Mashup: New representations of the city
By Rob Shields and Andriko Lozowy
In this website supplement to the TCS special section on the Urban Problematic II (TCS 31.7-8, Dec 2014), Rob Shields and Andriko Lozowy write about visual mashups and urban space.
Abstract: Visual mashups on Facebook illustrate emergent relationships to social and urban worlds. They demonstrate how urban spaces experienced simultaneously online and offline again with new forms of consumption, sociality and subjectivity, and their aesthetics. A close reading is presented of one particular mashup drawn from a long term ethnographic study with youth.
Representations of the mega-city depend on viewers’ understandings of conventions, contexts, and references to elements that are not directly present or included. When we look at a photograph or a realist painting we see both an image of something and a representation of a virtual world whose space is imagined to extend off the canvas and whose contents are frozen in a temporal process of aging, the unfolding of an event or an action. A photo of a person reflected in mid-air as they leap into a puddle, for example, is also a representation of a world in which there are puddles, rain and in which people land under the force of gravity with an inevitable splash.
To fully appreciate a representation, the viewer or listener must understand this ‘worlding’ aspect: an image does not simply present an object or a moment, but represents a world. The viewer initiates an encounter that requires their own imaginative labour in fleshing out the before and after, the flow and durée of an event that is summarized in one split second. This is part and parcel of an extensive environment in which a photographer must once have held a camera to create an image, or where a wall must have stood to anchor a closed circuit camera. Even an isolated object on a plain backdrop has an imputed scale in relation to the viewer’s body. In this sense, an encounter is staged between the suggestive representation and an audience’s own mode of knowing and imago of the world. In this labour, the viewer is positioned in relation to both the representation as a surface and as a scene that one may inhabit virtually.
Cities are known through representations that bring what Innis (1950) and later McLuhan (1964) refer to as the ‘bias’ of particular media to bear, better permitting some aspects of the city to be appreciated by the viewer. This is not merely a question of an image highlighting the visual part of the sensorium; rather, the representation smuggles in its capacity for a certain type of worlding, which allows the city to be known in different ways, as different processes and has implications for the priorities that underlie the development of the city. This turn from the representation itself as merely ‘witnessing’ an object, to the knowledge process and practices that take place has been referred to as ‘non-representational theory’ (Anderson & Harrison, 2010). It is widely explored in contemporary art where artists such as Barbara Holub set out to show that even in mere sketches there are no innocent images: habitual ways of seeing are couched in commonsensical understandings of what is possible in the world as lived. One tends to see again what one has already seen, repressing difference and excluding otherness (Gebetsroither, 2011).
The changes in representational practices and media are significant insofar as they allow the city to be known in different ways: to be recognized as a ‘mega-city’, for example, in contrast to being characterized by other key factors or as a different sort of urban environment. The rise of choreographed trapeze work in Chinese and East Asian video and Hong Kong cinema allows roofscapes to be re-imagined as stepping stones in choreographed chases and one-on-one combat, in denial of gravity and in a moment of clarity and command above the congested alleys of the Asian city, shows how one set of representational practices in cinema can be used to capture part of the distinctive urban-ness of mega-cities and the frustrations in their relationship to the urban totality that people dream of overcoming.
Theories of visualicity consider the selectiveness of representations, that is, both the visual culture and those elements of the landscape and world around us that are not represented and thus rendered invisible or that are represented but only peripherally or out-of-focus so they are minimized. This interest in the process and effects of representation suggests that all representations, such as these cinematic shots, the urbanity of Dumas’ early detective novels of the mid-nineteenth century (Shields, 1995), the sociable parks painted by Impressionists such as Manet, the dark streets of film noirand postwar Hollywood film (Straw 2009) or the lush cityscapes of late twentieth-century Hollywood feature films (Shiel & Fitzmaurice, 2001), enframe the potentiality for bodies and objects to enter into efficacious combinations that produce ongoing urban-ness (Perniola, 1995). Through manipulations of depth of field, focus and visibility, representations foreground specific aspects of the sensorium, of representational practice and stage, or expose only selected elements of the social and object world (Shields, 2004; Lenoir, 1998).
Visual mashups are a new approach to collage. Although ‘mashup’ has other definitions, all of which denote a type of putting together, or bricolage (Hebdidge 1981), our specific interest is in the emergence of a type of calling card presented on personal webpages, such as on Facebook that is made from collaged photos and text. These compositions give an insight into their creator’s and audience’s worlds, on- and offline, in everyday life.
Mashups derive from the 1960s US countercultural interventions of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman to rework politics and gain attention in the context of ’60s mass media. Mashups were part of a tactic of political and media pranksterism. Turn-of-the-millennium ‘DJ mashups’ originate in disc jockeys’ musical combinations and medleys of songs produced by others. Some become hits themselves, while others are polemical engagements with musical legends, such as DJ Dangermouse’s ‘Grey Album’, a music video comment on the Beatles ‘White Album’ and their performances. In its accompanying video version sequences of a 1960s Beatles performance are edited and cut so that the screen figures pronounce DJ Dangermouse’s vocal track as well as repeatedly returning to loops of the original refrain and selected riffs. Web programmers and designers refer to mashups as software that brings together a set of applications under one user interface. These ‘software mashups’ allow fluid data and process mediation and customized user experiences (Maximilien, Ranabahu, & Gomadam, 2008: 32). Other ‘data mashups’ are used to map information cartographically. With ‘Wilderness Downtown’, the band Arcade Fire shows what can be done in an interactive digital mapping mashup.
The ‘visual mashup’ reproduced here (see Figure 3 above) is torn from its context of youth engaged in Social Networking Sites acutely aware of visible signs of the age and school grade of their peers: an object-traveller from the foreign land of Canadian high school youth aged 14 to 18. This group, regardless of its ethnic diversity, is relatively privileged and geographically peripheral, but economically central astride global circuits of resource extraction. Visual mashups present a reworking of photographs representing urban youth and their worlds. The textual fragments or syntagms may work as slogans, informational captions or narrative fragments. In all cases, they are speech acts that modify the pictorial surface and graphic space. Facebook’s mashups are produced with the aid of web-based image editing applications such as Picnik.com. Picnik.com offers web-browser based image editing (in fact, Flickr.com has links throughout its own user interface that encourage image editing through this now popular website). ‘“Of course” it is so simple’, we thought, as we try to master software the youth of today are employing. However, the effect is extremely difficult to obtain (see http://japanization.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/lolita1.jpg as another example). What are image/text/design compositions like this conveying as they attempt to shock and awe viewers, or ‘friends’ on Facebook? In our ethnographic research, one youth suggested that, a program like picnik.com is used ‘to make images look better’ in that increasing the contrast or the saturation on most digital images yields a more striking and/or clearly focused image. But this is something else entirely: these compositions have the look and flavour of youth culture from another land, emphasizing cuteness with no regard for western compositional aesthetics. They contrast with most attempts at visual mashups archived on other sites, which are either album art for musical mashups or parodic applications of image-warping and mirroring functions of software such as Photoshop. A survey of these creations online shows that they belittle the seriousness of the scenes depicted by transforming the subjects in the images. Text rarely figures in the final result unless it was contained in the initial image. Those mashups are like humorous cartoons; however, Facebook mashups, such as the one reproduced here, are more intriguing presentations of three elements: self, social relations and social environments.
Mashup: a twenty-first century Mona Lisa
This visual mashup from Facebook features a montage of mirror images of two young women slightly askew on a blue background animated by darker translucent swirls. This representation depicts a retail environment policed by private security in uniform, which exists in contrast to the teens’ functional windbreakers and hoodies. However, the images are colour-shifted into an unreal overexposed fluorescent-tinted yellow-green that removes the image from the order of any particular social or urban space. The two framed images are of two friends, two young, probably white women posing with a cardboard cut-out figure of a dark-skinned security guard (skin tones are distorted by the overexposure, yet race still can be read in these images). In the left image, part of the sign on this life-size placard-figure (the ‘plaguard’) reads ‘No Shopliftin’ bolstering the neutral expression, authoritative pose and uniform the ‘plaguard’ wears, and giving a sense that these teens inhabit a threatening and authoritarian environment. The women on both sides look directly out, catching one’s eye. In the image on the right, the teen purses her lips in an indecipherable expression and drapes her arm around the ‘plaguard’, resulting in an insouciant moment that one could interpret as a patronizing gesture of white privilege. Less immediately legible is the caption across the top, which comments on the scene: ‘oh yeah we are that cool’. Indeed, they seem to be notorious in their own eyes, the text ‘veneering’ their avowal onto the graphic elements (cf. Lyotard 1985: 213).
The major structure is the symmetry of the two montaged photos. A certain cut-out quality to the ‘plaguard’ in the left image hints at the effort invested in achieving this mirroring effect. The differing sizes of the figures moves the ‘plaguard’ from the middle ground slightly behind the woman on the left image to the foreground next to and almost propped-up by the woman in the right image. There is, however, a transformation. On the left, there is a serious warning and a separateness of the figures, which endows the security guard with a stern voice, whereas the closeness of the figures on the right suggests a certain detente between authority and resistance.
Text and image reinforce each other by entering into a circuit of signification. The caption ‘oh yeah’ provides an overarching text for the counterposed graphic space of blue frame and greenish images and figures, providing a counterpoint to the text embedded in the images. The spatial cutting up of the overall graphic space allows the viewer to quickly recognize the portrait photo-frame reference (many contemporary childrens’ photo frames include an embossed text or a message on them and are constructed to hold two photos). The ‘we’ is equivocal, embracing both the figures in the mashup and the Facebook audience, who must become virtual, so-called ‘friends’ with the creators of the image to see it on their Facebook web pages. Under these conditions, the viewer is actually already a member of the ‘we’ of the caption. They could project themselves into the mashup, ‘friending’, commenting in a process that constructs not only affinities but symmetries between their squared-off personal webpages on Facebook. Befriending means to not only treat ‘as-if’ a friend but ‘as-if-present’ and alive to the interaction. This is played out in a certain befriending of the cardboard fantasy-figure. The ‘plaguard’ is treated as if he/it were alive. Is he Facebook incarnate, inspector-general, surveyor-god and geometer of this virtual world?
Doubleness and mirroring are also an important feature in this mashup. The security guard cut-out is one of several doubles: the framed mirroring images, the two women, and the doppelganger ‘plaguard’, both a figure alongside the women and also different from them as a fake cardboard placard. There are also binaries of gender and race. The montaged photos are flattened, with no clear depth of field, negating any attempt to treat them as two inhabited spaces – as the major source of meaning of the overall composition. Instead, it is clear that this is a virtual space. All of the figures in the mashup of left woman-plaguard::plaguard-right woman are closely cropped and seem to be arranged on the pictorial surface of the mashup. The two images and the caption are streaked, blended by the overlay of swirls. The restlessness is suggestive of the play of desire across the binaries while the mocking friendliness of the right-hand woman with the ‘plaguard’ suggests a moment of playfulness with codes of conduct and authority, while also hinting at privilege that might ground such a reversal of subordination, fortune and abjection. ‘Oh yeah we are that cool’ is a assertion of self-empowerment and perhaps what must not be stolen or shop-lifted is self-respect regardless of the social structures of inequality in which both young women and the flexible workforce of security guards and other members of the ‘precariat’ find themselves (Toscano, 2004). The choice of script font for the upper caption adds informality against the commanding shoplifting text. The ‘plaguard’ suggests the flattening of all of the figures, both fleshy and cardboard. The social space these figures inhabit is the empirical space of intuitions and representations as well as the space in which social relations are lived and class and power struggles unfold (cf. Marx, 1973). This conflictual space is recovered and re-appropriated through representation in the mashup, but it is not a social space that the viewer can easily imagine themselves into; rather, the mashup creates a writerly rather than a painterly social space in which the viewer is positioned as participant, witness and interpreter out in front of the mashup as a pictorial surface rather than a visual representation of a scene. Logged into Facebook, one is already in a virtual screen environment, and one’s relation to the images is very much an interaction of one entity amongst others in a landscape, like a driver passing a roadside sign or billboard: it is coded primarily as a semiotic index (pointing elsewhere) rather than a symbol (in and of itself).
As a space of representations and of mediated interactions, Facebook forms a context in which this mashup appears alongside naively presented portraits and images, even while the mashup comments on the forms of association such as virtual ‘friending’ and affirms the camaraderie of the moment between actual friends. The mashup is a space of re-representations that reworks the inhabited world of consumption and production under neoliberalism by cutting apart and slamming together discourses of space (the shopping mall and retail environment), embodiment (sexual and racial difference) and comportment (cool). We take the desire that is mobilized by this collision as reality – a virtual reality, a u-topia situated not in a specific mall or place nor in the order of the mashup, but in the virtual world of Facebook (cf. Lyotard, 1985:214).
The compositional structure of this mashup is also not painterly. Rather, it is diagrammatic: two squares within a rectangle. The careful artistic direction of the eye – rooted to key knots and intersections of vanishing points and lines – is replaced by a restless surface where the eye does not find an immediate focus. It roams between highlights (the red shoplifting warning, the bright over-exposed reflectiveness of the ‘plaguard’) and details (the upper caption, the womens’ jackets, the ‘plaguard’s’ contrasting uniform) unless one concentrates on the mashup and willfully engages in meaning-making. The fantasy thus captures the viewers and induces them to engage in the game of desire and repression that is as much the subject of the mashup as are the social, racial and sexual status and relations of the figures.
Within this symmetry, the black and red shoplifting warning is a singular ‘chromatic event’, a red cliché advising of the risk, the actual possibility, of prosecution of effectively all tactical ‘guerrilla’ forays into a strategically surveilled, disciplinary space of all-seeing panoptic power (de Certeau, 1984; Foucault, 1979). The effect of the cut-off words disrupts the message of authority. Alongside the fantasy-figure of cardboard ‘plaguard’, the graphical tools of ‘those in charge’ are taken up by kids to re-present a new reality of pervasively circumvented rules and a power-situation in which the master is too easily seduced by the subordinated (Baudrillard, 1990). The merchant and police need consumers, fans, addicts and wayward teens to complete the ironic complicities of capitalism in unequal exchange and dominated power relations. Gender underscores these moves of and against authority: fantasy, seduction and friendship queering and trumping white masculinist clichés of control – a marked absence against which the representational network of the entire mashup is thrown. It is in this sense that the mashup advances a utopia of resistance and reversal between the dominant shopping mall guard and subordinate teen flâneur (Shields, 1989). By mashing up these binaries, the distanced, objective relationship to the urban as a physical city is altered toward an immersive experience of a mega-city that has exploded beyond (hence mega-) a simple datum of the material to include the informational and virtual .The mashup is polysemic: its meaning is only completed by entering into its fluid world – a non-place space (u-topia cf. Lyotard 1985) of force blended with compliance to yield the insouciant gaze and half smile of the woman on the right – a Mona Lisa for our age.
Mashing everyday life and online experience
Authority, strategic control, disciplinary surveillance, privilege
(Left) Everyday urbanity ____ Reversal, Mashing ____ Online mashup (Right)
Subordination, resistance, seduction
The Leonardos of picnik.com do not expect our endorsement or evaluation. They and their mashups inhabit a different world, time-shifted to a place we found we could not catch up with despite months or ethnographic immersion, years of community engagement and attempts to participate in the exchange of mashups. That is to say, we experienced a particular difficulty in narrating the particulars of the instances in which these images were displayed and received. We felt one step behind our participants, describing a present that had always already past, and from which our respondents had moved on. The time-shift is significant in pointing to a difference in subjectivity and intent: ours’, to fasten down a factual urban present for observing subjects; theirs’, to inhabit the moment of reversals that form the event celebrated in the mashup.
We can, however, observe a second axis of symmetry that cuts the technological screen of Facebook. The mashup functions to montage offline moments of everyday life into an online visual experience and to impute an affective synthesis back into embodied interaction in the city. Here, aggressive retail surveillance, even being caught shoplifting, and the solidarities of friendship are collaged together in an online experience that Facebook ‘friends’ are invited to witness. This is ‘coolness’ borne by the visual and which the mashup indexes. Witnessing desire’s confident seduction of power with such aplomb, the viewer is offered membership in the utopian circle of coolness. Mirrored into offline interaction as the right side image mirrors the left, viewers are empowered to embody this tactical reversal in everyday life, for better or worse.
The mashup organically represents a life doubled between two interiors: mall-like urban social spaces and the online environments of the internet. Like these environments of total design, anticipating users’ choices in advance and limiting their options to preselected consumer options, the mega-city is an interior. Mashed-up visuals work in relation to one another as a new kind of dialogue – one that may require a different literacy to comprehend. They are not ‘pictures of the city’; instead, they mashup flows and interactions in a visual nexus of image and text. Mashups form a commentary on a particular urbanity that is at once concrete and virtual. They work not by a logic of critique but by reversal: recoding everyday life through an online visual mirror-image that reverses relations of domination and subordination. In the process, mashups are establishing the next generations’ understanding of what cities are. The mashup is a simulacrum of that moment of time: the reversals can be repeated as a form of recollection because they are crystallized in a restless graphic space.
Deleuze’s ethnology – a project of thinking though bodies-in-formation – has been described as a process of muddying the boundary between human and non-human. Facebook.com boxes ‘friendship’ as a façade for a grand artistic project in which the limits of human capabilities are tested. These mashups represent a subjectivity that involves an uninhibitedly performative expression of tarrying with the fabric of human and non-human (virtual) possibilities (Ansell Pearson, 1999). For creators of mashups the manipulation of time-shift/out of time expression signals bodies and minds, comporting contortions beyond embodied and temporary inhibitions. The mashup represented here does well to offer a glimpse of an interspecies – human and non-human – co-mingling. The women play femmes fatales to both human security guards and to the virtual ‘plaguard’, operating on both sides of the modernist division of the human and technology. This history is dismissed with blind ignorance and without dues in the innocence of re-appropriation. This is seen not only on Facebook but on Berlin-like graffiti walls painted in a radiant neon immediacy, marking the temporary passage of meaning-making and of Being and beings, all too quickly erased in a city that is no longer a polis but extruded beyond the status of collective will and fashioning to become an overarching ecology. In seeking our own ‘coolness’ of critical distance as our vantage point and method to describe a simultaneously embodied and mediated subjectivity that can be recognized in the play of the mashup’s elements, we can only narrate this event after the fact. The mashup itself offers an advance over narrative and autobiographical representations of subjects and their associations within this situation of mediated embodiment, a dynamic geography that is simultaneously on- and offline (Boyman, 1995:viii).
What does this mean for the mega-city? For starters, the city has just gotten bigger. This contemporary urbanity is noteworthy for its experimental grounds of co-mingling, co-habitation. The fact that the mashups in question seem to elude over-determination seems to suggest that, once again, the margins offer space for resistance. This is not to say that the margins purport to stand-off as alterity, but rather as essential for vitality in city life, be it mega-city or otherwise. It could be said that mashups, human and non-human co-creations ensure that urban, psychological, and cultural change is underway. If we suspend the need for proof through representation, this dynamism is as fundamental as entropic forces or nature.
Anderson, B., & Harrison, P. (Eds.). (2010). Taking-Place: Non-representational Theories and Geography. Farnham: Ashgate.
Ansell Pearson, K. (1999). Germinal Life. London: Routledge.
Baudrillard, J. (1990). Seduction (B. Singer, Trans.). Montreal: New World Perspectives.
Boyman, A. (1995). Translators note Earth Moves: The Furnishing of Territories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage.
Gebetsroither, I. (2011). Actions – Ines Gebetsroither On the work of Barbara Holub. Eurozine.
Innis, H. A. (1950). Empire and Communications. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Lenoir, T. (1998). Inscription Practices and Materialities of Communication. In T. Lenoir (Ed.), Inscribing Science (pp. 1-19). Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1985). Plastic Space and Political Space. boundary 2, 14(1/2), 211-223.
Marx, K. (1973). Economic Manuscripts: Grundrisse – Introduction 1857 (Online Edition). Retrieved May 2, 2011, from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/
Maximilien, E. M., Ranabahu, A., & Gomadam, K. (2008). An Online Platform for Web APIs and Service Mashups. IEEE Internet Computing, 12(5), 32-43.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Routledge.
Perniola, M. (1995). Enigmas : the Egyptian moment in society and art (C. Woodall, Trans.). London ; New York: Verso.
Shiel, M., & Fitzmaurice, T. (Eds.). (2001). Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context. Oxford: Blackwell.
Shields, R. (1989). Social spatialization and the built environment : the West Edmonton Mall. [Journal]. Environment and planning. D. Society & space, 7(2), 147-164.
Shields, R. (1995). Fancy Footwork: Walter Benjamin’s Notes on Flânerie. In K. Tester (Ed.), The Flâneur (pp. 61-80). London: Routledge.
Shields, R. (2004). Visualicity. Visual Culture in Britain, 5(1), 23-36.
Straw, W. (2009). Cities of sin, backroads of crime. In A. Jansson & A. Lagerkvist (Eds.), Strange Spaces: Explorations into Mediated Obscurity (pp. 169-185). Farnham, Surrey UK: Ashgate.
Toscano, A. (2004). Factory, territory, metropolis, empire. Angelaki-Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 9(2), 197-216.
Rob Shields is the Henry Marshall Tory Endowed Research Chair and Professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta, Canada. He has worked professionally as an architectural photographer. He founded the journal Space and Culture, and Curb planning magazine. His recent work includes Ecologies of Affect (co-ed. T. Davidson, O. Park, R. Shields 2011) and Spatial Questions (2013) Rereading Jean-François Lyotard: Late Encounters (co-ed. H. Bickis 2013), Demystifying Deleuze (co-ed. M. Vallee, 2013), and the Strip-Appeal of Malls (co-ed. M. Patchett, 2012).
Andriko Lozowy is a photographer, researcher and curator. He completed his doctoral studies with the thesis Icons of Oil: The Photographer-Researcher and Collaborative Methods at the University of Alberta. He is a co-founder and editor of Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies. His recent work includes the co-authored article ‘Cameras Creating Community’, Canadian Journal of Sociology 2013, and ‘Picturing Industrial Landscapes’, Space and Culture 2014.
The TCS special section on the Urban Problematic II (TCS 31.7-8), edited by Ryan Bishop and John WP Phillips, was published in December 2014.
An earlier section on the Urban Problemtaic (TCS 30.7-8), also edited by Ryan Bishop and John WP Phillips, was published in December 2013.