LEARNING SPACES / DIGITAL EDUCATION / MULTIMODALITY / SOUND
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 a Teaching Fellow in Digital Education, within the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.