Image source: MODCaR
Here is a preview of summer project No.2, my fellowship at the Metropolitan Observatory for Digital Culture and Representation (MODCaR). MODCaR describes itself as a ‘nomadic Michigan based non-profit research organisation’ that examines the relationship between the production of images and the production of city publics. To quote from their ‘mission’:
‘Our charge is to explore visual narratives at the national and international scale and to render explicit the complex relationship between experience, the constructed image, meaning and the public.’
This statement resonates with my interest in the construction of particular spaces and their impact on the agency of publics (the nanoscale, the climate). Working with the ‘observatory’ seemed like an exciting platform to try out some new ideas.
Apart from analysing lots and lots of films on Detroit, MODCaR is organising a free, public film festival in Detroit showing documentaries on the city non-stop for two days. Entitled ‘Imaging Detroit’, the festival is intended to allow Detroiters to reflect upon the various forms their city has taken on in different contexts. Anyone can participate with a film, from established film-makers to primary school kids. The call for entries can be found here. I am also making a short film, with audio recordings of Londoners talking about their associations with Detroit. The festival will also feature discussions chaired by so-called ‘DJs’ (discourse jockeys), a mix of Detroit and non-Detroit based film makers, policy makers, urban analysts, art critics, activists, economists etc.
Image source: MODCaR, from ‘The MODCaR Guide to the Picturesque’
Below are the festival details, if you are planning on coming (you can also volunteer to help set up the festival grounds). A flyer/poster can also be downloaded here.
Imaging Detroit will open on September 21st at 6pm at Perrien Park,
between East Warren Avenue and East Hancock, Grandy and Chene streets
in the Near East Side neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan.
The event will run until midnight on Saturday, September 22nd
and is free and open to the public.
Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org
MODCaR pamphlet downloadable here
The article revisions marathon has been completed, so now I can proceed with my summer experiments, of which ‘DIY City Branding’ is the first. The project draws on my research on public engagement with environmental controversies and new technologies, as well as my activist work in London. It emerges from an interactive photography project called ‘DIY Skyline’, in which people modify the skylines they can see from their windows and balconies. By placing objects of their choice in these places and photographing them against the sunset, a ‘home-made’ skyline is produced. ‘DIY Skyline’ could have been restaged with projectors in the gallery in a shadow puppet theatre like manner, but in the end I decided to take the opportunity to emphasise the discussion on city branding a bit more clearly.
What is city branding? After witnessing the success of New York’s ‘I love New York’ campaign’, which has been described as ‘a city branding itself out of a crisis’ (a great book on that is Miriam Greenberg’s ‘Branding New York: How A City In Crisis Was Sold To The World’), other cities are trying to follow this example (e.g. ‘I AMsterdam’). City Branding is not always connected to crisis management, but also to the desire to fix or change a city’s image in the public perception. The website ‘City Mayors’ states that there is nowadays an imperative for cities to become ‘successful brands’ (there is also a short article on the Guardian website here). If you google ‘city branding’, you will find many publications on the subject, including books, free leaflets and critical commentaries. The film ‘This Space Available’, recently screened and debated at the Open City Docs Fest at UCL, gave the example of Houston, Texas, which banned billboards and other excessive advertising signage in order to turn itself into a brand – a brand emphasising quality of life (‘even a tree becomes part of the brand’).
So how does ‘DIY City Branding’ work? Actually, part of it didn’t work! The idea was to put down several coats of a metallic primer (the black paint) which would allow us to paint over it and affix ‘iconic’ buildings made from magnetic sheet (the same that is used for fridge magnets). Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the same paint we used in the trial, so naturally, the paint was too weak and the magnets didn’t stick. We had to make do with white tack. Basically, I took pictures of the London skyline from different places (the initial idea was to take them from ‘privileged views’ and ‘unprivileged views’, but that proved too confusing) and made stencils from them. These stencils were transferred onto the wall and painted over with white, so that, after the masking take was removed, only the black skyline(s) could be seen.
Next, a collection of ‘iconic’ skyscrapers, used in city branding, were turned into stencils (to scale with the skyline, so that sizes could be compared). These stencils were then used to make the magnetic buildings that people could add to the skyline to signify certain characteristics (‘progress’, ‘romance’ etc). They could also ‘commission’ new iconic buildings from one of the architects at the exhibition. Some visitors also used crayons (see last image in the post).
Underneath the skyline, a set of instructions called ‘City Branding in 10 easy steps’ could be found. Based on city branding leaflets available in the public domain, these ironic instructions sought to provoke debate about a very real issue: the role different publics in city branding. City branding publications emphasise the necessity to involve as many stakeholders as possible and not let big money rule (‘brand partnership’) – otherwise the brand is unlikely to work. At the same time, the reality often looks very different. The project tried to ask what could potentially be done with this zone in between: can different groups of Londoners use their role in city branding? Should it be a goal to participate in branding at all? What are the alternatives?
DIY City Branding was shown as part of UCL’s UrbanLaboratory’s Cities Methodologies 2012 exhibition, also accompanied by a public talk called ‘The ImageTM of the City’, which was jointly given by myself and Mireille Roddier from the University of Michigan (more about this in another post – you can see some of Mireille’s images from the exhibit on her Paris Je t’M blog). The talk was recorded for a podcast, so if it becomes available, I will link to it from here. For now, feel free to engage in your own ‘city branding’ discussion – no matter what shape it may take….
PS: Does anyone need any giant fridge magnets of iconic skyscrapers?? ;)
Just a quick note to say that next week, I’ll be at the ‘Futur En Seine’ festival, at least for one day… According to the organisers, it is…
‘…THE popular Festival of Life and Creativity, where the general public meets the innovative creative industries to imagine, build and celebrate the digital future together!’
It apparently ‘allows everyone – whether curious, passionate, amateur or professional – to share one, common experience: to test new technology in situ and to create together the digital future around five central themes: The Future of Life, the Future of Music and Image, the Future of Creation, the Future of Communications and the Future of the City’.
Well then, there is lots to do! Talking of some more specific things to do:
On the 20 June 2011, there will be a discussion on ‘The Future of Life’, which will focus on the
‘human potential within the “brave new worlds” of the digital future. Whether in the areas of health, education, or e-democracy, the emphasis must be placed firmly on the potential of digital tools to increase inclusion, communication, the knowledge sharing process, social and physical awareness and well-being, and the right of inclusion in the democratic process.’
On the 22 June 2011, I am planning on attending the somewhat misleadingly titled ‘Future of Creation’ event. It does not seem to revolve around the Darwin vs Intelligent Design debate, but rather on ‘new forms of ‘co-creation”, particularly the democratisation of innovation processes.
The festival takes place from 17-26 June 2011 in and around Paris.
Will report back!
A friend just sent me an article about Nanotechnology from the Strange Horizons Web-Zine (thanks, Dave!), which provoked this Philip K. Dick-inspired title question. In this article, a somewhat tragi-comical speculation is made, namely, that the only people who know about nanotechnology might be science fiction readers, as the rest of the public is not given any information about it. An often cited reason for the lack of public information is the fear of repeat performance of the mass-scale genetic engineering rejection. A case is also made for just letting the public know ‘whether it’s good or bad’ instead of engaging them with the subject in a more detailed way (as if that would work!). In connection with the hundreds of nano products already on the market, the author concludes, ‘nanotech might possibly be the quietest technological revolution ever’.
The article not only made me think about my own work, but also of the book I read on my recent trip – a science fiction novel called ‘Aristoi’ by Walter Jon Williams (from 1992). It is set in a far Earth future, after Earth got destroyed through the misbehaviour of humans and build a-new again. In William’s society, any sort of molecular and atomic engineering sees wide-spread use, but is only really handled by a group of selected individuals, the ruling class of the ‘Aristoi’. Through the application of new technologies, the Aristoi are near-god like and some of them are even worshipped as gods. They create the populations of their respective domains by selecting the most beneficial genes, so that the inhabitants are non-aggressive, intelligent and healthy. Sometimes, they take the liberty to create fanciful individuals for specific (e.g. artistic) purposes, e.g. a group of opera singers with distinct vocal folds. They build worlds and whole star systems with the help of nanotechnology and also experiment with it (which occasionally results in ‘mataglap’ accidents). Central to this book are the questions ‘what is human?’ and ‘what is ethical behaviour’, and nanotechnology plays a huge role in defining the super-human identity of the Aristoi. When a group of rebel Aristoi plunges a part of society they are responsible for back into the Middle Ages, a war breaks out between the conspirators and the Aristoi who accuse them of reducing their vulnerable protégés to ‘mere humans’.
Now while this scenario does not reflect the situation on our Earth (one should hope?) and may even appear far fetched or silly (to non-SciFi readers at least), it illustrates how science fiction readers are already confronting questions (about ethics, responsibility, ‘what is natural?’ etc) that relate to nanotechnology. In the UK, a few experiments have been made to engage people with the subject, namely the NanoJury UK and the Demos Nanodialogues, which are both promoting ‘upstream engagement’. I hope there will be more to come.