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.)

umbrellas

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.

do we know how to look at VR yet?

When we think about the spaces of VR, we almost always focus on the spaces that the VR user (is that the right word?) experiences while they’ve got the headset on. Equally important, though, it seems to me, are the spaces in which the VR experience takes place. This thought was prompted by Davina Jackson (thanks Davina!), who sent me a link to this video:

Quite apart from the rather groovy VR here – it’s called Mutator and it’s the work of William Latham and many colleagues – the video also shows the gallery space in which Mutator was installed, along with the VR users, tethered by cables and surrounded by large panels with images from the VR printed on them.

The spaces in which images are viewed – galleries, living rooms, cinemas, streets, trains – are not only material spaces but also social spaces, in which certain kinds of practices happen, and this includes specific, embodied ways of seeing.

But the viewing space in this video is quite unlike any other in terms of how things are being looked at. The panels suggest a gallery, except that looking at them is not the point of being there and few people are doing that. Nor can the gallery visitors doing the VR move around like you would in a gallery space. It isn’t like watching a film either; these viewers are totally isolated from other viewers when their headset is on, they’re using hand controls, they can’t see anyone else and they’re all probably all looking at something different anyway.

This profoundly unfamiliar viewing environment seems to me to be one of the major issues confronting the future development of VR. The idea that the images produced by many new visual technologies remediate aspects of old types of images is of course well established. Computer-generated images are often made to look like analogue photos, for example. But the same logic applies, often, to the ways in which new kinds of images are seen. Digital family snaps are looked at in much the same ways as analogue snaps. Google Maps on a smartphone is used in ways not entirely dissimilar to printed A to Zs. Illuminated adverts on large billboards framed our viewing of large digital screens. TV viewing was initially a bit like cinema viewing; and ambient TV (to use Anna McCarthy‘s term) was the precursor of our contemporary urban spaces where ambient screens often feel like they’re everywhere, not least in our hands. We learn how to look at new kinds of images in part by adapting the practices through which we encountered older kinds of images.

But what’s the precursor for watching VR? I don’t think there is one. In particular, I can’t think of another kind of viewing where the viewer cannot see anything of the place in which they are doing the viewing. This surely accounts for the feelings of isolation and – potentially – vulnerabilty – that some VR users report.

This uncertainty about the embodied practice of watching VR is also evident in one of the most amazing, boggling adverts currently doing the rounds: Samsung’s advert for what it modestly calls ‘The New Normal’.

A PhD thesis could be written about this ad, really – visuality, technology, domesticity, familiality, tourism, childhood, pedagogy, nature – it’s riddled with fascinating assumptions about all of these. But for now let’s just zoom into the sequence about a minute in, which shows a group of schoolchildren using VR to experience being chased by dinosaurs. (And let’s add ethics to that list of what deserves discussion in this ad.) What the bodies do in the VR experience, with the dinosaurs, is quite different from what they’re shown doing in the classroom. They run with and from dinosaurs in the VR but they’re sitting on the floor in the classroom; and when they are sitting in in dinosaur-world, it’s in a different arrangement from how they’re sitting in classroom-world. That is, the advert can’t align the bodies of the VR users in their VR experience with their material bodies.

Both the gallery goers pictured doing a VR art experience and the advert making VR part of the ‘new normal’, then, are both struggling with the embodied experiencing of VR. It’s not yet clear where VR can be seen appropriately, nor what embodied practices VR requires.  In a sense, then, both are suggesting that we don’t know yet how to look at VR.

digital visualities in a spy movie

I went to see the film Jason Bourne a couple of weeks ago, the latest instalment in the Matt Damon/Paul Greengrass (mostly) spy thriller saga.  In my defence, it was a quiet week; I have argued that cultural geographers should be a lot more interested in popular (visual) culture (here, if you’re interested); and it was one of Sight and Sound magazine’s films of the month.  So off I went.

Bourne-970-80

Coming out of the cinema, I felt I’d been turned into a sort of visual punchbag, subjected to frequent slapping image impact for the movie’s full 123 minutes and 10 seconds. Once my head cleared a bit, though, it did seem to me that there were some interesting things about that visual experience, several of which are pointed to by Sight and Sound‘s review of the movie, written by Henry K Miller and which you can read in full here.

Henry starts his review by saying that:

The triple crisis of the modern spy movie is the redundancy of human intelligence, of the secret agent, and of spectatorial agency.

Wow.  That’s quite a claim.  But in Bourneworld it’s true: the spy is replaced by digital databases; no one can hide from digital surveillance now; and since what is knowable and visible is mediated by digital tech, the filmic ‘realism’ of classic cinema is redundant.

This has various consequences.  For example, simply looking at the world isn’t enough any more to give movie spectators the evidence they need to figure out the plot; instead we have to be shown endless screens and their information (computer screens, desktop and laptop and wallsize, and phone screens, get a lot of screen time in the movie).

And if what screens show become a crucial part of the action so too, therefore, as Henry also points out, does the control room: the darkened room where CIA operatives stare at screens.  (Interestingly, the more senior the CIA official in Bourneworld, the less glued to a screen they are – though the movie also suggests that understanding the culture of the digital world is increasingly important for such characters).

The aesthetics of those screens are interesting too.  They carry all sorts of images, from photographs to printed text to maps to satellite images to real time data flows to animated algorithmic calculations to graphics of many kinds, and often switch from one to the other with complete ease (there’s no bugs or glitches in Bourneworld, though there are hackers, of course).  They have a visual profligacy which is typically digital (I’ve written about a different kind of example of this here.)  And data is shown in neon colours glowing on black backgrounds, which is very typical too: a lot of smart city visualisations use the same colour range.

In Jason Bourne, it’s screens that appear to offer greater insight into both the events structuring the film and into the films’ characters too.  You don’t go to any of the Bourne movies for extended, introspective dialogue, as several critics have pointed out, it’s true.  But it’s still striking that Bourne’s motivation and even creation is explained in the movie by an online document, which we read on a screen over Jason’s shoulder.  And the camerawork that captures the characters as human bodies (rather than the screen aesthetics that capture them as data) is relentlessly mobile and choppy, fragmenting what can be seen into near-incoherence.

And if the characters are often represented as the data trail that they leave as they move, the final fistfight seems to take particular pleasure in emphasising the embodied human as disposable ‘wetware’, with blood and grunts and close-ups of stranglings, very visceral, and very vulnerable: huge numbers of bodies are simply felled in the movie by assassins of various kinds.

All this happens at speed: everything happens fast in the film.  No-one starts a car slowly, or strolls aimlessly; engines are revved, walking is purposeful and more than likely to break into a run.  The camera wheels and pans relentlessly.  It’s all about flow – just like digital networks.

So, while the movie doesn’t advance the spy movie genre (though the final car chase is a pretty damn fine exemplar), or indeed the conventions of the franchise (as Henry also comments), it does offer an intriguing commentary on some of the visual recalibrations occurring as the visual field is more and more produced digitally.

(Oh I feel I should also mention that in the interests of gender balance, sort of, last week I watched Blake Lively defeat a monster shark in The Shallows.  SPOILER ALERT.  Also by using a screen: she records an SOS on a GoPro camera which then floats ashore.)

photographing a smart city

MK:Smart is a large ‘smart city’ project based in Milton Keynes in the UK.  It’s hosted by my home institution, The Open University.  Its core work package when it was set up was the development of a open data hub: an repository of all sorts of big data about Milton Keynes, accessible to anyone.  As the project has developed, though, its efforts to enable local people to engage with such an open data source have increased.  One of these efforts is the website OurMK, and the project team also does lots of outreach in local schools.  You can find about more about their work to facilitate ‘smart citizens’ here and some of their publications are listed here.

As part of this engagement work, the MK:Smart team launched a photography competition in December 2015, with prizes for the best photographs picturing Milton Keynes as a smart city.  You can see the finalists here.

I think these photographs raise some fascinating questions about how a smart city is visualised by its residents (or, more accurately, what the judges thought were the best ways some residents had pictured a smart city).  Nineteen photographs made it to the final stage – not many, so I should be careful about drawing any big interpretive conclusions from them.  On the other hand, as I’ve remarked before, one of the liberating things about writing a blog is that sometimes the robust methodological procedures of the social sciences can be laid to one side and a little more speculative thinking permitted…

Car Park Drama

Car Park Drama by Suzanna Raymond. Suzanna’s caption read: The way the car park is integrated into the shopping centre looks like a smart design to me, making it an integral part of the layout rather then just a space added on as an afterthought.

So one thing that struck me immediately about these nineteen was how so many of them focus on the landscape of Milton Keynes, and especially on its ‘natural’ landscape: trees, parks, canals, lakes, skies.  There are no pictures of servers or data hubs or smartphones (though there are two photos of electric car charging points, one of a bus charging wirelessly and one of solar panels).

This preference for picturing a smart city as a green city perhaps speaks to the distinctive history of Milton Keynes.  Milton Keynes was designed as a new city in the late 1960s and early 1970s with plenty of experiments in (and symbols of) more sustainable living: houses powered by solar energy, cycle ways paralleling the roads, a dial-a-bus service, a tree cathedral… the whole city is full of trees and parks and is oriented along a ley line! Milton Keynes has a strong sense of itself as green, then, and these photographs might be speaking to that sense of place. The photos perhaps also draw on a rather English preference for rural landscapes, gardens and parks.

The other thing that struck me about the photographs was the way they display the sort of visual aesthetic that seems increasingly common in many digital images, which is a kind of glow against darkness, whether that’s lights gleaming at dusk or (elsewhere) live data feeds pulsating across a black background.  No less than seven are taken around sunset, and one more makes a striking play between a sky darkened by clouds and a golden building.

So, possibly, what we have in this admittedly tiny sample of photographs is an interesting play between what someone like Lev Manovich might suggest is an increasingly widespread visual aesthetic, driven by the extensive use of digital image creation/editing software – even a global visual aesthetic – and something that’s may be much more local, attuned to the specific histories of this particular city and its sense of place.

Now, of course, as Doreen Massey would immediately have pointed out, there’s no clear distinction between the local and the global.  Many of the ideas behind Milton Keynes, and implicit in its first visualisations, were imported by its architects from the west coast of the USA, for example, and I’ve already suggested that a love of rural landscape may be as much English as anything to do with Milton Keynes.  But it’s precisely this play between the new and the old, between existing ways of seeing and of making images with new ways of seeing and making, that I find so fascinating in this small collection of photographs.

 

 

Mad Max and its feminist fans

Of the many reasons to be grateful for the journalist Laurie Penny, her review of the movie Mad Max: Fury Road now ranks pretty high for me.  Thankyou Laurie – and Jessica Valenti – for tipping the guilty pleasure of the film much more towards the pleasure than the guilt, by writing fantastic reviews that suggest it’s a really feminist movie.  There’s also a great Tumblr site giving Max new lines, all feminist-y too.

FURY ROAD

The bit I would add to support this reading of the film is when Max sees the five scantily-clad women escaping the mad patriarch washing themselves in the desert haze – I know, I know, but bear with me – whereupon he kind of blinks, like this is a totally stupid hallucination (like his others), entirely irrelevant to the task at hand, which is dealing with the woman who’s engineered their escape.  He doesn’t ogle, doesn’t look, doesn’t even think such a vision can be real.  Woo hoo.  (Unfortunately, not all viewers may share my interpretation of this scene; my 17 year old son among them, who pointed to it as evidence that the film was indeed sexist.)

Ultimately, though, the burning Mad Max question is: how does a professor get to be listed in a Mad Max film credits?!  I swear I saw two profs thanked as the credits rolled.  Who are they, what did do they do to get thanked, and (depending on the answers), can I do it too please?

is imaging software creating a new visual aesthetic?

 

manovichI’ve actually managed to do some reading in the past couple of weeks, and I’m just finishing Lev Manovich‘s Software Takes Command; you can access the full text online here.

It’s an interesting, provocative read; although, for a book advocating software studies as a new disciplinary field, massively undertheorised.  It argues that it’s impossible to understand media now without understanding the role of software in… well, here is just one example of where a bit of theorisation might have helped the argument, because I’m not sure whether to say enabling, or affording, or creating… a new, global visual aesthetic.  Manovich argues that this new aesthetic permeates all sorts of once-distinct media now, from films to ads to music videos to artworks, because so many are now produced using software packages that share the same functions.

I’ve also just finished putting together a Prezi about the digital visualisations that show as-yet-unbuilt buildings, and I included in it this showreel from the creative agency Uniform, to make the same point.  Uniform create advertising campaigns and architectural visualisations, among other things, and their showreel of projects they’ve undertaken in the past year demonstrates both the sort of aesthetic that Manovich is pointing to, as well as its existence in a range of different sorts of images, from short films to tv adverts.

Glossy, hyper-detailed, fast, using what-were-once multiple media – in this case, animation, film, typography, photography, at least – and three-dimensional: this is indeed a very familiar visual language now.  Indeed, Prezi itself might be seen as one element of its grammar.  And Manovich is a very useful guide to the importance of software in its creation.

However, Manovich’s argument does seem to be that it is the structure of the software alone that is responsible for the emergence of this language: it has “taken command”, after all.  This is an oddly formalist claim.  He suggests that the modernist argument that each art form should develop its own distinctive character, driven by the capacities of its specific materials, is now outmoded because all art forms are mediated by software,  and his own account gives the formal qualities of software considerable explanatory power.  So while there is passing acknowledgement that various users might utilise software in different ways, and that much of the innovation in software that drives visual culture now is commercial and therefore embedded in particular economic imperatives and organisational structures, neither is given sustained attention.

And this is where the theory matters.  Because Manovich is essentially proposing a theory of aesthetics: an explanation of why things look they way they do.  And he’s suggesting, mostly, that their appearance is due to the software that makes them.  The problems for me in this account are threefold, I think.  First, software itself can be theorised very differently: Alexander Galloway’s work on interfaces, for example, tells a very different story about software integration than does Manovich’s.  Rather than emphasise seamless ‘hybridity’ and ‘deep intermixing’ between and within software and media, as Manovich does, Galloway emphasises incompatability, friction and glitch.  While Galloway’s work might be criticised for at times appearing to insist on failure on principle, as it were, driven more by poststructuralist philosophy than empirical investigation, it nevertheless offers an important counterpoint to Manovich’s argument.  Second, there’s the question of whether software itself can be given so much agency in creating contemporary visual culture.  What about the hardware?  And what about the people who use the software to achieve specific, and not always compatible, ends, not all of which are reducible to what the image looks like?

And third, there’s the question of just how far these digital images really do form a global visual culture, as Manovich also suggests.  My sense is that it probably feels all-encompassing, if you live with images created by highly skilled visual designers of all kinds, and view them on a Mac and an iPhone.  But a lot of digital image production is very far from being glossy and dynamic; indeed a lot of architectural visualisations are pretty cruddy.  Drawing conclusions from the good stuff means theorising from the high-end part of the visualisation industry, based in a few cities of the global North, that is desperate to preserve its creative edge from other, cheaper producers elsewhere.  If we are indeed living in a global visual culture (which is also a visual economy, to use Deborah Poole‘s rather more robust term), we surely need to make its diversity and complexity inherent to our theorising, not ignore it.

 

 

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).

cockneys, zombies and CGIs

I’ve just had a really weird experience.  I’ve spent all day working on a paper about the computer generated images created to picture a not-yet-built urban redevelopment project.  I’ve been working hard to theorise these images not as screens obscuring an entirely different reality, but as interfaces that should be seen as carrying their complex networks of production, reiteration, modifiability, intermediality etc etc etc with them…

With my head full of Latour and Law on networks, Galloway on interfaces, Brighenti on prolongations, Kitchin and Dodge on code/space and Sheller and Graham on splintered urban software spatialities, I sit down earlier this evening to watch a film with my teenage son.  The film is called Cockneys versus Zombies.

cockneysvszombies

But what does the film open with?  I’m sitting there as the opening credits finish thinking, that east London skyline looks very much like a CGI to me… but no it can’t be… I need to switch off and forget about my work stuff… when what does the camera do but pan up, revealing that the skyline is indeed a computer generated image, on a billboard, advertising a new urban development, behind which there’s a massive building site in which a zombie burial chamber is about to be unearthed.

Is this the revenge of the CGIs (actants that they are), telling me that they are in fact just screens?

As for the film, the title sums up pretty much everything you need to know about it.  Quite funny, in the course of leaving just a few of the stereotypes about Cockneys and zombies unturned.

a couple of interesting things…

Sorry the blog has been rather quiet of late…

But if I haven’t been up to anything worth blogging about, here are a couple of websites using visual materials to engage in what was once called ‘community politics’ that are definitely worth a look.

One is the site of cSpace.  cSpace is the latest incarnation for Loraine Leeson‘s collaborative projects, one of which I came across a long time ago and which is archived on cSpace: the Docklands Community Poster Project.

And thanks to David Pinder for letting me know about Mongrel Stories, Leonie Sandercock‘s site for her films exploring “the possibility of living alongside others who are different, learning from them, creating new worlds with them, offering new versions of what it means to be human”.

Enjoy.