seeing the city digitally, or, animated urbanism

I gave a talk at the Berkeley Center for New Media last November, and the recording and transcript are now available here.

I called the lecture ‘Seeing cities digitally: processing urban space and time – or – animated urbanism’. The first bit of the title was a nod to an open-access book I edited, published last year by Amsterdam University Press. It’s also called Seeing the City Digitally and has what I think is an amazing collection of essays by its contributors. You can find it here.

The second part of the title – animated urbanism – is something I’m working on at the moment, thinking about what it means to live in cities that are increasingly visualised through what Thomas Elsaesser described as the ‘default vision’ of a digital visual culture: urban life as free-floating, anchorless mobility often in non-Cartesian spaces, in a nutshell. The lecture builds on a cluster of advertisements, all but one for apps, that show floating bodies doing just that – the photo above is from a Spotify ad campaign.

Thanks to BCNM for hosting me, the great audience, and to Emma Fraser for chairing. If anyone has other examples of ads that show people flying through urban space, please let me know!

maximal and minimal VFX

I’ve recently watched Andor and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and on the (flimsy) basis of that and my viewing of other movies and streaming series and trailers, I would like to propose that digital visual effects – VFX – the ones that strive for some kind of photorealism – can more and more often be divided into two kinds: maximal and minimal.

Maximal are those movies and series which go all-out for mega-detail at every scale, like Wakanda Forever. Everything seems to be designed to be looked at close up – except that viewers are also continually offered spectacular views of extremely detailed huge landscapes too. Every surface displays some kind of elaborate patterning. Characters’ bodies have incredibly crafted hairdos, jewellry, armour, clothing, weapons, skin. Imagined architecture is florid, covered with neo-neo-gothic-mayan-deco-whatever. Forests and oceans are full of weird vegetation created leaf by leaf, and elaborate fantasy creatures. Streets are packed with crowds of individuals all doing things. Landscapes are full of houses, valleys, peaks, lakes, bridges, flying things, flowing things, cities, weather. I am thinking here of all of the Marvel movies I’ve watched, as well as the Rings of Power (indeed, maybe this was all started by the Lord of The Rings films). Wheel of Time, not quite so much – but the VFX there are still things you have to look at, monsters and magic and such. The Avatar movies definitely. It’s as if the entire screen has to be full of lots of visual-attention-grabbing things all the time.

Whereas one of the reasons I so much enjoyed Andor, and Denis Villeneuve’s version of Dune, is that their VFX are somehow much more minimal. They can be spectacular and detailed, of course. But one reason to see Dune on the big screen is to relish the scale of just a few big things in a frame rather than every scene jostling with endless detail (see also Nope). Huge spaceships, huge deserts, huge cities with lots of enormous blank walls. Just a few people. As for Andor, one of the early episodes – maybe the first – had Andor walking through street at night and passing bubble-type enclosures, inside of which some sort of figures were moving. What sort of figures? No idea. Because the camera didn’t linger on them, I was given no detail, no ‘look it’s an alien doing something weird’ moment. They were just casually there in the background, the viewer hurried past them much in the way that Andor was hurrying. Much of the rest of the series was similar: VFX as background. World-building, necessary, but not flashy, not demanding attention. So minimal VFX seem less fixated on visual details, less interested in making everything totally visible, less concerned to add elaborate detail to every surface. They show less of themselves.

It might also be no coincidence that Dune and Andor are strongly focussed on character and story and are, relatively, really well-written and involving. I have to admit I found The Rings of Power incredibly boring partly because it was so poorly written. But that was maybe also because I was watching it on a laptop rather than an 80 inch tv. To build enticing worlds based on detail, the detail really needs to be visible, I guess, as well as inhabited by characters you care about.

One exception to my minimal-maximal categorisation might be Game of Thrones, which managed both character and cities and dragons pretty convincingly, at least for a long stretch. But hey, you know what they say about exceptions…

PROXISTANT VISION by Bull.Miletic

Ferriscope

PROXISTANT VISION is an installation by Synne Tollerud Bull and Dragan Miletic, on show at the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco til 19 March 2023, but you can get a sense of it from the PROXISTANT VISION website. According to the Museum’s website, the work explores the impact of digital aerial imaging technologies on everyday life, though my sense of it was more that it was a precise dissection of the operation of some of those technologies.

Synne and Dragan created PROXISTANT VISION with curator Carol Covington and various collaborators at the University of Chicago and the University of California Berkeley, as part of their PhD research. The installation consists of three, interrelated rooms, each of which plays with the relation between distance and proximity as it is articulated by various technologies. Ferriscope explores what can be seen from urban observation wheels, from the first – immense! the cabins look like railway carriages – Ferris wheel at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, to more recent versions in London, LA and Vienna. Venetie 1111110001 works with various images of Venice, including a map from 1500, a view by Google Earth and photos of the carved wooden blocks used to print the paper map. The third piece, Zoom Blue Dot, occupies the space in the museum between the rooms occupied by Ferriscope and Venetie 1111110001. A robot moves around the space projecting a video showing a Google blue dot from outer space down to the interior of its phone screen pixel display. All the spaces are lit only by these the various projections, and the projecting equipment is explicit and even rather ostentatious: a robot no less but also complicated arrangements of projectors, machinery, mirrors, a revolving rhombicuboctahedron, cables and scaffolding.

Each room has a light box with a QR code that connects to a considered and detailed discussion on what each piece does. Most of the commentaries focus on the notion of proxistance: the zoom in and out, from proximity to distance, each tethered to the other through various aerial imaging devices: the ferris wheel, the satellite, the microscope, the projector. In that sense, this work is cousin to Laura Kurgan’s meditation over a decade ago on being Close Up At A Distance (now available in paperback I notice), although the focus on the urban view and the smartphone gives an important supplement to Kurgan’s arguments I think. It brings bodies into view rather more directly, for example, just as these technologies have become so much more pervasive in everyday experience since Kurgan’s work. This is given rather literal emphasis in the installation as none of the projections are confined to one screen or frame: all fragment and disperse in various ways over the bodies of the museum visitors, so that we too become screens for these projections.

The project website suggests this is all about surveillance, the view of everything – if no longer from nowhere, rather from a specific set of technologies. My experience of the installations though was rather different. Precisely because each installation foregrounds its own technological devices so fully – indeed, its own technicity – it makes it clear that different technological assemblages will generate different versions of proxistant vision. Even the smooth, seamless, incredible zoom from outer space to the components of a pixel have been patched together from different images created by satellites and microscopes. There is no singular aerial view.

Moreover, each installation suggested to me at least that, just as proximity and distance are conjoined, so too is coherent vision and its failure. Each showed a different version of this. Venetie 1111110001 played with scale and glitch: the image of the map and the Google Earth view became fragmented and shards played across the walls of the entire room, mixing up with glitches in the digitised version of the 1500 map and what were probably photos of its wooden printing blocks but might have been something else entirely, and what was also possibly a computer-generated image of Venice flooded. Or not. The robot wandered around doing its own thing, its projection beaming onto different surfaces and reflecting in random ways off of bodies and the mylar surrounding the Ferriscope room. As for the Ferriscope, that projection starts with very slow images – ferris wheels are slow – but speeds up and up until it starts to swing around the entire room and to lose visual recognisability, fragmenting into what the human eye can only see as the red, green and blue of the pixels.

All of this suggests a much more complex visual field than popular notions of surveillance and spectacle assume. It suggests a multiplicity of such views which, because each relies on a specific assemblage of technologies and bodies, don’t align. And it suggests that each contains not only proximity and distance, but other antinomies too: coherence and dispersal; integrity and incoherence; legibility and glitch. These things need to be thought together, it seems to me, and PROXISTANT VISION – or visions – is a generative prompt to do so.

With thanks to the Berkeley geographers who joined me at the Museum of Craft and Design: Emma, Clancy, Maria, Alexis and Fiona.

Bigger Than Life beyond perspective

I’ve been reading Bigger Than Life: The Close-Up and Scale in the Cinema by Mary Ann Doane, published in 2021 by Duke University Press. It’s a fascinating discussion of the spatial organisation of cinematic film – both classic and avant-garde – and the spaces offered to the spectators of those films. Her discussions of those films are always interesting, and make a distinctive contribution to the current discussions about three-dimensionality, scale and zoom in film and other media.

However, the book feels on much less certain ground when it touches on more recent digital media. These are mentioned quite often but they aren’t really theorised in the way that Hollywood movies or Shanghai cinema or New York experimental films are. I think this is partly a consequence of Doane’s continuing commitment to psychoanalysis as a valuable toolkit for understanding the subjectivation of the movie spectator – and psychoanalysis doesn’t seem to work in quite the same way for digital media, which, as Doane often says, are often viewed on small screens, on the move rather than in a cinema seat, with different kinds of attention from movies seen in a cinema.

Also though, I think the book struggles with digital media because of its focus on the perspectival organisation of filmic space. Doane elaborates this at length and very helpfully. She describes the alignment of the movie camera with the eye as imagined in Renaissance theories of perspective as a technique to represent three-dimensional space on two-dimensional surfaces at some length. This is really helpful, and generates some great insights into different understandings of visual media as ‘immersive’, for example, and different kinds of vanishing points and horizons, and bodies ‘turning’ in 2D space.

As the book progresses, though, an account seems to emerge of digital media (whether on a phone screen or on an IMAX screen) as purely abstract forms of space, as erasing real bodies and geographies (Doane doesn’t use the word ‘real’ of course, but that is the implication). She argues that engaging with digital media means that the spectator becomes delocalised, disoriented, and sucked into the apparently entirely commodified world of social media. Putting to one side the assumptions that social media do nothing but commodify, and that phone screens and IMAX screens do similar things because both are digital: I think this argument only holds because Doane theorises just one form of spatial organisation in relation to filmic images and their viewers, that of perspective. It’s as if the psychoanalytically-grounded alignment of subjectivity with the perspectival organisation of space becomes the only way in which subjectivities might emerge in relation to film. Take away that space, and according to Doane, the subject floats untethered too, defined only by their online data.

But what if perspective is not the only technique for organising the space of an image, filmic or otherwise? It certainly isn’t the only way that films screened on phones, say, are spatialised; those phones are constantly producing geolocated data which do locate their users, by latitude and longitude – they are very much not delocalised, quite the opposite in fact. Indeed, given Doane’s own discussion about the emergence of perspective (and latitude and longitude) alongside capitalist property ownership and colonialism, more attention to other forms of spatial organisation is definitely in order. For example, while I largely share her critique of affect theory and phenomenology in visual studies, I wouldn’t dismiss space as atmosphere quite so quickly. And what about space as network? Or topological spaces.

In short, what other sorts of spaces might be seen in films, beyond perspective? And what might their seeing do to who is doing the seeing? As film-like imagery proliferates digitally, its specific and various forms spatial organisation need more attention.

out now: the fifth edition of Visual Methodologies

Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Working with Visual Materials has been the longest academic project I’ve worked on. The first edition came out in 2001 and the fifth is now out from Sage. Three years ago I wasn’t planning to write another edition, but I decided that working on it largely from home during various lockdowns and post-lockdowns caution would be a really useful exercise for catching up on things I hadn’t read but should have done – though I long ago gave up trying to be comprehensive.

The new edition of the book is re-organised. It now starts with the chapter on how to use the book (with thanks to the reviewer who suggested that that would be kind of logical… only took me twenty years to come to the same conclusion).

It’s then divided into four main sections. The first, contexts, gives an overview of different theoretical approaches to understanding visual culture and develops the criteria for what I call a ‘critical visual methodology’. The second section is on designing a research project using visual materials, and covers topics like research ethics, locating images to research, and referencing the visual materials you work with. The third part is the section on methods – there are nine chapters each discussing one method in depth, as well as distinct discussions of other related visual research methods (a new feature in this edition). The fourth section has just one chapter, on using visual images to engage non-academic audiences with the findings of a research project.

There’s one entirely new chapter – on research design – and the chapters on digital methods, making images as research data and engaging non-academic audiences have been completely rewritten. Several of the other chapters have been heavily revised and the rest refreshed, while the chapter on pyschoanalytic methods has been moved to the book’s website.

I’d like to thank the folk who contributed generous endorsements of the new edition. I do hope the book continues to be useful, as they suggest it will. This one really will have to be the final edition though – not least because the archive from which I’ve sourced all the front covers doesn’t seem to have any more appropriate photographs for me to use…

digital | visual | cultural

I’m very excited to announce a new project: Digital | Visual | Cultural.   D|V|C is a series of events which will explore how the extensive use of digital visualising technologies creates new ways of seeing the world.

About Banner

The first event will be on June 28, when Shannon Mattern will give a public lecture in Oxford. Shannon is the author of the brilliant Code and Clay, Data and Dirt as well as lots of great essays for Places Journal. ‘Fifty Eyes on a Scene’ will replay a single urban scene from the perspective of several sets of machinic and creaturely eyes. That lecture will be free to attend but you’ll need to book. Booking opens via the D|V|C website on 23 April. It will also be livestreamed.

I’m working on this with Sterling Mackinnon, and funding is coming from the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University, and St John’s College Oxford.

The website has more info at dvcultural.org, and you can follow D|V|C on Twitter @dvcultural and on Instagram at dvcultural. There’ll be a couple more events in 2019 so follow us to stay in touch.

So that’s the practicalities. What’s the logic? Continue reading

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?

 

conference on images of urban technological futures

There’s an interesting conference at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 2 June.  Title: Future Passe. You can find out more here.

The conference will explore how we represent urban change and technological development in visual and textual form, historically and in the present. How has visual rhetoric been used to normalize the disruption and destruction that accompanies modern ideas of ‘progress’? And what happens when these confident predictions of future relevance fail and we are left with dead-ends and obsolete technologies, the unwanted remains of modernity?
 
There’ll be academic speakers (yes I’ll be there, talking about visions of smart cities), V&A curators, artists and filmmakers. Looks fun – and it’s free!

digital visualities in a spy movie

I went to see the film Jason Bourne a couple of weeks ago, the latest instalment in the Matt Damon/Paul Greengrass (mostly) spy thriller saga.  In my defence, it was a quiet week; I have argued that cultural geographers should be a lot more interested in popular (visual) culture (here, if you’re interested); and it was one of Sight and Sound magazine’s films of the month.  So off I went.

Bourne-970-80

Coming out of the cinema, I felt I’d been turned into a sort of visual punchbag, subjected to frequent slapping image impact for the movie’s full 123 minutes and 10 seconds. Once my head cleared a bit, though, it did seem to me that there were some interesting things about that visual experience, several of which are pointed to by Sight and Sound‘s review of the movie, written by Henry K Miller and which you can read in full here.

Henry starts his review by saying that:

The triple crisis of the modern spy movie is the redundancy of human intelligence, of the secret agent, and of spectatorial agency.

Wow.  That’s quite a claim.  But in Bourneworld it’s true: the spy is replaced by digital databases; no one can hide from digital surveillance now; and since what is knowable and visible is mediated by digital tech, the filmic ‘realism’ of classic cinema is redundant.

This has various consequences.  For example, simply looking at the world isn’t enough any more to give movie spectators the evidence they need to figure out the plot; instead we have to be shown endless screens and their information (computer screens, desktop and laptop and wallsize, and phone screens, get a lot of screen time in the movie).

And if what screens show become a crucial part of the action so too, therefore, as Henry also points out, does the control room: the darkened room where CIA operatives stare at screens.  (Interestingly, the more senior the CIA official in Bourneworld, the less glued to a screen they are – though the movie also suggests that understanding the culture of the digital world is increasingly important for such characters).

The aesthetics of those screens are interesting too.  They carry all sorts of images, from photographs to printed text to maps to satellite images to real time data flows to animated algorithmic calculations to graphics of many kinds, and often switch from one to the other with complete ease (there’s no bugs or glitches in Bourneworld, though there are hackers, of course).  They have a visual profligacy which is typically digital (I’ve written about a different kind of example of this here.)  And data is shown in neon colours glowing on black backgrounds, which is very typical too: a lot of smart city visualisations use the same colour range.

In Jason Bourne, it’s screens that appear to offer greater insight into both the events structuring the film and into the films’ characters too.  You don’t go to any of the Bourne movies for extended, introspective dialogue, as several critics have pointed out, it’s true.  But it’s still striking that Bourne’s motivation and even creation is explained in the movie by an online document, which we read on a screen over Jason’s shoulder.  And the camerawork that captures the characters as human bodies (rather than the screen aesthetics that capture them as data) is relentlessly mobile and choppy, fragmenting what can be seen into near-incoherence.

And if the characters are often represented as the data trail that they leave as they move, the final fistfight seems to take particular pleasure in emphasising the embodied human as disposable ‘wetware’, with blood and grunts and close-ups of stranglings, very visceral, and very vulnerable: huge numbers of bodies are simply felled in the movie by assassins of various kinds.

All this happens at speed: everything happens fast in the film.  No-one starts a car slowly, or strolls aimlessly; engines are revved, walking is purposeful and more than likely to break into a run.  The camera wheels and pans relentlessly.  It’s all about flow – just like digital networks.

So, while the movie doesn’t advance the spy movie genre (though the final car chase is a pretty damn fine exemplar), or indeed the conventions of the franchise (as Henry also comments), it does offer an intriguing commentary on some of the visual recalibrations occurring as the visual field is more and more produced digitally.

(Oh I feel I should also mention that in the interests of gender balance, sort of, last week I watched Blake Lively defeat a monster shark in The Shallows.  SPOILER ALERT.  Also by using a screen: she records an SOS on a GoPro camera which then floats ashore.)

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.