Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Call for Papers: Geographies of Gaming and VR

The third annual RGS-IBG Digital Geographies Research Group Symposium will be taking place at the University of Birmingham on 3 July 2019 examining ‘geographies of gaming and VR’.

Since Atari released Pong in 1972 the video game industry has evolved rapidly, with an estimated global value of $137.9 billion in 2018 (Newzoo, 2018).  Considering the size of the sector and notwithstanding important exceptions (e.g. Ash and Gallacher 2011, Shaw and Sharp 2013), gaming has received surprisingly little attention from geographers.  VR, meanwhile, has been periodically hyped as the next big thing in technology for over thirty years.  The immersive qualities of VR drive a particularly compelling experience of virtual space, yet VR has been relatively neglected by geographers (although see Hillis, 1996, Fisher and Unwin, 2002).  In recent years VR has been boosted by significant investments from tech giants such as Facebook, Sony and Microsoft and is gaining traction in both consumer and professional contexts as a platform for games, socialisation and immersive media. 

There are significant contributions that geographers can make through examining games and VR as both objects of study and spaces for methodological innovation within the wider context of geography’s digital turn.  In this Symposium, we are seeking contributions taking the form of conventional papers (15 minutes) and digital shorts (2 minutes).  The themes we are seeking to explore include:
  1. gaming landscapes
  2. gaming and cultural geographies
  3. the geographies of immersion
  4. games as methodologies
  5. toxicity and socialisation in virtual space
  6. hacktivism and gaming as political tool
  7. digital enclosure and platform studies
  8. existential ludology and post phenomenology
Time for networking and socialising will be built into the programme for the Symposium.  Registration is £25 (standard) and £15 (postgraduate and un-waged). Bursaries are available (download the application form here). We will also be offering online-only attendance for those unable to travel in person.

Digital Shorts: In order to represent the breadth of research taking within geography examining gaming and VR as well as to facilitate networking, participants are invited to give a 2-minute ‘digital short’. This format has proved popular at our previous symposia – please indicate on the abstract submission form if you wish to submit a full paper or a digital short.

Abstracts are due 1 April 2019.

Download the abstract submission form here.

Organising Committee: Hannah Awcock, Jack Lowe, Peter Nelson, Phil Jones, Natasha Keen, Clancy Wilmott.


Monday, 25 February 2019

Landscape Surgery: Photography and Urban Change

This post was originally published  on the Landscape Surgery blog of the Social, Cultural and Historical Geography Research Group in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Landscape Surgery is a fortnightly seminar series that the SCHG hosts during term-time. Sessions are typically organised around a theme for which speakers (including external invitees) talk about their research, followed by questions/general discussion on the topic; though it can also include workshops and research training sessions. I attend the sessions as part of my PhD activities, and am one of four editors of the Landscape Surgery blog.

The session discussed in this post was organised around the theme of 'Photography and Urban Change'. I co-wrote and edited this piece with Alice Reynolds, another PhD student in the Department of Geography at RHUL.

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Our second Landscape Surgery of 2019, titled ‘Photography and Urban Change’, was convened by Katherine Stansfeld, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway. We were delighted to be joined by two guest speakers: Dr. Geoff DeVerteuil, a Lecturer of Social Geography at the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University, and Gill Golding, an urban photographer and Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London. Dr. Oli Mould, lecturer in Human Geography in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, responded to the two speakers as a discussant and encouraged further discussion from the rest of the room.

To commence the session, Katherine presented a screen capture video of her navigating the Woodbury Down Estate in Hackney, London, using Google Street View. When moving around the site, the views shown in the video changed drastically, as the Street View platform had stitched together images taken at different stages of the estate’s recent redevelopment. Katherine used the video to express the ambivalent relationship of visual technologies such as Google Maps towards urban change, asking the group to question what this means for the (re)production of spaces, and why it is important to document and engage with our changing cityscapes – a point which remained at the heart of later discussion.

The session moved swiftly to our first guest speaker, Dr. Geoff DeVerteuil, whose presentation was entitled ‘Visualizing the urban via polarized landscapes’. In the study of photography and urban change, Geoff proposed a critical and constructive visual approach, suggesting that we must not avoid the visual or take it for granted, as geographers have in the past (Rose, 2003; Driver, 2003), but think critically around visual data. For Geoff, images begin the conversation, not end it.  And indeed, in thinking beyond simply ‘what can be seen’, the urban visual is also about the invisiblethat which hides in plain sight. The aim with Geoff’s photographic projects has been to start conversations, document and expose, raise questions and challenge assumptions through visual methods – a need that he claimed is greater than ever in the ‘Instagram’ era of today’s society.

Geoff’s work adopts a range of visual methods based on 25 years of photographing cities and their increasingly unequal and polarized landscapes, which he recognises as a form of ‘slow research’. This is a purposeful reaction to the current state of urban studies, Geoff’s disciplinary background, which he contends is characterised both by conceptual overreach and empirical modesty. For example, in response to the prevalence of theory deriving from the Global North in understanding cities, Geoff has curated carefully-selected picture collections from his portfolio that blur images from cities in the Global North and South. By highlighting their similarities as much as their differences, these collections illuminate how cities often do not adhere to Northern conceptions of urban life as much as scholars tend to believe.

Another interest of Geoff’s is in using image-driven methods to explore the landscapes of power that exist within what he calls urban ‘backwaters’. In his presentation, this centred on photographs that document processes of forgetting and remembering: such as African-American graveyards in the US that have become overgrown and untended, or the placing of painted bicycles in locations where cyclists have been killed on roads in European and North American cities. Linking these image collections with his interest in making the invisible visible, Geoff also presented photographs that seek to highlight the hidden labour that takes place in cities across the world – from people waiting for work, shoe shining and recycling in Global South cities, to window-washers on skyscrapers in Canary Wharf.

The final part of Geoff’s presentation considered photographs that engage directly with processes of urban change: images of the interstitial. In this regard, Geoff’s work makes particular use of time-series and juxtaposition. For the former, this has included images that document processes of redevelopment rather than the commonplace fetishization of urban decline; while elsewhere Geoff has photographed time-series where seemingly nothing has changed within the space of a year or multiple years.

For the latter, Geoff’s juxtapositions have studied the relationships between ‘power landscape’ and ‘backwater’, fixed and mobile in cities. In one particular example, Geoff illustrated this tension with a photograph of a large plane flying low over a nearby residential area close to Heathrow, which is under threat from the airport’s potential expansion. In the Global South, Geoff has explored the same tensions by photographing informal settlements, such as shanty towns, that are situated within a stone’s throw of skyscrapers that tower behind them.

Geoff presenting a photograph of the ‘gentrifying edge’, another of his juxtapositions, exposing the borderlines of urban redevelopment

Poignantly, Geoff finished by presenting photographs he had taken of Grenfell Tower after the June 2017 fire. Situated in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Geoff’s juxtaposition of the burnt skeleton of Grenfell Tower amidst a background of newly-built buildings illustrated the stark inequalities prevalent in processes of urban change.

Ultimately, Geoff intends to use his photography as a catalyst to continue conversations around visual urbanism as a way of doing research – of how to approach current debates in urban studies from a less distant and desktop approach, and visual methods from a more infused urban theoretical background.

Following Geoff’s presentation, our second invited speaker was Gill Golding. Her presentation discussed the process of making Welcome to the Fake, a series of photographs focusing on the recent redevelopment of King’s Cross in London, and its wider significance for diversity in spaces of urban regeneration.

Having taught in the King’s Cross area in the 70s, when it had a reputation for crime, dereliction and poverty, Gill was shocked to see the extent of change when she returned to London in 2012, and later in 2016. Describing what she witnessed as somehow lacking in reality, she began employing what she calls her ‘ground-based approach’ to photography: walking copiously in the locality over a long period of time, before eventually taking photographs that spoke to her experience of inhabiting environments that felt ‘simulated’.

In stark contrast to the deprivation Gill recounted from a few decades ago, King’s Cross is now being marketed as London’s ‘hottest’ area – a vibrant hub for young professionals and creatives, supported by a host of brands that people typically associate with wealth. This is evident from the types of hoardings that surround the site. Gill explained that she often photographs hoardings because they tell you a great deal about imagination – how we envision places to be. These imaginations can be derived from the use of language, with words such as ‘unique’ implying a certain exclusivity – that you are ‘special’ in some way for being there – but also in how people are represented in their images. In this case, the hoardings depicted mainly white, younger people; but most strikingly for Gill, she remarked that you never see images of young people just ‘hanging out’. They were always doing something purposeful, as if their presence in the space were tightly choreographed, contributing to the sense of unreality that Gill detected from walking around the development.

As an artist, Gill’s response to this feeling was to take photos that mimicked the simulated images the developers displayed on hoardings at King’s Cross, such that they were effectively indistinguishable from the site’s promotional material. This took no small effort on her part. She had to wait a long time for moments when just the right number of people occupied the space, all behaving ‘appropriately’ in the manner you would expect to see in approved images of the development – walking calmly through the space, using street furniture, on-site businesses and amenities, and not doing anything to contradict the intended purposes of the space.

View Gill’s photographs for Welcome to the Fake here.

Through this process, Gill’s photographs demonstrated how the regenerated spaces of King’s Cross really do operate in the ways that their developers imagined – which is to say, in a highly choreographed, ordered and functional manner that leaves little room for behaviours and events that deviate from the simulations.

Asserting that cities are characterised by spaces of surprise and spontaneity, Gill claimed that the redeveloped areas of King’s Cross are, in contrast, spaces characterised by micromanagement. Being privately-owned spaces, security employees are always on-hand to keep the ‘wrong’ type of people out; the water fountains shoot water in highly coordinated patterns; the architecture is bland and uninspiring; the trees are manicured with precision; and even the grass is fake. The entertainments provided in the ‘public’ areas of the development are carefully vetted, whether it is live acts or televised films and events being shown on big screens. In line with the world portrayed on the hoardings, these really aren’t spaces where young people feel they can just hang out – and all of this has significant implications for diversity in what is one of London’s most diverse boroughs. For ultimately, what types of entertainment are shown and what behaviours are allowed say a lot about how welcoming the site’s spaces are to different kinds of people.

Gill concluded her presentation by arguing that gentrification, following Anna Minton (2017), is not a strong enough word to describe the nature of urban change that is taking place at locations such as King’s Cross. It is a transformation marked by inequality and socio-spatial polarisation, pervasive and undemocratic control by private corporations, a lack of social diversity, and a choreography of the space that is fundamentally different from the spontaneity we typically associate with urban public spaces.

Following the presentations from Geoff and Gill, Dr. Oli Mould responded to the two speakers as a discussant.

Oli began his discussion by using Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) triad of the production of space as a framework for thinking about the presenters’ work on urban photography: representations of space, representational spaces and spatial practices. In Geoff and Gill’s talks, Oli suggested, representations of space denote the ways that the city is visualised; particularly the ‘utopian’ simulated images that create certain imaginations of the city, such as those appearing on the hoardings described by Gill. Representational spaces of urban photography are the surfaces that we project such images onto. The two presentations drew particular attention to the borders and barriers between different zones of development, such as Geoff’s juxtapositions, and the boundaries between what is visible and invisible. As Gill’s discussion of the diversity portrayed in redevelopment imagery highlights, photography can both reveal and mask the power relationships that shape urban landscapes. Lastly, spatial practices here referred to creative acts of photography and the materialities associated with these practices, such as the technologies used to produce the images, or the particular methods undertaken as part of the process.

Oli using the whiteboard to explain Henri Lefebvre’s triad of the production of space

With this theoretical approach in mind, what can Geoff and Gill’s visual work help us to understand about how urban space is (re)produced?

What Oli gleaned from their presentations was the ability of photography to bring the unknowable to the fore; finding creative ways to illustrate how certain spaces are produced through interrelationships of distinct representations of space, representational spaces and spatial practices that are not always obvious to us. Yet Oli also warned that we are experiencing the loss of the right to create the city in this way, especially through the fetishization of the urban image. Connecting to Gillian Rose’s talk in Egham the day before this session on ‘seeing the city in digital times’, he remarked upon the proliferation of urban images as a result of digital media, which have enabled us to create and share photographs instantaneously and en masse. The images we produce on a daily basis can easily get lost in the overwhelming quantity of visual data communicated digitally, meaning that the political power of taking a photograph has become more difficult to extract. For example, images of homeless people have become canon in urban photography, and this expectation has served to normalise the occurrence of homelessness in cities.

The challenge that Oli identifies for urban photography, then, is to find ways to reclaim the emancipatory potential of urban photo-taking. In what ways might photography enact a democratic method of engaging with the city, and what possibilities could this entail for urban futures?

We’d like to thank our two presenters Geoff and Gill for sharing their innovative and important work with us, and Oli Mould for directing what was a lively and insightful discussion, delving into the possibilities and pitfalls of photography as both a method and object of study for making sense of urban change.

References

Driver, F. (2003) “On Geography as a Visual Discipline” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography35(2): 227-231.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Minton, A. (2017) Big Capital: Who’s London For?. London: Penguin.

Rose, G. (2003) “On the Need to Ask How, Exactly, Is Geography “Visual”?” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 35(2): 212-221.



Thursday, 24 January 2019

Call for Papers: Geographies of Interactive Digital Narratives

Call for Papers: Geographies of interactive digital narratives


RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, Royal Geographical Society, London, 28th – 30th August 2019

Organisers: Jack Lowe (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Scott Palmer (University of Leeds)

In Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997), digital narrative scholar Janet Murray described how digital media’s dramatic power derives from its ability to represent navigable space. In the diverse and growing body of interactive digital narratives (IDNs) including videogames, hypertexts, AR/VR/locative media and interactive TV/film, the user’s movement through, interpretation of, and agency within designed fictional worlds have become primary mechanisms for the enactment of stories. While engagement with literary works has a long history within geography (Pocock, 1988; Brosseau, 1994; Sharp, 2000), contemporary IDNs have received minimal scholarly attention amidst the discipline’s ‘digital turn’, despite their ever-increasing societal recognition (demonstrated by the response to widely-discussed Black Mirror episode ‘Bandersnatch’) and implementation for educational, artistic and entertainment purposes. By concentrating on the storytelling potential of digital environments, this session engages digital geographers with a persistent and pervasive domain of cultural meaning-making; bringing together theoretical and empirical responses to a broad range of IDN forms and grappling with their implications for how we understand space and place in the digital age. Exploring the conceptual and methodological opportunities and challenges IDNs present to geographers, it aims to provoke new and fruitful directions of scholarship with narrative scholars/practitioners across the arts and humanities.

Instructions for authors

This is an explicitly interdisciplinary session and we welcome contributions on this topic from a wide range of fields. We also welcome ideas for creative approaches that integrate the medium of interactive digital narratives into the session, alongside conventional paper presentations (15 minutes plus 5 minutes for questions). Please get in touch with the session organisers if you’d like to discuss your ideas informally. 

Possible topics for discussion could include:

- Relevance of geographical concepts for IDNs
- Social/cultural landscapes of IDN consumption
- Labour geographies of IDN production
- Agency and power relationships in IDN environments
- Affect, embodiment and immersion through IDN environments
- Methodological approaches for studying IDNs
- Uses of IDNs for cultural/heritage/educational purposes
- Relationship between the physical and virtual in IDNs 

Please submit abstracts of no more than 250 words to Jack Lowe (jack.lowe.2017@rhul.ac.uk) and Scott Palmer (s.d.palmer@leeds.ac.uk) by Friday 8th February.

Please also let us know if there are any special audio-visual or mobility requirements (a laptop, data projector, screen and audio speakers are provided).

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Landscape Surgery: Curating the Oslo Architecture Triennale

I originally wrote and published this post on the Landscape Surgery blog of the Social, Cultural and Historical Geography Research Group in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Landscape Surgery is a fortnightly seminar series that the SCHG hosts during term-time. Sessions are typically organised around a theme for which speakers (including external invitees) talk about their research, followed by questions/general discussion on the topic; though it can also include workshops and research training sessions. I attend the sessions as part of my PhD activities, and am one of four editors of the Landscape Surgery blog.

The session discussed in this post was organised around the theme of 'Curating the Oslo Architecture Triennale', with a joint presentation by two of the curators of this event's upcoming iteration in 2019. Thanks to Alice Reynolds and Megan Harvey for editing this post.

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For our final Landscape Surgery session of this term we welcomed Cecilie Sachs Olsen, a British Academy post-doctoral research fellow at Royal Holloway’s Centre for the GeoHumanities, alongside Matthew Dalziel, an associate of the transdisciplinary architecture and engineering practice Interrobang, as two of the four-person curatorial team for next year’s Oslo Architecture Triennale.

Taking place from 26th September to 24th November 2019, this event is the Nordic region’s biggest festival of architecture, and an internationally-important arena for discussion around the challenges of architecture and urban space. Cecilie and Matthew’s joint presentation focused on the process of curating the Triennale around their chosen theme of ‘degrowth’, the role that art and performance will play within their practice, and the challenges they’ve encountered since starting work on the Triennale programme.


Degrowth and architecture

Matthew, speaking as a practising architect himself, began the presentation by outlining how individual architects often have very little agency in the construction industry to which they contribute. Despite typically being motivated by social, cultural and artistic values, 60% of architects at any given time are working on private housing, with much of it marketed towards the wealthiest 1% of the population.

However, cultural events such as the Triennale are one outlet that architects have for more critical interventions, giving these individuals opportunities to experiment with ideas outside of a ‘project’ ecosystem, and into an arena that could potentially inspire a global conversation.

The curatorial team chose their conversation for the Oslo Architecture Triennale to be about ‘degrowth’.

Degrowth has been understood to stand for “a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions” (Research & Degrowth, 2018). Central to this definition is the reasoning that the drive for continued economic growth in our societies is unsustainable for a world that supports life.

Many will recall that this argument has been made for decades by organisations such as The Club of Rome, whose famous report The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972) is widely recognised as one of the first significant studies that illuminated how the unprecedented economic growth occurring throughout the 20th century was causing, and would continue to cause, widespread ecological destruction.


Cecilie illustrating the arguments in The Limits to Growth with a cartoon showing a hamster gradually consuming the earth, based on the idea that a hamster doubles in size every day until it reaches puberty (author’s own)


Nonetheless, according to the presenters, reports such as The Limits to Growth failed to capture the impetus of the public and policymakers due to the tone of doomsaying that accompanied the stark environmental impacts indicated by their studies. Indeed, a continual problem confronting the degrowth movement has been the negative connotations associated with the notion of reducing economic growth, as it might seem to imply a logic of austerity.

In order to avoid this risk of scaremongering by simply offloading information to the public, the curatorial team instead wanted to use the theme of degrowth to change how people think about urban environments in a way that is relevant to their lives. And in particular, to challenge the assumption that the function of the spaces we use in everyday life is already predetermined, which is one reason why people can feel alienated from the spaces they inhabit.

According to Cecilie, this is why art and performance are so important, as they have the ability to free people from their everyday roles in society and experiment with other ways of being in the world. In theatre, for example, if a person acting as a queen sits on a normal chair, the chair becomes a throne. The pre-given conception of an object can be transformed simply by putting it in a context where re-imagination is welcomed, and the enchantment accompanying such experiences can help us to rethink the agency we have within our own surroundings.


Curating transformational spaces

This is exactly what the curatorial team is aiming to achieve in their programme for the Oslo Architecture Triennale, for which they will be creating three ‘transformations’ in three different sites in Oslo to turn them into spaces of sharing, play and connecting.

The first location is Oslo’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design. An institution whose buildings are made to house conventional exhibitions of art, crafts and design work, the space the team were given for the Triennale was a typically bland, concrete room.

The challenge facing the curators was to convert it into a catalytic space, and the idea they came up with was to create a library within it. Cecilie reflected that not only are libraries environments of sharing and making, but the most celebrated libraries also often have a uniquely awe-inspiring atmosphere to them. How could they construct such an effect in what was a small, rather uninspiring room?


Trinity College Library, Dublin (Skitterphoto, public domain)


In their design of the ‘library’, they were particularly inspired by Olafur Eliasson, whose work has used light, mirrors and liquids to evoke seemingly limitless spaces within physically restricted sites. At present, the curatorial team are planning to craft four mirrored rooms separated by walls of varied thicknesses, with participants moving between them to gradually transition into the imagined space of the library from the ‘real’ space of the museum building. Immersion is central to the curators’ vision of the library experience, and they are keen to employ techniques used by interactive theatre companies such as Punchdrunk, which give participants the opportunity to explore and engage with fictional environments in meaningful and believable ways, guided solely by their own interests and inclinations.


Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project (Tate Photography, source: https://olafureliasson.net/archive/exhibition/EXH101069/the-weather-project)


This journey into the imaginary will begin from the moment visitors reach the building, where they will be given library cards to enter the space rather than museum tickets. Upon leaving the ‘library’ and re-entering Oslo city centre, participants will then be invited to extend the experience by taking part in an immersive audiowalk that zURBS, the ‘social-artistic urban laboratory’ that Cecilie co-founded in 2011, will be running.

The second transformation will take place in the urban public space of Oslo through the creation of a ‘playground’. Here, the curators will be drawing on the capacity of play to de-emphasize the urban environment’s economic value and functions and instead render them as arenas for “pleasure, surprise and critical possibility” (Dickens, 2008: 20).

Previously, play has been considered an activity that takes place in alternate realities separate from our everyday lives (sports pitches, games tables, virtual realities, etc.) where different rules apply, in what Huizinga (1955 [1950]) calls the ‘magic circle’ of play. By using public playful art to expand the magic circle spatially (beyond designated environments), temporally (beyond specific time limits) and socially (beyond designated players) (Montola, 2005), the stages of everyday life can be re-enchanted as realms of the possible (Klausen, 2014).

Through play centred around the concept of degrowth, the curatorial team wants participants to imagine opportunities for an improved way of living, rather than a reduction in individual agency that might be inferred from the term. Central to this viewpoint is the idea that non-essential activity should be understood as an enjoyable state of being, rather than something defined through the lens of economic growth as ‘unproductive’. Games don’t necessarily lead to the most efficient ways of completing a task – golf is a rather complicated way of putting a ball in a hole, for example – but negotiating the affordances games present to players in creative and skilful ways can ultimately lead to enrichment that wouldn’t occur otherwise.

The final transformation will take place in DogA, the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture, which will become the site of a makeshift theatre.

Here, the curators are enlisting the skills of METIS, a Cambridge-based performing arts organisation, and more specifically their interactive piece We Know Not What We May Be. Originally performed at the Barbican in September, this participatory performance asks the audience to imagine a more sustainable future, featuring talks from experts about what the future could be, and giving the audience the option to decide which one they want. These participants can then see their decisions become a reality, as the actors perform scenarios based on what has been chosen, followed by further discussion about these possibilities amongst the actors and audience.

One of the difficulties faced by the team when arranging this performance is the institutional context in which it will be set. DogA is funded by the municipal government’s budget for the economy, creating tensions between the theme of ‘degrowth’ and the continued demand for growth in Oslo’s economy today. In order to reconcile this apparent contradiction, the curators have emphasised that the performance will be focused on facilitating discussion between a wide range of people – including elites – rather than silencing points of view to further a particular political agenda.

Alongside the three transformations, as highlighted previously, Cecilie’s artist collective zURBS will be using audiowalks as a way to engage citizens and planners to think about alternative futures. These will be framed in an imaginative way. For example, in one walk participants will imagine they are researchers from the future, and will choose individually between different options of what Oslo might look like in the decades to come. Collectively, participants will then traverse the present-day environment and attempt to identify how these brave new worlds began, without knowing what futures the other walkers chose to seek.

Cecilie explained that the idea behind the audiowalks was to de-centre accepted understandings of how the city operates. By encouraging citizens to identify the transformative potential of the present city, such ‘defaults’ don’t have to exist. As soon as we’re afforded the agency to redefine what a space is for, the alternative futures we dream in our heads could become possible.


Challenges

Nonetheless, in talking about the challenges the team have faced so far throughout the curatorial process, Cecilie and Matthew accepted that there are often limits to what people are able to imagine as they think about better ways of inhabiting urban space. If the street is seen inherently as an instrument of consumption, this epistemology will mean that even seemingly beneficial changes, such as pedestrianisation, will be become tools to reproduce the dominant paradigm of consumption through processes such as gentrification.

Language is another force that imposes epistemological limitations on how the curatorial theme can be explored. Most problematically for the curators, the term ‘degrowth’ doesn’t even exist in Norwegian, meaning that they have had to think about alternative prefixes to use other than ‘de-’, while attempting to remain faithful to the understanding of degrowth that is implied when used in English. Yet even without language barriers, reaction to degrowth as a concept has frequently been ambivalent, as was highlighted in the discussion after Cecilie and Matthew’s presentation when its usefulness for societies in the Global South was questioned.

The last challenge the curators discussed was one that many academics will be familiar with: the need to be rigorous in their engagement with the material they are discussing, while also making their work accessible enough for members of the public to engage with it. This necessity was brought sharply into focus when the curators of the last Oslo Architecture Triennale were criticised for making works that ‘normal people’ couldn’t understand.

In contrast, the curatorial team’s efforts to avoid a similar fate are reflected in the participatory qualities of the installations, performances and other artworks they are curating, which give ‘normal people’ the greatest power to define and interpret what is meaningful within the installations and experiences on offer.

We’d like to offer enormous thanks to Cecilie and Matthew for taking time out of their busy schedules to talk to us about their work, and we wish them every success over the coming months as they prepare for the Oslo Architecture Triennale, which starts on 26th September 2019.


Matthew Dalziel and Cecilie Sachs Olsen (author's own)


Bibliography

Dickens, L. (2008) “‘Finders keepers’: performing the street, the gallery and the spaces in-between” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 4: 1-30.

Huizinga, J. (1955 [1950]) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Klausen, M. (2014) “Re-enchanting the city: Hybrid space, affect and playful performance in geocaching, a location-based mobile game” Journal of Urban Cultural Studies 1(2): 193-213.

Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J., Behrens III, W.W. (1972) The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.

Montola, M. (2005) “Exploring the Edge of the Magic Circle: Defining Pervasive Games” Proceeedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Copenhagen, Denmark [online] Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download;jsessionid=AB62B5B3CD2B349DE8846879B58B4AC8?doi=10.1.1.125.8421&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Research and Degrowth (2018) “Definition” Research and Degrowth [online] Available at: https://degrowth.org/definition-2/


Written by Jack Lowe, edited by Megan Harvey and Alice Reynolds


Friday, 30 November 2018

Landscape Surgery: Literary Geographies

I originally wrote and published this post on the Landscape Surgery blog of the Social, Cultural and Historical Geography Research Group in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Landscape Surgery is a fortnightly seminar series that the SCHG hosts during term-time. Sessions are typically organised around a theme for which speakers (including external invitees) talk about their research, followed by questions/general discussion on the topic; though it can also include workshops and research training sessions. I attend the sessions as part of my PhD activities, and am one of four editors of the Landscape Surgery blog.

The session discussed in this post was organised around the theme of 'Literary Geographies'. Thanks to Alice Reynolds and Megan Harvey for editing this post.

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Our third Landscape Surgery of the autumn term discussed the topic of Literary Geographies, with presentations from three of the department’s visiting scholars: Nattie Golubov (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), Lucrezia Lopez (Universidade de Santiago de Compostela) and Giada Peterle (University of Padua). Each presenter discussed the ways in which their research has engaged with different forms of literature, and what their individual methodologies can contribute to geographical study. This was followed by a panel discussion that grappled more broadly with what encounters between literature and geographical inquiry can achieve.

Our presenters in discussion during the session
Our first speaker on the day, Nattie Golubov, has been a professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature at UNAM since 1995, having taught widely on English literature, literary and cultural theory. Her research engages in the critical study of a variety of types of American texts, to understand how relationships between diverse groups of people in the US are expressed culturally.

Nattie began by highlighting how academic literature on migration has tended to view the process from perspectives of postcolonialism, diaspora and exile, while focusing disproportionately on the point of departure and the point of arrival. Using Teju Cole’s (2017) book Blind Spot as a point of reference, she explained how literary approaches to the topic of migration can be fruitful for scholarship on this subject, with stories in the form of novels and other texts being able to evoke thetranslocal (relationships between specific locations within countries, not just between countries); complicate the binaries of nomadic/sedentary and centre/periphery which have characterised existing migration scholarship; and foster critical reflection on the geographies of where texts on migration are written, published, read and translated.

In her current research, Nattie has been examining contemporary US romance literature that tells stories about American soldiers in Afghanistan. What she finds interesting about these texts, she explained, is how the subject matter of the stories is at once heavily geopolitical, yet grounded in the ‘normal’ and everyday. While the locations portrayed by the novels can lead to an awareness of the planetary, this is typically foregrounded by familiar tropes of small-town America and the space of the house/home.

With romance being a very popular genre that is widely read in the US – especially by women – this can render the representations used in the novels problematic, notably through the sometimes shocking language that describes places in the Global South. Nattie gave the example of one location being referred to as the ‘armpit of the world’; while simultaneously the novels perpetuate a fantasy of whiteness and enclosure in these territories.

Nattie’s work is seeking to ask what it is about the ‘normal’ that is so attractive and tenacious in literature. And in turn, what kinds of (geographical) relationships do these novels forge with the reader? Can they produce a new type of sociality around the topic of migration?

Our second presenter was Lucrezia Lopez, whose research explores practices of tourism, heritage and religious expression by investigating how they are represented and interpreted culturally. Her current research, titled in this presentation as ‘The Contemporary Spaces of the Way of St. James’, studies the travel diaries of those sharing their experiences of pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago.

Lucrezia started by outlining how literature, cinema and the internet are contributing to a new spatial discourse of the Camino de Santiago; reinforcing the notion that there are multiple ‘Caminos’ articulated by the different artists and writers who represent it.

Travel diaries in particular are a relatively new method people are using to share their experiences of travelling on the Camino, reflecting a broader turn in the literature towards exploring the internaljourneys of pilgrims taking part. Lucrezia identified two trends within the travel diaries’ representations of walking the Camino: neo-romanticism, reflecting the aesthetic value of travel diaries in conveying emotions/feelings and representing an idyllic rural landscape; and neo-realism, reflecting the testimonial value of travel diaries in drawing attention to traffic, waste and issues of sustainability on the Camino.

As for the act of writing itself, Lucrezia has found that a concept of liminality or ‘in-between’ space is expressed through practices of documenting the pilgrimage using travel diaries. The process of writing about the landscape in this way is believed to cultivate a different sense of self; a cathartic, therapeutic and/or spiritual practice that is part of the pilgrimage. However, some of these writers have been exploring this intimacy using alternative forms of representation than just text. Lucrezia referred to the comic book On the Camino by Norwegian artist Jason (2017), and how his use of images portrays the practice of pilgrimage on the Camino using popular visual tropes of the solitary thinking walker, bridges, and rural landscapes.

Ultimately, Lucrezia located three spaces through which the travel diaries operate: the space of the reader, the subjective space of the pilgrim/author, and the physical space of the Camino itself. How the Camino is imagined is a product of the work that varying forms of representation (e.g. comic book versus text) do in these spaces, alongside the personal discourses that are performed through individual practices of writing, reading and walking.

With wider relevance for thinking about methodology within literary geographies, Lucrezia finished by speaking about some of the challenges she has faced while studying travel diaries for her research. Which sources do you choose to consult, which do you leave, and why? Which academic research should be consulted, amongst the wide range of scholarship on the Camino? And could examining this kind of literature for research be a ‘leading’ methodology, privileging the researcher’s own interpretations of the texts?

Our final speaker was Giada Peterle, a post-doctoral research fellow and lecturer whose work is creative and interdisciplinary, bringing a range of narrative forms to her academic study within geography to think about the ways we understand, shape and represent the places we inhabit. Her current project is titled ‘Urban Literary Geographies: Mapping the city through narrative interpretation and creative practice’.

Giada’s presentation started by situating her work within a wider trajectory of creative geographies. She charted how the dialogical exchange between geographical and literary theory, as well as an existing and ongoing reciprocal exchange between place and literature, has been an important influence within the recent creative (re)turn in geography (e.g. Hawkins 2013; Madge, 2014). As well as fostering interdisciplinarity, this scholarship has approached storytelling not just as a form of representation, but as a creative practice to engage with, in which the embodied experiences of academics themselves can inform research.

Giada illustrated how her work has entered the domain of creative practice through Street Geography, a collaborative project between several geographers at the University of Padua with Progetto Giovani (based in the Office of the Municipality of Padua), which aims to encourage dialogue between academic research, art practice, and Padua citizens in an effort to contribute to the conceptualisation and realisation of more meaningful and sustainable cities. Street Geographybrought together three geographers and three artists to create three site-specific exhibitions in Padua that question the ways people live in cities, as well as the significance of change, movement and relationships in shared urban spaces.

This presentation concentrated on one of these site-specific exhibitions, A station of stories: moving narrations, which was undertaken in Padua railway station. Giada recounted how the project team wanted this site-specific work to reflect the varied mobilities and stories that the station embodies, as an environment of co-presence and contradictions: between transit and encounter, consumption and dwelling, work and criminality, encounter and exclusion.

This conceptual approach led to an idea of the material space of the station itself being a narrator. Using this tactic in their writing, the team aimed to provoke empathy with the place; challenging anthropocentric understandings of the station by imagining the site telling stories of its own changing environment from a non-human perspective. In turn, the team hoped to enable readers to think about how, when and on what terms different stories of the city are told. This latter objective was especially relevant as most of the station’s spaces are normally used for advertising. How could these spaces be appropriated to encourage people to think critically about the station as a confluence of diverse stories?

The team’s answer was to use the comic book form. As a type of literature that is easy to read and accessible, but also quite mobile in how it is read, using comics took into account the different entry points and directions of movement from which the story could be approached and interpreted in the station. This depth of engagement was facilitated by the comic’s physical presence as a public art exhibition; though the physicality of the comic panels also brought practical challenges. Giada recalled finding all the exhibition panels face down on the ground only the morning after mounting them for display, and consequently having to change the way they were stuck up. The team were also concerned that members of the public writing on the panels might obscure the material shown.

In the end, the physical positioning of the panels in the station successfully engaged diverse audiences of academics, travellers and residents through a series of intentional and accidental encounters with the artwork. Creative geographical approaches such as those adopted in Street Geography, Giada contended, demonstrate how encounters between geography and art can engage wider communities with the discipline, by seeing it as a creative approach towards understanding spaces that incorporates their materialities and affects, as well as the personal experiences of researchers.

The three presentations were followed by a panel discussion, which picked up on points of crossover between Nattie, Lucrezia and Giada’s work.

In a conversation on what the spatial perspective of geography can offer literature, our presenters considered the complex relationship between ‘real’ physical spaces and how they are represented in fiction. They reflected on how geographical approaches and (creative) methodologies that investigate the spaces of readers, writers and publishers, such as Innes Keighren’s work on geographies of the book (e.g. Keighren, 2013), can attend to the ways in which literary representations of space are implicated within the wider social, political and material processes through which different literatures are produced and consumed.

It was also suggested that the themes of mobility and non-linearity within geographical thought can help with understanding how the form of a text interacts with the way its geographies are experienced by the work’s creators and readers. Our presenters concurred that such experiences of literature have become increasingly non-linear, through both the unique and interactive forms of consumption that digital technology enables, as well as postmodernist trends in literature that have sought to think beyond linear constructions of narrative.

Thank you to all three of our presenters for sharing some fascinating insights from their research, and for all they have contributed as visiting scholars to our research community in the Social, Cultural and Historical Geography Research Group during their time at Royal Holloway.

Lucrezia Lopez, Nattie Golubov and Giada Peterle


Bibliography
Cole, T. (2017) Blind Spot. London: Faber & Faber.

Hawkins, H. (2013) “Geography and art: An expanding field: Site, the body, and practice” Progress in Human Geography 37(1): 52-71.

Jason (2017) On the Camino. Seattle: Fantagraphics.

Keighren, I.M. (2013) Geographies of the book: review and prospect. Geography Compass 7(11): 745-758.

Madge, C. (2014) “On the creative (re)turn to geography: poetry, politics and passion” Area 46(2): 178-185.