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.

smart-vid

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.

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.

 

 

being provoked by an essay on ‘what is 21st century photography’

I commented in passing in my previous post on the freedom that a blogpost offers: to write more loosely and widely than you can in an academic paper.  And along comes an outstanding blog post – well, a blog essay really – that demonstrates that in spades.  The post is Daniel Rubenstein‘s ‘What is 21st Century Photography‘ and it’s on The Photographers’ Gallery website.  It’s racy, provocative, covers several centuries, is stuffed full of quotable aphorisms, and has a clear argument to make.

I think that argument is very interesting.  Its key claim is that:

in a post-Fordist society the locus of political agency and of cultural relevance has shifted from the object – as visually arresting as it might be – to the processes that (re)produce and distribute the object. Processes, however, by their own nature, are less visible and less representational than objects. For that reason, it seems to me that if photography mainly concerns itself with representations of objects in space, it is losing its relevance in a world in which speed, acceleration, distribution and self-replication acquire a significance that overshadows the visual appearance of spaces.

Which leads to probably my favourite line in the whole essay.  If a photograph is now something that is just occasionally assembled from a wave of data that continually shapes all kinds of visual forms – then, says Daniel: “it has little in common with prints in black frames – these coffins of photography”. ‘Coffins’.  Fab.

The post has lots of insights and pleasures then, though I wasn’t sure about the ‘invisible puppet masters’ who are our ‘real rulers’, and I did feel that its recuperation of photography in its very final line – “photography is not a stale sight for sore eyes, but the inquiry into what makes something an image. As such, photography is the most essential task of art in the current time” – was bit of a failure of nerve.  Maybe photography is just past it?

All this interesting provocation is in sharp distinction to what I was going to discuss on this post, which is Nicholas Mirzoeff’s new book on visual culture, modestly called How To See The World.  I was sent this by the publisher so I perhaps shouldn’t look a freebie too directly in the mouth… but.  The book is bit of a mess, I think.  It attempts the sweeping overview but there’s no clear analytical framework, let alone theory, to guide it, and there are also some quite irritating – well, to be frank, just plain wrong – generalisations.  One of which is that images now are all about time. (We know this because an artist made an artwork with lots of clocks in it, apparently.)  As for example Hito Steyerl, and many others, myself included, argue, it is absolutely necessary now to have a sense of the spatiality of (what is better understood as) visual data, as well as its temporality: its form as a swarm, population or wave; its immersivity; its materialisations; and its geometry as a network.  I think one of the difficulties in Mirzoeff’s book is actually that he remains fixed on images as the problematic rather than these sorts of spatialities that articulate their production and circulation and use, so that he flits from place to place, example to example, without thinking about they might (or might not) join up in some way.

But that’s my query to Daniel too: what are the geographies to his account?  Where does the data move, pause and decay?  How is it circulating, and with what effects in different places?  And how are places themselves being reconfigured in this process?

interesting project website on selfies

Thanks to my colleague Rose Capdevila, I’ve just spent a while browsing a site called making selfies/making self, which is both a research project about selfies and about a research project on selfies.  If you see what I mean.

selfie

Created by Katie Warfield, it’s an interesting mix. There’s some information about the research project, an online quiz enabling participation in the research, a gallery of images that might be related to selfies (according to the internet, as Katie describes it), links to talks Katie’s done, and links to other networks, including the Selfie Research Network and a Zotero library on selfies.  Katie also curates a related Tumblr feed.  Seems to me to be a really neat example of how to do a research project online, which is both open – sharing resources, inviting comments and contributions – but also offering a scholar’s particular take on an issue.

the production, composition, audiencing – and circulation – of images

I’ve been spending the first few weeks of this year thinking about how to revise my book on Visual Methodologies for its fourth edition.  Among other things, I’ve been thinking about what difference digital technologies – as both topic and tool – are making to its arguments.  And I’ve decided on at least one significant change for the fourth edition: the three sites through which the book organises its discussion of visual methods are now four.  The site of ‘circulation’ has been added to the sites of the production of an image, the image itself, the site(s) of its audiencing.  ‘Circulation’ is intended to emphasise that all images, to some extent or another, travel.  Images are mobile, and how they travel matters to what effects they have.

This isn’t an insight created by the development in the past few years of massive, extended social networking sites that now carry vast numbers of images between all sorts of different screens.  In fact, the keyword that I’ve attached to it in the book is the idea of a “visual economy”, which comes from anthropologist Deborah Poole‘s book on the way images travelled between the Andes and Europe between the seventeenth and the early twentieth century.

However, I do think that there are some methodological issues involved in looking at – or even thinking about – those huge hoards of online images that require an emphasis on their circulation.  I think it’s important that we pay attention to the work that goes into enabling that circulation, for example, in the workplaces where the labour is done to make those platforms feel so easy to use: the coders and the checkers, the servers and the cables.  Also, images on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook aren’t stored in some ginormous virtual contact sheet, and not every image has an equal chance of appearing on a Google Images search result screen.  Instead, how those images get seen is shaped by algorithmic patterns.  Search results are shaped by your previous searches, by your location, by what other people are also searching; and what you see on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat also depends on your social network.  I think we need to figure out methods that can show us, somehow, the patterns and processes through which those image collections are structured, just as twenty years ago Foucauldian historians like John Tagg and Alan Sekula showed us how filing systems and labels organised earlier forms of photography archives.

This is a problem with Lev Manovich‘s cultural analytics, I think: it engages with the huge numbers but does so by adding them all up, and creating collages of the total.  This shows us some interesting things – what Tokyo looks like in 50,000 Instagram images is provocative in terms of thinking about what a photograph now is, I think – but it doesn’t engage with the uneven distributions that shape the circulation of social media images at all.

50,000 Instagram photos from Tokyo, organized by brightness mean (radius) and hue mean (perimeter).

50,000 Instagram photos from Tokyo, organized by brightness mean (radius) and hue mean (perimeter). from phototrails.net

I don’t know where methods might be emerging from that could do that, or what they might look like, though – so please post a comment below if you do!

some early thoughts on the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies

I gave a short talk at The Open University’s Centre for Citizenship, Identity and Governance a few weeks ago, as part of a workshop on methodological challenges for critical social science. As I’m going to start working on the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies this week (for publication in early summer 2016), this was good timing for me; it let me put a few very early thoughts together and explore them with an insightful and lively group. I thought I’d share my notes for the event here. Continue reading

we’re all cultural studies scholars now?

Rather belatedly, something interesting struck me about the furore in the UK a week or so ago over a tweet sent by Emily Thornberry, now the ex shadow attorney general.  For those of you with short memories or not UK-media-aware, Thornberry’s tweet was criticised for being contemptuous of working-class voters, and she resigned from her shadow cabinet role after a couple of conversations with her party leader.

Here is the tweet (and notice the text as well as the photo):

thornberry

In the online discussion of the tweet, loads of things were happening, of course, but there was something about the whole dynamic of the discussion that I thought was intriguing: the way the tweet swung in and out of being seen as ‘representing’ something.

On the one hand, there were a lot of claims – including by Emily Thornberry herself – that the image was meaningless.  It meant nothing; the scene had just struck her as something that could be shared on Twitter.  Now, we could discuss the conditions under which certain things become noticeable and photographable, of course, but still, given how so many photos are put onto social media in just that way, not as meaning anything, just as a sort of ‘oh look’ statement, ‘I am here’, ‘that is here’, I think her claim has some credibility.  Perhaps it really wasn’t an image that meant anything, it wasn’t symbolic, it was purely descriptive, just a picture of a van and flags, a pure “Image from #Rochester”.

Its status as pure description also prompted a lot of online discussion about how photographs become meaningful rather than inherently carrying meaning as well.  So on the other hand, huge amounts of online work went into interpreting the meanings the tweet implied.  The flags, the van, the location: all were decoded, re-coded, explicated, interpreted, repeatedly, by very very many people.  And so were the processes through which all that interpretive work was being done, because there was also a lot of discussion about the sort of coverage given to the tweet in and by different media outlets.

Noortje Marres has been interviewed on the excellent LSE Impact blog about digital sociology, and a point she makes very well there is that the tools and techniques of  social analysis are now widely distributed among many kinds of social actors.  As she says, “social actors, practices and events are increasingly and explicitly oriented towards social analysis and are actively involved in it (in collecting and analysing data, applying metrics, eliciting feed-back, and so on)”.  She is particularly referring to the digital tools embedded in social media platforms, the internet of things, online transaction databases and the like.

But one of the things that the Thornberry tweet affair made evident to me was that the same might be said of the tools of cultural interpretation.  Textual and visual analysis, and an understanding of the significance of the role of the media – in the strict sense of the term – are alive and kicking pretty much everywhere, it felt like, as the vigorous debated unfolded.  The furore was a sort of mass cultural studies seminar.  And if cultural studies has gone viral, what are the implications for those of us who do it – possibly more carefully, certainly much more slowly – in the academy?

playing with what a ‘photograph’ is now: time, space, object, file, icon, snap

I came across a very interesting essay by Jonathan Massey in the online architecture journal Aggregate last week, on the Norman-Foster-designed building at 30 St Mary Axe in central London, popularly known as The Gherkin (the building, not the paper).  Massey understands the building design as a sustained material engagement with various kinds of “risk imaginaries”, and it’s a very interesting argument.

Embedded in the essay, though, was an image by Bryan Scheib, which I found equally fascinating, though Massey doesn’t discuss it in detail.  It’s called ‘The Gherkin”, and is one of a series of images created by Scheib as part of a series called Tableau Vivants.  The series is photographic, in that it’s a series of images that are created from photographs: from the most popular user-uploaded photographs of iconic architecture on Google Images.  For each building, Scheib has (presumably) transformed them into black and white images and them superimposed them.   As well as The Gherkin, I could identify the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house; others I either didn’t recognise or they’d become so blurred by the repeated overlapping photographs that the building itself was hardly visible any more.

 

These are complex images.  For Scheib, they hark back to the ‘tableau vivant’ photographs that were popular in the late nineteenth century as a form of historical narrative (and which were also often composed of multiple photographs collage-ed together). He describes his own images as similarly evoking a narrative, as the buildings are photographed again and again, from a similar angle, so that the images “embody a history of documentation and perception”.  For Scheib, then, these images are about temporality.  For Massey instead, Scheib’s image captures something about spatiality, in particular the spatiality of urban perception, because they show the “consistency and variation in visual representation that characterizes urban icons”.

Both of these interpretations point to some of the effects of these images, for sure.  For me there are others too.  In particular, they also seem to be negotiating the status of the photograph as a particular kind of object.  Constituted from photographs, it’s not at all clear to me that this image of The Gherkin can itself be described as a photograph.  On the one hand, as a collage of other photographs – and collage has always been used by photographers – it must surely be a photo.  But as both Scheib and Massey emphasise in their comments about the mutability of both the temporality and the spatiality of this image, its relation to the object it pictures is much more attenuated than a photograph generally assumes.  And while the image is based entirely on what Google can find, Scheib himself seems to be doing some work to assert the image’s status as precious art object: the transformation of the online photographs into black and white surely speaks to the history of architectural photography that played a large part in constituting Modernist buildings as cultural icons in the first place, and his webpages also show the Tableau Vivant series framed on the wall of a the classic white cube gallery.

 

So these images are sliding about all over the place.  Slippery temporalities, multiple spatialities, embedded in Google and The Gallery… this makes them very typical of so many images now.  And it seems appropriate therefore that Scheib isn’t a photographer: he’s an architect.  His website carries several beautiful visualisations of his building projects which also move apparently seamlessly between what were once distinct visual media and genres.  Proof, if any more were needed, that, if software isn’t exactly taking command, it’s certainly enabling the dissolution of many of the distinctions between high and low, image and object, then there and now that the photographic bit of our visual culture has depended on for so long.

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.

 

patterns in visualising urban futures between 1900 and now

I’m getting interested in how so-called ‘smart’ cities are being visualised.  ‘Smart’ is a recent way to describe how cities might run better – more sustainably, more efficiently, even more democratically – by using data gathered in various ways by digital technologies of various kinds.  There seems to next to nothing that’s considering how ‘smart urbanism’ is being imagined visually, though, which is odd.  Because they are being visualised, not least by the large corporations who are trying to sell ‘smart’ technologies to cities all over the world; and those visualisations are interesting because ‘smart’ and ‘data’ are not things that are intuitively easy to see in urban spaces.

I wonder if this absence is because most of the more theoretical and critical literatures on the digital technologies that are deployed in ‘smart’ cities draw on the new materialist realism.  They thus focus on the ontological status of technology and media, on the symbiosis between human bodies and technologies – technogenesis – on the agency of the technologies, and on technologies as extending bodily sensoria.  In that theoretical scenario, there doesn’t seem to be any room for accounts of human creativity reflecting back on technologies, as it were.  Only cities remain sentient, it seems.

An exception is a very interesting report on a UK government website that explores how future cities have been visualised, by Nick Dunn, Paul Cureton and Serena Pollastri.  You can download it here.  It’s full of fantastic images of all kinds: drawings, diagrams, paintings, collages, maps, digital visualisations.  (Actually, the website is pretty interesting too – it’s the site of a bit of the Government Office for Science, itself part of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, called Foresight, which is looking at urban futures fifty years from now.)

Dunn and his co-authors have produced a very interesting graphic, too, which puts their chosen images on a timeline.

future city graphicThis suggests that we are in a particular historical moment; enthusiasm for new cities peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, it appears, and then faded for two or three decades, before re-emerging strongly in the early 2000s.  Which suggests to me that, even if a lot of cutting-edge work on the digital seems to disagree, there’s a clear need to think about how smart and sentient cities are being brought into visibility, and with what effects.