by Ella Harris
Precarity seems to define the contemporary structure of feeling. From the migrant crisis, to climate change, to intensifying austerity, the precarity that has long been a recognised feature of labour economies is expanding into new arenas.
This widespread precarity is impacting on the geographies we inhabit. In London there are some obvious ‘precarious urbanisms’ such as sites of dereliction or forced eviction. But there are also geographies of precarity which are less immediately apparent. Urban phenomenon like pop-up culture and property guardianship try to put a positive spin on precarious conditions, rebranding insecure and unpredictable access to work, leisure and domestic space as ‘ephemeral’ and ‘flexible’. These precarious geographies are transforming the urban fabric and, in particular, its spatiotemporality; producing a city typified by flux, flexibility and uncertainty.
“At a time when precarity is having a transformative effect on the space-times we inhabit, i-docs can be tools for making sense of and responding to the logics of the contemporary condition”
In Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of Late Capitalism Fredric Jameson argued that shifts of the spatiotemporal fabric of cities require new ‘perceptual equipment’ to be developed. He writes that if there is a ‘mutation’ in the city unaccompanied by an ‘equivalent mutation in the subject’ then a sense of disorientation ensues That is to say; in order to make sense of and respond to new urban conditions, new ways of seeing must be developed.
I want to argue that at a time when precarity is having a transformative effect on the space-times we inhabit, i-docs can be tools for making sense of and responding to the logics of the contemporary condition.
In fact, i-docs are perhaps already doing this. Many commercial i-docs engage with precarity, exploring shrinking settlements (Hollow), uncertain environmental futures (Journey to the end of Coal) or the precarity which is fundamental in our politicized relations to each other (Gaza Sderot). Here, I want to make a case for extending this capacity of i-docs to explore precarity, by taking them up as a methodological tool.
What is it that makes i-docs suited to exploring contemporary conditions of precarity?
As many media theorists have discussed, i-docs have a nonlinear spatiotemporal format, typified by contingency, multiplicity and openness. For me, it is this nonlinear spatiotemporality that gives them their particular purchase on precarity. The spatiotemporal logics of modern precarity can also be understood as ‘nonlinear’. Precarity is defined by uncertainty, multiplicity and relationality and, in contemporary cities, it is narrativized through ideas of flexibility and openness.
“The nonlinear logics of i-docs therefore make them well suited to grasp and express the spatiotemporal conditions currently undergirding and ensuing from precarity.”
In Geography, it is understood that the value of creative methods lies in their potential to enable different kinds of thinking to take place (Hawkins, 2015). In this vein, it is clear to me that i-docs could help us to think nonlinearly, thereby enabling us to articulate and critically examine the spatiotemporal logics of precarity.
Early experiments: Using i-docs to explore pop-up and precarity
To flesh out what I mean by this I will briefly describe my own experimental engagements with i-docs as method. My PhD thesis looks at pop-up culture in London. I understand pop-up as a key site of production for the ‘nonlinear’ spatiotemporal logics that typify the contemporary condition, as well as an arena in which precarity is both experienced and reproduced.
“Pop-up grew out of conditions of precarity in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, promoted as a way to fill up sites left vacant by business closures and stalled development.”
Pop-up culture refers to a trend for temporary and mobile places such as cinemas, supper clubs and shipping container studios (the three focuses of my own work). Pop-up grew out of conditions of precarity in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, promoted as a way to fill up sites left vacant by business closures and stalled development. At a time of high unemployment and heavy funding cuts it was also seen as a way to cheaply foster entrepreneurship and rejuvenate declining areas.
Pop-up is defined by its spatiotemporality. Not only are pop-ups premised on mobility and temporariness but their sites are characterised by a performative celebration of certain spatiotemporal motifs, including interstitiality, immersion, flexibility and surprise.
In my work, I argue that these spatiotemporal motifs are a way of narrativising but also reproducing precarious urban conditions. By rebranding, for example, uncertainty as surprise and insecurity as flexibility, pop-up finds ways of carrying on, optimistically, during precarious times. But this rebranding also normalises and reproduces that precarity, persuading people that such conditions are inevitable, even desirable.
The worrying implications of this are clear when we consider how pop-up is being extended into the welfare sector. Phenomenon such as pop-up legal aid clinics, pop-up social housing and pop-up council libraries show how the cachet of pop-up is being used to gloss over the withdrawal of welfare and normalise precarity. Equally, pop-up is being deployed to engineer precarity in pursuit of gentrification. Pop-ups are used to ‘transform’ urban spaces. By filling sites in run down areas with ephemeral events they make them attractive to an incoming, wealthy demographic.
So, for me, what is important in studying pop-up culture is to grasp the ways that pop-up produces new ‘common sense’ notions about what a city is and how it should be used (i.e. that temporariness and uncertainty are normal) and to understand how that imaginary responds to and reproduces precarity. This necessitates a method which can both evoke the kinds of spatiotemporal experience that pop-up produces and be critically attentive to its instrumentalities. It is in response to this challenge that I have been experimenting with i-docs as a method. Having filmed pop-up places and edited short (1-5 min) sequences about each one, I am now working with a developer to design an i-doc that will both evoke pop-up’s spatiotemporality and enable critical explorations of it.
“I use my i-doc to evoke the experience of space-time in pop-up culture and to engineer a critical sensitivity to those spatiotemporal logics.”
My experiment with i-docs as a method works on the premise that there is a twofold relationship between creative forms and spatiotemporality. Firstly, many scholars have noted that creative media respond to upheavals in space-time. For example, David Harvey has explored how cubist art work found a language to express senses of fragmentation at a time of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.
Secondly, it is well established that technologies of spectatorship don’t just articulate existing experiences of space-time but also alter spatiotemporal perception itself. Geographers have explored how technologies of spectatorship develop the ‘optical unconscious’, making us alert to new aspects of space-time. For example, it has been argued that film montage fostered sensitivity to simultaneity in the city (Clarke and Doel, 2007) and that video gaming can make players alert to tiny intervals of time (Ash, 2012). Building on both these propositions, I use my i-doc to evoke the experience of space-time in pop-up culture and to engineer a critical sensitivity to those spatiotemporal logics.
Using i-docs to evoke pop-up space-time
The interface of my i-doc (which is still a work in progress) is being designed so that its features evoke aspects of pop-up’s spatiotemporal experience. The first page you arrive at features an ‘enter’ button.
Responding to the trend for ‘immersive’ and interactive events in pop-up culture, the enter button signals admission into an ‘immersive’ and interactive reproduction of the pop-up city.
The second page explains the two ways of accessing the i-doc. It can either be ‘played’ or the clips can be sorted by category. The category view reveals the multiplicity of pop-up culture, an urban assemblage made up of manifold individual actors, while the ‘play’ option gives a sense of what the pop-up city is like to inhabit.
The basis for the play view is a map on which the clips appear, labelled with icons that indicate which ‘type’ of pop-up they are (container space, cinema or supper club). A calendar marks the passing of time as users interact with the pop-up city. Clips appear and disappear as time passes, signalling the flexibility of the city’s spatiotemporal fabric. It is impossible to pause or move backwards, evoking a sense of disorientating irreversibility. Clicking on an icon makes it start to play, echoing claims that pop-ups can ‘activate’ and ‘animate’ latent urban space, by making the map come to life.
Using i-docs to engineer critical ways of seeing
What I am working on at the moment is adding features to the i-doc that will make users sensitive to and critical of (rather than merely immersed within) the spatiotemporal logics of pop-up. The main way I am doing this is in producing pages which offer glimpses ‘outside the pop-up city’. When these pages are finished, some clips will end with options to ‘see outside the pop-up city’. These links will open up text and image based information boxes which reveal the impacts that pop-up culture has on the wider city. For example, an ‘outside the pop-up city’ page might explain how a pop-up bar is being used to rebrand the site of a demolished council estate before it is turned into expensive housing.
This information problematizes the notion that pop-up’s transformations of sites are ‘temporary’ and shows how its imaginaries of the urban fabric as ‘flexible’ correspond to forced urban changes through displacement and demolition.
The potentials of methodological engagements with i-docs go far beyond those of my own work. However, I hope that outlining my experiments has indicated some of the ways in which i-docs can be used to explore precarity in the contemporary condition and, in particular, to investigate its spatiotemporal logics. In this post I have argued for the use of i-docs as a research method, but equally valuable is focused analytical work on how existing i-docs use nonlinearity to make sense of and engineer sensitivity to precarity. Both methodological and analytical experiments can help us to conceptualise i-docs as a tool for nonlinear thinking – a tool which can help us to make sense of and therefore act within our precarious times.
Ella Harris is a PhD Candidate in Cultural Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her work explores the ways in which space-time is imagined and produced within London’s pop-up culture. She uses i-docs as a methodological tool to explore pop-up’s spatiotemporal imaginaries and their relationship to urban precarity. Ella has published on pop-up culture (Geography Compass, 2015) and immersive pop-up cinema (Journal of Urban Cultural Studies, 2016). She has forthcoming work on shipping container architectures (Craft Economies) and interactive documentary (Area). Her forthcoming paper in Area explores the way that the iDoc Gaza Sderot produces and deploys a politicized, nonlinear imaginary of space-time.