Sorry (not sorry)

November 2015

Different perspectives and ways of thinking can dramatically push innovation; not just innovation in a material and technological sense but also the innovation of ideas. This is hardly a controversial view. Isn’t this just common sense?

But academia sometimes has very little to do with common sense. New ideas — especially strange ones and those which challenge current thought — are often met with resistance. It is troubling, counter-productive, and so commonplace. I sometimes wonder if the university is where good ideas come to die.

We need tradition, as a colleague reminded me recently, just as much as we need radical thought. It is difficult to know then when to push and resist — where to intervene in the system? — and when it is better to relent a little and go with the flow. This is something that I struggle with quite often. I know better now which battles are worth fighting, something which is a continual internal battle in and of itself. I am conflict shy and try not to be antagonistic. But that does not mean that I don’t (often) have (what others might think of as) strange ideas. This is potentially why I like the idea of agonism so very much. We need differing political views to have a democracy. We also need different ways of thinking to have any sort of intellectual progress.

As young scholars, we are pushed not to innovate and take risk, but to play it safe. I have had people ask what journal will possibly publish my research (incidentally by someone not a geographer). I am asked more often why I am not conducting interviews as my research method, suggesting that interviews would be far more effective source of data. While I seem to find myself conducting research amongst social scientists, it does not always feel like such a natural or comfortable place to be. I have been asked if it would not be better to be in an art history or a cultural studies department, a question I find to be an affront. So much of my identity and love for my work is tied to geography. These questions seem to arise from a general discomfort with doing things a little bit differently.

I have struggled in the past to tone down my work and methods,  trying to fit in. The system is designed so that the approval of peers is paramount to any success in academia. You are required to publish in peer-reviewed journals, even if what you really want and love to do is teach. It is a system so fully flawed, at times utterly ridiculous, a system which in its maintenance of the status-quo does so much to hold science back. This is an unfortunate reality within many disciplines. New public management schemes, in which we are forced to count hours and not contributions, hardly help. But that is a rant for another day.

In being an artist and conducting research that touches so frequently on art, I understand that the artist’s intent is not always relevant. I do not need to know why and how someone painted something in order to be inspired, to have a reaction, an opinion, an experience. This fact is perhaps one of the greatest contributions to (aesthetic) philosophy of the 20th century (to roughly and probably inaccurately paraphrase Arthur C. Danto and his wonderful little book ‘What art is’). Maybe this is where social science and art conflict. The social scientist seems very much preoccupied with intent and method, and maybe this is why the idea that you must do interviews to understand the world is so pervasive. I am interested in these things too, of course, but I don’t think that needs to be the sole focus of research. In my methods, I interview the city: a wonderfully complex and ever evolving work of collective and collaborative art.

The cliché that urges you to be the change you want to see in the world may be tired but it might not be so very off the mark. The system pushes you back, down, rejects you, tries to form you, tries to keep you in line. Perhaps this is why I engage so much with art and artists, why I enjoy researching something illegal like graffiti and street art: there is so much more freedom in art. Working against systems, innovating, thinking differently; this is all part of art. Graffiti and street artists resist structures and systems — not always successfully — by making their interventions in the system of the city. Donnella Meadows, when she writes on intervening in the system, argues that even the smallest of interventions can have the biggest of changes.

Maybe the academy needs a little more subversion? A little more rebellion? I don’t think we should shy away from that or apologise for doing so. Sorry. Not sorry.

All photographs taken yesterday, wandering around San Hanshaugen, Oslo (2015). Might have even added something to one of them, irresponsibly interfering in my field. Not sorry about that either.

Sometimes orange equals pink

September 2015

Using an orthographic aerial photograph of Oslo taken in July 2013 — available on the website Norge i Bilder — students in the Introduction to Geographic Information Systems course (SGO1910) did a little bit of colouring last week and hopefully a little bit of learning about the two different types of geospatial data structures: raster and vector.

Students were given a section of the above photograph of Oslo, each section divided down the middle. Students were asked to — using a 5-colour classification system — to classify one side of the image using a raster data structure and the other using vector.

Raster data is organised into a matrix of cells, each having geographic coordinates and one single attribute value. Each square cell in a raster image represents a certain area on the ground: x m by x m. The resolution of raster data depends upon the size of these cells. Vector data, on the other hand, is scalable and represented by points, lines, and polygons. Though we tend to work mostly with vector data in this course, each data type has their advantages and applications.

The simple classification system is as follows: Red = Urban; Pink = Residential; Blue = Water; Dark green = Forest; and Light green = Mixed vegetation. And sometimes, orange equals pink.

The purpose of this exercise was to understand the fundamental structural differences between the data types but also to reflect upon a number of issues: where do the shapefiles we work with come from; what happens in the process of generalisation; why is resolution important; what happens when we have different data sources and different people making decisions. Issues of error and uncertainty can be introduced before we even begin working with our data and may relate to how different people (or technologies) classify and digitise spatial information.

A little bit of a labour intensive task, I then scanned the images classified by the students and reassembled the image. There is some missing data as we ran out of time and there are a few classification errors here and there. In the end, however, I think we produced quite a beautiful (and instructional) image. Soon to be posted up on a bulletin board somewhere in Harriet Holters Hus.

Oil, environment, and art in Stavanger

September 2015

The fear of breaking social norms is not generally a concern for artists.

This is what came to mind during a fascinating Climate Society lunch seminar last week with Kari Norgaard, author of Living in Denial. Discussions revolved around emotional aspects of climate change, particularly the desire of not wanting to offend or be personally attacked when talking about the (at times) sensitive issue of climate change in social settings. I reflected upon my own experiences and realised that I too generally abstain from talking about issues of environment and climate change, hoping perhaps naively that my personal choices and actions speak louder than my words. It is easy to feel that as an environmentalist your actions are often under greater scrutiny. That means, for example,  as a vegetarian for environmental reasons you may occasionally feel forced to hide a delicious misstep with a piece of bacon for fear of being labelled a hypocrite or a fraud.

But enough about bacon. Art is often about challenging ideas and belief systems, about making people a little uncomfortable, and very much about eliciting an emotional response. This is why art that engages in environmental beliefs and values is so important; art gets at what science often fails to do. I was pleasantly surprised at this year’s nuart festival in Stavanger at the amount of art that engaged with such issues. Stavanger — a small city on the west coast of Norway and heart of the Norwegian oil industry — is an ideal setting to raise issues around petroleum dependency and climate change.  Here are a few examples of such work.

New York graffiti legend Futura’s (US)  indoor work titled ‘Spiralling Oil Prices’ is a stunning abstract piece in grayscale that contrasts starkly with Martin Whatson’s blue butterfly (not pictured) in the same space.

Icy & Sot’s (IR) lone green tree in an otherwise void and black-painted room was beautiful but haunting, particularly upon closer inspection: the canopy leaves blowing gently in the breeze were in fact fashioned of green plastic bags.

Pixel Pancho’s  (IT) giant robot with a belly housing a spurting fountain of black liquid shared the room with one of Bordalo’s trash animals, a large whale swimming in a sea of putrid green liquid.

Bordalo II’s (PT) outdoor and indoor installations consist of breathtaking three-dimensional representations of animals made from locally sourced trash. Above and below are two of his Big Trash Animals.

Apologies for the questionable quality of the photographs. They were taken using my mobile phone and leave a little to be desired. All photographs taken in Stavanger (2015).

Steppin’ out

September 2015

Outings Project is a participatory street art project initiated by French visual artist and filmmaker Julien de Casabianca. Taking photographs of various portraits and personages found in the fine art paintings housed in museums and galleries, images are enlarged and digital prints are pasted up (illegally) in urban spaces of cities worldwide.

Like any form of street art really, anyone may participate and Julien actively encourages citizens of the city to do so.  Many portraits found in the Nasjonalmuseet in Oslo have been liberated onto the streets of Stavanger during the nuart festival.

All photographs taken in Stavanger (2015).

Cheer up, you bastards!

September 2015

Travelling to the nuart festival in Stavanger has become a bit of an annual tradition since moving to Norway. And though I travel there for my research, I find it inspiring and restorative not just for my academic work but also for my art.

This year, I have become completely enamoured with the work (and play) of British artist Bortusk Leer and his lovely monsters. His talk at the nuart plus seminar was a refreshing reminder of the beauty and importance of playfulness in art, a testament to the fact that art can indeed be meaningful without pretension.

Here are a few photographs of his mural as well as some of his many wheatpastes which have taken over the streets of Stavanger (and which have been making me smile for days!).


All photographs taken in Stavanger (2015).

And here are a couple of videos, including one of Bortusk’s animations for BBC.

Take space

August 2015

Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Even better to not to get caught.

I have been involved with the Geographic Information Systems (SGO1910) course for the past two years, mostly as a seminar (lab) leader but also as an occasional lecturer. Having responsibility for the course myself this year has me thinking very critically about how GIS is taught. Overhauling and updating the curriculum in the spring was quite a huge task. Trying to figure out how to teach the new materials in an engaging but critical way is my latest challenge. Particularly as this is a social science course, I think it is worthy to focus on the history and social theory of GIS and not just the practical and technical aspects.

As an artist, I believe in the importance of drawing regardless of perceived skill. People’s reticence to draw seems so intrinsically linked to the output rather than the process. As a learning tool and to help students understand key concepts, I am trying to incorporate a drawing exercise into each class. Last week we mapped our classroom, some students using only points, other lines or polygons. And the week before, during the first lecture, I asked students to draw a map of Oslo.

I love these types of maps because it helps me learn so much more about the students and how they think and understand space. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the university features prominently in most of their maps. Places of meaning and how students move through the city becomoes quite discernible as well. I am interested in seeing how the maps change after a semester of intense work with shapefiles of Oslo and worry how the use of GIS might affect how students think spatially. I want students to reflect very carefully on what they are doing — and not just madly punch buttons — when they use GIS.

The maps are so interesting and so unique that I decided to take some space (hmm without permission)  and have occupied a board on the the 3rd floor of Harriet Holters Hus. And if you cannot manage to sneak a peak in person, you can have a look below. See if you can find the king!

Waffle in the sun

August 2015

Is there anything lovelier than a waffle in the sun? Taken from a seat (the photo, not the waffle) at the back entrance to the Bolteløkka Loppemarked this past weekend. Since taking a persoanl challenge not to buy any new clothing, Oslo’s incredible flea markets have become even more enticing. Also: waffles.

Keepin’ it real with Cameron McAuliffe in Estonia

August 2015

I had the unique opportunity to spend some time with Australian geographer (and fellow graffiti scholar) Cameron McAuliffe during the Nordic Geographers Meeting in Tallinn, Estonia this past June. Cameron is a lecturer in geography and urban studies at the University of Western Sydney and has written on the moral geographies of graffiti and street art and on legal graffiti in Sydney. We went out exploring one evening and had an incredible time talking on graffiti and teaching philosophies and exploring the abandoned Soviet splendour of Linahall, a monumental concrete sports centre built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Here are some photographs from the site.







Photographs taken in Tallinn, Estonia during the Nordic Geographers Meeting (2015).

I wear my sunglasses at night

August 2015

A growing area of inquiry in my research: things left on top of electrical boxes. Recent favourites include bananas, two ceramic cups and saucers, and these sunglasses. 

Photograph taken in Oslo (2015).