Best Books of 2013

Without question, these are the two books that have most stimulated my writing and thinking over the past year. Neither appeared in 2013; they are just books that I happened to engage with during this time and that mattered (and matter) to me.

They are not perfect works. They are powerful evocations of themes that are important to me and to the understanding of contemporary culture: surveillance in modern society, and the use of photography as a mode of social research.

John Gilliom and Torin Monahan. SuperVision: An Introduction to the Surveillance Society. U of Chicago P, 2012.

This is not the first book about the surveillance society, or the best, but it is the book that I picked up on this topic in 2013 and could not put down. Gilliom and Monahan’s focus is on consumer society and civic life and culture, and how civil rights, power, and (in)equality are being transformed, or eroded, by a very wide-ranging variety of complex surveillance practises including pervasive data capture, profile-building and -matching, and screening. It is not a book specifically about surveillance and the military-industrial complex, although there is some gesturing towards the ways in which many technologies developed for military use filter down to affect civilian social experiences.

This book engaged me because I have spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about learning analytics as a surveillance practice; this ties in very much with my interest in MOOCs. At this year’s Australian Association for Educational Research (AARE) Conference in early December, there was an excellent symposium on surveillance in schools. Educational researchers are just starting to pick up on these themes. I am still waiting, though, for ed. researchers to cotton on to the fact that the new R&D (and sales) industry around learning analytics constitutes one very pervasive form of surveillance culture in our schools and universities that needs to be interrogated and challenged very much more than it has been to date.

In many ways, I dislike the conceptual framework that Gilliom and Monahan use to discuss surveillance cultures. They propose a mishmash of Actor Network Theory-influenced notions of materiality and affect and Foucauldian language, and assert — without substantiation — that the notion of privacy is simply unhelpful and outdated. I’m afraid I don’t buy this. Privacy is not only a cultural artefact across cultures, but it has a legal definition in many places. The concept of privacy carries huge significance for many people and has very real practical / legal implications, irrespective of whether it is deserving of critique, and for these reasons I believe we cannot simply dispense with privacy in discussing cultural practices around surveillance.

The chapter headings are simple, descriptive and intriguing: My Cell, My Self; It’s in the Cards; Lives Online; Surveillance in Schools (a particular eye-opener); Watching You Work; Security at Any Cost?. It is a solid introductory text that is designed for use with undergraduate students, and it is written in a highly accessible and fluent style that also makes it a good overview for academic and general readers new to the subject.

John Berger and Jean Mohr. Another Way of Telling. Writer and Readers Cooperative Publishing Society, 1982.

Thoughtful, lyrical, provocative. Another Way of Telling is at once a classic work on photography, a depiction of a human community, a reflection on researching social life, and an investigation of the ambiguities of the visual image as “standing for” an idea, an act, or a person. In this latter role in particular, it is still probably unequalled.

My participation this year in a project on ethics in visual research has stimulated me to think about the many meanings of visual representation and, in particular, how visual evidence is extracted, subtracted, and quoted by visual researchers in the process of constructing research findings. Under a section titled “The enigma of appearances”, the authors contrast the evidentiary or positivist use of photography (which they term an “ideological use”) with the “popular but private” use of photography for the substantiation of subjective feelings. This is a tension that I observe today in visual research in social scientific contexts. The rise of visual research approaches that are more aligned to art practice and art therapy traditions, and which are often characterised by an increased attention to affect and emotion both for research practitioners and research participants, poses many challenges to the still positivist leanings of much visual social research.

The book contains both written texts and visual images, but it disdains textual “subtitling” in the form of captions. The photographs and photographic reproductions appear uncaptioned and unannotated, and their situated meanings emerge through bold or subtle contrasts. Series of photographs evoke themes and questions and are interspersed with written texts. There is an interplay between image and text, but it is left to the reader to discern. The freedom of interpretation gifted to the reader, and the sensitive reflexive thinking on research practice, is what I like most in this book. The photographs are also very beautiful, and sometimes startling.

Review: The Human Scale (documentary, 2013)

This sleek documentary from Danish director Andreas M. Dalsgaard presents a set of well-established views in contemporary urban planning and design: 1) that cities have been planned around motor vehicles, to the detriment of people; 2) that a lack of planning for people impacts on quality of life and disables community; 3) that the current and anticipated future growth of cities worldwide is exacerbating these issues. While based on the work of the influential humanistic architect and urban planner Jan Gehl and the firm he founded, Gehl Architects, the film is not a biography of Gehl. Rather it picks up a series of Gehl’s ideas and methodological innovations, and applies them to the idea of the city today. The film asks: what is the nature of the contemporary city? What ways of living does it promote? What is the city’s potential; what is its future? The film is visually beautiful and slickly edited, but despite my interest in Gehl (and in particular, his development of methods for observing human activity in urban spaces), I did not find it convincing.

Besides Copenhagen, the film’s preferred cities are those with which Gehl Architects has previously engaged; including Siena, Manhattan (but not the East Coast megacity corridor), and Melbourne (but not its extensive suburbs). Christchurch in the post-earthquake reconstruction period is presented as a potential member of this somewhat Eurocentric club, but also as a potential “victim” of powerful business and commercial interests. The film’s dystopia is Dhaka, Bangladesh; which with its massively expanding population, environmental pollution, meteorological catastrophes and extreme poverty is seen to represent the modern city gone viral. This list should offer a few hints as to the film’s perspective on urban development, and its presentation of the desirability or otherwise of particular ways of living.

Promotional poster for The Human Scale (2013)

Promotional poster for The Human Scale (2013)

In highlighting the ways in which the development of modern cities has involved the destruction of traditional urban building patterns and their associated lifestyles and forms of community, such as the hutong lanes in China, the film is surprisingly nostalgic. Here The Human Scale appears to align with a privileged, liberal, left-leaning Western viewpoint that values the historic, aesthetic, and social qualities of the hutongs (and their various counterparts) over the highrise apartment buildings and office towers that replaced them. There is considerable emphasis placed on the alleged alienation and isolation of tower block living—a tenet of belief so well-established, and so likely to be well-received by much of the film’s audience, that it presumably was seen to require little nuance (although changing aspirations of young urban dwellers are briefly proposed at one point). One recalls the laments of sociologists at the destruction of East End row houses in London—while the former slum residents moved en bloc into their new council housing complete with adequate sanitation. The film takes it as read that many of the promises of urban modernity were, at best, never realised; or at worst, were outright lies. That assertion may be true, or partly true, but it is still discomforting to watch a series of “shock” facts about cities presented in such a way as to imply to the viewer that the mass of humanity should be somehow excluded from modernity and its comforts. Population growth in the developing world, combined with the prospect of significant climate change, represents a serious challenge to Western aspirations to a particular standard of living (high-quality, “human scale”), and this is an unacknowledged source of tension in the film.

The idea of the human scale as a guide to development in cities is presented in the film as an implicitly transcendental and universal premise, with culturally-specific examples represented as instances of the Platonic form. For example, in one section of the film, we see footage of Gehl Architects staff on walkabout in Chonqing, a huge municipality of some 30 million people. We are told that the firm has been engaged by the Chinese city authorities in an advisory capacity, yet in following the staff on their walking tour, we discover that the implementation of their suggestions has been actively resisted by some officials. The nature of this filmic “reveal” and its presumed truth—that a progressive intervention has been blocked—works to displace attention from the interesting and important questions of why and how this resistance occurred. Political interests; commercial pressures; cross-cultural tensions; sincere differences of opinion about the validity of the proposed changes—the no doubt complex reality of this scene is unfortunately never explored.

Issues of cultural bias become most pressing in the sequences set in Dhaka. A series of excerpted interviews shows Bangladeshi urban planners and activists openly critiquing the imposition of previous Western urban models as a form of cultural and economic imperialism. Their critique is presented as though it resonates straightforwardly with the film’s key message about the failures of modern urban planning and the need for “human scale” solutions. Yet the total unsuitability of the small-scale, European urban model as a “solution” to the problems of South-East Asian megacities is obvious. We see technology represented for the most part as a source of problems; but what about its potential to offer solutions? When I see images of a city like Dhaka, I want to think about how Gehl’s research on the human scale could be reimagined, to enable different kinds of social engagement independent of economic status. I want to listen to new approaches to reinventing traditional urban forms, as a way to help to promote resilience against natural disasters. I would like to hear proposals for how high-density living, rather than offering a nightmare of social isolation, could actually help to support a low-carbon, sustainable future.

Exhibition: Arpilleras in contested spaces

Arpilleras are hand-made textiles, made by Chilean women from scraps of fabric to tell stories about life during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990). First sailing under the political radar, due in part to their humble domestic origins, the arpilleras were eventually declared “seditious handcrafts”. Their makers, the arpilleristas, were reviled as subversive of the Chilean state and were persecuted for their critical stance and dedicated advocacy of human rights.

NO a la ley antirrerorista/NO to the antiterrorist law Chilean arpillera, Aurora Ortiz, 2011. Photo Martin Melaugh [Image c/o Te Papa Museum Wellington]

NO a la ley antirrerorista/NO to the antiterrorist law
Chilean arpillera, Aurora Ortiz, 2011. Photo Martin Melaugh

Curator Roberta Bacic, a Chilean now based in Ulster in Northern Ireland, brought approximately twenty pieces from her personal collection to stage an exhibition of arpilleras in Wellington, New Zealand, in conjunction with the Third International Conference on Visual Methods. In her conference keynote address, Roberta highlighted the historical and contemporary significance of the arpilleras as acts of political testimony, which have inspired similar works in other “contested spaces” around the world. She framed them as deserving the status of works of art, beyond “folk craft”.

The arpilleras were exhibited in St Andrew’s Church, in the heart of the city—a fitting location, as the MC pointed out, due to the important role of church communities in helping to support the arpilleristas and the Chilean community in exile. An opening night hosted by the Chilean community in Wellington and in the presence of the Chilean Ambassador to New Zealand brought together stories of the arpilleristas and their work in song, dance, poetry, story, and film.

This was an extraordinary exhibition, and an important moment for the Chilean community to have some recognition of its history. The Pinochet years are not “past”—many Chileans live with the legacy of this time. To see Chilean community members Ines and Katya dance La Cueca Sola, in memory of women whose husbands “disappeared” under the regime, brought some audience members to tears. The remarkable thing is that many arpilleras express a love of life and hope for the future. The message of the arpilleristas is ultimately one of democracy, justice and peace.

Arpilleras in contested spaces, at St Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington NZ, ends on 6 September.

InspiringPlaces#4: The Cedars, Hahndorf

A visit to the Heysen estate, The Cedars, brings the lives and works of this artistic family vividly to life. Set on the outskirts of Handorf, a Lutheran German colony in the Adelaide Hills, the property nestles into the undulating pastoral country that Hans Heysen obsessively reconfigured in his landscapes. With its screened verandah, stoves and inglenooks, the homestead is a northern European house in Peramangk country. Heysen’s studio is left as it was during the artist’s working life: tubes of colour, sketches, props. Family memorabilia hints at the complex relationship of father Hans and daughter Nora, both painters.

Studio of Hans Heysen, The Cedars

Studio of Hans Heysen, a chalet in miniature. Photograph by Jose Morales on Some rights reserved.

Alex Selenitsch: AGORA at Place Gallery

I enjoyed AGORA, the recent show from Alex Selenitsch, held last month at Place Gallery. Place is an intimate and tranquil venue, tucked away in Richmond’s industrial backstreets. With a fresh exhibition program that covers a wide range of media and contemporary themes, it is well worth seeking out.

Work by Alex Selenitsch, Place Gallery, July 2013

AGORA was installed upstairs. The work featured two striking timber “shields” (created from offcuts from the timber workshop in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne); a series of mixed-media drawings and collages; and a further series of acrylic and timber sculptures (the polis series). All related to questions of architecture and urban form, particularly in relation to two key sites: the Stoa of Attilos at the site of the Agora in Athens, and Arthur Circus in Hobart. Two very different spaces, borne of different cultures and times; yet each place could be said to represent (or reproduce) a certain ideal of social encounter as it occurs in public space. Each space is, of course, overlain with buildings, people, human activities, roads, rubble, and representations—such as photographs. Together, these activities and objects ensure the persistence of space in individual and collective memories over time and across distance.

The meaning of representations shifts over time, and accordingly I appreciated that many of the works could be read in multiple ways. The timber “shields”, for instance, could easily be read as three-dimensional plans or models of an imagined urban landscape, with buildings scattered around bold Graeco-Roman geometric axes. In the contemporary Australian scene, the proposal that a city might be read as a shield also takes on an unexpected and highly ambivalent political meaning, for this viewer at least. For the measuring and mapping of space may work hand in hand with processes of social inclusion and exclusion, particularly for recent arrivals to the community.

Installation by Alex Selenitsch, Place Gallery, July 2013

Unlike Selenitsch’s previous show, flotsamandjetsam, AGORA did not foreground ideas of migration, movement, and displacement, but instead highlighted measurement, mapping, and drawing. There is continuity in the work that reveals itself in Selenitsch’s preoccupation with form-making—or with what he terms assemblage—as an act of translation.

Alex Selenitsch
AGORA: shields, maps & transparencies
3 July to 27 July 2013
Place Gallery, Richmond, Melbourne

New role at Flinders

Statue of Matthew Flinders, Flinders University, Bedford Park SA. Photo by Alex O. Pellicer on (some rights reserved).

Statue of Matthew Flinders, Flinders University, Bedford Park SA. Photo by Alex O. Pellicer on (some rights reserved).

News flash: I’ve relocated interstate, and am settling in to a new role at Flinders University, within the Health Professional Education Unit in the School of Medicine. I’m excited to be joining the HPE team, and to be returning to my interest in educational evaluation, which dates back to my postdoc years in Cambridge. It’s also great to be back in my native Adelaide. I’m located in the hub of the action at the Flinders Medical Centre, on the edge of the Bedford Park campus. Looking forward to getting stuck into my new role over the next few weeks.

Top Four PRAZE ‘Gotchas’

PRAZE is a great tool that helps academic staff to administer student peer review activities in their subjects. Teamwork and communication skills are increasingly recognised as an important part of the graduate skillset. PRAZE can help to manage the sometimes onerous process of implementing peer review (particularly when large cohorts of students are involved).

However…there are a few things to be aware of when using PRAZE to implement peer review. Here are my top four tips to help you avoid PRAZE pain.

Top Four PRAZE “Gotchas”

1. Once the PRAZE assignment has been set up, the LMS link to the PRAZE assignment must be made “visible” to students, on the relevant LMS page.

2. To submit their peer assessments on PRAZE, students must press the “Save” button. There is no separate “Submit Your Answers” button.

3. The PRAZE system does not currently allow staff to export qualitative comments / feedback made by students (as at 6 June 2013). The system only exports the ratings awarded by students to their peers/themselves (expressed as numbers on a scale, and as team averages). It is possible to manually copy the qualitative feedback into a separate document of spreadsheet, but this is a very laborious process where group work (and consequently, peer assessment of group members) is involved.

4. PRAZE is designed to support a particular model of peer review. Do not attempt to implement a peer assessment design that is not supported by the system; it will only cause you pain! The design element becomes critical in the export of data from PRAZE – see also point 3 above. Follow the instructions in the user guides, available from the PRAZE website.

Visit the PRAZE website to learn more.