As I’m coming to the end of my stay in Melbourne, I’m going to take the opportunity to reflect on some ideas I’ve been having about the possibilities for geographers presented by eye tracking technology.
In collaboration with Jodi Sita from the Australian Catholic University, I’ve written a grant proposal while I’ve been here which seeks to use eye tracking glasses to examine how cyclists engage with urban spaces. These glasses overlay a record of where you’re pointing your eyes onto a video recorded from a front facing camera mounted at eye level. These devices used to be a little Heath Robinson, but are now very slickly packaged with a similar weight and appearance to sports sunglasses, making them suitable for field-based use.
Meeting with a couple of eye tracking specialists while I’ve been here has given me the chance to think through some ideas around how geographers can engage with these technologies. The majority of work in eye tracking is lab-based, asking participants to look at a screen and recording how long they spend looking at different elements of images displayed on the screen. Again, this used to be a technology that was very expensive and complex, but which has tumbled in price and rocketed in usability over the last few years.
Jodi has just published an edited collection looking at what eye tracking can bring to film and TV studies. I had a fascinating conversation with Angela Ndalianis of Swinburne University of Technology about her collaboration with Jodi examining some of the assumptions made by film studies scholars about how audiences watch movies – what elements filmmakers intend to draw the eye vs. the parts of the screen that audiences actually look at. A fascinating opportunity to debunk some long-held theories and confirm others. Jodi has also run an amazing project examining how people respond to green space, showing them film of walks through parks to see what elements they pay attention to in the landscape.
In conversation with Adrian Dyer at RMIT, he revealed his concerns that a great many studies being undertaken with eyetracking these days (not including those described above) are insufficiently rigorous and overly descriptive. This is doubtless a fair point. But there’s something about this moment with the technology that allows for research to emerge that might not meet the standards of rigour of conventional approaches to eye tracking, but which can nonetheless give new insights into a variety of different areas.
One can buy a basic screen-based eye tracker for less than £200, although this unfortunately lacks the specialist software that allows you to do the automated analysis. That specialist software gets quite expensive quite quickly – about €2500 for a year’s subscription – but allows you to start identifying how much time people spend examining different elements within an image.
At high levels of sophistication, eye tracking can give insights into people’s decisionmaking. Market researchers use this to determine things like how the design of packaging can make people more or less likely to buy a product (there’s a group at Monash working on this). One of the things I intend to do when I get back to the UK is see if I can hack together something relatively crude to allow students to do basic analysis using a cheap gaming eye tracker. From a scientific point of view, this would be entirely without rigour, but for demonstrating the principles of how one could start to use this technology, I think it could be very useful. Once something usable falls below £1000, however, I can see that there would be serious interest among geographers in what this technology could do. Scholars working on, for example, place, mobilities, landscape etc. could gain some fascinating new insights working with these techniques.
At the University of Birmingham we have a very large map collection held within the School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences. It’s an eclectic mix of maps used in the field, teaching sets of ordnance survey and geology maps, large scale topographic maps for regions across the globe, a treasure trove of historic items and fascinating oddities such as fire insurance plans. More and more of the everyday maps that we use for teaching are now digital, however. In common with map collections elsewhere in the UK the balance is therefore shifting from being a working collection toward being more of an archive collection. Archives are, of course, fantastically important and useful things – well I would say that, given that I used to be an historian – and so we’re looking at how we manage the long-term future of the excellent collection that we have at Birmingham.
I’ve been in Melbourne for just over a month now and have been working on a number of projects in parallel. One of my reasons for being here is to look at Australian practice in terms of managing map collections. I’ve spent the last few weeks talking to experts in the field about how they manage their maps, having meetings with University-based map librarians and collection managers based at the Victoria and New South Wales State Libraries and the National Library of Australia in Canberra.
In meeting this group of passionate and fascinating individuals, a couple of themes have become clear. First, as in the UK, university map librarians are starting to retire and when they do, institutions are having to make difficult choices about how they manage those collections. The library team at one university are currently doing a piece of research attempting to figure out what to do with what has become a somewhat orphaned collection. The library building in which it’s housed is under great pressure to expand the number of study spaces as student numbers climb meaning that storage space is at a premium. Some of the map material has been passed to other institutions, some will go to offsite storage, some may be disposed of.
The future seems to be in digitisation – perhaps no surprise. Scanning maps is a lot of work, but in some ways is the relatively straightforward part of the problem. The key challenges would seem to be:
Fundamentally these are library and database management problems which means that securing the future of the collection at Birmingham will need much closer coordination with our central library team. There are a lot of things to put in place before we can start simply scanning the maps, even if we can get volunteer labour to help offset some of the costs of this. We also need to look carefully at what is already available online at archive grade before doing any scanning. The National Library of Australia, for example, get a great many inquiries from people in the UK because they’ve made freely available a great number of high quality scans of Ordnance Survey maps of Britain.
There’s quite a bit of work for us to do at Birmingham, but from what I’ve seen operating here, I think we can be optimistic about securing the future of our collection. This will require an investment of time and money but, based on this trip, I feel much more confident in knowing what we need to ask for and who we need to talk to in order to make this happen.
I need to say a big thank you to everyone who took the time to meet with me here in Australia, but particularly to David Jones, the Map Curator at the University of Melbourne who has been incredibly generous in opening up his little black book and connecting me with colleagues across the country. If you are interested in maps and find yourself in Melbourne, do look David up - he's a thoroughly good bloke and looks after quite an amazing collection.
I’m relatively new to modern console gaming. The first time I played Assassin’s Creed: Unity there was a moment of genuine shock where, seeing the sheer size and detail of the landscape being represented I wondered to myself “do geographers even know about this stuff?”. I laughed out loud when, walking away from a representation of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1789, I found the River Seine, exactly where I would have expected it to be from my knowledge of the real city.
As Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and Gillian Rose (2017) have discussed, virtual environments are more than just representations, but are intended to do work in the material world. This is something that I’ve been writing about with Tess Osborne in relation to video games. Hopefully that paper should see the light of day shortly, but in the meantime while I’m in Australia I’ve been hit by an odd sensation of familiarity. I have physically been to Australia before, but that was back in 1987 and my memories are somewhat blurred by time. Much more recently, however, I’ve been to a virtual Australia courtesy of Turn 10 Studios’ Forza Horizon 3.
For those unfamiliar with the Forza franchise, these are Xbox exclusive games that come in two flavours. The main Forza series is about creating a minutely detailed racing simulator, with real race tracks laser scanned for maximum accuracy, incredibly careful reproductions not just of the look of different cars, but their driving characteristics. It’s a labour of love, incredibly nerdy and – if you’re anything like me – almost impossible to control unless you turn all of the driver aids and cheats to maximum. Technically these games are fascinating, but perhaps not wildly fun.
Every other year, however, Turn 10 release one of the Forza Horizon games. These are open world – in that you can drive freely rather than being confined to a track – and are very much playful. You can drive a Lamborghini at high speed through a vineyard with cheerful abandon before getting back onto the asphalt and pottering toward a local town without having to call a tow truck because you’ve shattered your transmission into a thousand tiny fragments. The Horizon games are fun and silly, but at least vaguely based on real places. Forza Horizon 2 is set in the south of France and it’s strange to drive through a simplified version of Nice and recognise some of the buildings along the Promenade des Anglais looking across the beach.
Games designers, for practical and ludic reasons, fiddle with the details when real places are being reproduced. So the Australia of Forza Horizon 3 might feature real places, but you certainly can’t drive from the Great Ocean Road west of Melbourne to Coober Pedy north of Adelaide in ten minutes as you can in the game (Google Maps suggests it would take about 17 hours). Nonetheless, some of the game landscapes are simply haunting compared to the real thing. On a gravel road up in the hills north of Melbourne at the weekend, I was struck just how much it felt to me like I was in the game – empty roads, beautiful forest.
Of course, I wasn’t in a hyper car and I’m not convinced the hire company would have been impressed that I was out on a dirt track. Similarly, down on the Great Ocean Road, the scenery is uncannily like the game in places, but there was no way I was going to be doing any driving down in the surf when I visited.
The shock of recognition says something about the levels of detail games designers are now using to create a compelling environment in which we can play – partly to keep us wanting to buy the next game, the next expansion pack and so on. But, of course, designers cut out the boring bits. There’s a lot of rather dull urban landscape in material London when moving between the famous bits – but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from playing Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Similarly, the Great Ocean road is pretty, but the mundane realities of speed limits, heavy traffic and the need to find somewhere for lunch make it a very different experience to hooning along at 250kph in a Koenigsegg before completely losing the back end going into a corner too quickly and ending up crashing into a cliff face. Games landscapes can be consumed in a variety of different ways, but everything about them is encouraging you to have a much more ludic engagement in ways that would be deemed profoundly antisocial in the real world. And, indeed, the gamerly skills needed to engage with the virtual landscape in that way don’t really translate to the material realities of being out on a dusty mountain road, on your own, with somewhat spotty GPS reception and without a clear idea of where you’re going. But it can still be genuinely disturbing when you’re visiting a new place and think to yourself “I feel like I’ve been here before…”
Degen, M., Melhuish, C. and Rose, G. (2017) Producing place atmospheres digitally: architecture, digital visualisation practices and the experience economy, Journal of Consumer Culture 17: 3-24.
Last year I was fortunate enough to secure funding from U21 to spend a couple of months as a visiting fellow at the University of Melbourne. Leaving behind a cold and snowy UK I'm in Australia working on a series of projects, meeting colleagues and learning about best practice in a number of different areas.
My fellowship has four broad topics: urban studies; map archives; research-led undergraduate fieldwork; and creative methods. I’m excited to be meeting with colleagues from the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute to explore how they manage a large, cross-campus and interdisciplinary team. This has particular relevance for practice at Birmingham, as we have just launched a new Urban Initiative seeking to capitalise on interdisciplinary research and teaching opportunities examining the future of cities globally. I’ve also been fortunate enough to arrange a series of meetings with colleagues from different Map Libraries in the city of Melbourne and hope to use these contacts to get in touch with other map curators both here and in Sydney. The University of Birmingham’s map collection is in a period of transition and talking to experts here in Melbourne is a chance to help feed into discussions about the future of our collection.
My School has just secured funding from the University of Birmingham to implement a series of year 3 undergraduate fieldcourses, intending to reinforce our ongoing strategy to focus on students designing and implementing their own research projects. Research-led teaching is now at the heart of our curriculum at Birmingham and my trip to Melbourne allows me to do some planning for a potential fieldcourse based in the city. I’ll be exchanging ideas with colleagues here, particularly with a view to identifying topics that students can develop into field-based projects.
Finally, I’m arranging to meet with a number of different scholars working on novel and innovative arts and technology-based research techniques. There are some fascinating projects happening here in Melbourne and I’m excited to learn more about how researchers working in a range of different disciplines are integrating new techniques into their approaches to data collection. I’ll also be talking about some of my own ‘playful methods’ experiments at seminars that I’m giving during my time here.
In addition to thanking U21 for providing the funding to undertake the fellowship, I am exceedingly grateful to my School and College for giving me research leave to spend an extended amount of time in Australia. I also owe a deep debt to the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne who are hosting me, providing a desk and Visiting Fellow status during my time in Australia. I’m excited to start getting to know and working with my new colleagues over the next couple of months.
Sponsored by the Gender and Feminist Geographies Research Group & the Higher Education Research Group
The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) places at its heart the idea of research-informed teaching (RIT) arguing that ‘The learning environment is enriched by student exposure to and involvement in provision at the forefront of scholarship, research and/or professional practice.’ (DfE, 2017, p25). While TEF can be criticised for advancing the marketization of universities, the emphasis on RIT provides a useful opportunity to reflect on our practice as researchers in the classroom.
RIT covers a range of practices from communicating research findings, through teaching and assessment methods and processes, up to students undertaking research themselves (HEA & UA, 2016). Geographic research into bodies and embodiment is well positioned to engage with RIT approaches because of the emphasis on praxis within feminist and allied scholarship (Staeheli & Lawson 1995). The phenomenological understanding of bodies and worlds being co-constructed produces a range of opportunities for learning-by-doing, creativity and experimentation (Manning, 2014) as do recent reflections on the potential for deploying ‘visceral’ methodologies (Sexton et al. 2017). Likewise, there are opportunities for action learning through research activities where students ‘trouble’ (Butler, 1990) their habitual embodied performances of space and multisensory experience of everyday landscapes. Such approaches also lend themselves to enhancing student skillsets by encouraging communication beyond conventional academic essays.
We are seeking panellists interested in discussing the place of bodies and embodiment research within higher education teaching. The format would be for panellists to provide a five minute pitch about their own teaching practice, followed by an audience Q&A. Themes for panellists could include:
- More-than-content-delivery approaches to teaching the body and embodiment
- Ways of connecting academic theory with everyday life
- Co-researching with students and encouraging students to become independent researchers
- Resisting/working with student instrumentality – “How will this get me a job?”
- Students presenting research findings beyond conventional modes of academic writing
- Research ethics, integrity and student embodiment
- Teaching and assessing the multisensory
If you are interested in taking part, please get in touch with one of the panel organisers: Phil Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org), Jen Lea (email@example.com) and Nina Morris (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Butler J (1990) Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge, London.
DfE (2017) Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework Specification. Department for Education, London.
HEA & UA (2016) What does research informed teaching look like? Higher Education Academy, London.
Manning, E. (2014) Against method, in Vannini, P. (ed.) Non-representational methodologies. New York: Routledge, pp.52-71
Sexton AE, Hayes-Conroy A, Sweet EL, Miele M and Ash J. 2017 Better than text? Critical reflections on the practices of visceral methodologies in human geography, Geoforum 82;Supplement C 200-1.
Staeheli L & Lawson,V (1995), Feminism, praxis, and human geography. Geographical Analysis, 27: 321–338
A variety of technologies have emerged in the last decade that make it easier and cheaper than ever before to make representations of everyday mobile embodiment. Increasing numbers of people are quantifying and self-tracking their everyday lives recording behavioural, biological and environmental data (Beer, 2016; Neff & Nafus, 2016) using a variety of technologies, for example:
The emergence of the quantified-self poses both opportunities and dilemmas for geographical thought. We wish to move past simplistic protests that dismiss such technology as offering another take on Haraway’s (1988) ‘god trick’, presenting partial, and highly situated data as objective truth. Instead, this session will build on the potential identified by Delyser and Sui (2013) to take more inventive approaches toward mobile methods. The focus will be on how these technologies can be engaged with by critical geographers to bring new perspectives to their analysis of everyday embodiment. Themes include, but are not limited to:
If you would be interested in submitting a paper or would like to discuss your ideas, please drop us a line informally in advance of the deadline. Full abstracts of no more than 250 words to be submitted by 14 October to the session organisers Phil Jones (email@example.com) and Tess Osborne (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Beer D (2016) Metric power. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
DeLyser D & Sui D (2013) Crossing the qualitative- quantitative divide II: inventive approaches to big data, mobile methods, and rhythmanalysis. Progress in Human Geography 37;2 293-305.
Haraway D (1988). Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies 14;3 575-599
Neff G & Nafas D (2016) Self-tracking. Cambridge MA., MIT Press.
Next week I’ll be attending the ‘Soundings and Findings’ conference at UEA, intended as a platform for scholars to reflect on the intellectual advances made through engagement with the AHRC’s Connected Communities funding stream. I’m running a panel discussion called ‘Becoming inexpert’ attempting to offer a challenge to the somewhat heroic narrative of interdisciplinary working (“It’s tough but rewarding”).
In thinking about this session I have been pottering about on Google Scholar. Academia is very much about fashions – ideas and methods fall in and out of favour with alarming regularity. Right now we’re in the middle of a digital data revolution that bears an uncanny similarity to the so-called ‘quantitative revolution’ of the 1960s, both in being driven by radical technological change and being accompanied by somewhat contestable claims about what these data can tell us about people’s everyday lives. I’ve only been in the academic game for 15 years or so and even in that short time I’ve seen ideas develop, mature and fall by the wayside in the pursuit of the latest new thing.
As a result, then, it’s remarkable that interdisciplinarity still retains its power and allure, given that it has been part of the academic discourse since at least the 1970s. Twenty years ago, writing in a special issue of the Art Bulletin, James D. Herbert wrote that:
‘Everyone involved in the heated debate over interdisciplinarity, curiously, appears to be on the same side. One would be hard pressed to find an art historian of any methodological stripe who was not, in some basic sense, in favor of it.’ (Herbert, 1995, 537)
The claims for what interdisciplinarity can read like the handbill of a snake oil salesman: it brings new insights to old problems; collaboration is essential for multifaceted, ‘wicked’ issues; it’s essential to creative thinking; by breaking down communication problems between disciplines, the benefits of academic work can be more easily brought to outsiders; it will restore your hair growth and help cut down on belly fat.
There’s actually not much to argue with here in terms of the advantages of collaboration with people who have different kinds of expertise. Perhaps the reason why interdisciplinary modes of working are still so fashionable is because, in practice, it’s really very difficult to do, so there can be an endless academic debate about how to do this thing that we all agree is highly desirable. I actually wrote a piece about this many years ago about a project where I collaborated with a hydrologist on a project looking at the place of sustainable drainage systems in urban planning (Jones & Macdonald, 2007). We ended up with a nice piece of social science looking at these technologies, but in no way was the project interdisciplinary.
One of the things about Connected Communities is that it has always been more than just a funding scheme. There’s a broader philosophical project at play, which has interdisciplinarity at its heart. A group of scholars from across the social sciences and humanities are put into a room together and told to work out what interests they have in common and try to design some projects. Those conversations can be delightful, wonderful and entirely at cross purposes. As Jack Balkin put it:
‘To chance upon a discussion among persons of a different discipline can be like arriving at someone else's family reunion. Each discipline has its own ongoing controversies, its own distinctive debates to rehearse, its own characteristic points to score, and its own private demons to exorcise.’ (Balkin, 1996, 956)
Connected Communities is, in a sense, trying to create a new kind of scholar, but there’s been a Darwinian element to this – those scholars uncomfortable with this mode of working have largely fallen by the wayside. Attending next week’s conference is a hardcore of people who are comfortable working beyond their comfort zones – or at least have found ways to cope with working this way.
I’ve never been the kind of scholar who wants to become the world expert on, for example, the governance of harvesting timber for biofuels. I’ve too much of a butterfly mind to become so narrowly focussed. In many ways this makes me well suited for Connected Communities style research – I’m genuinely interested in the wildly different interests and ways of thinking I’ve been exposed to since I got involved with the programme. It does however raise important questions about what scholarship means if you aren’t really bringing specific expertise to any discussion, but instead know a little bit about a lot of things. Does this make you a dilettante? Does it hold back your career? Does it help or hinder knowledge production? Big issues, which we’ll be getting our teeth into next week.
Balkin JM 1996 Interdisciplinarity as colonization Washington & Lee Law Review 53 949-970
Jones P and Macdonald N 2007 Getting it wrong first time: building an interdisciplinary research relationship Area 39 490-498
Mitchell WJT 1995 Interdisciplinarity and visual culture The Art Bulletin 77 540-544
REF 2014 is dead, long live REF 2020...
For those working outside the febrile atmosphere of the higher education sector, the REF is unlikely to mean very much. Perhaps the most eagle-eyed will have spotted some headlines around about Christmas claiming that x-percentage of UK research had been determined 'world leading'. An even closer look might have revealed how different institutions/departments found ways of claiming that they were in the 'top 10' according to some measure or other. To outsiders, it matters little, but to insiders the REF brings with it the same kind of paranoia and bullying that an Ofsted inspection does for UK teachers, or an external audit of Swiss accounts might for senior managers in a global bank.
It's not my intention to get into the politics and procedures of the REF here except to note that 'impact' has become an ever more important part of what we do. Impact can be loosely defined as making some kind of change out in the 'real world' as a result of the research, whether this be through shaping policy, coming up with a new industrial process, facilitating the work of a charity or community group and so on.
On one level, this is a pretty noble aim. Why should academics spend their days only really talking to each other and doing research that makes no difference to the world outside the ivory tower? What's interesting, however, is the extent to which these demands for having more of a real world impact are coming at the same time as there is a wider assault upon the infrastructure of society in pursuit of short term goals.
I'm (re)reading some things at the moment looking at how we can conceptualise time, including a piece by Noel Castree (paywall link here). Castree gives a neat summary of how David Harvey sees two roles for time in capitalism. The first is the short term, where time is used to create a constant present, as capitalism seeks to generate surplus value through exchange. The second, more interesting, is where a proportion of capital that might otherwise be used for immediate production has to be diverted for medium/long-term investment. A practical example of this is re-investing some of your profits on new plant that will enable you to produce goods more efficiently in the medium/longer term even if it means your balance sheet takes a hit in the short term.
The state does - or rather did - this sort of long term spending all the time. You invest heavily building roads, airports, docks that provide the infrastructure for capitalists to make money doing other things - if you don't have this infrastructure in your country, capital will shift its activity to countries that do because they can make more money there.
If you want to take a reductive reading of human relations you can argue that things like education, art, caring/community work etc. can be seen as part of the infrastructure of society - necessary to the long term reproduction of capitalism, but not generating profit directly. Unfortunately contemporary capitalism seems to find the notion of medium/longer term investments problematic in a culture of short-term returns based on maximising share price by cutting costs. Thus those working in sectors that do not generate unambiguous fiscal earnings find themselves increasingly pressured to demonstrate how they 'add value'. Indeed, my colleague Dave O'Brien has been at the sharp end of thinking through how this 'value' can and should be measured within the cultural sector.
Both higher education and the arts thus get told "if you are receiving all this public money we want a concrete return for it". By assessing impact, the REF makes us complicit in a neoliberal agenda hostile to public spending that seeks to narrow the realm of justifiable long term investment to that which can be seen to show a clear return. In a nutshell, academia can't easily show us the money, so to justify its value it has to show us the impact. Longer term things around building an intellectual environment, creating a culture in which ideas can thrive etc. do not generate immediate value and are thus seen as problematic.
Knowing this makes me a little uncomfortable about the kind of work I'm engaged with at the moment, where we're trying to examine new ways of having communities determine priorities for public spending on arts/cultural investment. We were funded under a somewhat controversial funding stream, which was accused (somewhat unfairly) in the media of being politically motivated as it emerged in 2010. The allegation was that the funding call responded to a Conservative policy agenda relating to the 'big society', divesting local authorities of power and finding ways of managing a variety of complex issues at the 'community' scale (i.e. requiring people to solve their own problems rather than asking the state to step in to deal with inequality). Thus in doing this work I have to ask whether I'm complicit in a neoliberal agenda of short term shrinkage of legitimate public spending, hacking away at the infrastructures that are fundamental to keeping society going in the long term.
Maybe. Certainly I find myself not knowing what I would be comfortable seeing as policy 'impact' from this project. Does this research legitimise the shrinkage of the state by highlighting inefficiencies and inequalities in spending by the public sector in the arena of culture? This project has all kinds of gains for my career in terms of hitting short term targets on inputs and outputs. Curtailing cultural spend would certainly be a major piece of academic impact that we could boast about in a subsequent REF. But... do I want that as my academic legacy in the medium term?
Castree N (2009) The Spatio-temporality of capitalism Time & Society 18;1 26-61
Over the last five years or so a certain cohort of geographers has been playing with the idea of ‘atmospheres’. Scholars often take words with commonly accepted meanings and then redefine these to something highly technical and not at all intuitively obvious. A good example of this is ‘affect’ (a verb meaning ‘to make a difference to’) which now sits at the heart of a set of debates about how bodies and worlds interact. I like to tell my students that if they understand affect then they probably haven’t read enough…
The idea of atmosphere has been captured by the same guys (and it is mostly guys) who write about affect. This has generated kind of writing that can provoke bafflement and irritation in equal measure – not just from civilians but, frankly, from a lot of my colleagues. For example:
‘Atmospheres are a kind of indeterminate affective ‘excess’ through which intensive space-times can be created.’ (Ben Anderson, 2009, p80)
Sometimes I get excited by this kind of thing, but more often I get frustrated because there’s interesting and useful ideas here, buried beneath a mountain of academic obfuscation. And, yes, it is unfair to take a quote like this out of context because there’s a lot of argument that’s built up to a statement like this, but even still, it’s all pretty hard going.
I’ve long been interested in how you can take some of these quite abstract ideas and use them to unpick how quite ordinary, everyday things work. This is why I’m less attracted to how the “affect boys” talk about ‘atmospheres’ and am becoming more interested in the French notion of ‘ambiances’. Most of the ideas on this have been developed by the team at Cresson (Centre de recherche sur l'espace sonore et l'environnement urbain), working out of the Grenoble school of architecture. Their work is often quite bonkers, but it’s very applied. So by trying to understand the ambiance/atmosphere/feeling of a place they are also interested in how this place-feeling can be manipulated/improved. This might be through changing lighting, altering the soundscape, changing how people move through a neighbourhood, to change how people feel about that neighbourhood.
The idea that a place has an ambiance (or atmosphere if you prefer) makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. Ambiances are also something that is shared. We all experience spaces and places differently, but there can be some common feelings experienced by different people at the same time. “This place is crowded”, “I don’t feel safe here”, “This café is warm and cosy” etc. I’m quite interested in exploring this tension between when we as individuals experience places differently and when feelings about a place are shared. Why, for example, do some groups of people feel safe in a place while others don’t?
Which all brings us to the idea of sketchiness. This has come into the headlines recently with a pair of tech entrepreneurs launching their ‘SketchFactor’ iPhone app. The idea is that people should use the app to record the location of different ‘sketchy’ things that they see on the street – the man wandering around with no clothes on, the mugging, the kids hanging around on street corners. The app thus creates a crowdsourced map of ‘sketchy’ neighbourhoods within a city where such problematic things happen, presumably to warn visitors to those areas to be on their guard. Although, it has to be asked, if you feel unsafe wandering around a neighbourhood, why on earth would you start fiddling with your expensive iPhone to tell people about the fact?
Sketchiness is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and the app developers have been accused of fostering a kind of indirect racism. App users are more likely to be white and middle class and the areas that they’re more likely to feel are ‘sketchy’ will be those populated by poorer, ethnic minority groups – particularly in US cities. So we end up creating maps that say “black people are dangerous, say away from them” with the people who live in an area having a middle class reading of their lives imposed upon them.
What this comes from is a shared sense of the atmosphere of a neighbourhood which is shaped by social class and ethnicity. The people who live in that neighbourhood might well read its atmosphere differently. Indeed, some areas can be profoundly sketchy to those who live there, while this can be invisible to those passing through. Youth gang territories would be a good example of this – some kids know that they would be at risk of attack if they cross into a neighbouring area, whereas to an outsider the atmosphere of two neighbourhoods feels exactly the same.
One of the neighbourhoods we’re working in as part of the @cultintermed project is Balsall Heath here in Birmingham. It’s a fascinating and very lively area of mixed ethnicity, though predominantly Muslim, not far from the city centre. As a white middle class scholar, who lives a broadly white middle class life, Balsall Heath has a particular feel that is quite different to neighbouring Moseley – the epicentre of white, liberal Birmingham. I notice this very strongly in my own behaviours within Balsall Heath – doubtless a manifestation of my own low level racism and fear of difference – that I can feel a little edgy walking along the Moseley Road to the Printworks (a local art venue). Once inside the Printworks, however, I generally feel fairly relaxed. Outside the doors is a working class, broadly Muslim area. Inside the Printworks is a middle class and broadly white space.
One of the interesting things that this throws up is how the presence of an institution like Printworks manipulates the atmosphere of this part of Balsall Heath. It produces a reason for a white middle class person to visit and as such starts to change the nature of the space. A certain kind of arty/educated ambiance is radiated outward from Printworks. This is significant because in manipulating the feel of a location you can set in train other urban processes. There’s a well-established literature (e.g. Sharon Zukin) on how artists and different cultural businesses can be used as agents of gentrification. Artists are attracted into cheap (‘sketchy’) neighbourhoods. Their presence attracts middle class people who are interested to feel like they’re part of an arty/edgy vibe. Eventually the middle class people start to displace the original residents and you end up with a gentrified middle class district.
One of the drivers here is the feel of the place, its atmosphere. Middle class white people by and large don’t live in Balsall Heath and part of this is in the neighbourhood’s sketchiness – a white middle class construction imposed on that space. Reducing an area’s sketchiness in thmeans altering it to suit the white middle classes. If you manipulate the atmosphere/ambiance/feeling of the place, capitalist mechanisms of land and property development can start processes of gentrification. But gentrification begets displacement and thus it becomes a social justice issue to think about how atmospheres are manipulated in urban policy.
But a big warning point to end on. There’s a danger here of saying, don’t try to tackle problems in an area lest the middle classes turn up, kick everyone out and take over. Balsall Heath has all kinds of socio-environmental problems (litter, rats, drug dealing, anti-social behaviour) that comprise some of the many factors that shape the ambiance of the neighbourhood – why should people living there have to put up with these? Similarly, the idea that there are ambiances suitable for middle class white people and those suitable for working class Muslims gets us dangerously close to old fashioned racist divisions. Generating a shared sense of ambiance can be driven by a large number of different factors – gender, taste, fashion, age etc. etc. – what’s interesting is how that shared sense is generated and what would be the consequences for society if you started to manipulate that ambiance.
The title here is a phrase I’ve had written on my whiteboard for a while now – generally causing confusion when people walk into my office. Obviously using this title in a blog post runs the risk of getting this site blocked by various overprotective search engines and/or my being put on a mailing list for an online pharmacy. Oh well.
The whiteboard is a place for ideas that aren’t quite ready yet and this is definitely one of them, so please bear with the unfinished thoughts. This posting comes out of trying to think through my reactions to the new Library of Birmingham. Now on many levels, the LoB is a great civic triumph. It’s a fantastic looking building. It’s always busy. It gives views across the city that are free for anyone to enjoy – you’d otherwise need to go to the top of the Cube and buy a ludicrously expensive drink to access a similar viewscape. Public space matters.
So why Viagra architecture? Well, there’s something about projects of this kind that trouble me a little. Accompanying the achingly slow economic recovery in Britain, we’re still undergoing a series of deep and painful cuts to public spending. Projects like LoB are the product of New Labour era (1997-2010) thinking, when public spending was directed towards large infrastructure projects. You see them across Britain – the Sage in Gateshead, Edinburgh’s parliament building, FACT in Liverpool – flashy buildings dropped into urban spaces that declared in a loud voice “We are doing something here! Look at this monument to our interventionist activity!”. The building became, as Jonathan Meades put it, a 3D logo. A statement that something was being done. Of course the problem with such activity is that there’s a real danger the ‘something’ that was done didn’t actually do very much. Middlesborough, for example, is still the site of major economic and social problems, notwithstanding the presence of the MIMA art gallery (opened 2007).
Of course, asking a flashy building to solve deeply rooted structural economic problems is unrealistic. They were baubles, in some cases they were vanity projects, that could never be more than a tiny part of solving a socio-economic puzzle. The creative and cultural economy has been loaded with the expectation that it can solve post-industrial decline; things are rarely this simple. The irony is that these spaces, charged with revitalising local economies, are now in many cases under real threat from the huge cuts in public expenditure that have been imposed under the Coalition Government since 2010. Skilled curators are being replaced by unpaid volunteers. The buildings are still open by and large, but the organisations housed within them are struggling to deliver their core mission. Hence the Viagra metaphor – the edifice is there, but the fundamentals aren’t quite operating properly.
An optimistic spin on this would be that if such organisations can hang in there for a few years, eventually the public sector taps will be turned back on and these spaces will be filled with even more dynamic activity – with the bonus that it’s all happening in a still-relatively-new building. Maybe. Perhaps rather than Viagra as the metaphor, we could talk about the hollowing out of these buildings as the staff and activities designed to animate them are whittled away in order to support the business of keeping the building open. And hopefully at a later date it'll be filled up again. In the meantime, the building becomes almost an end in itself.
And, of course, this doesn’t always work. The death of the Public gallery in West Bromwich happened in part because the council leadership just didn’t feel it could justify continuing to pour money into the organisation to keep the business of art afloat – and given the hostility in some quarters to the arts/cultural sector, it’s not terribly surprising. This means that some other use has to animate that space – and there’s still money for sixth form colleges, at least for the moment.
The New Labour period left us with a great many 3D logos scattered across the country. They still stand up and proud. But they offer a challenging legacy for medium- and long-term management as councils look at their budgets and their core responsibilities and wonder what they will have to cut next. Most of the buildings will still be with us in 10 years’ time, but how many of the organisations?
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer