian Muniesa. It starts tongue firmly in cheek, saying that it’s exploring the notion of ‘culture’ in a place often thought not to have any: Milton Keynes. The film then discusses what culture is, how to spot it, how it was planned and designed in MK, and its relation to capital. All of this is animated by the presence of someone who kind of becomes another team member: Stuart Hall. The cultural theorist appears in a range of archive footage, and one of the film’s many pleasures is to see him animated, poised and as relevant as ever.

Another pleasure of the film is its rigour. This is a film about theory as much as it is about MK. Hence that clunky title. The arguments at the heart of the film are that culture remains a vitally important analytical category and that culture isn’t a thing. Culture can be The Arts, but the film is much more interested in culture as Hall understood it, as the ordinary, taken-for-granted meanings and values that animate everyday life. In that sense, culture is everywhere, mediating how we understand and what we see.

The film enacts that everywhereness, filtering its views of the city through odd edits, collaging and splicing, using fuzzy archive film and repeating images. There aren’t that many clear views of the city, and the ones that are offered – the planners’ models, architects’ drawings, drone footage of layouts and geometric patterns below – tend to be shown as existing only in those forms. Once they become realised as part of the city, or the camera gets down to ground level, the clarity of their design and its intentions goes awry. They go fuzzy, multiple, the idealistic plans never quite work out, buildings fail and social markets are abandoned. It’s noted that capital should be seen culturally, as an approach to making value. And then there are a few closing remarks about how culture is now increasingly also capitalised as things are seen more and more in terms of the value they might realise in the future.

All this is great on its own terms, and it’s wonderful to see the city provoking such careful and complicated thoughts.

It also got me thinking about how another of the city’s current manifestations – MK as a smart city – also needs to be thought of in terms of this understanding of culture. ‘Culture’ and ‘smart’ are in one way quite often brought together now, in discussions about various discourses about what smart city should be; there are now several discussions of how talk about and pictures of smart cities are riven through and through with values, visions, interpretations, truth claims and situated evidencing. The smart city as something that can create capital by innovating new products and making efficiencies is a strong theme too.

The more pervasive sense of culture, though, culture as everyday (rather than as something only marketeers and artists do) is less often explored. I was chairing a conference organised by Inside Government last week which was discussing how smart cities might transform service provision, and the day was full of the need to be brave, to take risks, to have vision, to make leaps of faith (as well as much more pragmatic discussions about mechanisms for collaboration between key stakeholders). (You can read my report on the day here.) Organisational culture, then, was actually at the centre of the discussion, that is, the everyday assumptions embedded into workplace practices.

But LCTETCTMK also suggests a more deep-seated relation between smart and culture. The film ends with Stuart Hall suggesting that, after the 1970s, the sphere of culture is in “permanent revolution”. There are no set or stable frameworks of meaning now that can endure without challenge or renewal. Here then is a final thought provoked by LCTETCTMK: how are smart cities part of current cultural transformations? They’re about capitalisation for sure and about changing organisational culture. Perhaps their particular transformation, though, is more about the sort of everyday life that a smart city enacts. Mobile (so much of it is about movement), individualised (the phone screen, the data dot), agglomerated (databases), fast (nobody lingers in smart cities), colourful (all those glowing screens), customisable (what are your preferences?), distributed (hello, platforms)… this is a more pervasive sense of cultural shift, enacted with and through smart things.

Any other thoughts on what it would mean to think of smart MK, or indeed any smart city, through the lens of LCTETCTMK’s sense of culture? Do watch the film and ponder. And you can find more about MK, culture and smart on OpenLearn, here.

 

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.

urban living labs, smart cities – and culture?

I spent a really interesting day at a workshop on Urban Living Labs in Brussels on last week. I’m currently PI of a large research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council called ‘Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes‘. The aim of the project is to carry out a series of close up, in depth analyses of how specific ‘smart technologies’ are embedding themselves (or not) in the town of Milton Keynes; in particular, we’re interested in how existing forms of social differentiation are being reproduced and how new forms are also emerging in that process.

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Milton Keynes is a new town, half way between London and Birmingham. It was founded in 1967, and its current population is around 260,000. From its beginning, it has always seen itself as an ‘urban laboratory’, and it has a long history of experimenting with innovations in energy and transport especially (the UK’s first solar-powered house went into action here in 1972, as did the UK’s first kerbside recycling collection service in 1992). More recently the city council has been very keen to attract new experiments into the city, under the rubric of ‘smart’. So for example, it’s one of the UK towns trialling driverless cars, and has developed a Data Hub with an innovation infrastructure to support local would-be entrepreneurs. It was really interesting at the workshop to hear Simon Marvin from the ‘Governance of Urban Sustainability Transitions: Advancing the Role of Living Labs‘ project place Milton Keynes into the wider landscape of living labs in Europe.

My own research interest in smart cities is kind of marginal to way that smart cities have been pitched and marketed, and also to the extensive practices of the diverse kinds of urban living labs that I learnt a lot about on the day.  I’m interested in how digital visualising technologies are shifting the way that urban spaces are experienced. So I’ve looked for example at how digital visualisations intervene in the urban design process, and more recently I’ve been examining what sort of visions of the smart city are being promoted by the tech companies selling smart hard and software on social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter.

Except that I don’t really think that these visualisations are that marginal to smart cities or to their close cousins, urban living labs, really. I think images and visions are actually very powerful ways in which certain kinds assumptions about what cities should be like in the future get normalised. So in lots of adverts for smart city tech, it’s assumed that everything important to a city’s functioning can be turned into reliable and secure data – including its people. It’s assumed that that data flows freely (most ads show data being beamed through the air via wifi networks). And it’s assumed that decisions about how to run a city are purely rational and technical ones of efficiency and sustainability.

The whole notion of a ‘lab’ on the face of it continues that commitment to technocratic solutions to urban challenges.  A lab assumes a place where conditions are controlled, data is gathered and analysed, and data is then shared with other scientists/labs in order to enhance knowledge. In fact, and of course, on all those countes cities are nothing like labs, as scholars like Andrew Karvonen and Bas van Heur (who were both at the workshop) have demonstrated. (Well, there is one similarity, now I come to think about it – both labs and smart cities tend to be run by men.)

What I did find surprising about the workshop day – and perhaps this is something generated by that whole notion of a town or city being understood as a lab – is that questions of culture and conflict weren’t broached at all. Smart cities are increasingly finding that to fulfill the vision of a good city that smart offers, the people who live in the city really have to be involved. That isn’t a process that can be achieved by data gathering. Instead, it’s one that involves how people feel about their city, how communication and engagement happens in the city, what histories of place and belonging shape the city.  All those are cultural things, not data things.

This is another reason why Milton Keynes will be such an interesting place to discover more about how smart technologies and polices actually work, because from its founding it has also had quite a distinctive vision of community development, trying to facilitate residents of the city to do what they want to do for their neighbourhoods. It’s an approach which has nurtured relatively high levels of voluntary action in the city, and we’ll be working with one of its leading organisations – Community Action MK – to work out just how that participatory culture is being mediated by smart technologies.

But, of course, neighbourhoods – let alone cities – are not full of one single group of people with the same interests, feelings, histories or agency. Not everyone in a smart city might agree about what kind of smart they want to be. ‘Smart citizens’ are not a homogeneous category, and I never got to grips during the workshop with how the notion of the lab would deal with radically opposed visions of what a lab might be experimenting to achieve. There are a lot of anxieties about data privacy in some places, for example, while in others research suggests that people are perfectly happy to give up ‘private’ data to commercial companies if it guarantees, say, a better bus service. How would a city-wide data hub negotiate between those positions?

The collaborative vision of urban improvement that’s at the heart of the smart city and the urban living lab is great, and was powerfully advocated by participants at the workshop who came from places with long histories of social democracy and welfare state support. But not all places – and cultures – have those histories, and even those that are seem to be under increasing challenge right now. So notions of cities as labs or as smart surely need to engage much more directly with the complexity of urban societies, the possibility that there will be (may be, at least) irreconcilable differences between different parts of those societies, and the role of values and priorities – culture! – in both of those.