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
As background reading for a conference paper I'm working on, I've been reading about Psychogeography and other approaches to exploring and thinking about urban space.
In his engaging (2010) study of the subject, Merlin Coverley presents Psychogeography as being interested in the places where Psychologogy meets Geography. Although 'nebulous and resistant to definition’, Coverley proposes that the different approaches to Psychogeography traverse some areas of common ground, most notably the pursuit of urban walking. This is often accompanied by what Robert MacFarlane (2005) describes as a calling to ‘Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape'. How we approach ‘urban’ is also open to interpretation amongst Psychogeographers, shown each weekend in the routes followed along Fife coastal paths, and beyond the periphery of the London Orbital. Just as the city’s boundary is breached by lines of transport and communication, the parameters of what constitutes urban walking becomes blurred.
And so a late-December walk through the growing darkness of the west Cumbrian countryside provided an opportunity to document the communications towers and power cables that we encountered on our winding path through the hinterland. The high tension lines pictured ibelow talk to us about the relationship between city and country, at the threshold between Psychology and Geography.
It was only at the end of my walk that I became aware of plans to replace the pictured pylons with towers twice the size. At the same time I learned about a resistance campaign amongst residents along the planned route. High tension at the point where Psychology meets Geography.
Coverly, M. (2010) Psychogeography. Pocket Essentials, Harpenden.
MacFarlane, R. (2005 ) 'A Road of One's Own'. Times Literary Supplement, October 7.
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
Over the last two years I’ve been recording traces of football fan culture in my neighbourhood, to the south of Edinburgh’s city centre. This exercise initially came about through a desire to try out a new camera, combined with the fact that pushing my 2 year-old son around in his buggy was a sure-fire way of getting him off to sleep. Hundreds of miles and hours later I've decided to share some of the photos and stories they tell. I've collected the most interesting images in a slideshow below and then, further down, have mapped them onto the streets of Edinburgh's Southside.
From a few different places in Marchmont - within Edinburgh's EH9 postcode district - you can look north to Edinburgh Castle, before turning east towards the volcanic rock of Arthur's Seat. The Castle and Arthur's Seat: the royalty of postcard Edinburgh. Maybe more interesting though (to me anyway) is the ephemera and milieu that says something about the city right now. At the danger of over-simplifying things, The Castle tells us about history whereas the streets are part of an unfolding story.
Through repeated excursions I became aware of colourful stickers attached to lampposts, recycling bins and other bits of everyday street furniture. If this sounds like an unglamorous pursuit, on the contrary I encountered Danny Kaye and Johnny Cash as I walked the lines of tenements that characterise my neighbourhood. Some of the most interesting stickers were those bearing the identity of football Ultra groups. Ultras, in case their existence is new to you, are groups of highly organised and often politically-motivated football fanatics. They have an investment in their chosen club that goes beyond the 90-minutes-plus-time-added-on and manifests through colourful choreography, carefully crafted banners and controversy. There will frequently be fireworks when Ultras assemble in their chosen area of the stadium.
Looking beyond the imagination and humour of some of the stickers, I was interested in the way that their presence felt out-of-step with the calm order of the residential streets, schools and shops where I found them. Marchmont isn’t Merseyside and The Meadows is a long way from the Maracana, both figuratively and literally. To illustrate the point in a very blunt way, I’ve never queued behind the Green Brigade at the cash point on Thirlestane Road or nervously exchanged glances with Ultras Nurnberg on Bruntsfield Place on my way to get the croissants. And yet their presence was to be found attached to the physical material of the street - in fact they became a part of it's materiality, its personality. As I became aware of this curious jarring I changed my approach and set out to record each sticker against the backdrop of its surroundings. This resulted in some amusing juxtaposition that wasn’t always apparent at the time: aggression in front of a place of worship; a zombie gathering set against a leisurely family outing.
Hover over the map and then a hotspot to view a low res picture of a sticker in it's location.
Over time these vinyl calling cards became more commonplace and I altered and extended my excursions to take in different paths, parks and other public spaces. The derelict land and industrial units around the Union Canal evoked a battleground as different Ultra groups competed for eminence. The message was clear: our football might be mediocre on the pitch but our fan artistry rises above all others (and is placed high enough up this lamppost to make it difficult for rival fans to deface or remove it). South Clerk Street presented a similar story of conflict as the different sides of the road became the opposing ends of a football ground: Hibs versus Hearts at Easter Road, at Tynecastle and then spilling out onto the lampposts and postboxes of the Southside.
There was also serendipity in this documenting of fan culture. Without it ever being my intention a number of photos taken during the Summer and Autumn of 2014 inadvertently revealed the political climate in Scotland at the time. When the story of Scotland’s independence referendum is told it’s likely that it will be accompanied by images of politicians, press calls and orchestrated mass rallies. What will mostly be overlooked, I imagine, is the everyday appropriation of the street, as citizens of different hues pinned their sticky-backed colours to the lampposts and signs of their neighbourhoods. Better Together with the Union Bears. Another Scotland is possible with the Brigade Loire. And they say football and politics don’t mix.
If there’s any value in this exercise (beyond learning how to use my camera and helping my son off to sleep) it’s that this approach can tell a story about what was unfolding within a specific part of the city over a particular period of time. Perhaps the gathered images can be seen as a capturing of the moment that will be overlooked in conventional histories of Edinburgh, and in the websites and brochures that are used to entice visitors and investors. If Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat are immovable rocks in the city’s landscape, there's also value to be found in turning an eye to the ephemeral: the minutiae of our everyday surroundings that capture what’s happening, rather than what has happened. Divert your gaze from the city’s landmarks and study the detail of your neighbourhood. The terraces have a story to tell.
The Sights and Sounds of matchday: FC St Pauli
Multimodal wandering/wondering in EC1
The Sights and Sounds of Portsmouth & Southsea
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).
The words, images and sounds on this page represent a second short exercise in attempting to gather and then map data in a way that captures the essence of an urban space during a particular, short period of time. The first activity explored the closes, squares and street furniture of Edinburgh, The Athens of the North: this second exercise offers a snapshot of everyday life within the historic seafaring city of Portsmouth.
An alternative reading of what is captured on this page however is that once a year I catch up with my friend Steve and, over a few ales, we talk about music, the football, family and old friends from school. With Steve's uncertain permission, and using my iPhone, I captured some of the sights and sounds that we encountered and experienced as we sampled pubs and other places around Portsmouth and Southsea. Compared with my previous approach to capturing Everyday Edinburgh, where the route around the city had been influenced by a specific intention to collect data, on this occasion the gathering of photos and audio clips was secondary to the major business of the day. On reflection, I wonder whether this approach - where data collection is incidental rather than the main attraction - is a more appropriate and effective way of trying to capture the everyday essence of a city?
Having proposed that the intention of these exercises is to get a snapshot of everyday life, it strikes me that ours was only one of the many stories simultaneously unfolding across the city. For instance, a little over a mile from where we were sitting talking about the football, just over 17,000 people were watching the final game of the league season between Portsmouth FC and Plymouth Argyle FC. For the sell out crowd, the 3-3 draw being played out in the sunshine at Fratton Park would have been the only story that mattered at that particular time. Had Steve and I been more organised we would have been there too and, as I think about it, I'm certain that a matchday would lend itself really nicely to this kind of multimodal mapping [note for the future].
If there was disappointment at missing the Dockyard Derby, something that I am happy about is the way that the gathered images and sounds do a good job of presenting the fair city of Portsmouth in a positive light (even if that wasn't my intention). Since moving away from the area around twenty years ago I've politely argued with plenty of people whose understanding of Portsmouth had been incompletely built around the experience of boarding an overnight ferry to France. Again, there's more than one story to be told about a city. It's worth noting however that the mid-afternoon sunshine which broke through the clouds as my train pulled into Portsmouth Harbour Station will have influenced not only the direction and duration of our wandering, but also the selection and nature of the collected sights and sounds. The gold hued walls of Southsea Castle at sunset would have looked different under dark skies, mirroring the gunship grey of the naval fleet in the harbour of this historic, seafaring city.
We visited these pubs: The Barley Mow (Castle Road), The Pembroke (Pembroke Road), The Dolphin (High Street), The Wellington (High Street), The Still and West (Bath Square), The Bridge Tavern (East Street) and The Pembroke (again). We bought music in Pie and Vinyl and sampled Jon Lockhart's The Revelator in Aspex gallery.
(00:00) Arriving in Portsmouth Hbr (00:49) Jon Lockhart's 'The Revelator' at Aspex (01:19) Pie & Vinyl (01:38) Cash rich in Clarence Arcade (02:29) Some mush swearing on Southsea Seafront (02:43) Bar conversation in The Wellington (03:15) Leaving Portsmouth Hbr on the 23:19.
Earlier this year I spent a day in the company of Michael Sean Gallagher, Jeremy Knox and Philippa Sheail as we set out to undertake a loosely structured day of multimodal data collection in Edinburgh. Michael, Jeremy and Philippa were all due to contribute to the Networked Learning Conference taking place in the same city in the days that followed, while Michael and I would separately be delivering a session about multimodality and digital learning spaces for an online tutoring course at Edinburgh University. Rather than taking time to make final changes to our respective presentations, we instead agreed to take part in what we vaguely described as a ‘multimodal mapping exercise’.
We weren’t exactly clear what we hoped to achieve, other than to try and collect a range of data that somehow captured a sense of the city during the specific period of time that we experienced it. On reflection, the notion of ‘experiencing’ a city seems overly passive and I wonder whether ‘enacting’ might be a more useful description of our approach. Irrespective, our intention was to wander the city in a way that avoided Tourist Guide Edinburgh in favour of capturing a multimodal snapshot of everyday life. What this meant in practice was that wherever we stopped within view of what might be regarded as a site of beauty or historical interest (and to be fair, Edinburgh's a good looking city), we would search for the untold stories to be found in the street furniture, graffiti and general detritus of our surroundings.
Actually, that's an incomplete way of describing how we tried to get a sense of our surroundings in that it ignores the soundtrack that accompanied and shaped our journey under bridges, through closes, into bars and restaurants, and to other neglected corners of the city. For instance, the sound of an industrial extractor fan within Greyfriar's Churchyard seemed incongruous and therefore significant. I imagine that when feature films use this location, a runner would be dispatched to the adjacent pub to plead with the kitchen staff to switch off the industrial-scale appliance. For our own purposes however, it felt important to capture how the industrial clashed with the picturesque, as if those at rest sleep to the white noise of machines.
On a technical level, we used a range of devices for the purpose of capturing data: iPhones, iPad and a camera. Strong coffee and Tunnocks Caramel Bars also helped our field research in a less direct way. My pen and notebook remained unused, although in hindsight it would have been helpful as a way of recording the specific sites of data collection. That said, Michael usefully tracked our progress using the Trails app. As well as offering a reminder of the specific path we followed, by the time that Michael's iPhone drained of power, the Trails read-out told us that we'd explored more than 14km of Edinburgh's pavements, parks and public houses. With a little more planning we could probably have borrowed some devices that would have produced a better standard of visual and aural material, however I'm relaxed about the mixed quality of what we captured. In fact, perhaps a snapshot shouldn't be too polished: the flaws in the sound clips and photographs in themselves reflect the imperfections of the city.
Reflecting the wider approach to this exercise, by the end of the day we didn't have a clear plan of what we would try and do with the collected data. Thus, over late night food and last orders it was decided that we would each set out to remix the data in our own way. Quick off the mark, Michael blogged about our exercise within days and has since created a multimodal video postcard. It has taken me longer to settle on an apt way of capturing a sense of the city as I've toyed with a few unsatisfactory and uninspiring representational forms. In hindsight, I've been guilty of over-thinking how I might place the modal fragments onto on a digital canvas (and what form this canvas might take), not least as this considered approach was at odds with the haphazard and unrestricted way in which we approached the exercise itself.
What I opted for, as seen and heard here, is an interactive map and an accompanying aural compilation (as well as this text-based commentary). It was important that the audio was experienced concurrently with the map: after all, if we understand multimodality to be concerned with the simultaneous juxtaposition of a range of modes within a single communicational act (and I'm borrowing from Kress and from Jewitt here), then the aural and visual components needed to be configured accordingly. And of course, we didn’t experience Waverley Station with the volume turned down and therefore neither should you.
Looking and listening to the presentation of data here, I think I've created an accurate if incomplete record of how we enacted everyday Edinburgh on Sunday 6 April 2014. The images, sounds and words offer a flavour of the city but can't capture the taste and smell of the IPA or 80 Shilling, or adequately account for other sensory experiences that shaped our engagement with our surroundings. Nevertheless, our focus on detail and detritus tells stories about Edinburgh that, I think, are ignored in the conventional narrative of Scotland's capital.
For instance, the prospective undergraduate student might be less interested in the opening hours of Holyrood Palace than the fact that, at the bottom of Blackfriar's street, equidistant between the University's School of Education and the Cowgate's sites of late night revelry, is a place to access the Internet whilst enjoying a late night kebab.
On Infirmary Street meanwhile, an innocent house number has become a battleground for a generations-old political conflict. As far as we could see, nobody had been defacing the city in the name of the pioneers, writers and thinkers that are more commonly and conventionally celebrated in Edinburgh's story (although we did question how David Hume might feel about the damage done to city's skyline in his name).
Our focus on the everyday is a useful reminder that Edinburgh is understood through parking tickets as well as concert tickets. And for every Michelin Star there are a thousand takeaway restaurants that keep the people active and unhealthy, spreading a trail of discarded plastic over the ancient, cobbled stones of this beautiful city.
James Lamb, 10 May 2014
I am an ESRC-funded Doctoral student in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.