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, 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

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.


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.

new paper on CGIs as postcolonial visualisations

Earlier this month, Clare Melhuish, Monica Degen and I published another paper from our ESRC-funded project ‘Architectural atmospheres’, which looked at how computer generated images intervene in the architectural design process.  This paper focusses particularly on how such images might be the sites for the postcolonial visualisation of urban redevelopment projects.

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a model and CGIs of the Msheireb Downtown project, photographed in early 2011

The paper is called “‘The real modernity that is here’: understanding the role of digital visualisations in the production of a new urban imaginary at Msheireb Downtown, Doha”, and it’s out in City and Society volume 28 number 2.  Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores how Computer Generated Images (CGIs) have enabled the visualisation and negotiation of a new urban imaginary in the production of a large-scale urban development project in Doha, Qatar. CGIs were central not only to the marketing but also the design of Msheireb Downtown. Our study of their production and circulation across a transnational architectural and construction team reveals how their digital characteristics allowed for the development of a negotiated, hybridised urban imaginary, within the context of a re-imaging and re-positioning of cities in a shifting global order. We suggest that CGIs enabled the co-production of a postcolonial urban aesthetic, disrupting the historical Orientalist gaze on the Gulf region, in three ways. Firstly, they circulate through a global network of actors negotiating diverse forms of knowledge from different contexts; secondly, they are composed from a mix of inter-referenced cultural sources and indicators visualising hybrid identities; and thirdly, they evoke a particular urban atmosphere which is both place- and culture-specific, and cosmopolitan. The study emphasises the importance of research into the technical and aesthetic production processes which generate new urban spaces in the context of global market-led growth; and, by considering the circulation of CGIs between sites, contributes to the development of “a more properly postcolonial studies” (Robinson 2011, 17).

visualising the smart city as flow and glow

Earlier this year, I wrote a chapter for a book called Compact Cinematics – it’s edited by Pepita Hesselberth and Maria Poulaki and will be out from Bloomsbury early next year.  The chapter is called ‘Screening smart cities: managing data, views and vertigo’.  It’s a short chapter – Pepita and Maria hit upon the conceit of asking contributors to write compact pieces on examples of compact cinema, so we were given just 2,500 words – and it focuses on just one example of how smart cities are being visualised now: a promotional digital animation created by ISO Design for Siemens called Future Life.  What I explore in that chapter is why the animation is a really interesting example of the spatial and visual relations through which the smart city is being imagined into existence.



As well as on YouTube, you can view the animation on a panoramic screen in Siemens’s exhibition space in London, The Crystal.  It purports to show London, New York and Copenhagen in 2050, and it’s really provocative for thinking about how future cities are being imagined now.  And while in some ways the visuals are very familiar, with lots of pale white and grey buildings, lots of windows, thousands of trees and screens of all kinds, sunny skies and happy people, all managed from control centre using a holographic model of the city, there are also some rather more interesting aspects to this vision.

In my chapter I focus on the visuality and spatiality of the animation.  I think the visuality exemplifies what Thomas Elsaesser suggests are the ‘default values of digital visuality’: an immersive mobility in which the frame dissolves and the spectator is transported into the image.  The spatiality is thus highly and smoothly mobile, as the animation’s point of view shifts and glides up and down and over and through.  But there’s more to say about this animation, which in a longer chapter I would have explored.

For example, throughout the animation its types of visual content smoothly morph from one to another, from landscape photograph (or at least a photo-realistic computer generated image) to a 3D massing model, to a luminous flow of data or energy in a black empty space, to an aerial photographic view.  This visual profligacy – in which what were once very different kinds of images, wtih distinct materialisations, uses and ways of being seen are now available to a digital visualiser as a kind of drop-down visual menu, to be selected and used at will – also seems to me to be typical of digital visuals, though not many exemplify it to the extreme as this animation does.  There’s also a lot of interesting things to think about in terms of the temporality of this vision.  It’s a vision of the future seen through the current favoured aesthetic of architectural and real-time data visualisations; and a future which seems to have no past but also no sense of its own time passing, since nothing in its urban environments seems to have aged.

And in terms of things ageing – that chapter has already aged in my eyes, after I talked about the animation in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago, as a guest at the University of Amsterdam’s wonderful School for Cultural Analysis.  It’s not the first time I’ve shown the animation to academics, and  audiences always bring their own interpretations to the animation, of course.  A favourite game that developed in several previous audiences has been ‘spot the visual reference’: audience members like to discuss what influenced the animation, and the list they’ve developed collectively is long, from Disney to Bauhaus, from Hollywood superhero movies to nineteenth-century panoramas, from computer games to maquettes – and as I’ve already suggested, that eclecticism is part of what makes the animation uniquely digital I think.  It’s a high-end, smoothly edited, elegantly visioned, visual mash-up.

In Amsterdam, though, I got rather different kind of questions – closer to what the animation might be doing with audiences less familiar with the relatively recent cultural history of a small part of the world, I think.  My favourite came from Judith Naeff from Radboud University.   I’d always thought of the floating point of view that’s performed by much of the animation, hovering in a slightly wobbly way, engine buzzing quietly in the background, over cities pictured in various ways, was the viewpoint from a helicopter.  Judith, though, made a different and much better suggestion: that the animation inhabits the viewpoint of a drone camera.  Absolutely.  It’s a machinic vision, mediated not only by a camera (apparently) but also by a mobile machine: a hypermediated vision that’s increasingly shaping urban spaces.

You can read my chapter on the Future Life animation  here.  And here’s the Elsaesser reference:

Elsaesser, T., 2013. The “return” of 3-D: on some of the logics and genealogies of the image in the twenty-first century. Critical Inquiry, 39(2), pp.217–246.

spotted at Cambridge station – cut-and-pasted people talk back!

I always keep my eye out for building site billboards and their shiny (or not so shiny) digital visualisations to add to my collection, but at Cambridge station on Saturday I got a surprise. Someone has added speech bubbles to the figures cut-and-pasted into this hoarding.

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I took the photo above in June; below is the hoarding on 17 October.


And here are some of bubbles in close-up.


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And finally, one that not many critics of this sort of glamourising of urban redevelopment schemes seem to consider:

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I have no idea who made this intervention, but my hat goes off to you.

to be invisible or not to be invisible: that is the power. or is it?

I’ve been pondering the rhetoric of ‘invisibility’ that surrounds so much critical discussion of digital technologies, particularly those that intersect with our everyday lives: the software that ‘hides’ behind smartphone screens, for example, or the intangibility of the ‘cloud’ that stores our photos and our contacts, or the invisibility of digital infrastructure. As a both Shannon Mattern and Adam Rothstein have pointed out recently, it’s a rhetoric that’s also used to describe an awful lot of other kinds of infrastructure too at the moment.

Ingrid Burrington, Networks of New York: An Internet Infrasructure Field Guide (2015)

Ingrid Burrington, Networks of New York: An Internet Infrasructure Field Guide (2015)

A number of things niggle me about this.

First, the assumption in a lot of this talk about invisible things is that to be invisible is A Bad Thing. It seems to be assumed that only the powerful hide behind a cloak of secrecy, obscuring their nefarious ways (Rothstein is particularly explicit on this).

Secondly, the rhetoric of invisibility of power implies that the adequate critical response is to make things visible. This creates a politics of revelation, if you like, in which describing something is also to rip away its secrecy and expose the working of the powerful. Algorithms, servers, databases, elites, tax havens, financial trading… all of these must be rendered visible, somehow, brought into the light, and thereby understood, and if that is done then power relations will also be seen for what they are.

Third, the rhetoric of invisibility thus implies that there is only one alternative, which is visibility. It seems to invite a binary positioning in which something is either hidden or seeable. This implies that description is an adequate critical strategy: describe something carefully, bring it out from the shadows, make it visible, will also make it understandable.

Ok, at this point I have to say that this is the sort of writing that the blog post was invented for – I can say these things without needing to reference any specific examples! – and I can also wonder what part the legacy of Latour is playing in all this, with his enthusiasm for description as a research method, again without having to build the citation trail. Still, having started the (most likely) over-generalising, let’s continue.

Because as Shannon’s essay also hints, there are a number of difficulties with this sort of rhetoric.

First, there are different kinds of visibility and invisibility, it seems to me. Sure, there’s the literal/material/physical hiding-behind-some-kind-of-screen kind of invisibility: the unnamed buildings in which high-finance trades, or the military surveills (or refugees hide – see my final point below). But there are also other kinds: material things not visible to the human eye, like wireless signals (has a history been written of the emergence of the the wireless icon, anyone?). And there are also things that are abstractions: commodity value, for example (for an interesting discussion of that kind of invisibility, see Stephen Cunningham’s essay in the Journal of Visual Culture in 2013). This means that making something ‘visible’ is not straightforward. There must be different strategies for it, depending on the kind of invisibility that’s being challenged.

Second, as Shannon and Adam point out, a lot of these things are not in fact ‘invisible’, because an awful lot of (cultural) work is being done to represent them: popular books like Andrew Blum’s Tubes, that describe the internet’s physical infrastructure; the current obsession with algorithms; projects like James Bridle’s recent project Seamless Transitions that used digital visualisation to picture the secret places where UK immigration cases are decided; Timo Arnall’s film Immaterials: Light Painting WiFi; Adrian Mackenzie’s essays on financial trading in the London Review of Books. It seems to me, though, that the criticality being offered of these various projects are not being discussed very much at all, in part because of that prevailing assumption that simply exposing something is enough. But how is something exposed? How is it made visible? What are the effects of different kinds of making visible? And this is not only a question of aesthetic form, it is also a question of how images are seen, displayed, encountered, understood and even – as Shannon remarks – acted upon.

Third, it would of course be possible to argue that equating power with secrecy is a massive red herring because real power lies in full view as the prevailing commonsense. Indeed, ‘power’ can also be exercised in the act of making things visible. Re-reading the first chapter of my book Visual Methodologies earlier this year was an interesting experience in relation to this point: first written in the late 1990s, it has quite a strong line about the importance of seeing to Western and imperialising claims to knowledge (readers of a certain age will remember ‘the god trick’, cited by Rothstein only in order to claim that the artists’ projects he discusses are not guilty of it – or, more accurately, that they say they are not). But obscured buildings and infrastructures are not invisible to the people who work in them; do their views count as Art? And a recent example of the way that making something visible can also be a claim to power was evident in the debates that followed the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices, of course.

Finally, even if it is the case that the dynamics of power are hidden, it’s not only the powerful that require invisibility on occasion, as all the debates about online privacy suggest. Ok, so privacy is not quite the same as secrecy. But nonetheless, I seem to recall a powerful argument made by Peggy Phelan at the height of the AIDS crisis about the right not to be visible, the right to not to be seen. How does that relate to the current suspicion about invisibility?

All that is just to say, really, that the visual field is complicated: certainly more complicated than a simple division between that which is visible and good and that which is invisible and bad.

rendered people: ghosts, omens or atoms?

I came across this post by a convoluted route a couple of weeks ago, my attention caught by the notion of ‘render ghosts’: it’s a lecture by James Bridle called ‘Waving at the Machines’.  ‘Render ghosts’ is the term James uses to refer to the photographs of people that have been inserted into digital visualisations of new urban developments via PhotoShop.

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a visualiser’s screens, as he inserts new figures into a visualisation of a new urban space

I’m currently working on a research project that looks at how those digital visualisations are made, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council.  You can see a great collection of render ghosts, courtesy of James’s lecture, here, as well as on most billboards surrounding building sites in a city near you.

The lecture is part of a larger argument about a new, digital aesthetic – The New Aesthetic, indeed – and the render ghosts are for James only a segue into that argument.  But the phrase struck me because it feels quite different from how I’ve been seeing those people in the hundreds of visualisations I’ve been looking at over the past year and more.  To me, they haven’t been ghosts but rather omens; not traces of past people inserted into a present, but rather present people transported into the futures visualised in these images.  They are photographs of real people, inserted into images of as-yet-unbuilt urban places.

I’ve always thought of them as omens, omens of a future urbanity: the mode of inhabiting cities promised by this sort of development project.  And thus far I’ve been thinking mostly about what it is they’re shown doing: which is always and only chilling, drinking coffee, playing, shopping, strolling and drifting.  All rather pleasant, if bland.

But the notion of ghosts does emphasise something else that’s struck me about them: their loneliness.  Despite being created to picture sociable places, public places, they’ve never evoked to me the sort of public that urban scholars are so keen on: a public that’s all about encounters, participation, the rubbing up against difference and otherness, the frictions and engagements and troubles and pleasures of the public.  Instead, these cut-and-pasted figures always feel isolated from each other.  They can be cut-and-pasted in groups, of course, and that sometimes lends a sense of sociability; but mostly they drift as isolated individuals.

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This impression that they’re atoms floating in a void is probably enhanced by the fact that I know they’ve been taken from other places and inserted into these scenes; also, perhaps, because the plastic people used in architectural models are also haunting these visualisations; and, too, it’s an image of a certain sort of denuded public space, where people just move along, glancing, being glanced at, but not really interrupted in any way.

Which is quite appropriate for these spaces which, as yet, are only visualisations, I guess.