swipe spaces and the lubrication of visual transformation

I went to the cinema on Saturday and was struck by the visuals in a couple of adverts screened before the film started. They were both very similar in the way that they showed people and locations constantly shifting one to another.

One of the ads was for Barclay’s contactless payment card which you can view it here. The other was for Uber. The Uber ad is called ‘Effortless Night’ and shows a young woman and man meeting, dancing, eating and so on. After each activity they climb into one side of a car, and then climb out the other side into a new location and a new cute event. The Barclaycard ad is very similar. A young woman stands at a photocopier, which folds open into a shop that she walks into, and the rest of the ad is her swiping her card and then leaning onto a surface (a wall) or going through an opening (a door), changing her clothes and location as she does so, ending up in a nightclub before flipping back to the office and her suit.

 

Neither ad uses obviously digital special effects; it all looks like film. (I realise that those distinctions are increasingly hard to sustain but I think you’ll know what I mean.) But it struck me that the constantly shifting locations and costumes were nonetheless influenced by the morphability that’s so central to digital visualisations. A digital film always has the potential to become an animation in which, to quote Suzanne Buchan, space and time become the real characters. In both these ads, the humans are just an excuse, it seems, to demonstrate a sort of hubbed temporality and spatiality, in which moments/locations are  visible and are connected only by the transition between each; there’s no flow or route, just sort of hinge from one thing to another: a car in the case of the Uber ad, and various walls and doors in the Barclays. Swipe spaces, if you like, a spatiality in which one location simply replaces another by an apparently routeless, kind of spaceless movement between them.

It’s the ease of these moves that seem to be the point of each advert, lubricated by the ‘effortless’ purchase of services and commodities, of course (neither of the ads make the workers in these spaces very evident: the Uber drivers are completely invisible). There’s something here about the alignment of flow, pleasure and transformation that much of digital culture seems to be cultivating right now. In these ads it’s sutured all too neatly with the apparently seamless, digitally-enabled flow of money. We’ve long been familiar with images of people constructed through the display of commodities they’ve bought: looks like this is the latest version of space/time being constructed through digitised commodification. Swipe space, anyone?

 

picturing the users of driverless pods in smart cities

I’ve posted before on this blog about the ways in which ‘smart cities’ are being pictured through some pretty sophisticated digital visualisations.  The Crystal exhibition space on sustainable cities built by Siemens in London has an extended digital film showing ‘Future Life’ in New York, London and Copenhagen, which is a good example of some of the techniques that seem to be emerging when a lot of resource can be devoted to high-end imagery.  I’m particularly struck in the Crystal film by the way photographic imagery of the city is literally made to fade away, revealing the glowing skeleton of a digital city, which is then controlled by smiling shadowy figures swiping and tapping in response to real-time data flows.

More prosaic – but currently reaching much wider audiences than the Crystal film  – are the images created to picture the driverless pods that currently seem to be the public face of smart city technology in the UK.  Discussion of the pods seems to be almost entirely focused on their safety – how do cars without human drivers avoid crashing into things?* – though apparently there are issues with how to insure driverless cars too.

In this, the discussion of driverless cars, or pods, or autonomous vehicles, seems to be taking the same direction as so much other current discussion about smart urban technologies, which is a focus on the technology at the expense of the thinking about the complex social context in which it is expected to work.  At least, the media discussion based on press releases announcing pilot projects with the pods seems to be uninterested in how different people might engage with driverless pods differently.  A set of visuals – which I think were released by the UK Department of Business and Skills as part of recent announcements about more funding to test the pods in three British cities – suggest a rather different story, though.

mk pod snowdome

There aren’t that many people in the futuristic landscapes chosen as backdrops for the pods (this is the Snowdome in Milton Keynes).  But when people do appear…

mk pod exec

… they seem to be almost entirely men.  Business men.  Presumably men with no time to lose driving themselves, looking for parking spaces or waiting for taxis.  Not women.  Or parents with a two toddlers, a buggy and the weekly shop.  Nor an elderly person with mobility difficulties.

I did find one image with a woman.

mk pods diagram

She’s not actually in the pod, in fact, but once again she’s in business, wearing a suit and a carrying a briefcase.  The imagined users of driverless pods don’t seem to be that diverse, then.  Sigh.  Indeed, the imagery seems to be suggesting that the people who most want efficient transport are business people, even that business is what deserves efficiency most.

What’s also quite interesting in this last visual – which comes from the Sunday Times newspaper – is the trope of opacity/transparency.  High digital tech in this image, just as in the Crystal film, is signified (though not really explained) by going beneath the surface and revealing the glowing, flowing tech below.  And also, there are those orange-y rays in the graphic which are meant to show various forms of digital information: ‘talk’ between pods, says the graphic, or sensors at work.  This also seems to be an emerging trope of smart city visualisations: information flow through wireless technologies, the generation of data, is made visible by things that look a bit like radiating circles.  In animated visuals, they are often pulses (Shannon Mattern, in her great talk on urban interfaces for the Programmable Cities project – available here – jokes about IBM’s exploding blue circles in their smart city animations).  Sensors, smartphones, pods: all pulse information in the smart city, which creates the data from which so-called ‘smart’ decisions will be made.

So is a visual language for bringing aspects of smart technology into visibility beginning to emerge?  If so, it raises a challenge to the persistent trope to be found in a lot of critical digital studies on the invisibility of code and digital infrastructure.  In these images, aspects of smart are being made visible.  The issue then might not be making smart tech visible per se, but the kinds of visibility it is envisioned through and who it’s being envisioned for.

* the answer: a lot more effectively than cars with human drivers…

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.

RL_04.tif

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.

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.

photography as participation

My colleague Clive Barnett has blogged about his selfless and entirely acadmically-motivated mission to observe the Olympic torch being carried at the end of his street.  As always there’s a nice picture on his post (I didn’t quite get the relation between ‘justice unbound’ and fairy cakes in the previous one, though, Clive) – a photo which suggests that the torch is a very effective photograph-generating machine since almost everyone in Clive’s photo is taking a photograph of it.  To participate in the event of the torch’s passing is to photograph, it seems, so that by photographing participation is enacted.  What else might be enacted in that participation, though, apart from participation itself, participation as witnessing?  I’m not sure what it is that using a camera is creating here – I guess for that I’ll have to wait until the torch passes the end of our street (well, the end of the street off of our street) and venture forth myself.