Sense and the City: Liam Young’s Speculative Cinema, Part II

Still from "Where the City Can't See," by Liam Young
In this second round of responses in the Experimental Media in the City roundtable, Holly Willis encourages us to consider how mediated cities and mediated selves provoke an ethics of the computational and the ethically mediated self, as opposed to an ethics of the visual.
[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.]

When Liam Young said to me, “What I am interested in exploring is this condition where cities are actually no longer inert conditions but have forms of embedded intelligence,” I do not believe he meant to suggest that any urban space is inert. Given Young’s architectural background and engagement with infrastructure at a deep level, I would guess that his understanding of space is not that it functions simply as a neutral and passive backdrop but instead that it plays an active role in producing space. This idea is expressed nicely by Amanda Williams, Eric Kabisch and Paul Dourish in their essay, “From Interaction to Participation: Configuring Space Through Embodied Interaction.” The authors note that space is never merely a container for our actions, but instead serves as “a setting within which we act.”1Williams, Amanda, Eric Kagisch and Paul Dourish (2005) UbiComp ’05 Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing. Tokyo, Japan, 287 They use the word “infrastructure” to capture the back-and-forth movement between what a space affords as a setting, and how a space is produced by the activities that take place there. They also note that infrastructure describes the ways in which we encounter spaces, not only through physical components such as walls or streets, but through information, the practices of use that make a space have specific meaning for users, and the social interactions that occur at any given moment.

Instead of eschewing the work of infrastructure, I believe Young was instead drawing a distinction between cities that are organized by telecommunications tools in contrast from cities of the past that were not. More specifically, he is intrigued by cities that are informed and produced by Internet of things technologies. In their most instrumental forms, these technologies might include adaptive signaling for traffic control; gunshot detection systems deployed to respond to crime; water-based monitoring devices that are used to prevent disease; and traffic infrastructures designed for connected cars. Turning to the social, we shift from an emphasis on the visual to that of the mobile. As Nanna Verhoeff explains in Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation, we engage in a visual regime of navigation that in turn leads to host of new experiences, including what she calls performative cartography.2Verhoeff, Nanna (2012) Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press Indeed, these Internet of things things create a very different form of the city at a material level, and clearly they intersect as well with a broader instantiation of the networked society described by Manuel Castells, among many others, with its concomitant reconfiguration of forms of social interaction, communication, participation and citizenship.

Cinema certainly is not the only locus for both exploring and modeling these shifts, and I am often intrigued by the array of curious examples suggested by colleagues in other disciplines. As just one instance—perhaps pertinent in the context of Mediapolis—in their conversation for the Situated Technologies Pamphlet titled “Modulated Cities: Networked Spaces, Reconstituted Subjects,” Helen Nissenbaum and Kazys Varnelis discuss several other permutations of a networked culture and its emergent selves by discussing what they sense as examples of increased self-exposure. Varnelis quotes media artist Jordan Crandall, who writes about a “new culture of erotic exposure and display… [a culture] of showing as much as watching,” and then goes on to cite an increase in the construction of transparent apartment buildings in major cities.3Nissenbaum, Helen and Kazys Varnelis (Spring 2012) Situated Technologies Pamphlets 9: Modulated Cities: Networked Spaces, Reconstituted Subjects, New York: New York Architectural League, 27 He links this architectural trend to a desire for self-exposure that emerges from practices of online culture that similarly celebrate revelations of the private self in public. Varnleis adds, “I think we’re in the midst of an epochal change of subjectivity, and formerly strong boundaries are dissolving.”4ibid, 30

I think it is this “epochal change of subjectivity” that also intrigues Young. He shows us an evolving form of cinematic storytelling increasingly imbued by the logic of the sensor, the drone, the scanner, the smart grid and so on. It is a project that it is deeply concerned with the cities of the present and future, but also considers who we are as subjects produced within these contexts of surveillance, intelligence gathering and even a kind of captivity.

However, I want to respond to the main question posed here, namely do I “see an evolution—or perhaps just transformation—in practices of imaging, signification, and narrativity—as fundamentally contingent on the human ability to respond to new forms of life and understanding, or whether there is a genuine possibility of the emergence of entirely non-human logics which defy human comprehension.”

I believe there is a correspondence among the stories we as humans tell, the forms that these stories take, and their material expression. I understand the return of virtual reality technologies, for example, as well as the rise of the virtual camera and a 360-degree visual logic as a response to evolving expressions of subjectivity. Similarly, forms of live cinema, interactive narrative and arrangements that are generally dubbed “post-cinematic” represent engagements and entanglements within a networked culture. These post-cinematic forms help call attention to the networked body, and to the often subtle, sometimes dramatic shifts in perception, behavior, movement and proprioceptive engagements, to name just a few points of influence. They suggest a shift away from the singular subject to what Brian Rotman describes in his book Becoming Besides Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts and Distributed Human Being (2008) as “distributed co-presence.”5Rotman, Brian (2008) Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts and Distributed Human Being. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 99 They suggest—indeed, are produced by—a form of subjectivity that Rotman goes on to describe as the para-human, by which he means an emerging subjectivity he dubs “becoming beside ourselves.” At the close of a chapter titled “Parallel Selves,” Rotman asks a series of questions: “Aren’t networks and the relentless co-presencing and distribution of the psyche they facilitate already starting to control the sites where subjects are produced? Aren’t parallel computations and multi-images and virtual agencies and a ubiquitous computing and ever smarter and interactive digital environment already deeply embedded in communicational, pragmatic, and art practices and in the heads of the subjects who encounter them?”6ibid, 104

With this in mind, I am not so concerned with upholding an ethics of visuality. I am interested in how we navigate—and I use this word specifically—the transformation of the human as it cedes intelligence to the world around us. Rather than an ethics of the visual I want an ethics of the computational; rather than ethics of the self, I want an ethics of the technologically mediated self that is, in Rotman’s words, parallel and beside itself.

Young contributes to our understanding of this shift in his work both in terms of narrative and stories about the near future, and in a filmmaking practice enabled both by sensing machines and an aesthetic that models the gap between what is and what could be, inviting agency and attention despite the distraction, disempowerment and amnesia of so much of our contemporary culture.


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