Demarginalizing New Media Maps

[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Experimental Media and the City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

At the start of each semester, I push students in my introductory Media Studies to dig into the past of mediated communication, reminding them that all their prized new media technologies have longer lineages. In considering the intersection between experimental media and the city, I’d like to lead our roundtable back to one of the earliest mediums: the map.

Maps and mapping emerge, either implicitly or explicitly, throughout all three posts of this roundtable. Aroussiak Gabrielian presents Google Street View’s photographic documentation of avenues, lanes, and alleyways as both a limitless map and an engine for narrative hunger; Holly Willis attunes us to the use of drones and LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanners within Liam Young’s films. Google Street View uses a fleet of vehicles equipped with cameras and GPS to give us overviews of space. LIDAR scanners use GPS receivers alongside lasers to measure distance and are often deployed for mapping, while autonomous drones use GPS to move along preprogrammed routes. In this response, I want to put the tools noted by Aroussiak and Holly in conversation with the Black Audio Film Collective’s use of sound to disrupt contemporary and archival images of cities. Within the BAFC’s films, the voices of individuals allow us to explore the imbalance of power in British cities. How might we, as individual users, negotiate potentially overwhelming new media visualizations of cities while remaining cognizant of the forces of power that undergird these experiments?

Arrousiak describes the “expansive sense of accessibility” that allows “users” to explore the world via Street View, crafting their own experiences. As a new media database, Street View allows for navigational fluidity while threatening to overwhelm us with content. To explore Street View through a new lens, I used it to take a tour of the site of the 1985 Handsworth riots documented in John Akomfrah’s 1986 Handsworth Songs. Starting on Lozells Road, the site of the arrest that sparked the riots, the urban neighborhood looked . Mobile phone shops, halal grocers, and convenience stores punctuated rows of red brick houses and apartment buildings. Women in headscarves strolled past young men on bicycles, all in the midst of their daily routines. Toured in this way, Handsworth acts as an addendum to the BAFC’s film. Rather than a city in turmoil, we see a location that looks like countless other immigrant neighborhoods. The banal images are a counterpoint to the images and news reports of crisis that emerged in the wake of the riots, which depicted raging fires, clashes between protestors and police, and a city in tatters.

Lozells Road on Street View, 2017

Lozells Road just after the Handsworth riots

 

 

 

 

 

 

But when I went to tour Dominica, the home of Olivia’s mother in Reece Auguiste’s 1989 Twilight City, I met a different set of circumstances. Street View is not available in Rouseau, the Caribbean Island’s capital. Instead, there are only a few “photo spheres” submitted by users. One photo sphere places us inside a clothing store, Adidas sneakers and soccer jerseys hanging on the wall. Another takes us atop a building, a woman’s head cut off in a spectral way. One is taken from the deck of a ship with blue, white, and yellow deck chairs gleaming. Absent connective tissue, these photos move us away from the seemingly neutral gaze of Street View. The photographers are named and, based on the locations documented, are most likely tourists. Rather than residential images, we see landmarks like the Botanical Gardens and Windsor Park Stadium, leaving us in the dark about everyday life in Rouseau.

Google’s own site tells us that some locations have yet to be mapped, seemingly linked to economic development and government restrictions. Large swaths of Africa, the Middle East, China, and the subcontinent, as well as parts of South America, Central America, and the Caribbean are unavailable on Street View. In Twilight City, George Shire talks about his conception of the city from the vantage of rural Zimbabwe formed by images Harare and of London brought by missionaries to classrooms. Those images made the city into a place of affluence and modernization for Shire and are the same images the BAFC’s films interrogate. Does Google Street View play the same role as the missionaries with its imbalanced representation of the globe? Are we doomed to continually reassert the same power positions of colonialism, reinforced by the digital divide?

When considering cartography, we should also remember the role of the mapmaker. For some, the absence of Street View is a blessing. A number of lawsuits and investigations, on both state and federal levels, have been launched against Google because of its handling of data and violations of privacy. Young’s films address these concerns directly. They simultaneously present a new of way figuring the city and a future in which the tools of surveillance are controlled by the government. Within this restrictive space, we see people resisting the status quo to find love or community. It doesn’t seem like an accident that the protagonists of In the Robot Skies are in council estates. They’re the people that might have watched the Handsworth riots play out or feel as anonymous in the city as Olivia. Holly writes of the seeming omnipotence of the drones, sometimes called eyes in the sky. While Young relinquishes control over the filmmaking process to drones, he’s also taking tools of modern surveillance and using them for art in a gesture that suggests alternative uses for an oft-militarized technology.

In linking new media technologies to the work of the BAFC, I return to the second word in the group’s name: audio. As Swagato’s introduction mentions, and as I detail in my analyses of Handsworth Songs and Twilight City, soundtracks perform a key role in the excavation of memory. Testimonials and poetic voiceovers intermingle with music to explore the stories behind anonymous streets. So much of our digital imaging is about just that: imaging space. But what of a city’s sounds? Jonathan Sterne reminds us that “There is always more than one map for a territory, and sound provides a particular path through history.”1Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 3. An app like Detour offers a narrative route through the city by presenting guided audio tours of a small number of cities, combining sound with lived experience. A more experimental model centered on sound is the New York Society for Acoustic Ecology’s Sound-seeker, which uses Google Maps to document a location’s sounds.2The British Library UK Soundmap operates with the same principles and can be found at British Library, Accessed 6/7/2017, http://sounds.bl.uk/sound-maps/. While sounds are titled and attributed to their creators, there is no other context to orient us. We hear snippets of conversation in sculpture parks and at bars, the music of an ice cream truck, and even ambient sounds like alarms and furnaces. Every mark on the map presents us with a moment in time rather than Street View’s documentation of space. Absent narratives and images, these soundscapes allows us to focus on hearing New York. We might even imagine a more pointedly critical map that captures the voices of marginalized citizens and the everyday sounds that constitute their lives. The BAFC’s films attempt to capture the voices of a city, using them to weave its history. In doing so, they embrace cinema’s ability present sound and image simultaneously, if not always in concert. In thinking about new media’s ability to document the city, I hope we don’t forget those sounds and how we might store them for future use.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 3.
2. The British Library UK Soundmap operates with the same principles and can be found at British Library, Accessed 6/7/2017, http://sounds.bl.uk/sound-maps/.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *