LEARNING SPACES / DIGITAL EDUCATION / MULTIMODALITY / SOUND
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.
Last Friday (28 November) I graduated with an MSc in Digital Education from The University of Edinburgh. I completed the programme part-time over the course of several years, and surrounded by some tremendous people. For me, one of the finest qualities of the MSc in Digital Education was the encouragement and validation to experiment with new ways of representing ideas and knowledge. Closely tuned to the evolving nature of academic literacy, we were prompted - provoked, even - to consider how to take a digital approach to the construction of knowledge, but in a way that would be simultaneously scholarly and aligned to the changing nature of the resources to hand.
With this in mind, at some point in the days leading up to graduation I decided to try and capture, rather than simply experience, the ceremony. This felt like an appropriate way of drawing to a close my student involvement in the Digital Education programme. Using my Fujfilm XF1 and the Voice Memos function on my iPhone (and with assistance from my sister seated in the audience), I gathered audio and images to represent my transition from student to alumnus.
As the video shows, I captured and selected images that depicted sources of light, in an appropriate if not particularly imaginative way of representing the enlightenment that comes through education. This can be seen in the various street lamps, fairy lights and glowing ceiling fittings that are captured in the video.
With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been interesting to also have attempted to represent the notion of light through recorded audio. For instance, I might have captured the increase in conversational volume in the graduation hall as the spotlights came to life ahead of the imminent commencement of proceedings.
Nevertheless, I'm happy that the assembled audio and images manage to capture a sense of what graduation felt like. It's a decent memento, of a nice occasion, at the end of a brilliant, digital, adventure.
Each autumn I spend time a fair bit of time in local high schools, meeting with prospective higher education students as they make plans for college or university. Over and above the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from meeting and helping talented young people, these visits often present interesting and entertaining insights into everyday school life. These glimpses go beyond (or contradict) the sometimes constructed picture of school that we see in drama, documentary and news features. I don’t think that the unrehearsed humour and imagination of school-life is always told in the more considered representations of what goes on inside and outside class.
To make the point, I’m going to share an audio clip I captured earlier this year whilst meeting students in school. The allocated interview room on the day in question was located within the music department which inevitably meant that my occasionally wise words of guidance were continually accompanied and disrupted by what I presumed were rehearsals for a forthcoming school show. Which isn’t to say that every interruption was unwelcome: on the contrary, I couldn't resist using my iPhone to record the following track which seemed somehow out of place within the day's wider soundtrack:
Dick Dale’s 1962 surf classic Misirlou, played out-of-key and on-the-xylophone: as I said, the unrehearsed humour and imagination of school-life. I would be thrilled to find that the choice of material was less to do with the use of Misirlou as the title track for Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, than Surf Rock featuring as a part of the Higher Music curriculum: “OK class, today we’ll be studying wet string reverb so I hope nobody has forgotten to bring their Fender Stratocaster?”
The audio clip captures my journey around the music department as I attempted to track down the source of this inventive mallet-rock. I stopped short however of intruding upon the practice space, which unfortunately means I can’t give credit to the musicians responsible. Nevertheless, I’m sure the audience at the school show would, like me, have been stoked.
Here's an interesting Wikipedia history of Misirlou as well as the 1962 version recorded by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, below.
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.
Here's a montage of poor quality video clips that I captured on and around New York's High Line in May 2011.
I recently re-discovered the footage on an old HD card, inside a forgotten about video camera. As the footage demonstrates, it's now possible to get much better quality film on an iPhone than on a Panasonic SDR-S15, explaining why the latter had been consigned to the 'miscellaneous tech' box under my TV. That's fine, though. The camera was cheap in the first place: I was more interested in buying something light and small that I could rest on walls, tables and other surfaces without worrying too much about the consequences.
Most of the footage on the HD card featured Manhattan’s High Line and the surrounding area. From recollection, the High Line was one of the few places in New York where we could take things at a gentler pace: there was time to actually stop and look and listen to the city. The elevated nature of the High Line also provided the opportunity to observe the surrounding streets and buildings in a way that was rarely possible on the busy sidewalks.
I think that the assembled footage captures a more interesting picture of New York than if I had elected to point the camera at the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building. The combined images, overheard conversation and ambient noise tell stories that I'm not sure I was aware of at the time. Listen carefully and you can hear New Yorkers talking about troublesome pets, planned shopping trips and other subjects that define city life in a more convincing way than any amount of museum or gallery visits (which isn't, of course, to disparage those pursuits).
[A short note about the soundtrack: I used Saint Etienne's 'Hill Street Connection'. I think the music suits the content of the video. It also gave me some way of ordering and limiting how much of the footage to include. Hill Street Street connection featured on the Sylvie CD single from 1998 (Momentum Music/Warner Chappell). I have two copies of the single, neither of which will ever be consigned to the 'miscellaneous tech' box.]
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.