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.


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.

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.



New Views: The Rendered Image in Architecture

Eric de Broche des Combes / Luxigon. 150 Rays, 2013. Digital Rendering; JPG file, 5000 by 3333 pixels.

Eric de Broche des Combes / Luxigon. 150 Rays, 2013. Digital Rendering; JPG file, 5000 by 3333 pixels.

Just as our exhibition on the digital visualisation of new urban developments finishes, I’ve learnt about another one: New Views: The Rendered Image in Architecture.  The bad news for me is that it’s in Chicago; the good news is that it’s on til January next year, so I have plenty of time to figure out how to get there.  Thanks to Joel McKim for telling me about it.

‘visualising atmospheres’ exhibition

Just a reminder that the exhibition ‘Visualising atmospheres: digital placemaking in the 21st century’ is now on at the Building Centre in London.  The ‘exhibition’ page on this blog has more details.  There’s also a conference at the Building Centre to explore the issues the exhibition raises on 31 August; places are still available and you can register here.  It’s just been confirmed that Joel McKim will open the conference’s plenary session.

exhib flyer

‘visualising atmospheres: digital placemaking in the 21st century’ – an exhibition and conference

The ESRC-funded research project I’ve been working on with Monica Degen and Clare Melhuish is coming to an end, and we’re presenting some of the results of our research as an exhibition.  It’s called ‘Visualising atmospheres: digital placemaking in the 21st century’ and it will run from 19 August to 31 August at the Building Centre in London.  It looks at the roles played by digital visualisations in a large urban redevelopment project in Doha, Qatar.

exhib flyer

You can see the full publicity flyer on the new ‘exhibition’ page on this blog, but here’s the blurb:

In the so-called ‘experience economy’, architecture and urban design have become vital to place-making and urban branding strategies, as cities re-invent themselves on a global stage. Digital visualisations of buildings and places are crucial tools for imagining and designing new urban developments, as well as for projecting what they will feel like. They have become an ubiquitous part of the urban visual landscape, and now constitute the main platform for interaction and communication between architects, developers, planners, and the public.

This exhibition takes a closer look at digital visualisations.  It explores what lies behind the glossy surface of the images we see, and how they are changing the way in which architects work.  Focusing on a large-scale urban transformation project in Doha, Qatar, designed by British and US architects, the exhibition explores the complex processes of digital image production.  It examines how these images circulate between architects, visualisers and their client; it explores the impact they have on design development; and it interrogates their attempt to shape how people will experience urban spaces in the future across the globe.

There will also be a one-day conference on 31 August at the Building Centre.  Discussing how digital visualisations have been used as part of a large urban redevelopment project, speakers are a mix of academics, architects, visualisers and planners.  You can see the programme, and register to attend, here.

is a digital visualisation an object?

I’ve finally managed to do some reading for my own purposes rather than HEFCE’s, and in particular I’ve enjoyed a chapter in a book called Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives, edited by Kate Orton-Johnson and Nick Prior.  The chapter is by Roger Burrows and David Beer, on what they call urban informatics.  It’s a neat overview of a big field, and provocative to boot on its implications for sociology.

The chapter’s about the digital, it’s about the urban, so I was reading it as part of my efforts to finish a paper on the digital visualisations of new urban developments: part of the ESRC-funded ‘Architectural Atmospheres‘ project that I’m working on with Monica Degen and Clare Melhuish.

mcaslan webpage

And I couldn’t fit the visualisations we’ve been studying into their argument.  Indeed, they don’t really fit into the much wider literature on how software scripts urban spaces – on ‘urban informatics’ – either.  Burrows and Beer do have a paragraph on objects that were once analogue and are now digital but nothing much else about them has changed: digital watches, televisual billboards.  They describe these sorts of objects on page 72 as “the least interesting sociologically” of the intersections between the digital and the urban.  And that’s how those visualisations have been understood so far, in the very few passing references to them that I’ve found in the literature; they’re just the latest version of the kind of place marketing imagery that has existed for many years.

And maybe that’s true: perhaps we have just spent two years looking at something that’s not very interesting…

… on the other hand, that does depend on how you see those visualisations.  In particular, all the literature on urban informatics seems very focussed on material objects – unitary coded objects, logjects permeable and impermeable, spimes and assemblages are Burrows and Beer’s favoured ones, following Kitchin and Dodge’s important work in their book Code/Space.  But the visualisations that picture new urban developments aren’t objects in that sense of a solid material objects.  They aren’t therefore like billboard posters (though they can be materialised as such), and shouldn’t be understood as objects in the usual sense.  They are digital files which, when run, create a visualisation of a view that can take many different material forms (webpage image, billboard poster, book page illustration).  Their digitality means that they are constantly modifiable, and can be materialised in many different ways.

I do think that’s interesting.  Specifically, I think it suggests that ‘objects’ might not be the only direction from which to think about the urban and the digital.  The nature of these digital files is such that they do not intervene into urban spaces as objects – as ideological, or spectacular, or infrastructural, or seductive objects – or at least, their interventions are not only that.  Indeed, to approach them as objects endows them with a solidity and durability that they simply don’t possess.   They suggest, perhaps, that urban informatics needs to think beyond software embedded in objects, and to think about the implications of digital files that are distributed across multiple objects and devices: computers, servers, printers, screens, books, softwares… the notion of ‘the object’ starts to look a little too stable, a little too undispersed, to address the digitality of these visualisations.

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.

SO 081112 003

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.

archl model figs

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.

cultural analytics: to be continued

I spent last weekend at a workshop on ‘visual methods in cultural studies’, hosted by the Department of Urban Culture and the Institute of Cultural Studies at the Adam Mickiewicza University in Poznan, Poland.  It was interesting, and I got lots of pointers from Polish colleagues who approach cultural studies from the humanities rather than the social sciences.  One of them is the Software Studies Initiative site, hosted by Lev Manovich and oriented to/from the digital humanities.

It discusses what Manovich calls ‘cultural analytics’: working with big datasets (of images, in his case), to show differences in a dataset both visually and spatially.  As well as some theoretical discussion pieces (one of which claims that scholars no longer have to choose between depth and breadth in their methodology), there’s lots of hands-on advice for doing this sort of analytics, and even a software package to download and play with called ImagePlot.  (When did it become trendy for one-word titles to have two capital letters?)

a visualisation of a million black and white manga pages

a visualisation of a million black and white manga pages

Having got over my embarassment at not already knowing about this site, I immediately thought about using this package to analyse the digital visualisations that my current research project is examining.  These are visualisations of an urban redevelopment project currently under construction in Doha, Qatar.  There are probably millions of these visualisations, if you take into account all the different versions of every image made as the project has evolved since its initial design work in 2008.  Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to run these through ImagePlot and get some sort of visual description of the lot: the colours, the tones, the hues, the saturation.  This would be interesting because a lot of effort and discussion seems to have gone on about getting these aspects of the images ‘right’: right in terms of accurately reflecting the light in Doha but also in terms of conveying the right sort of ‘atmosphere’ for the development.  ImagePlot would presumably allow us to show these colour qualities directly.

But even if cultural analytics makes the possibility of such an analysis real, there are still difficulties.  In this case, the database itself.  I don’t have access to all those images and I’m not sure I ever would because they are scattered across hundreds of servers and hard drives in the offices of architects, visualisers and developers.  So there still seems to be a crucial issue for big data analytics about access to data; and about the (dare I say it) representativeness of the data that you can get your hands on.

I look forward to delving deeper into the Software Studies Initiative site to learn more about this and – I’m sure – many other aspects of visual cultural analytics.

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.


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.