smart cities on YouTube

I was very happy to receive a copy of a new edited collection last week: Geomedia Studies: Spaces and Mobilities in Mediatized Worlds, edited by Karin Fast, Andre Jansson, Johan Lindell, Linda Ryan Bengtsson and Mekonnen Tesfahuney.


I have a chapter in it called “Look InsideTM: Corporate Visions of the Smart City”, which discusses the most popular corporate videos on YouTube (or at least, they were the most popular when I wrote the chapter eighteen months ago). These are videos that try to explain and/or sell the idea of the smart city or an urban Internet of Things.

The chapter discusses what the videos show – all digital flow and glow, and (mostly men) explaining digital flow and glow – but also emphasises how easy it is to criticise that representational content. It then suggests that perhaps that’s not therefore where their power lies. Perhaps rather it’s their affective resonances that matter most: that flow, glow, speed, seamless mobility, in spaces where coloured light substitutes for data, everything is mutable and nothing ever seems to stop.

There are lots of other great chapters in the book, and the editors make a strong case in their introduction for the importance of studying geomedia: “an expanding interdisciplinary research terrain at the intersections of media and geography” (p.4). Bring it on.

looking for culture in the unlikeliest of places: MK and smart

Milton Keynes, smart cities – and culture?! I’ve caught up with a fascinating video which made me pull these things together: it’s called Looking for Culture Through Economy, Through Capitalisation, Through Milton Keynes (LCTETCTMK for short. Well, kind of short). It’s directed by Sapphire Goss and was made as part of the Journal of Cultural Economy’s tenth birthday celebrations.

A whole bunch of people were involved in its production, including Liz McFall, Darren Umney, Dave Moats and Fabian Muniesa. It starts tongue firmly in cheek, saying that it’s exploring the notion of ‘culture’ in a place often thought not to have any: Milton Keynes. The film then discusses what culture is, how to spot it, how it was planned and designed in MK, and its relation to capital. All of this is animated by the presence of someone who kind of becomes another team member: Stuart Hall. The cultural theorist appears in a range of archive footage, and one of the film’s many pleasures is to see him animated, poised and as relevant as ever.

Another pleasure of the film is its rigour. This is a film about theory as much as it is about MK. Hence that clunky title. The arguments at the heart of the film are that culture remains a vitally important analytical category and that culture isn’t a thing. Culture can be The Arts, but the film is much more interested in culture as Hall understood it, as the ordinary, taken-for-granted meanings and values that animate everyday life. In that sense, culture is everywhere, mediating how we understand and what we see.

The film enacts that everywhereness, filtering its views of the city through odd edits, collaging and splicing, using fuzzy archive film and repeating images. There aren’t that many clear views of the city, and the ones that are offered – the planners’ models, architects’ drawings, drone footage of layouts and geometric patterns below – tend to be shown as existing only in those forms. Once they become realised as part of the city, or the camera gets down to ground level, the clarity of their design and its intentions goes awry. They go fuzzy, multiple, the idealistic plans never quite work out, buildings fail and social markets are abandoned. It’s noted that capital should be seen culturally, as an approach to making value. And then there are a few closing remarks about how culture is now increasingly also capitalised as things are seen more and more in terms of the value they might realise in the future.

All this is great on its own terms, and it’s wonderful to see the city provoking such careful and complicated thoughts.

It also got me thinking about how another of the city’s current manifestations – MK as a smart city – also needs to be thought of in terms of this understanding of culture. ‘Culture’ and ‘smart’ are in one way quite often brought together now, in discussions about various discourses about what smart city should be; there are now several discussions of how talk about and pictures of smart cities are riven through and through with values, visions, interpretations, truth claims and situated evidencing. The smart city as something that can create capital by innovating new products and making efficiencies is a strong theme too.

The more pervasive sense of culture, though, culture as everyday (rather than as something only marketeers and artists do) is less often explored. I was chairing a conference organised by Inside Government last week which was discussing how smart cities might transform service provision, and the day was full of the need to be brave, to take risks, to have vision, to make leaps of faith (as well as much more pragmatic discussions about mechanisms for collaboration between key stakeholders). (You can read my report on the day here.) Organisational culture, then, was actually at the centre of the discussion, that is, the everyday assumptions embedded into workplace practices.

But LCTETCTMK also suggests a more deep-seated relation between smart and culture. The film ends with Stuart Hall suggesting that, after the 1970s, the sphere of culture is in “permanent revolution”. There are no set or stable frameworks of meaning now that can endure without challenge or renewal. Here then is a final thought provoked by LCTETCTMK: how are smart cities part of current cultural transformations? They’re about capitalisation for sure and about changing organisational culture. Perhaps their particular transformation, though, is more about the sort of everyday life that a smart city enacts. Mobile (so much of it is about movement), individualised (the phone screen, the data dot), agglomerated (databases), fast (nobody lingers in smart cities), colourful (all those glowing screens), customisable (what are your preferences?), distributed (hello, platforms)… this is a more pervasive sense of cultural shift, enacted with and through smart things.

Any other thoughts on what it would mean to think of smart MK, or indeed any smart city, through the lens of LCTETCTMK’s sense of culture? Do watch the film and ponder. And you can find more about MK, culture and smart on OpenLearn, here.


do we know how to look at VR yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

on the trickiness of seeing places

I gave a talk at the final meeting of the Nordic Research Network in Digital Visuality last week, thanks to a kind invitation from Karin Becker.  It was a great workshop, full of interesting presentations.

I particularly enjoyed catching up with the work of Robert Willim, an Associate Professor of Ethnology at Lund University in Sweden.  Also a musician and a filmmaker; his Vimeo channel is here, and he discusses the link between his academic and art work here.

I first came across his video series Elsewhereness when he presented a new part at the Visual Methods conference at The Open University in 2011.  He describes Elsewhereness on his website like this:

The works are made solely from audio and videomaterial found on the web, material that emanate from a specific place. The audiovisual pieces are manipulated and composed into a surreal journey through an estranged landscape. The films are based on the culturally bound and stereotypical preconceptions of the artists.

They were a nice play on the idea that site-specific artwork has to be based on a first-hand, intimate – and therefore somehow more authentic – encounter with a place.  He discusses them in the book Anthropology and Art Practice, which came out last year from Bloomsbury.

At the NRNDV workshop, he screened three more recent pieces, all of which again explore the complexity of perception, particularly visual perception.  My favourite was called Fieldnotes, a really beautiful encounter with the otherness of a shrouded, billowing building which also suggest the difficulty of grasping what is being seen.  The effect of the video is considerably enhanced by the music, which to my (non-musical) ear sounds as if it is also trying to avoid any neat tune-making structure.

(I also liked the joke of calling another video Straight Jetty, as opposed, of course, to Spiral Jetty.)

Unlike so many films and videos that are made by academic researchers, these short pieces don’t aim to show, reveal or describe.  Instead, they meditate on the difficulty of doing those things, complicating the aural and visual fields, evoking and provoking.  Lovely.

creating hackney as home

My OU colleagues Melissa Butcher and Luke Dickens have been working on a funded research project called ‘Creating Hackney as Home‘ for the past six months, working with five young people from the London borough of Hackney as their co-researchers.  Michael, Matthew, Monet, Shekeila and Tyrell have been making films to explore their sense of Hackney as home, and the first film by Michael, has just gone up on the project’s website here.  Four more films will follow over the next few weeks, with commentary by each filmmaker.  Looks a great project, both in terms of the quality and diversity of the films, but also because the filmmakers are allowed space to reflect on their own different ways of making each film.

rhythmanalysis videos

I’m not a big fan of Henri Lefebvre’s work, but I just came across this blog which I thought I’d share: it’s called Rhythm of Capitalism, and it carries some very simple videos of things that are rhythmical alongside some of Lefebvre’s exhortations to feel the rhythmical.  I think my favourite is this one.  Thinking about it will certainly liven up what often feels like my own all-too-regular trips to my washing machine…

visual research methods: a thousand flowers…

I’ve just been browsing Paula Reavey’s new edited collection, Visual Methods in Psychology.  It’s a very interesting mix, very eclectic, and I enjoyed something about every chapter in it.

Eclecticism is in the nature of edited collections, I guess.  However, I am beginning to think that eclecticism is so entrenched in visual research methods that it might be worth thinking a bit more about its consequences.  It’s entrenched in terms of the extent of the variety of visual research methods, and also in terms of how unproblematic that variety seems to be to commentators on visual research methods.  There’s a sort of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach to research methods using visual materials, which is great, of course, particularly as it seems to allow lots of experimentation with new sorts of methods (or at least with variations of old ones).

However, there are also some disadvantages, one of which is that there’s very little sense of established practice developing as researchers learn from each other; reinventing wheels of slightly different designs seems to be preferred to building (dare I say it) a better wheel by learning from other people’s handiwork.  Where are the paper reflecting on, say, photo-elicitation as a method, as opposed to reporting the results of a study using photo-elicitation?  (Please let me know by responding with a comment!)

And the experimentation is also rather less wild than it sometimes seems when luxuriating in field of a thousand flowers (or wheels – sorry, metaphors going a bit awry here): an awful lot of methods depend on talk with photographs, for example; video gets a look in, too, but quantitative visual methods are rarely acknowledged as part of visual research methods; and participatory and elicitatory methods are hegemonic.

The field is surely now big enough to engage in some critical self-reflection, and I’m looking forward to seeing it emerge.

a new sort of research film?

Since my visit to Queen Mary a few weeks ago, I’ve continued to ponder about the use of films as a social science research strategy.  A conversation with my colleague Bradon Smith provoked the idea that when most of us see a film (anthropologists excepted, perhaps), we watch it comparing it to the films we see elsewhere, on tv or at the cinema.  So we expect it to have high production values; we expect it to be filmed and edited very skilfully; we expect eloquent voice-overs and carefully-chosen music; we expect a beginning, a middle and an end; we expect to watch it concentrating on it and it alone; and we expect it to speak for itself, that is, we expect to ‘get’ it just by watching it.

Clearly, those are exceptionally high standards for your average academic to achieve, if they haven’t gone to film school or studied visual anthropology.  In the age of YouTube, iMovie and smartphones, maybe we should rethink those expectations and in so doing invent a new kind of film genre which fits both the changed contexts in which films can now be made, distributed and viewed.

So here is a list of possibilities for making and watching a new kind of social science film now:

  • the film should be very clear what it’s trying to do.  This may involve a long title and probably a voice-over too.
  • the film should have been made using a tripod and a videocamera with a decent external microphone, but don’t expect panoramavision with surroundsound.  It will probably have been edited using software from Apple or Microsoft, so again, make allowances.
  • the film might well be pretty short, say ten minutes, so it can be uploaded to a video-sharing website and an academic webpage.  But there could be a series of films to be watched.
  • online screening means that you can read some stuff about the film too; its paratext could, and perhaps probably will, be be lot more extensive than the posters and reviews that we’re used to.  In fact, I think this is really important for a film that wants to make a social-scientific argument/statement; I think viewers need to be told explicitly what the film is trying to say.
  • online distribution will affect the spaces in which it’s seen.  This will probably no longer be the darkened lecture theatre – though it may be – but it might also be screened on a smartphone.  This means its visual scale might be quite crude: simple, uncluttered images work better on small screens.  (I remember after I watched Essential Killing thinking that it would look fine on an iPad: all those shots of one man in various landscapes).
  • online distribution could also allow audiences to leave comments, for future viewers to see as part of watching the film.  The commenting would also be part of the film’s paratext.

So, a film in this new genre might well be fairly small, watched in chunks, accompanied by other materials, and a little rough around the edges; and it would include a fair bit of voice, either written or spoken, some of which would be outwith the film text itself.

The only thing is, I don’t know any films being made like that.  Does anyone else?

a question for film as a way of analysing social issues

I’ve been invited to an event on Monday 23 May at Queen Mary, University of London.  It’s part of a research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust that uses film to create an understanding of the transformations and continuities in how migrants manage their health.  The research participants are from Nigeria, Poland and the Indian diaspora; all now live in south London; some are recently arrived and some have lived there a long while.  The research team are Isabel Dyck and Iliena Ortega-Alcazar at Queen Mary and Marta Rabikowska and Matthew Hawkins from the University of East London.  The team are going to screen a first cut of the film and there’s going to be lots of discussion about health, migration, and using film as a method to explore those issues.

Well, I’ve never been involved in making a film, and health geography is not my field!  But their project reminded me of another film made a long time ago, in Poplar in east London.  I found it when I was doing some research in Tower Hamlets Local History Library in the mid-1980s.  I was trying to find out about Poplar’s local council, several of whom were sent to gaol in 1921 for spending all the local rates on the relief of the local poor rather than sending what they should have done to other local authorities like the London County Council.  The very helpful librarian there brought me a videocassette (remember them?), saying that he thought I might be interested in it – and I was – part of the film had news footage of the councillors parading through enthusiastic crowds on their way to prison in 1921.

Councillor Minnie Lansbury on her way to Holloway Prison in 1921. Note the film cameras in the background.

But I also got very interested in the film itself.  Made around 1973, distributed by an outfit called Liberation Films and called Fly a Flag for Poplar, I never managed to find out very much about who exactly had made it.   But it’s a fascinating film and raises some interesting issues about making films and about the relation between the people who make them and the people who are pictured in them.

Now, there are all sorts of heated debates about the ethics of filmmakers representing other people, particularly poor people living in difficult conditions.  The East End of London in particular has a long history of journalists, photographers, filmmakers and artists all creating sensationalist images of what in the late nineteenth century was often called ‘darkest London’.  What Fly a Flag for Poplar tried to do, though, was to make a film as a call to social activism in what was (and to an extent remains) a very poor area of London.  They wanted to get people in Poplar campaigning for their rights.  Hence they showed that newsreel film of an earlier struggle for social justice in Poplar, as an inspiration for efforts in the early 1970s to improve social conditions in the area.

What the film also showed, though, was the importance of the places that the film showed, and the importance of the place where it was itself shown.  The film pictures its own making; you can see people lugging around bulky video cameras with huge battery packs slung over their shoulder, meeting people, talking and filming as they went.  And the film also filmed its own premiere: in a big church in Poplar, which was packed with a huge and excited crowd watching, listening, commenting, catcalling and at the end of the screening bursting with talk and discussion and planning.

So, while what the film showed and told is important, just as striking to me is the attention it pays to the conditions of its own production (or at least some of them – there are no discussions of the editing process, for example), and the emphasis it places on its screening and its audiencing.

And it’s the last point I think I’ll emphasise on Monday.  A film is not just its images; it’s not just a cultural text.  It’s also a product, that’s made in particular ways, and screened in specific places to particular kinds of audience.  For a film like Fly a Flag, that hopes to provoke social activism, those contexts of production and audiencing are crucial parts of how the film works.  Which raises a question: what sorts of social practice should a film of social analysis incorporate into its screenings?

(A postscript – Fly a Flag for Poplar is now listed on the British Film Institute’s Film and TV database, where the people involved in its production are listed.)