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.

film and phones in The World’s a Little Blurry

I watched the film Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry at the weekend, which follows her music-making processes up to her Grammy award wins in 2020. Of course there’s lots to say about the film, but one of the things that struck me about it was how smartphones were both ubiquitous yet given no attention by the film.

On the one hand, there are many shots of Eilish’s ‘fans’ (not a term she likes), rather coolly observed in the film, at a little distance – the camera rarely joins Eilish as she enters any crowds for example. Indeed the entire film has rather a casual style – there isn’t a particular narrative arc, things just unfold kind of like they did for Eilish over the year or so that footage for the film was being shot. But the fans are pictured really Intensely experiencing her music, with her, at her gigs; singing every word, tears streaming; jumping in sync with her; and very often holding a phone to record the moment. In some shots of crowds gathered to see her, to witness her just sitting in a bus or getting off a plane, to scream and shout, and cry again, the faces are almost entirely obscured by phones being held up to film the moment, the encounter. The phone, the kinetic body, the software, tears, sweat, the voices and words: while that intense identification with a pop star isn’t new, the intimate incorporation of the smartphone and its camera is (fairly new, anyway).

So the film acknowledges the fans’ phones. It also shows the phone as central to Eilish and her work. She is very often filmed on her phone, writing and reading lyrics, recording songs, phoning, posting. We hear about her rocketing numbers of Instagram followers, and she jokes about The Internet not liking her Bond movie song because it might have a big crescendo; she’s also provoked at one point by the constant demand that she be nice and be seen to be nice online. But the film does not explore the phone as a portal into the immense social media world. We see only see it tethered to bodies, to bodies doing things with it – singing, dancing, talking, crying, filming, using it as a glowing light – but we don’t see what happens when its various harvesting is re-engaged with in different kinds of audiencing in other situations on- and offline. All we see is some bodies using film to record other bodies, particularly the body of Eilish (fantastically styled) but also the bodies of her fans (and family and friends and team). The phone as a recording device entangled in a massively distributed, partly inhuman, not-entirely-visual social media constellation is not allowed to disrupt the intimacy of that kind of filmed embodiment. In that sense, being so uninterested in its ubiquitous rival the smartphone camera, this is very much a film film.

Nope and seeing extraction

Nope is a movie with a lot to show about seeing. It’s packed full of ideas and references. It is also a great cinematic spectacle with a soundtrack to match. I watched it a few days after taking a train through landscape very similar to the Californian scrub that situates the film, and maybe that helped to underline the sense of hugeness in the film’s landscape and its alien. Definitely one to watch in a cinema.

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The alien turns out not to be a spaceship, despite its definite flying-saucer vibe, but rather a living thing. And one of the themes of the movie that I haven’t seen a lot of reviews discuss is its focus on animals. The alien itself is a sort of animal (it eats flesh and eventually develops wings) but the film also focusses on horses, a chimpanzee, and of course humans.

I think the film is divided into sections each of which is named after an animal. And there’s something going on about how different animals see, what they see and what then happens. Key moments in the film include a horse seeing its own reflection. And, in a truly terrifying scene (I thought so anyway), the camera is occupying the point of a view of a character hiding from a chimpanzee that has just savagely attacked several humans. The chimp turns its own intense gaze, noticing and focussing on that character but also directly at you in your cinema seat… the camera cuts. Wow.

While animals like horses and chimpanzees and the alien are shown as looking very directly (the alien can detect what looks at it), the film spends considerable time reflecting on all the technologies that humans use to mediate their looking: mirrors, veils, surveillance cameras, still cameras, hand-cranked film cameras, green screens, smartphones, sunglasses… and demonstrating all the ways that these falter and fail. There’s an acknowledgement of what commodification does to the images produced by those technologies; and also a deathly penalty attached to making direct eye contact with the alien. That bleak paradox is one of the film’s horrors. However you look, it seems, there are risks…

Another horror is the white alien monster extracting flesh from this landscape: horse and human. This extraction is what Daniel Kaluuya simply refuses in another of the film’s standout moments: nope, he says. One of the things I’ve learnt from reading Gray Brechin’s book Imperial San Francisco is the full extent of the massive environmental despoilation that accompanied white settler colonialism in California, and the latter’s profound racisms. The way the movie pictures the whiteness of the monster sucking up bodies and then expelling them as waste matter feels deeply metaphorical of that extractivist racism.

I know some critics dislike Jordan Peele’s films because they invite this kind of multiple interpretive reading – and certainly the readings don’t neatly line up. But – in perhaps the final paradox of this movie’s account of human visuality – the for me at least there is something so compelling about how this film looks, that the readings and interpretations do indeed stumble a little. I’m too busy looking to do too much analysis. (Are the film’s sections really named after animals?) The movie itself disrupts human looking while enticing us to look.

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

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.

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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.)

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

prezi as tool and symptom

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

prezi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

 

 

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

new publication: ‘producing place atmospheres digitally’

Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and I have a new paper just published online in the Journal of Consumer Culture.  The full reference is:

Degen, Monica, Clare Melhuish, and Gillian Rose. “Producing Place Atmospheres Digitally: Architecture, Digital Visualisation Practices and the Experience Economy.” Journal of Consumer Culture

This is its abstract:

Computer-generated images have become the common means for architects and developers to visualise and market future urban developments. This article examines within the context of the experience economy how these digital images aim to evoke and manipulate specific place atmospheres to emphasise the experiential qualities of new buildings and urban environments. In particular, we argue that computer-generated images are far from ‘just’ glossy representations but are a new form of visualising the urban that captures and markets particular embodied sensations. Drawing on a 2-year qualitative study of architects’ practices that worked on the Msheireb project, a large-scale redevelopment project in Doha (Qatar), we examine how digital visualisation technology enables the virtual engineering of sensory experiences using a wide range of graphic effects. We show how these computer-generated images are laboriously materialised in order to depict and present specific sensory, embodied regimes and affective experiences to appeal to clients and consumers. Such development has two key implications. First, we demonstrate the importance of digital technologies in framing the ‘expressive infrastructure’ of the experience economy. Second, we argue that although the Msheireb computer-generated images open up a field of negotiation between producers and the Qatari client, and work quite hard at being culturally specific, they ultimately draw ‘on a Westnocentric literary and sensory palette’ that highlights the continuing influence of colonial sensibilities in supposedly postcolonial urban processes.

atmosphere, obscured: London, August 2014

expressive infrastructure, obscured:
London, August 2014