This second event in the digital visual cultural series explored the intersection of digital visualising technologies with publics, especially publics in cities. Over the two day event, we heard talks, conversations, discussions and responses from a range of people working in and from urban publics, some in the third sector, some in universities, some as curators or writers. They all explored different ways in which digital visualising technologies in particular are convening different kinds of publics now. Below is a thematic recap, a sampling of photographs taken throughout the precedings, and the link to the pocket podcast we produced from the content recorded throughout the event:
(A special thanks to Jennifer Gabrys, Kayla Schulte, Tony Bush, Scott Rodgers, Clare Walton, Philippa Tipper, Zlatan Krajina, Susa Pop, Alison Powell, Adam Greenfield, Monica Degen, Padmini Ray Murray, Kathryn Eccles, Damien Smith, Ayona Datta, and John Wiley for their wonderful contributions.)
Digital visualising technologies – especially social media – have a complex relation to notions of the public. On the one hand, they’ve often been accused of destroying certain kinds of publics, by turning people away from the face-to-face communication that traditional Western notions of the public assumed – so that the bustling agora or coffee house is now filled not with the voices of Habermasian rational discourse but instead with glowing screens, silent staring and swiping. If public identity is now constituted through likes, hashtags and shares – and that often includes sharing images – this has been seen as an alienated and diminished form of public. And images are often held at least partly responsible for this, especially when they are understood as only ever spectacular or banal.
Digital technologies have also been accused of replacing collective identity – human social identity forged in public spaces – with algorithmic data-driven categories, dividuals, networks and platforms. In terms of public spaces, we might consider how streets are now criss-crossed by the gazes of digital cameras in CCTV systems, of driverless cars, of satellites and other digital surveillance technologies (things which Shannon Mattern discussed at our opening event). These technologies give rise to dystopic visions of city streets and squares that are no longer sites of urban gathering but rather abstract grids generated by global positioning systems and where encounter is replaced by tracking.
In that context, returning to notion of public seem rather odd. But just as theories and concepts of the idea of public have never been particularly stable, nor has what it means to be a member of a public. Membership of a public is often contested. Which suggests that publics are made rather than found. Publics are only ever particular people convened into some kind of collective. And clearly, digital technologies are also enabling new publics to gather. They do that with new forms of address – often visual – new forms of communication, new spaces in which to be public, and new practices to enable collective gathering for fun or protest.
digital | visual | cultural 2 explored some aspects of that convening. We discussed how digital visualising technologies gather different kinds of publics. We asked what aspects of digital picturing are at work here – is it the image’s content? Or the ways it circulates? Or the ways it can be modified, multiply, mutate?
On the first day, our speakers looked at a range of different aspects of those questions. They did so by looking at the moment when technologies – digital images but not those alone – made their address, spoke to some people and as they did so, made some sort of public.
* one session focussed on air pollution monitors gathering data for various uses, the relevance of data both shaping the data as it was used but also the data helping to constitute groups.
* we heard about ‘ambient media’: the ongoing use of social media, in the moment, sometimes very casual, sometimes more purposeful, as part of the ways different positions were taken in relation to a cycling scheme in north London.
* we thought about the ways in which digital images on screens are very often a sort of background, invisible through their familiarity as people pursue everyday routine paths and routes through a city.
* we also heard quite a lot of discussion about how certain people might make more specialised interventions into this routine, everyday, visual ambience – via artworks, or research methods, or walks of different kinds.
On the second day, we looked at questions of the past and the future – at digital visions of the past and future – as we explored how digital visualising technologies are being used to imagine or project specific accounts of histories in museums and archives, and the ways things might be visualised otherwise.
* we heard about the complex relations between digital photography, digital architectural renders and digital archives in relation to museum design and marketing.
* we heard about curators using the social media activity of museum visitors to better understand why people visiting museums and the online groupings that emerged from such activity.
* we watched multiple digital mediations of a statue burnt in the first fire at the Glasgow School of Art in 2014 and then lost entirely in the second fire four years later. The statue remains as a digital artefact constantly refreshed on screen, but what relation does it now have with the past?
* and finally, we considered the ways that participatory research using digital video could rearticulate gendered forms of public space.
Digital visualising technologies are diverse. They are produced in many different ways, for many different purposes. But over these two days of discussion, it was clear that both as part of everyday, ongoing practices and also as part of elaborate efforts to imagine the past and re-imagine the present, they are powerful, enabling all sorts of publics to be addressed and come into being.
digital | visual | cultural 2 was organised by Sterling Mackinnon, Adam Packer, Gillian Rose and Oliver Zanetti, all from the School of Geography and the Environment at Oxford University, with financial support from the School of Geography and St john’s College.