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.

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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.

photographing a smart city

MK:Smart is a large ‘smart city’ project based in Milton Keynes in the UK.  It’s hosted by my home institution, The Open University.  Its core work package when it was set up was the development of a open data hub: an repository of all sorts of big data about Milton Keynes, accessible to anyone.  As the project has developed, though, its efforts to enable local people to engage with such an open data source have increased.  One of these efforts is the website OurMK, and the project team also does lots of outreach in local schools.  You can find about more about their work to facilitate ‘smart citizens’ here and some of their publications are listed here.

As part of this engagement work, the MK:Smart team launched a photography competition in December 2015, with prizes for the best photographs picturing Milton Keynes as a smart city.  You can see the finalists here.

I think these photographs raise some fascinating questions about how a smart city is visualised by its residents (or, more accurately, what the judges thought were the best ways some residents had pictured a smart city).  Nineteen photographs made it to the final stage – not many, so I should be careful about drawing any big interpretive conclusions from them.  On the other hand, as I’ve remarked before, one of the liberating things about writing a blog is that sometimes the robust methodological procedures of the social sciences can be laid to one side and a little more speculative thinking permitted…

Car Park Drama

Car Park Drama by Suzanna Raymond. Suzanna’s caption read: The way the car park is integrated into the shopping centre looks like a smart design to me, making it an integral part of the layout rather then just a space added on as an afterthought.

So one thing that struck me immediately about these nineteen was how so many of them focus on the landscape of Milton Keynes, and especially on its ‘natural’ landscape: trees, parks, canals, lakes, skies.  There are no pictures of servers or data hubs or smartphones (though there are two photos of electric car charging points, one of a bus charging wirelessly and one of solar panels).

This preference for picturing a smart city as a green city perhaps speaks to the distinctive history of Milton Keynes.  Milton Keynes was designed as a new city in the late 1960s and early 1970s with plenty of experiments in (and symbols of) more sustainable living: houses powered by solar energy, cycle ways paralleling the roads, a dial-a-bus service, a tree cathedral… the whole city is full of trees and parks and is oriented along a ley line! Milton Keynes has a strong sense of itself as green, then, and these photographs might be speaking to that sense of place. The photos perhaps also draw on a rather English preference for rural landscapes, gardens and parks.

The other thing that struck me about the photographs was the way they display the sort of visual aesthetic that seems increasingly common in many digital images, which is a kind of glow against darkness, whether that’s lights gleaming at dusk or (elsewhere) live data feeds pulsating across a black background.  No less than seven are taken around sunset, and one more makes a striking play between a sky darkened by clouds and a golden building.

So, possibly, what we have in this admittedly tiny sample of photographs is an interesting play between what someone like Lev Manovich might suggest is an increasingly widespread visual aesthetic, driven by the extensive use of digital image creation/editing software – even a global visual aesthetic – and something that’s may be much more local, attuned to the specific histories of this particular city and its sense of place.

Now, of course, as Doreen Massey would immediately have pointed out, there’s no clear distinction between the local and the global.  Many of the ideas behind Milton Keynes, and implicit in its first visualisations, were imported by its architects from the west coast of the USA, for example, and I’ve already suggested that a love of rural landscape may be as much English as anything to do with Milton Keynes.  But it’s precisely this play between the new and the old, between existing ways of seeing and of making images with new ways of seeing and making, that I find so fascinating in this small collection of photographs.

 

 

roughing up digital visualisations of and in cities

I have a new chapter out, in a book edited by Shirley Jordan and  Christoph Lindner called Cities Interrupted.  The collection explores the potential of visual culture – in the form of photography, film, performance, architecture, urban design, and mixed media – to strategically interrupt processes of globalization in contemporary urban spaces.  My chapter looks at different ways that digital visualisations of new urban development projects can be ‘interrupted’ – that is, their smooth and glossy surfaces made a bit more problematic.

cities interrupted

The chapter covers a lot of different tactics, all of which engage with different aspects of these very complicated images, from picturing their decay to spotting their mistakes to satirising their atmosphere.  It also has one of the worst titles I’ve ever come up with: “Dimming the scintillating glow of unwork: looking at digital visualisations of urban redevelopment projects”.  Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it.

The book has lots of other great chapters of course – according to Tim Cresswell’s jacket blurb, we are “a stellar cast of authors”! – it’s a must-read if you’re interested in visualising urban spaces, or indeed cities more generally.

Big Bang Data: some thoughts on an exhibition

I had a lot of fun a couple of weekends ago at the Big Bang Data exhibition.  It claims to show “how the data explosion is transforming our world”, and if it doesn’t manage quite that, it’s certainly worth a visit.  It’s on in London and its run has been extended to 20 March – not surprisingly, as it was packed out on the Saturday afternoon I visited.  Its website has lots of materials on things that are in the show if you can’t make it to London.

bigbang 2

There’s lots to say about it.  After a couple of artist installations to kick things off (Timo Arnall‘s Internet Machine and Ryoji Ikeda‘s gorgeous, entrancing Data.tron – and We Need Us by Julie Freeman is installed towards the show’s end), the exhibition was divided into zones that reflected pretty accurately a number of current academic ways of thinking about digital data: the materiality of ‘the cloud’; the ‘quantified self’; the massiveness of ‘big data’; ‘data for the common good’, looking at participatory uses of data and digital devices; ‘data is beautiful’.  Each zone was full of examples of different kinds of engagements with digital data, by artists and designers and activists, and there were also a few (rather gestural) citations of earlier, pre-digital examples of images doing apparently similar things.  There was also a massive ‘London Situation Room’, with a number of very large projections of various data streams from the city by Tekja, as well as two consoles with interactive screens of various kinds.

london data streams tekja.jpg

London Data Streams by Tekja

The variety was fascinating.

However, the variety also served to obscure what I felt by the end was actually a rather uncritical approach to digital data.  Continue reading

exhibitions visualising digital data

There seem to be a few exhibitions around at the moment – as well as one that ran for a few weeks and closed at the end of November, in Riga, called Data Drift – that look at the intersection of digital data and digital visualisations of various kinds.  Maybe there’re always these sorts of exhibitions around and I just haven’t noticed them, but if there aren’t, it’s kind of interesting that I found four in the past month or so.

bigbang

One’s at Somerset House in London, focussing on data and called Big Bang Data, until the end of February.

Another is called Animated Wonderworlds at the Museum fur Gestaltung Schaudepot in Zurich.  It’s curated by Suzanne Buchan and runs til 10 January.  I was hoping to get to this one, but my plans were scuppered so I’ve had to make do with the exhibition catalogue and a YouTube video.  It’s focussed on animation rather than on digital data specifically but does include some data visualisations, and the catalogue has a great essay by Suzanne, which talks about just how pervasive digital animations are now.

And the third is at the Institute for Unstable Media (what a great name – though I guess all institutes are made of unstable media…) in Rotterdam.  Its title is Data in the 21st Century and it’s on until 14 February, exploring the frictions between ‘data’ and ‘reality’, according to its homepage.

As I haven’t actually been to any of these shows, this is more of a hand-wave than a proper blog post.  Interesting, though, that there’s so much work by artists, designers and digital humanists (Lev Manovich features in all but Digital Wonderlands, I think) using visualisations to interrogate data.  The claim that data – especially the big data sets generated by so much of the digital infrastructure of everyday life now – is understood more easily if it’s visualised is one that’s made very often.  I’m not so sure.  As others (like Johanna Drucker) have worried, once data is visualised, certain questions about it are prioritised over others.  A visualisation (as Suzanne Buchan argues about animations) invite affective responses, they let us “see the unseeable”, to quote Suzanne, and we can get carried away into their beautiful, glowing worlds.  That can be a wonderful thing.  But it also makes the robustness of the data, and the process of visualisation (both the technical process and the labour process) much harder to see, in fact.  Making something visible always seems to entail making something else much less visible.

visual research methods in an expanded field: what next for visual research methods?

I gave a keynote address at the International Visual Methods conference in Brighton a couple of weeks ago. I’m not planning to publish it in a peer-reviewed journal (thereby hangs a tale, for another time), so I thought I’d post it here instead. It’s not a polished piece, it’s my notes for the lecture, with a few references, and it gets rather vague towards its end… but it’s an attempt to provoke some new thinking about visual research methods in the context of digital visual culture, so may have some usefulness nonetheless.

You can watch the prezi that accompanies it here.

Its abstract is below; click through at its end to read my notes for the address.

This lecture will review the current state of visual research methods, discussing both methods for interpreting found visual materials and methods that involve the creation of visual materials as data and as means of disseminating research findings. It will suggest that, while creative experimentation continues, several visual research methods have consolidated and are now relatively mainstream, particularly visual ethnographies, image-elicitation interviews and visual participatory research. It will argue that now, to move forward, visual research methods must engage more fully with the range of issues raised by the fact that so much of contemporary everyday visual culture is mediated by software and, often, delivered by digital hardware. What are the implications of selfies and memes, of YouTube, Vimeo, Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter, Flickr and Vine, for visual research methods? The lecture will suggest that image-heavy social media platforms raise three methodological questions for visual research methods: questions of scale, of distribution and of practice. The lecture will explore these and suggest that if images are to continue to be taken as useful tools in understanding social life, this may well require a radical expansion of visual research methods.

Continue reading