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.