New project: The Placing Culture podcast

I’ve started a podcast, “Placing culture,” which focuses on cultural geography, and particularly on conversations with individuals doing work at the intersections of geography, the arts, sciences, and humanities. You can follow the podcast via tumblr, Twitter and SoundCloud. The first episode, with Stephen Daniels and Lucy Veale of the University of Nottingham School of Geography, is embedded below.

Why I quit Foursquare

Over the weekend, I deleted the Foursquare app from my phone. I joined the service in 2011 and used it pretty consistently up until Saturday when I quit the app. It was actually my last check-in, to the Corvallis Farmers Market, that prompted me to give up.

My geographer’s curiosity prompted me to try the service. I wanted to experience this way of relating to place (and, in fact, became aware of Foursquare by seeing check-ins from other geographers in my Twitter feed). I was also interested in the potential of the app for discovering new places, particularly when visiting new cities.

Over time, what kept me using Foursquare was habit, sharing with Anne-Marie when one of us would be traveling, and the game aspects of the app.

When I first started with the service, I didn’t really give the gaming function much thought, but as a base of users in Corvallis and the mid-Willamette Valley began to develop, I found myself getting caught up in competitions for mayorships of my most frequently visited places. That was, as it turned out, kind of fun. The Corvallis Farmers Market was one of the locations where I competed for mayor, and the lack of mayoral updates for that place is what made me decide to let go of this habit.

Of course, starting a few months ago when Foursquare announced “Swarm”, competition for mayorships ended. The folks at Foursquare have reconfigured mayorships and badges for the new app. I haven’t adopted Swarm for a number of reasons, but the main one is that the new app, and the way that mayorships work, looks effective for larger urban areas where you will have a critical mass of both general participants and friends using the app in your immediate vicinity. Mayorships are allocated within circles of friends instead of from the entire user base. On Foursquare, most of the other people I traded mayorships with weren’t “friends”; we were all just local participants on the service. Swarm does not appear as it if offers much fun or incentive for people like me who live in a smaller city and where other users are going to be dispersed and probably not “friends”, in whatever sense.

I don’t fully understand the thinking behind splitting the service into a Yelp-like app, still called Foursquare, and the more social, Swarm, or why the functionality of the latter is so geared for users in larger metropolitan areas, but maybe I am a case in point for these changes.

Even before the gaming parts of Foursquare were shut down, I had reduced my use. I had stopped regularly cross-posting my check-ins on Twitter, and based on my Twitter timeline, I clearly was not alone in that. I was gradually making less of a point about checking in and right before I quit, had reduced my use of the service to a few places where I regularly had comments or photos to share. In some cases, I stopped doing even that (turns out that shooting pictures of dinosaurs trying to drink your beer at Laughing Planet will, in fact, stop being fun past a certain point).

I don’t know how many other people are also quitting Foursquare and taking a pass on Swarm, and I am sure that the new app will attract its own user base independent of original Foursquare adopters, but I think that it’s notable that the service is being reconfigured in a way that loses value for most of us who live outside of a small number of major metropolitan areas, and is likely now mostly appealing for (some) young adults (honestly, I don’t think even when I was a twenty-something living in Portland that I would have been too thrilled by the locational tracking aspects of Swarm).

At the end, this episode is a small reminder that our digital networks are neither spaceless nor placeless.

On my new film/research project and lessons from COMIC BOOK CITY

As I’ve documented before, while “finishing” with Comic Book City, I started work on a new film project, one based on selected writings by J.B. Jackson. Most of the work I’ve done so far has involved going back to Jackson’s essays and drawing out major themes around which to make my film, or films, but as of yesterday I’ve also started to shoot video.

My intention is to use moving images to interpret, comment on and reconsider Jackson’s work. In interpreting his writings, I want to show them in practice, or how landscape looks from the perspective of his essays. In commenting on his work, I want to draw attention to gaps or silences, or unarticulated implications of his writings (one example that I was working with this week while out with the camera was the role of nature or non-human agents in the making of landscape). In reconsidering his ideas about landscape, I want to place his work in contemporary context. I think, for example, that Jackson’s celebration of car culture in the United States bears revisiting in light of how that culture is changing and how the landscapes associated with that culture have also changed in the past 30 years.

I had the idea for basing film and video work on J.B. Jackson’s writings a number of years ago, stemming from my teaching of Landscape in Sight (Yale University Press, 1997) and Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies after J.B. Jackson, eds. Chris Wilson and Paul Groth (University of California Press, 2003) in my upper division cultural geography seminar. In particular, I have been thinking about “The abstract world of the hot-rodder” (1958/59) in audio-visual terms for awhile, and also as a work that would be interesting to re-examine in light of changing relationships to modes of transportation in the United States.

Despite this history, I did the work that would become Comic Book City first for a number of reasons, I think. I wanted to do a longer form film, and it still isn’t clear to me what form this film is going to take, or even if it is going to be a film or films. I also wanted my first major academic work in moving images to not only be “feature length”, but also, essentially, straight-forward in terms of design and execution. So, I think, at some level, I understood I probably needed more experience before turning my attention to the J.B. Jackson concept, though I don’t remember making that as a conscious choice.

Whatever the case, I think that the experience of making Comic Book City will be important to my execution of the current project.

First, it helped me to gain confidence in my ability as a filmmaker. Finishing and screening that film, putting my work “out there”, was invaluable in moving me forward to take on what is, I think, a more creatively ambitious work.

Second, I went into making Comic Book City not knowing what I might end up doing with it, especially in terms of peer review, but as a conventional “feature length” film, I at least had a finished product that was simple enough to manage. What I learned from my experience is that working in non-traditional forms like film and video poses challenges for peer review and for publishing, but that it also opens opportunities for connecting across disciplines and that there is a sense of freedom that comes from working outside of traditional formats for scholarly work in geography. In short, ultimately, I was able to do with Comic Book City what I wanted to do, no need to negotiate with publishers about open access or making the film available in other formats. The experience of bringing that film to fruition was liberating, and I think I needed to be set free before returning to thinking about J.B. Jackson.

Third, while I am planning collaborations on the soundtrack, in the field, I am planning to be a one-person crew for most of what I do here. This is mostly question of mobility and being free to work opportunistically, something I wasn’t able to do when conducting interviews and going to specific events for Comic Book City.

Along the same lines, I am not planning on working with human subjects on this project. This will actually make this film more like my non-film work, which has dealt primarily in the interpretation of texts rather than with informants.

I’ve also been thinking about form and how I want to experiment more with “modular” structures. I realized in putting together Comic Book City that the documentary could be broken down into pieces, and I have made many of those pieces available on Vimeo, but that is more incidental than planned. Here I am thinking of an almost fully flexible work, one that could be presented as some kind of a whole, but also as fully realized “modules”. That may change, but editing Comic Book City opened my mind to a number of possibilities that I want to play with more (I am also being more immediately influenced by having taught Jim Jarmusch with my Geography and Film students last Spring).

Most of all, making Comic Book City affirmed for me that, while I still enjoy and want to do traditional forms of writing, film and video are the media I most want to work with, especially in further developing my interests. I don’t think I would be pursuing, for example, insights from Actor Network Theory or notions of affect in papers in the way that I am in film and video. There are many areas of theory in cultural geography that I relate to more meaningfully and creatively in audio visual terms than in words, which is to say, I think I have more of an original contribution to make in my fields as a filmmaker than as a writer.

Reading & Comics: Journal digests for July

You can now read all of the July journal digests for my Reading & Comics project:

Read more about the project on tumblr or via this post on this blog.

On back fences and public space

A little over a month ago our back fence fell over. We’d been talking about replacing the fence – it was not in the best shape, we have dogs, our property backs up to a small city park- but its collapse took us by surprise. After talking to a couple of contractors, we accepted a bid and then waited for them to get to work and then to finish. The net result was we were without a back fence for about five weeks.Peanut Park

In the day-to-day, what we mostly felt was stress in the way that this changed routines for and with the dogs. You cannot, of course, explain to a dog why they can’t just go outside like they used to, and now had to be on a leash whenever they wanted or needed to go out. But after a few days they seemed to make the adjustment.

After the fence was finally completed a couple of a days ago, I felt a great relief and was happy to let the dogs back into their yard on their own terms. However, in the day or so since, I’ve also had a different reaction: I miss seeing the park and street from our back windows.

Even before the fence went up, I’d started to get used to the openness and ready access to the park, as well as getting to see how well used the park is, getting to know some of the other neighborhood people with dogs. Now, I have a feeling of being cut off from a part of the neighborhood, which is related to, but not the same as, the countervailing feeling of privacy that we’ve reclaimed.

I also noticed a sense of heightened anxiety, at least at first, which is, I imagine, similar to what social scientists who have done research on gated communities have found, which is that living in gated neighborhoods can increase one’s sense of insecurity (see, for example, Setha Low’s Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America, Routledge, 2004). Not knowing what was happening on the other side of the fence, and putting our padlock back on the side gate into the yard, made me, at least momentarily, aware of “outside” as a source of threats.

Of course, this is not entirely hypothetical in our case. Our house was broken into a couple of years ago, over Christmas, and, according to the police, the park provided an escape for the thieves. The old fence had a back gate, which we opted not to replace in the new fence. After the burglary, one of the changes we made was to padlock the gates to the back yard, which made the back gate inconvenient to use and, in the end, expendable. In any case, access to the park via a gate is not a substitute for the openness I became accustomed to over the past few weeks.

Our prior experience with our house being broken into initially made not having a fence anxiety-producing, particularly as we left on a trip just a day later. That feeling was fleeting and the period of not having a back fence will likely bolster my sense that, despite the one incident, we don’t live in an “unsafe” neighborhood. Drunk students yelling late at night or setting off fireworks is far more likely to happen on a daily basis than is actual crime. A dog or two wandered into our yard during our fenceless month, but, as far as we can tell, no people.

I’d be interested to live without the fence for an extended period to see how my feelings might develop over time and what implications that might have for how we use and design the backyard, but the reality is that that would not be ideal for our dogs. We’ve had dogs in apartments, and there is no question that simply being able to let your canines out in the yard is far nicer than walking them out on a leash on a regular schedule. More to the point, our dogs, and one in particular, love their yard. She will explore, sun, and patrol for hours on a nice day. She could not do that without the fence.IMG_2253

Having our backyard open to the park highlighted one of the paradoxes of property ownership in the U.S., which is that being near public amenities like parks and schools add value to private houses, but, mostly, Americans also want to be clearly separated from such spaces. The value of such places likely comes from the way that they act as checks on further development than as public space (how many people want ample yard space or private pools, where it makes sense, instead of using parks or public waterways and beaches?).

IMG_2257Obviously, I’m conflicted on this matter, too. But, now that the fence has been restored, I can reflect on how this episode and how there might be different ways to imagine, and mark off, the private space of a house from the public space of a park or the street. I talk about these themes a lot with many of my classes, but mostly in the abstract and from safely within the bounds of dominant practices. The chance happening of our fence falling down disrupted that sense of “normal” and gave me an opportunity to think through these questions in a uniquely concrete and personal way.

New project: Reading & Comics: An autoethnography

I’ve started an autoethnographic study of reading comics and am using tumblr as a means to make this work accessible while in progress. I am not sure where the research will go or what it will show. This work is exploratory and experimental and I am sharing data to invite participation and comment from readers.

I think that one step towards understanding how comics are read is to understand better how one reads as an academic in the sense of “academic” as an identity and not just a profession. I think most scholars understand that they way they read texts for expressly professional purposes is different from how they read more casually. What I think most of us understand less well is how our more casual reading is informed by our academic reading (and vice versa). I think most of us are probably aware that this happens, but I also think that this understanding is relegated to the background of our work and other daily activities. Developing a more critical and systematic understanding of these different forms of reading, and how they are intertwined, is where autoethnography may be useful.

COMIC BOOK CITY: Portland screening at the ICAF & new excerpts on Vimeo

Comic Book City will be screening this Friday (5/24) at the International Comic Arts Forum meeting in Portland, Oregon. The meeting is being held at the University of Oregon’s Portland Center. You will need to register in advance, but events at the ICAF are free and open to the public.

In the meantime, I have posted my interviews with Paul Guinan and David Hahn to Vimeo. Watch here or below.