As part of the series of events organised by the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, I recently (18 November 2016) organised a walking seminar through Edinburgh's Old Town. Along with my colleague Jeremy Knox, and joined by participants from inside and beyond the university, we undertook an unscripted excursion where our path through the city was shaped by our varying personal interests as well as the digital mobile devices we brought to the exercise.
Our activity can be situated within the growing critical interest in urban walking (Richardson 2015) as well as the tradition of walking ethnography (Vergunst and Ingold, 2008). Going back further, this type of unrehearsed excursion has its roots in the flânerie of Walter Benjamin and later the dérive of Guy Debord and The Situationst International. By moving our seminar beyond the physical boundaries of the university we dispensed with the abstract or agenda that often lend structure to on-campus conversation, instead inviting participants to bring their own research or professional interests to the exercise. We imagined that the excursion would be of interest to colleagues concerned with digital culture and mobile learning (see for instance Sharples et al. 2007) and those with an interest in how we construct meaning from our surroundings, for instance through sensory ethnography (Pink 2011), multimodality (Kress and Van Leeuwen 2001) or a sociomaterial sensibility (Fenwick, Edwards & Sawchuk 2011).
Across the duration of a lunchtime we walked and talked, sharing our interests, ideas and observations with our newly-found colleagues. At different locations that we broadly agreed to find interesting, we paused to capture our experiences on our mobile devices. This included the gathering of images and audio recordings, some of which are gathered together in the short video that offers a more rich and evocative record of what took place than I would have been able to offer through words.
Photos by Nick Hood, Hamish MacLeod and by me.
Another alternative and imaginative way that technology merged with our trajectory across the Old Town was provided by my colleague Jen Ross, where she compiled a live playlist on Spotify, triggered by her surroundings at different stages of our journey. Members of the group were drawn to Jen's approach and in turn suggested search terms for what became a collaborative playlist. Jen has since mapped the different songs onto the corresponding locations within an interactive Google map. The compiled playlist and map are worthy of space in their own right, however this screengrab presents an alternative way of representing our walk.
The different digital artefacts to have emerged from the excursion - video, music playlist, interactive map - go some way to reflecting the varying interests that participants brought to the exercise. At different times during our walk conversation turned to whether and how we felt this type of exercise might be used in different educational settings. Emergent ideas included:
In the days following our walk my colleague Christine Sinclair used ideas and images from the exercise as a way of encouraging students to reflect on the nature of space and place within the Introduction to Digital Environments for Learning course on the MSc in Digital Education. At the same time I am intrigued by the suggestion that this type of activity might help to break down the "clusters" that can form in university programmes where students from the same international communities group together, meaning that they miss out on what might be learned from their peers and their experiencing of the city beyond the vicinity of the campus.
When Michael Sean Gallagher, Jeremy Knox and I first talked about the idea of enacting digital urban flânerie we were keen that, alongside a possible conceptual contribution, our methodology might be adopted and adapted into practical learning activities. Looking back on the excursion through the Old Town, I think there's mileage in this kind of activity.
Multimodal dérive in Amsterdam
Leaving do/Edinburgh Old and New
EC1 (Sights & Sounds)
For the duration of this semester I am spending every Friday in the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, observing students and tutors involved in an undergraduate course in Architectural Design. This ethnographic study mirrors my fieldwork in an American History course where I'm observing tutorials and lectures, all in support of my Doctoral research into multimodal assessment across the disciplines.
Each visit to the Architecture School begins a little before 9am with a meeting of the course tutors. They discuss teaching, assessment and other aspects of the course. There is coffee, conversation and a passionate commitment to subject and students. After that the tutors make their their way to the design studio to meet with their groups. The studio occupied by these second year undergraduates achieves the effect of feeling subterranean without in fact being below ground: as one of tutors ruefully put it when attempting to sell the space to her group: "There's a window at the far end - make sure you all get a chance to look out of it." From the uneducated perspective of the observer, the creativity and imagination demonstrated in the models, sketches and other examples of student work sits in stark contrast to the seemingly drab and claustrophobic studio space in which they are constructed or displayed. It is something of a relief then that studio time is interrupted by excursions out of the Architecture building. So far this has included a visit to the Fruitmarket Gallery to see an exhibition by Damian Ortega ("To get you to really think about how you present your work in the studio" as a tutor introduced the exercise) and more recently by a site visit to King Stables Road in the heart of Edinburgh.
The purpose of the visit to King Stables Road was to introduce students to the site for the architecture school they will design for their assessment exercise this semester. The group I followed were encouraged to spend time experiencing the environment that will be central to their thinking in the coming weeks and months. As we assembled in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, the tutor encouraged the group to go beyond merely taking photos and to include time for discussing and reflecting upon what they experienced, in order that they would be able to make a visual, emotional response to the site ahead of the following week's tutorial. For the purpose of my own research I used my iPhone to gather some of the sights and sounds of the exercise, as the group navigated its way around the puddles, discarded wine bottles and polystrene takeaway detritus of King Stables road. I have collected the recorded images and sounds together within this short video:
While the video does the intended job of providing me with a record of the site visit, what it fails to do is adequately take account of the wider experience of the excursion, or the atmosphere in that particular corner of the city. This would seem to echo the tutor's instruction for students to talk and think about their surroundings, rather than rapidly traversing the site whilst gathering photos for later consumption. This emphasis on critical reflection-whilst-walking reminds me of the work of Dicks et al. (2006) where they introduced and critically considered the possibility of multimodal ethnography. Drawing on research where they investigated communication and meaning-making within a Science visitor centre, the authors reflected on the opportunities and limitations of gathering visual data, including photographs and video recordings. While these digital visual approaches were able to go beyond what it was possible to record using conventional field notes, they were insufficient in themselves to take account of movement and the materiality of a space. In response, the authors took to walking through the Science visitor centre in order to experience its ‘physical flow’ and ‘living, material, kinetic environment’ (2006:87).
As the architecture group made its way around the perimeter of the King Stables Road site all of the dozen students took photographs to a greater or lesser degree. In some cases this was augmented by making sketches, peering over walls and pausing to point out different aspects of the site. On another occasion around half of the group stopped for several minutes to variously take in the scene and enter into conversation. In this instance (which is seen and heard in the final photos in my short video), I would suggest that the students went beyond the gathering of photos to think about constructing meaning in-the-moment. Their gathering of photographic representations of the site was interspersed with discussion and then moments of silence as they seemed to reflect on what they could see, hear and feel around them. Perhaps the conclusion to draw here is that although photographs and video recordings provide a useful way of representing particular qualities of our surroundings, they cannot do justice to the sensation of being hit by water dripping from an overhead archway, or of the distinct aroma of last night's discarded take away and tonic wine.
Dicks B, Soyinka B and Coffey A (2006) Multimodal ethnography. Qualitative Research 6(1): 77-96.
Multimodal dérive in Amsterdam
Listening to The Street
Last Thursday and Friday (16 & 17 June) I attended the Visualizing the Street Conference, hosted in Amsterdam by the ASCA Cities Project. Alongside my colleague Jeremy Knox, I presented a methodology for investigating the city that drew on multimodality and mobilities (including Kress & Parcher (2007)), combined with the growing scholarly interest in urban walking (including Richardson (2016)). Our methodology involved undertaking an unrehearsed dérive through the city where we set out to gather aural and visual data that would provide opportunities for thinking about our relationship with the city. This methodology involved arriving early in Amsterdam ahead of the conference in order to undertake our walk around the city, before reflecting on the data and then pulling it together into something coherent ahead of our presentation the next day. Perhaps the most interesting part of our approach was that, for the most part, our route through the city was guided by the sights and sounds that grabbed our attention, reflected in the video below.
As we reflected on our experience in the hours following the dérive, one of the ideas to emerge was that while we might see ourselves as freely exploring the city, our path was also shaped by weather, building work, hunger and also self-preservation as we attempted to negotiate a safe route between bikes, trams, mopeds and canals. We became part of the city's network, subject to its flows and varying rhythms: with more time for reflection we would like to have explored how sociomateriality and posthumanism might differently theorise our approach.
Another idea to emerge in conversation was the importance of paying attention to the aural character of our environment. As the acoustician Trevor Cox has recognised (2014), for a long time we have heavily privileged what we see over what we hear, meaning that the aural character of our environment is under-theorised and under-considered. In our approach we attempted to turn up the volume on the city, as we simultaneously gathered sounds and images on our phones. When we later came to review this data it became clear that focusing on a single mode sometimes provided an incomplete or at times misleading representation of the city. At the same time, by looking beyond the visual we gained a more complete appreciation of our surroundings in the moment that we gathered our data, or as I put it during our conference presentation:
Here are the slides from our presentation, although unfortunately without the accompanying field recordings that we played to accompany our discussion.
Following a path which deviates from the central interest of my Doctoral research, I’m spending a bit of time this afternoon drafting a paper for the Vizualising the Street conference in Amsterdam this June. The conference is being hosted by the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) Cities Project and will explore the impact of contemporary practices of image-making on the visual cultures of the street. Along with my colleagues Jeremy Knox and Michael Sean Gallagher I will be arguing that in order to better understand the city we need to pay greater attention to the aural character of our environment. This isn’t about disregarding the visual, but instead asking what happens when we consider sound alongside sight, and what implications this has for our ability to ask questions about our relationship with the city.
That the aural character of urban space is under-considered is made loud and clear by Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford. In Sonic Wonderland: A Scientific Odyssey of Sound, Cox proposes that:
The position Cox takes is built upon a career working as an acoustician, often attempting to understand and remedy the sonic deficiencies of spaces such as lecture theatres and grand concert halls. Amongst other things that we can take away from his work is that urban space both affects, and is affected by, sounds that reverberate between and within structures. I recently saw this point illustrated during a visit to Edinburgh University’s Architecture school where I observed students working on the design of a library building. Asked by the tutor to share their thoughts from a recent field trip to Rome, most of the group drew on notes to offer descriptive accounts of what they had seen. In contrast, one student, Alex, held his phone aloft and played two audio recordings he had made whilst walking the length of the prospective library sites. As he did this he provided a spoken commentary describing the changing nature of the soundscape as church bells came to the fore before being replaced by the bustle of a street market. This prompted us to consider how the library building might work in concert with the aural material of the city.
Still in Italy, in his essay Recording the City: Berlin, London, Naples, sound artist and composer BJ Nilsen describes how sound recordings provide us with high levels of detail whilst helping us to travel back to the field site.
Returning to the Visualizing the Street conference, the paper I am writing just now requires that Michael, Jeremy and I arrive a day ahead of the conference in order to get lost in Amsterdam, just as Nilsen describes in his wander around the pescheria in Naples. The route we choose to navigate through Amsterdam will certainly be influenced by the sights that grab our interest, however we’ll also have an ear closely tuned to the sounds coming from the courtyards, canals and cafes that we encounter as we attempt to draw meaning from the streets of Amsterdam.
Cox, T. (2004) Sonic Wonderland: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World. London: Vintage Books. pp. 16-77
Nilson, B.J. (2014). Recording the City: Berlin, London, Naples. In The Acoustic City, Gandy, M. and Nilson, B.J. (Eds). Berlin: Jovis Verlas. pp. 57-58.
EC1: Sights and Sounds
Architecture, multimodality and the ethnographic monograph
The Sights & Sounds of Portsmouth & Southsea
After fourteen enjoyable years working in widening access at Lothians Equal Access Programme for Schools, I'm about to follow a different path as I embark on a PhD in the School of Education at Edinburgh University. Although my departure is temporary rather than permanent, my colleagues were keen to mark the occasion and proposed that we finish early on my last day to take a leisurely stroll around the city, stopping for food and drink along the way.
The problem with this plan was that a care-free amble around central Edinburgh during the Festival season would need to navigate crowds of visitors and performers. Instead, I put together a route that would take in some of the city's quieter closes and streets, whilst at the same time visiting some of the locations that have featured in my working life over the last fourteen years. Fittingly, we began in George Square where I was first interviewed for the job that I'm now taking a break from. Some hours later our journey drew to a close outside Moray House School of Education where I will take my first classes as a PhD student later this month.
To add wider interest to our walk, I proposed that as we passed different sites of interest we should consider how they had changed over time. Thus, before setting out on our adventure I searched through the digital archives of the National Library of Scotland and SCRAN and bookmarked a series of buildings, streets and squares that we would likely pass on our route between George Square and Moray House. The different sites are foregrounded on my iPad in the images below. There's a juxtaposition here not just of new and old buildings, but of traditional and digital approaches to capturing images.
Something I like about the images is the trace of my work colleagues: their hands, cagouls and partial on-screen reflections. Bearing in mind how closely we have worked, it was fitting that my colleagues should have a presence within the images . Another thing that strikes me about the images is the occasional lop-sided positioning of the iPad, reflecting the architectural imperfections and character that make up this part the city.
I also captured a short ambient audio recording at each site we visited. In a second representation of the collected data, the video below combines the sight and sounds of each of our stopping points.
I think the video offers different insights into the same locations captured in the earlier slideshow. An obvious example would be how our journey was accompanied by the almost constant hum of traffic, even when there were few or no cars in view. Elsewhere, the sound of music, a child crying and a passing conversation about a visit to the zoo reveal a warmth, humour and emotion that isn't always present when we consider the photos in isolation.
The way that these different semiotic resources converge to create new meaning – and to contest the ideas we might draw from a single mode in isolation – is something I have touched on before. In January of this year, alongside my digital education colleagues Jeremy Knox and Michael Sean Gallagher, I undertook and then presented an exercise in multimodal autoethnography in a district of London. We came to the same conclusion: by tuning into the gathered aural data we were able to see beyond the edges of the snapshots we had taken of the parks, pavements and public houses of EC1.
The way that the introduction of sound contests the impression of contemporary Edinburgh presented in the slideshow prompts me in turn to consider whether the same rules might apply to the archived images. Or to put it another way, if we somehow had access to sound recordings taken at the time of the photographs of old Edinburgh, would we draw different conclusions about the stories that appear to be unfolding in some of the images? I wonder whether our understanding of how we used to live that we might take from the apparent calm and tidy order of the archived images, would change if we were to hear the sounds pouring from the sepia-tinged breweries, printworks and classrooms that dominated Edinburgh's Southside a hundred years ago?
Urban flanerie as multimodal autoethnography and EC1: sights and sounds
The sights and sounds of Portsmouth and Southsea
Ultras EH9: Fan culture in south Edinburgh
Maps, music and augmented reality
The sights and sounds of matchday: FC St Pauli in Hamburg
Last November the brilliant Cities and Memory sound archive set out to capture the distinctive sounds that accompany a major football match. The audio exercise is described in 'The living nightmare of the Arsenal fan' where Stuart Fowkes tells how he captured and then remixed the sounds of the Champions League contest between Arsenal and Anderlecht at the Emirates Stadium.
What Stuart's exercise didn’t set out to do was gather the wider sounds of matchday, including the chaotic mixture of conversation and chanting that can be heard before and after the game, and which contribute massively to the experience of watching live football. At the same time Cities and Memory is essentially concerned with sound and therefore didn’t gather images to accompany the changing pitch as the game unfolded.
What follows then is my own attempt to bring together the combined aural and visual colour of matchday. The fixture was FC St Pauli versus VFL Bochum in the second tier of Germany's Bundesliga. I've been making visits to St Pauli's Millerntor Stadion for the last decade, always spending the weekend in Hamburg in order to get the full experience around the game. This meant that I had a good idea of where and when I might find interesting and representative soundclips and photographs. That said, the pattern of matchday was dictated by the game itself, not by my data gathering. After all, if St Pauli were to lose this final home game of the season, they would be relegated to the third tier of German football. The high stakes nature of the match meant that I didn’t take as many photos during the game as I would have liked: it’s one thing to bring a camera to the game, but I wasn't willing to intrude on the occasionally fraught experience being enjoyed/suffered by the fans around me on the Sudtribune. My commitment to ethnography lasted only until St Pauli conceded in the opening minutes of the game, at which point there were more serious matters at hand.
There was also room for serendipity, for instance in the way that my pre-match wander to the St Pauli Fischmarkt coincided with an assembly of several hundred Bochum fans who lit flares, unfurled banners and chanted songs before making their way en masse to the game. At the same time there's always the possibility that a visit to the Millerntor Stadion will lead to new friendships, pub visits and parties that couldn't be scripted at the start of the day.
I’m not going to describe the assembled images and audio, other than to say they are gathered below within a series of montages that depict pre-match, the game itself, and then the post-match celebration (look out for scoreboard and listen to the sense of disbelief within the middle montage). The slide shows play automatically and you can click on the audio player to hear the accompanying cries, songs and laughter of matchday St Pauli.
Looking back at the gathered sights and sounds here, I think they go a good job of documenting what we experienced before, during and after the game. The images and audio clips go some way to capturing what is special about watching live football (in Hamburg, at least). The colour, humour and camaraderie are a reward for those who embrace matchday, rather than choosing to spectate from the comfort of the pub or armchair.
Something that isn't captured above however is the next-morning-remorse that comes from one Currywurst too many, or the echo of fansong that repeats in our heads for the whole of the flight back to Scotland and the days that follow. Forza-Sankt-Pauli! Forza-Sankt-Pauli!, Oh! Forza-Sankt-Pauli!
It’s still ringing.
With thanks to our friends at Fanladen St Pauli for help with tickets and the cool folk in Café Absurd for letting us capture the sounds of a lock-in.
Last week I attended the MODE Multimodal Methodologies Conference at University College London. I won’t summarise the Conference here as that’s better done by visiting the designated #modeME Twitter hashtag. What I will say is that the value of proceedings can be measured in the attendance during the closing session, which was at least as busy as the opening address.
Alongside my colleagues Michael Sean Gallagher and Jeremy Knox I contributed a session proposing Urban Flânerie as Multimodal Autoethnography. The rationale behind the paper is explained in an entry I wrote directly before the Conference. Our presentation slides can be viewed here. In the absence of text or accompanying voice however, I’ve included below some Twitter feedback which captures some of the main points we put across.
Within the 30-minute presentation slot it was only possible to share a fraction of the images and sounds that we had collected the previous day. Gathered at the top of this entry, then, is a juxtaposition of some of the sights (captured in a slideshow) and sounds (within the audio montage) of EC1.
For me, the most significant themes to emerge from our exercise in Multimodal Flânerie are as follows:
Inevitably, we could improve the exercise next time around (and we intend to). I would use a better quality Microphone to capture the aural data [actioned]. I would also make a written note of the locations where we gathered data. And I wouldn’t have a pint at lunchtime knowing that I needed to work on the data later that night (a Gin & Tonic would be acceptable, though).
Finally, a spin off from our exercise. I drew our presentation to a close by proposing that those with an interest in our methodology could join us for an exercise in flânerie that evening, as we made our way from the Conference venue to a nearby pub. And so amidst the neon, sirens, and crowds of Euston and its surrounds, we captured some interesting sights and sounds. I’ve put this data into a short, sketchy video that captures our journey from A to B (although invoking the spirit of the flaneur, not by the most direct route, obviously).
Tomorrow morning (Thursday 15 January 2015) I will jointly deliver a conference paper on Urban Flanerie as Multimodal Ethnography, with my colleagues Jeremy Knox and Michael Sean Gallagher. The occasion is the Multimodality: Methodological Explorations conference at the Institute of Education/University College London.
The main thrust of our paper will be that we can better understand urban space by stepping into the shoes of the Flâneur, and then setting out to capture and then convey the sights and sounds we experience as we wander through the city. To make this argument, we will spend today, the day before the Conference, enacting our proposed methodology within the EC1 postcode of London.
What we’re interested in doing is exploring how the collection and then the multimodal communication of data might enable us to ask questions about the character within a particular snapshot of time, as well as our own relationship with urban space.
Beginning at 10am, we will wander the streets of East Central London, taking photographs and recording audio of anything that talks to us about personality of this part of the city. Following in the path of the Flâneur, we don’t have a set route in mind, or the intention to visit particular buildings, parks or pubs. Instead our wanderings and therefore our data collection will be shaped by a left turn here, an interesting alley there, a blocked-off pavement, an enticing cafe, the weather, and so on.
Once we have tired of walking the streets, we will sit down, download and then trying to make sense from our gathered visual and aural data. We will then decide how we might combine all the gathered sights and sounds into a meaningful, multimodal artefact. After that we will reflect on the methodological significance of our exercise. And then tomorrow morning we will present the same conclusions – and the artefact – at the Conference.
The tight deadline presents this as a risky approach and it could end up being a late night (but then, we'd need to fill our evening in central London somehow). We feel though that it's a useful way of testing our methodology in a practical way. Assuming we pull this off, we feel there is the potential for this approach to be used within different learning situations, which is something we hope to discuss tomorrow morning. For now though, it's time to gather our cameras and coats and to step out into the cold of EC1.
Just in time for Christmas, and prompted by pictures on the @slowberlin Twitter feed, here's an unfinished attempt at a seasonal card featuring Berlin's famous Fernsehturm telecommunications tower.
This is another case of 'found on an old hard drive': I originally put this image together after returning from a groundhopping (football) trip to Berlin in December 2012. During that trip, the Fernsehturm towered over a Christmas market we skirted on our forays between hotel and football stadia. At some point I had the idea of redrawing the tower with a seasonal feel. This explains why the restaurant, viewing gallery and communications antenna have been festively reimagined in the image below as a Christmas bauble. Meanwhile, the lights at different levels of the tower have taken the form of a string of fairy lights.
To the eye, the Fernsehturm might reasonably be seen as a dull mixture of white and grey, however I imagine that it must bring pleasure and inspiration to many Berliners: a perpetual and true source of colour.
I've been wondering what it would be like to wander through a city - London, most likely - listening to a playlist that's linked to the places you encounter. I think it might offer an interesting way of telling stories about the city, in the same way that you might read a book or watch a film or documentary. I suppose the difference here is that you would be closer, geographically at least, to the places where different events took place.
And I wonder whether this might be achieved through a mobile app that provides some form of musically augmented reality? Although augmented reality is normally used to describe the technological manipulation of a visual plane, I'm tuning into the idea that it is concerned with any of the senses and am focusing on sound - or music, more specifically - to enhance and change our perception of what is around us.
Here's how it might work.
Within a dedicated urban space, individual songs would be attached to specific places and spaces: a street, a park, a pub, and so on. These songs would then be geofenced on a sound map, which would be accessed by the mobile app. This would be activated when the user enters that (real life) location. There would probably be satellites, code and other things like that involved. Here's what might happen in practice.
You put on your trainers.
You plug in your earphones, maybe setting the volume so that you can still hear a trace your surroundings.
You activate the Location function within the settings on your mobile.
You open the app.
You take a left into Kelly Street in Kentish Town and the app automatically begins to play a song.
You look down at your mobile and the app tells you that it's Mario's Cafe by Saint Etienne. A short description explains the song's relationship with the street you're walking. You ignore the details for the moment, step out of the rain and enjoy your musically-augmented reality, with a cup of tea and a bun.
In order for this to work, I think each of the songs would need to tell a story about the particular part of the city to which is it geolocated. All of these songs, for instance, paint a rich and colourful picture about different places, whether in the past or present: White City by The Pogues, Sunny Goodge Street by Donovan, Victoria Gardens (and plenty of others) by Madness, Denmark Street by The Kinks, just for starters.
I'm waiting for the call to start work on the'Saint Etienne's London' app.
I am an ESRC-funded Doctoral student in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.