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).

smart city talk

I took part a month or so ago in an event organised by Georgina Voss and Wesley Goatley.  It was part of their Ground Resistance project at Milton Keynes International Festival, and as well as George and Wesley the panel also included Naomi Turner and Ramon Amaro.  We were discussing how smart city data, design, algorithms and advertising make a lot of assumptions about the sorts of social life that happens in smart cities.

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All our talks are now on Vimeo and you can acess Ramon’s here, Naomi’s here and mine here.  A video of the closing panel discussion is here.

Big Bang Data: some thoughts on an exhibition

I had a lot of fun a couple of weekends ago at the Big Bang Data exhibition.  It claims to show “how the data explosion is transforming our world”, and if it doesn’t manage quite that, it’s certainly worth a visit.  It’s on in London and its run has been extended to 20 March – not surprisingly, as it was packed out on the Saturday afternoon I visited.  Its website has lots of materials on things that are in the show if you can’t make it to London.

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There’s lots to say about it.  After a couple of artist installations to kick things off (Timo Arnall‘s Internet Machine and Ryoji Ikeda‘s gorgeous, entrancing Data.tron – and We Need Us by Julie Freeman is installed towards the show’s end), the exhibition was divided into zones that reflected pretty accurately a number of current academic ways of thinking about digital data: the materiality of ‘the cloud’; the ‘quantified self’; the massiveness of ‘big data’; ‘data for the common good’, looking at participatory uses of data and digital devices; ‘data is beautiful’.  Each zone was full of examples of different kinds of engagements with digital data, by artists and designers and activists, and there were also a few (rather gestural) citations of earlier, pre-digital examples of images doing apparently similar things.  There was also a massive ‘London Situation Room’, with a number of very large projections of various data streams from the city by Tekja, as well as two consoles with interactive screens of various kinds.

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London Data Streams by Tekja

The variety was fascinating.

However, the variety also served to obscure what I felt by the end was actually a rather uncritical approach to digital data.  Continue reading

exhibitions visualising digital data

There seem to be a few exhibitions around at the moment – as well as one that ran for a few weeks and closed at the end of November, in Riga, called Data Drift – that look at the intersection of digital data and digital visualisations of various kinds.  Maybe there’re always these sorts of exhibitions around and I just haven’t noticed them, but if there aren’t, it’s kind of interesting that I found four in the past month or so.

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One’s at Somerset House in London, focussing on data and called Big Bang Data, until the end of February.

Another is called Animated Wonderworlds at the Museum fur Gestaltung Schaudepot in Zurich.  It’s curated by Suzanne Buchan and runs til 10 January.  I was hoping to get to this one, but my plans were scuppered so I’ve had to make do with the exhibition catalogue and a YouTube video.  It’s focussed on animation rather than on digital data specifically but does include some data visualisations, and the catalogue has a great essay by Suzanne, which talks about just how pervasive digital animations are now.

And the third is at the Institute for Unstable Media (what a great name – though I guess all institutes are made of unstable media…) in Rotterdam.  Its title is Data in the 21st Century and it’s on until 14 February, exploring the frictions between ‘data’ and ‘reality’, according to its homepage.

As I haven’t actually been to any of these shows, this is more of a hand-wave than a proper blog post.  Interesting, though, that there’s so much work by artists, designers and digital humanists (Lev Manovich features in all but Digital Wonderlands, I think) using visualisations to interrogate data.  The claim that data – especially the big data sets generated by so much of the digital infrastructure of everyday life now – is understood more easily if it’s visualised is one that’s made very often.  I’m not so sure.  As others (like Johanna Drucker) have worried, once data is visualised, certain questions about it are prioritised over others.  A visualisation (as Suzanne Buchan argues about animations) invite affective responses, they let us “see the unseeable”, to quote Suzanne, and we can get carried away into their beautiful, glowing worlds.  That can be a wonderful thing.  But it also makes the robustness of the data, and the process of visualisation (both the technical process and the labour process) much harder to see, in fact.  Making something visible always seems to entail making something else much less visible.

looking at smarter London as smooth: simplified and friction-free flow

I visited the very interesting Smarter London exhibition at the Building Centre on Store Street, London last week. The exhibition is organised by New London Architecture with a range of other partners, including the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London.  Several large screens hang on the black walls of a dimly lit room, all looping various text and video projections related to London as a ‘smart city’. You can see most of the videos from the exhibition and download a report by the exhibition partners here.

The exhibition is based on a fairly minimal definition of ‘smart’ – “a smart city is one that uses data, technology and analytics to change the way we design, build and manage the city digital technologies” – and the exhibition is correspondingly diverse, though mostly focussed on various aspects of the built environment.  So, for example, and predictably, a lot of attention is given to big data and its real-time presentation, including dashboards like Greater London Authority’s London Dashboard (other products are available, including CASA’s City Dashboard) and animated 2D maps showing the distribution of various objects over various timescales, including, in London, buildings, Boris bikes and Blitz bombs. There are also  3D digital models of various cities, including Seattle as well as London; the London one is hooked up to what I assume was a Connect, so when you stand in front of it you can flap your arms and bank and wheel “like a pigeon” above London (this is going to help planners a lot, apparently).

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my arm failing to be captured as a pigeon while photographing the installation

Then there are a range of examples of mapping underground infrastructure, like cables and sewers and train tunnels, a digital model of Hammersmith flyover generated by laser-beam measurements, visualisations generated by projects using Building Information Modelling,  models of pedestrian flow across a bridge, analyses of tweets to show traffic flow… and the report has many more examples of ‘smart’ urban projects, including shopping apps and residential retrofits.

The exhibition clearly demonstrates the sheer diversity of ways in which digital technologies are shaping the design, management and experiencing of urban spaces.  In that sense, it’s a refreshing alternative to the visions of smart cities offered by big corporations like IBM, Cisco and Siemens, all of whom offer a much more integrated approach to the management of urban spaces using big data.

In other ways, however, the technologies, as they appear in this exhibition, visualised in various ways, have quite a few things in common.  One of them that struck me was how rarely pictures of people appeared in this exhibition’s images of ‘smart’.  There’s a clip from a tv news report showing construction workers using an augmented reality app on an iPad, a couple of talking head experts, a video (screenshot below) of lovely people smiling at an animated 3D model of buildings, and there was the pedestrian flow model. Other than that, these images either showed people converted into data points, or were entirely people-less.

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The images were also all somewhat abstract. Indeed, in the image above, the glowing 3D city appears as (what looks like) a photograph of a real city fades away. Otherwise there were very few photographs, and very few pictorial digital visualisations (though the report on the exhibition has more of the latter). Instead there were maps, diagrams of different kinds, and rather ‘reduced’ images, like the one above, of urban environments in which buses and buildings become simple cuboid shapes and sewers and tube lines became, literally, lines in empty 3D space. The 3D urban models were more complex, but still very stripped back.  Even when many of these visualisations showed very complex assemblages of objects, their individual components were simplified.  Most were animated, too, zooming you in and out and around and through buildings.

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This pared-down visual style is quite striking, and seems to permeate a lot of the commercial advertising for smart city technologies too. It conveys a minimalism, a feeling of efficiency and smoothness and even a kind of pleasure in  blemish-free surfaces and volumes.  There’s also an insistence on smooth flow in their animation.  The point of view in these images glides, swoops, revolves, even moves through walls, with nary a hesitation or trip – in the case of pigeon, if ‘you’ fly too low, the ‘building’ you’re about to ‘hit’ dissolves into Minecraft-like pieces.  There’s no friction in this world, no nubbly texture or glitchy stumbling.  (Paul Dourish recently tweeted about a whole range of ‘frictions’ this emphasis on smoothness of digital technologies obscures, for example software updates and incompatabilities,, dodgy wifi signals and reboots, using the hashtag #truthinadvertising.)   This perfectly echoes Hito Steyerl’s comments about digital images inducing a kind of free-fall effect in their viewers (my last blog post was about her fab book The Wretched of the Screen).

And Steyerl’s question about this mobile point-of-view could therefore be posed to this emerging visual aesthetic of ‘smart’: is this the latest incarnation of the god-trick of presuming to see everything from everywhere?  Or does it open out the possibilities of seeing things from different points of view?  More radically, perhaps, is this aesthetic suggesting that this is no longer about human spectators at all, since, as the literature on smart/sentient/intelligent cities never tires of pointing out, none of this software and digital infrastructure is visible to the human eye anyway?  In which case, the visitors to this exhibition are as invisible in its field of vision as the people (not) in its visualisations.

on tinkering with digital debris: the work of Hito Steyerl

I picked up a copy of Hito Steyerl’s book The Wretched of the Screen at the ICA bookshop in London when she had an exhibition there a few months ago.  She’s a video artist based in Berlin and her work is a brilliant commentary on the mediation of different kinds of visuality by digital technologies.  The most interesting piece  in the exhibition for me was called How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic .Mov File; you can see part 5 here.  It’s very articulate about the co-implication of digital cameras, image resolutions, entertainment and advertising (including, yes, architectural visualisations!).  It’s also kind of funny and downright weird in places, which disrupts the very easy binary model that so much current discussion about digital technologies and big data seem to be falling into, ie surveillance versus privacy, privacy versus open access, participation versus surveillance, etc etc etc.  Steyerl makes it all a bit less easy than that; her movie is in some ways actually not very didactic.

e-flux_Hito-Steyerl_364The book, which I’ve finally started reading, does a similar thing.  I haven’t read it all yet, but the opening chapters are very stimulating, especially the essay ‘In defense of the poor image’.  Steyerl talks there about the millions and millions of poor quality images that now circulate: aesthetically banal, low resolution, copied, compressed and altered, valueless debris that whizzes around the internet, “the trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores” (page 32).  As, she says, it is precisely their compression and speed of travel that makes this sort of image ideally suited to the contemporary visual economy in which attention is minimal and novelty is all.

But Steyerl continues, exploring how their dispersal across circuits of mobility also produces networks of viewers, spectators, who can dip and shift and alter poor images to suit their own ends.  Her account doesn’t evoke a radical grassroots challenging the digital corporations, so much as a rather aimless browsing and tinkering, which may or may not produce effects, further circulations, that might, or might not, be inventive of something new.

This seems to me to be closer to what’s happening now than the us-versus-them analyses that appears so common in discussions of big data and smart cities.  If we need to learn not to see high end glossy digital images as perfect images of perfect things – as I argue with Monica Degen and Clare Melhuish in our recent paper – maybe we also need to learn not to see poor images as too valueless to have effects.

 

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?

 

 

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.

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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.

the university of the air and glorious conversations

The Open University has been celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Harold Wilson, then Labour Prime Minister, first mooting the idea of a ‘university of the air’ in 1963.  The OU teaches its students at a distance, so ‘air’ was one of the first media the university used, broadcasting on radio and television, as well as posting books, LPs and other bits of kit to its students.

The University has commissioned four pieces of public art to mark the anniversary, and the one in Cardiff is focussed on social sciences teaching and research.  Called ‘Trajectory’ and designed by artist Steve Geliot with choreographers Jo Fong and Tanja Raman, it features a bunch of social scientists and dancers and cellists.  Here it is.

Steve also made a video of all the interviews he staged for ‘Trajectory’:

He very kindly titled this video ‘Glorious Conversations’.  I’ve filed this in my ‘evidence of impact for the next REF’ folder – thanks Steve (and apologies to those lucky souls to whom the ‘REF’ means nothing).