visualising the smart city as flow and glow

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

prezi as tool and symptom

For my keynote lecture at the International Visual Methods conference held in Brighton in September this year (you can read it and link to the Prezi here), I prepared a Prezi.  Prezi is cloud-based software for making visual presentations (or at least the free version is cloud-based), and I’ve been using Prezi instead of Powerpoint for some time now. I’ve got to the point of reflecting on it not just as a new toy to be played with but also, like any toy (or digital device), thinking about how it’s shifting what I do in presentations.

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Prezi is basically an empty space onto which you can position various things – images, text, audio files, videos, links to websites – and you then frame them in various ways with boxes and brackets and arrows and so on. You then specify a route for moving between the frames, and can do that in any direction. You can also zoom into the space and zoom out again. According to its Wikipedia entry, this means Prezi works in 2.5D because it positions things closer or further away on a flat screen.

It’s useful for a number of reasons. You don’t have work through a linear text in the way that Powerpoint encourages; you don’t have to exit to play a YouTube video; you can zoom into points of detail and then zoom out again to get an overview of your main argument. So Prezi is a useful tool for positioning things in relations, in hierarchies, in networks (it’s as much spatial as visual).

I like it for presentations because it can show the structure of an argument or an analysis really clearly, as well as carry lots of empirical material. At the International Visual Methods conference I also heard a couple of other uses for Prezi, which both used it more as a way of organising research data than as a presentation device.

The first of these was the Everyday Childhoods research cluster at the  University of Sussex.  Their Face 2 Face research project looked at how young people use different kinds of media devices.  Researchers conducted micro-ethnographies which involved researchers spending an ordinary day with each child and documenting their lives across home, school, leisure spaces etc.  They asked their research participants to keep a diary of their media use over 24 hours, and take photographs too, and the research team then used Prezi to collate the resulting materials.  You can see the Prezis here (you can choose to make a Prezi public and shareable) – use the ‘case studies’ tab at the top of the page.  Not only do these Prezis carry a diverse range of materials, you can choose to explore the young people’s days chronologically or not.

A second use of Prezi as a means of presenting research data was discussed by Darren Umney.  He describe how he used it to manage part of the data he was gathering for his research on debates about a nineteenth-century railway development: his Prezi contains scans of 61 newspaper articles that covered the building of a railway line in the 1830s, and he uses Prezi’s collage-ing and zooming abilities to annotate the articles, arrange them in time-lines, group them into thematic categories and show the relations between those categories, and the links between categories and his conceptual terms. As you move from the data to the concepts, you zoom out in the Prezi. You can explore his method for managing data in this way on his blog here.

Prezi is notorious for that zooming, and for the nausea that it can create in people watching a Prezi, especially if it’s being projected onto a big screen. All the advice you can get on using a Prezi therefore tells you not to zoom too much, too fast or too often. I’d agree with that: don’t zoom too much. My other bit of advice is to map the layout of your Prezi before you start – I wonder how much pre-planning Darren did before using Prezi to work on his thesis analysis. (There’s much more good advice on Prezi’s own site, of course, and also on this LSE Impact Blog post – give yourself a couple of hours to watch the tutorials and practice and you should be good to go.)

I’m also now thinking that moving from Powerpoint to Prezi may have a relation to how visual culture is changing. Thomas Elsaesser has argued that the ubiquity of digital visualisations of many kinds means that a shift is taking place, from framed images structured by the rules of Cartesian perspective to a mobile, unharnessed, 3D visuality. His main example is 3D cinema, but Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and I also used his essay to think about the spatiality of still CGIs. And Prezi’s frameless zooming also looks like a perfect exemplification of his argument.

The question I have to ask myself though is about my predilection for the final zoom that reveals the grand structure underpinning my presentation. Does it make my position so clear that its positionality and construction are also evident? Or is it rather too close to comfort to the god’s-eye viewpoint so thoroughly critiqued in the early 1990s by Donna Haraway, among others?


 

Elsaesser, Thomas. “The ‘return’ of 3-D: On Some of the Logics and Genealogies of the Image in the Twenty-First Century.” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 2 (2013): 217–46. doi:10.1086/668523.

Rose, Gillian, Monica Degen, and Clare Melhuish. “Networks, Interfaces, and Computer-Generated Images: Learning from Digital Visualisations of Urban Redevelopment Projects.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 3 (2014): 386–403. doi:10.1068/d13113p.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

three ways cultural geographers can start to think about digital culture

I’ve been working on the lecture I’m giving at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of  British Geographers at the end of August, and I want to enthuse about three books which I thought were great first time round, and are all even better second time round as I re-read them to write the lecture.  They all look at the pervasiveness of mass online engagement, and they all argue strongly and convincingly that the last twenty years have seen profound changes in popular culture, and they all conclude from this that scholars interested in understanding that culture really need to engage with that pervasiveness, with the online and with the mass.  A point that most cultural geographers seem to have missed, and which is my lecture in a nutshell.  So a big thanks to:

John Hartley and his book Digital Futures for Cultural and Media Studies.  This book goes first because it’s one of the very few academic books that have made me laugh out loud (because it’s deliberately funny, that is).  I posted about it here after I read it the first time.  It’s a very persuasive argument for looking at populations of images rather than single images.

Helen Grace and her book Culture, Aesthetics and Affect: The Prosaic Image.  The first chapter is one of those where you start making notes and realise that you’re pretty much copying out the whole thing.  An amazing and passionate argument for those populations of banal images being vital new form of mass cultural expression, written quite specifically from Hong Kong.

Nana Verhoeff and her book Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation, which you can download for free here.  Like Grace, Verhoeff explores the pervasiveness of digital screens, large and small, in the urban everyday, and argues for a new kind of spatiality that’s performed when we navigate through the spaces they offer us.

 

Networks, interfaces, and computer-generated images: learning from digital visualisations of urban redevelopment projects

The first paper from the project looking at digital visualisations of new urban developments is now online at Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, authored by myself, Monica Degen and Clare Melhuish. This is the abstract:

Over the past five years, computer-generated images (CGIs) have become commonplace as a means to market urban redevelopments. To date, however, they have been given relatively little attention as a new form of visualising the urban. In this paper we argue that these CGIs deserve more attention, and attention of a particular kind. We argue that, instead of approaching them as images situated in urban space, their digitality invites us to understand them as interfaces circulating through a software-supported network space. We use an actor-network theory understanding of ‘network’ and argue that the action done on and with CGIs as they are created takes place at a series of interfaces. These interfaces—between and among humans, software, and hardware—are where work is done both to create the CGI and to create the conditions for their circulation. These claims are explored in relation to the CGIs made for a large urban redevelopment project in Doha, Qatar. We conclude by suggesting that geographers need to reconsider their understanding of digital images and be as attentive to the interfaces embedded in the image as to the CGI’s visual content.

 

sculpting space with light: the corporate, the popular and the mass

I caught up with Tim Edensor recently, a cultural geographer based at Manchester Metropolitan University and probably the only person in the academy who can greet me with ‘hello missus’ and get away with it (seriously, he is the only person, so don’t even think about it).

Tim has been one of the most significant contributors to the development of cultural geography for some time now, with a series of books, papers and edited collections including Industrial Ruins (and there’s an associated website here), Urban Theory Beyond the West (co-edited with Mark Jayne) and Geographies of Rhythm.

His recent work has been focussing on light, particularly light installations and contemporary artists working with light.  He curates a blog with Steve Millington called MMU Light Research, which is fascinating and eclectic, carrying everything from reactions to James Turrell’s Skyspace in Kielder Forest Park, UK, to enthusiasm for houses swathed in light bulbs at Christmas time.

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Tim’s arguments focus on the beauty of light, its affective power to generate strong moods and atmospheres and its ability to engage people, whether to contemplation in Kielder forest or to conviviality along the promenade of Blackpool, a seaside resort in the northwest of the UK (there’s a great blog here on the Blackpool illuminations).

I’m interested in how light is so important now to so many urban redevelopment projects.  Architects work with lighting designers on prestigious new developments; permanent light installations are seen as an effective way to revamp or enliven tired urban spaces; temporary installations are often part of art interventions into urban spaces.  The global company of designers, planners and engineers, Arup, for example, has a whole section of its website devoted to its lighting design work, including this video, which notes that light “in the right hands, light enhances, sculpts and inspires”.

Like Tim, I’m sceptical of critics who would dismiss the increasing integration of lighting into urban redevelopment simply as the latest example of neoliberalism’s spectacularisation of cities; Hal Foster seems to do this in his book The Art-Architecture Complex, for example.  Tim points to the continuing vitality of popular forms of urban lighting to challenge this dystopic account.

And I wonder if this might be one context in which to think about the constant stream of photographs that get taken in cities.  After all, LEDs aren’t the only form of technology that ‘enhances, sculpts and inspires’ with light: so do cameras.  And thus so do all those gazillions of photos that get snapped in city streets.  Is this one way to think about the patterns shown in Lev Manovich‘s Instagram Cities, for example, which are part of his Phototrails project?  Instagram Cities shows what a city looks like in 50,000 Instagram photographs by visualising tiny thumbnails of each photo, distributed according to its colours’ hue and saturation.  Phototrails suggests that its visualisations of so many Instagram photos shows the temporal rhythm of mass urban photography, which is true.  But you could also understand the patterns of light and colour revealed in Manovich’s methods as a popular counter to the designed lightscapes of urban capital: each one of those photos a tiny piece of  light, thousands of them accumulating into an alternative urban lightscape.

Architects, lighting designers, homeowners, engineers, artists, cameraphone owners, then, all sculpting spaces with their various lighting technologies.

digital visualisations of new urban developments and the language that frames them

Just found the fantastic Development Aesthetics blog curated by Crystal Bennes (thankyou, Twitter).   Crystal collects examples of the hoardings that surround building sites.  Looks like she’s more interested in (though that should probably read “deeply sceptical of”) the empty advertising language on the hoardings than the visualisations they also display.  But it’s a great site for those of us interested in this new form of imaging urban space.  Here’s one of my favourites, from east London.  I share Crystal’s confusion about what a ‘sky level apartment’ might be…

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Like Crystal, I’m also collecting images of hoardings with visualisations whenever I seem them, snapping them on my phone.  What I’m finding though is that a lot of the time, the image is obscured in some way: either something else has been stuck over it (in fact you can seen that on the left-hand side of the hoarding in Crystal’s image above); or a doorway has been cut through the hoarding; or the view is obstructed by scaffolding or traffic; or you can only glimpse the image through your car windscreen or bus windowframe as you zoom past.  And then there’s also the limits of my cameraphone (though I quite like the contrast between my wonky framing and low res photos and the compositional gloss of the visualisations).  I’m going to try and put some sort of photo-essay together on that theme later in May.  Watch this space.

‘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