Thursday, December 19, 2019

Waste, Water and Wellbeing

An international, interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of the West of Scotland and beyond which I'm leading has been awarded a grant of just under £300,000 from the British Academy as part of their Global Challenges Research Fund supported 'Urban Infrastructures of Wellbeing' programme. None of this would have been possible without the pioneering PhD research of Dr Ben Parry (now at Bath Spa University) and the immense support from all our friends, colleagues and partners in India...the summary of the project is as follows: 

Waste, Water and Wellbeing: lessons from the interface of formal/informal urban systems in Dharavi, Mumbai

The study provides an in-depth analysis of formal/informal infrastructural collisions in Mumbai. Dharavi, as one of the largest informal settlements in Asia, is a highly significant centre of employment and economic activity but is directly affected by many global challenges e.g. poverty, plastic waste, water shortage, poor urban resilience, migration, housing and sanitation. Its recycling industry is entirely self-organised within the informal sector. Poor infrastructure creates air/groundwater pollution and significant land contamination. Reducing waste comes at the expense of human health and life. We examine urban development through the lens of the 'smart city from below', at the interface between the user-generated city and centralised urban planning systems. We address issues of trust, health protection, participation, ownership and ethics in the implementation of infrastructure-driven solutions, specifically at the points of collision between 'top down' development, (e.g. the USD3.4bln Mumbai Metro 3), and the 'user-generated city' of the Dharavi workers colony.

There is a big team working on the two-year project, including Dr Ben Parry at Bath Spa University, colleagues at UWS in Social Sciences, Engineering, Chemistry, Environmental Sciences, and colleagues in India specialised in waste and remediation, ETC Group and people from the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University,  as well as the existing excellent group of people working on Compound 13 Lab. More information on the British Academy website. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Cultural industry futures (1) - some sketchy thoughts

For the last lecture in this term's Global Cultural Industries module for my Broadcast Production students at UWS, I asked a question - what are the possible futures of the cultural industries?

This is more of a shopping list of possible themes/issues to explore than anything scholarly or comprehensive, but the following themes immediately come to mind:

Sampling, stealing and its legacies

From the 70s/80s onwards, the ability to beg, borrow and steal from other peoples cultural products has become a central feature. From Plunderphonics through Cassetteboy to today's 'deepfakes', via all kinds of remix/hiphop culture, the ability to capture and copy seamlessly has massively influenced how cultural production works - and intertextuality, quotation, cross-reference and irony sits at the heart of so much contemporary cultural work, from advertising through cinema and into the visual and performing arts. Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You is a brilliant example of how this can be deployed for contemporary storytelling and political/cultural satire:



The Boris Johnson deepfake

So of course all of this sort of work raises interesting questions about intellecttual property, copyright and who gets to use what - not least your data, your ideas, or even your face! And where is the idea of 'authenticity' in all of this? Does it matter?

Last week's lecture discussed the idea of 'human clickbait' and this Kardashian meme developed by 'Bill Posters (famous for Brandalism) underlines some of these issues:

Archives, memories and curating culture - beyond the 'channel'

We have discussed how TV and radio is moving beyond the linear 'channel' and towards more of a curated/collected, always on demand well as the paradoxical situation of a splintering of outlets, production companies, of small scale DIY production/distribution  sitting alongside and intertwined with great concentration of capital and resource in large corporate entities.  'Making it' in the creative industries (whatever that means...) involves navigating between these two poles...

We also discussed how technology companies have moved beyond simply providing 'tools' but are instead providing platform based 'operating systems' for everyday life - in a seamless blend of goods, services and platforms all held together by inter-operative codes and software. From  physical products/goods, to services, to platforms (and subscription models provide a constant stream of revenue, but what happens if someone switches off the platform, or you can't afford to keep paying?).  I'm writing this late at night on my Apple laptop, logged into a Google server via a BT connection, using a set of softwares/technologies linked by common codes and all of these talk to each other and network together  through agreed common standards to provide a space for public communication (and private profit).

What does it mean when everyone can 'curate' culture, assemble digital artefacts and share? What are the questions of ownership and identity raised by streaming, cloud storage and immaterial/digital cultural artefacts? And what does this mean for the future of broadcasting?  But 'destinations', brands and curating culture still seem to matter - why are you reading this? (Maybe you just stumbled across it...) The extent to which media properties or 'assets' multiply across different platforms, or become mimetic and gather communities of practice around them, has been something that we have wrestled with over the course of this term's lectures.

So the notion of the archive is also becoming increasingly important - whose archives, which archives, and where does the archive go? One of the arguments about the web, (which has its origins  in defence technologies and is often critiqued as a kind of informational 'iron grid'),  is that the 'long tail' of the internet makes stuff available and empowers minorities; there has been an opening up/huge global availability of  all sorts of forms of culture. One of the challenges for 'content creators' is what to do about earning a living form exploiting/monetising assets - what is free, what is paid etc...and the rise and rise of the gig economy, precarious labour, forms of digital indenture and 'piece work' have also been chronicled in the lectures.  I love this song/video by Brooklyn based rapper Miss Eaves    which satirises the 'reputation economy' and people being asked to work for free:

For a endlessly fascinating archive of some countercultural / avant-garde artefacts, many of which largely defy 'monetisation' and the 'commercial', just take a look at UbuWeb. And for something closer to home, my colleague Ben Parry's work on Cultural Hijack curates lots of artists who are challenging prevailing orthodoxies in innovative ways in public space.

In this world where everyone can be a publisher, we also see an excess of production - hyper-production...and this also establishes complex issues/questions about value, 'truth' and trust. How do you know whether something that you are accessing is authentic, or real? How do you develop the skills to deconstruct the ideologies and systems that drive claims of authenticity or representation of reality? What is changing about claims of authority or authenticity from publishers?  Why do people trust 'influencers'? Is it because they seem to be people just like them? What are the webs of ideology, representation and storytelling/framing around the ways in which 'ordinary people' construct their online identities? And  does this enable  new forms of subliminal persuasion, manipulation and advertising to take place as well as cracking open (or simply reinforcing?) existing hierarchies in journalism, the media and wider society?

And if everything is turned into ephemera to be plundered and reworked ('all that is solid melts into air...') - which links to both our appetites for algorhythmically-derived feeds carved from informational data mining and then their infinite replication, reproduction and repetition through our own social media accounts - we become like correspondents embedded in a meme-based culture war.  This culture of repetition and sharing helps to bring emotions and feelings to the fore in our political and cultural responses, as Will Davies has recently pointed out. Continual repetition of slogans or various other form of market-tested earworms can determine realities and establish 'truths' - hence the constant hammering-on of the absolutely fictional/utterly implausible slogan 'Get Brexit Done' in the current election campaign from the mind of cybernetics-obsessed Ayn Rand fanboy Dominic Cummings.

Clickbait, attention, speed, real-time feedback

In an attention economy, what drives revenue is audience size - hence the idea of 'human clickbait' - atracting eyeballs and encouraging audieces to simply click through to the meme or video generates revenue for the producer. Nick Srinicek, in a lucid account of how late capitalism is mutating into 'Platform Capitalism', explains : 'Digital platforms produce and are reliant on 'network effects': the more numerous the users who use a platform, the more valuable that platform becomes for everyone else'. And within this, the notion of public, free to use communication spaces, linked to the utopian idea of the 'digital agora' set out in the late William Mitchell's work on 'City of Bits' - become enclosed, privatized and able to be mined and manipulated for profit.  In this scenario, we are all caught up in the ways in which services that are 'free to use' make use of our data to sell back to us algorthythmically derived notions of what we are likely to be interested in. John Lanchester makes the case for this here in his essay/review piece "You are the Product."

"Platforms, in sum, are a new type of firm: they are characterised by providing the infrastructure to intermediate between different user groups, by displaying monopoly tendencies driven by network effects, by employing cross-subsidisation to draw in different user groupds, and by having a designed core architecture that governs the interaction possibilities." (Srnicek, 2017 p.48).

So we are increasingly caught up in these giant revenue generating machines - new forms of rentier capitalism - and they get built into the operating systems of our cities and our lives - they may well be free to use but we pay a high price in terms of security and privacy.  So -- 'big data' and its legacies are important - who owns and runs the 'smart city', and what happens to your data and your relationships under these regimes?

Shosanna Zuboff on Surveillance capitalism

Or maybe we just will have to pay, rather than expecting everything for free.  The return of subscription models for media is one trend...

The Californian Ideology

We have also discussed the rise of a kind of hyper-libertarian Californian ideology - how were computers imagined as tools of counter-cultural change (see Fred Turner's important book on Stewart Brand network and the rise of techno-utopianism) and Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron's  framing of 'The Californian Ideology" -- brought together in this entertaining set of presentations from 2015:

For more historical perspectives on these libertarian ideas about 'individual freedom' and how they are tied up with forms of market-worship and technological determinism, Adam Curtis's documentary series 'The Trap' (from 2007) offers some arguments;

And if you want to get a sense of how both powerful actors from both the state and private sector see the future of 'information technologies',  check out Peter Thiel's venture Palatir - building huge relational databases for use by law encforcement/spy agencies that draw together all the information that is publicly available from our digital footprints..and claiming to be able to predict the future (often using machine learned techniques drawn from racial profiling) with some accuracy. Once you're lost in some good old fashioned paranoia about the power of corporations and technologies, (c.f. some of the preoccupations in films like 'The Parallax View' from 1974), consider also  all the affliate marketing scams, 'get rich quick' schemes and 'how to build your online business' clickbait stuff promulgated by people like Tory cabinet minister Grant Shapp's alter-ego 'Michael Green'...Which also links to some material on various brands of toxic masculinity, as another ongoing theme...

Hypermasculinities - 'HSBC Man' and his legacies

There's another much longer blogpost to be written about this but I'm also interested in how hypermasculinity (particularly a kind of fascist-esque white supremacist masculinity) has infected contemporary culture (it probably never went away, but it's right here in plain sight). Here are few thematically related extracts from media I like to teach with - spot the links:

Peter Thiel and big dick capitalism/hyper-individualism

HSBC Man arrives in India (neocolonialism meets the globalised 'Indian Dream')

The business card scene from 'American Psycho'

Glengarry Glen Ross

Climate change and eco-culture, the anthropocene

The cultural industries have been slow to respond to the climate crisis, not least in working out how the externalities and costs of all the supposedly 'weightless' digital infrastructures on which we depend - server farms, wireless transmitters, networked devices, screens etc contribute to carbon generation. And secondly the advertising-entertainment-industrial mediaplex means that many businesses have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo (cue more Adam Curtis and work on advertising, corporations,  media and persuasion in general):

Clearly this is a rather over-simplified argument and much more work needs to be done (and is being done) on the culture-climate interface...There are plenty of artists, writers, filmmakers etc offering various strains of utopian and dystopian visions of the future, as we have discussed.

Artificial Intelligence, AR, VR and DR

Beyond algorhythms feeding our social media and our purchase histories and our views of the world through 'filter bubbles', how else is AI and machine learning likely to affect/impact human creativity and the creative industries? There is lots more to be said about's just a start:

How is 'digital reality" augmenting reality, or is embedded into everyday reality and the composition of everyday interaction? What will the consequences be of this for everyday architectures in terms of social transactions and the spatial design of homes and workplaces as we enter a new era of 'immersive technologies' and widespread automation?

Personal devices and the mediaplex

Portable networked technologies, and 'technologies of the self'

(This is what people thought the future of the mobile phone looked like last year)

(and here's a vison of the future from the mid 1990s...more elsewhere)

Beyond Baudrillard? 

...and into simulated worlds of crime and war, all drawing on multiple tropes from Hollywood, news media, documentary practice and contemporary culture/politics...

A few artists, articles and practitioners worth looking at in relation to these themes/arguments: 

Boots Riley and The Coup

Hito Steyerl's work, including 'How Not to be Seen' and 'Power Plants' (2019)

Brian Holmes' 'Escape the Overcode: activist art in the control society' (2009) and his pamphlet from 2016 Driving the Golden Spike

The Californian Ideology

Friday, October 25, 2019

In Conversation with Henry Giroux

I'm delighted to say that a transcription of this conversation is going to appear in the Sage Handbook of Critical Pedagogies, out next year (2020).

In Conversation with Henry Giroux from UWS Artist Teacher Programme on Vimeo.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Compound 13 Lab

Here's a kind of manifesto/outline of the thinking behind the project Ben Parry, Tushar Joag, Vinod Shetty and I have been working on in Mumbai, which we are launching in April.

Compound 13 Lab is an experimental design and development 'anti-lab', situated very close to Mumbai's recycling district, an industrial centre within Dharavi. The project is a partnership between ACORN Foundation India, three UK-based researchers at the University of the West of Scotland, Bath Spa University, Coventry University, and in India, Shiv Nadar University, Delhi. IIT Mumbai, Imaginarium and Makers Asylum are also involved with the initiative. It has been developed as an unplanned outcome of a follow-on project for international impact and engagement, Resources of Hope, by AHRC within the Global Challenges Research Fund.

Since the 1950s, more than 9 billion tons of plastic has been produced worldwide. Many plastic items are used once and thrown away. As most plastics do not naturally degrade, they remain with us, usually buried in landfill or in the ocean. India generates around 3.4 million tons of plastic per year, of which 60 - 80% is recycled. India therefore boasts one of the highest rates of plastic recycling in the world, although in general the working conditions and practices of the informally organised recycling industry are challenging and dangerous for those that work in it.

Every day, the city of Mumbai produces over 10,000 tons of waste. More than 80% is collected, sorted, recycled and reclaimed, with upwards of 300,000 rag-pickers supplying grassroots, small scale recycling enterprises as part of the city's waste management chain. Around 4000 tons of plastic and other recyclables find their way to Dharavi to be processed and treated each day. In Dharavi at least 50,000 people are directly employed in the waste management/recycling industry. Most industries in Dharavi are labour-intensive, producing high levels of pollution, even though they contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of the city.

Led by ACORN Foundation, we are launching an experimental design and innovation lab within Dharavi's 13th Compound (workers' colony and home of Mumbai's central recycling district). The 'anti-lab' will explore the problems of waste, work and survival in the 21st Century. The plan is to put state-of-the-art technology and tools for design, manufacturing, music and digital media into the hands of Dharavi's young people.

Compound 13 Lab, inspired by the makerspace movement, utilises the materials and resources of the recycling industry as the starting point for learning and teaching about ecological design and living solutions. Through a programme of workshops and residencies by artists, scientists, engineers and designers, the lab will share emerging tools and technologies of the circular economy with those who would not normally have access to them. The project proposes a different paradigm of 'smart city' where the technologically advanced city emerges from below rather than being centrally planned and implemented. In particular, members will be able to test and innovate with various technologies, exploring the ways in which plastics can be recycled, remanufactured and remade safely, reliably and creatively.

Through exploring issues of waste management and recycling we want to explore the essential interdependence between the formal/informal, the 'socially included' and 'socially excluded' which are uncovered in representations of the material and imaginary city.

Since no municipal waste management policy or programme of recycling exists, the circular economy and supply chain in cities like Mumbai rely on informal processes and self-organisation, from rag-pickers, sorters, industrial processors to scrap dealers and re-sellers. The thinking, research and practical applications of the lab will approach this complex set of relationships through the 'story of waste', exploring narratives that challenge recieved notions of disposable products and materials, reflecting on the reproduction of labour and the 'biopolitics of disposability'.

The experimental maker- and learning space will help to change public perception of 'waste as a problem' to 'waste as resource' and engage with ecological thinking in one of Mumbai's most contested and challenged neighbourhoods, working collaboratively with residents and young people to develop new paradigms of waste management and sustainable urban living. At the heart of the lab is creative, participatory learning, which directly links innovation and experimentation with design, knowledge exchange and arts-based research. Just as the city is upgrading its infrastructure, we want to upgrade the tools and technologies available to the people of Dharavi so they can equip themselves for the jobs and skills of the future.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Pitching, interviewing & proposal presenting: some things to consider

I was asked to give a quick talk to some MA students yesterday about presentation skills/interviews, etc. I came up with this list. It's added to the blog for future reference and in case anyone else might find it useful!

1.  Read the funding call/brief and look at the criteria – VERY IMPORTANT. Show you understand the purpose and intent of the call. There is no harm getting in touch with the funder/commissioner in advance to ask questions or clarify points – it shows that you are taking the work seriously and are preparing (but – don’t ask stupid questions where the answers are already in the brief/call).

2. Do your homework – who is on the panel, what are they interested in, what is their work about, what do you think they will be interested in discussing?  And how is the organisation/institution that you are applying to organised? Make sure you have some idea about who you are likely to be talking to.

3. But – equally, don’t make too many assumptions and be careful about stereotyping/making suppositions!

4. Some situations can be deceptively informal (equally, there may be much more going on in formal interview than is immediately apparent).  

5. Give a bad candidate a rope long enough and s/he will hang herself’. Whilst not attractive, what might this metaphor say about an interviewing process?

6. Seek advice from someone who has been through a similar process before. What can they tell you about the type of event/expectations of the funder/commissioner/employer/conference audience?

7. “Professionalism”. What does that mean? (*hint – not necessarily Dragon’s Den or The Apprentice). Credibility, capability, competence. 

8. Keep to time. How long do you have to talk? Under no circumstances go over your allotted time. It’s really annoying.

9. Introduce yourselves clearly but don’t take too long – focus on the project/work/roles, not personalities/biographies. The panel can always ask questions and/or look at your CV later.

10. Slides. How many? How long for each? Interesting images? The curse of powerpoint….

11.  IF using powerpoint, keep your typography/layout clean, simple, easy to navigate. And don't just read out the slides. 

12. IF using powerpoint, make sure you’ve emailed a copy of the presentation in advance (which means that you can’t change it on the train). And bring a backup copy on a USB drive. Another really annoying (and occasionally revealing) thing is watching someone fiddle around loading up a presentation for five minutes after it’s due to start.

13. Can you summarise your idea in 30 seconds or less? Try to create a snappy title/’elevator pitch’ that will clearly encapsulate your proposition and make people want to know more.

14. REHEARSE. Plan who will say what, when. Be clear about how you will deal with questions if presenting as a group. Who is responsible for what?  You are a team – behave like one (think about what the characteristics of a good team are…)

15.  Avoid gimmicks and tricks. Humour is fine up to a point, but treat the opportunity with the seriousness it deserves.

16. Even if you don’t get the commission, the pitch is still an opportunity. Networks/relationship building – being ‘in the room’ matters. You build a reputation and get to know people that way.

17.  The fact that you are there means that your work is under consideration/has value. Don’t forget that amidst all the flash people/show offs.

18.  Never underestimate the quiet people. Equally, the noisiest/most visible people may also not be entirely what they seem. In fact, nothing is entirely as it seems, under any circumstances. Perhaps the best approach is to stay aware, observant and reflective.

19. Be careful about giving away your best ideas for free. Who do you trust, and why do you trust them? But – don’t hide your light under a bushel – if you have a contribution to make, make it!

20. “90% of success is turning up on time” (Woody Allen). Have you ever tried interviewing someone who has arrived late (or nearly late)? It rarely goes well. One of the most important characteristics in any job is reliability. Erratic geniuses do well in films but can be a pain in the neck to work with in real life. Reliability matters. The panel will want to find out that you can do what you say you can, and will want to be assured that you can execute the project on time/on budget. 

21. If you don't know the answer, say so. If you don’t understand the question, say so.  But at least attempt to answer, and show that you are reflective and flexible enough to think through an issue on the spot.

22. Your digital/online profile matters. It is highly likely that the people interviewing you will be using the internet to find out more about your work/who you are.

23.  How to cope with nerves? Well, it helps if you are well organised and know your material – and you know that you are well organised/prepared and know your material.

24. Sleep/rest matters. It would be a good idea not to be up until 3 in the morning over the previous night. 

25.   …..? What would you add to this list?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

In Conversation with Henry Giroux - June 2017

Here's the film of the event organised with my School of Education colleagues Diarmuid McAuliffe and Shirley Steinberg, in which Diarmuid, a large audience and I had a very interesting and stimulating dialogue with the excellent Henry Giroux.

In Conversation with Henry Giroux from UWS Artist Teacher Programme on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The Kingdom of God is like a Yoghurt Plant

One of the things we've managed to do over the last year is to pull together a small volume of my father's writings - we gave it out to friends at his Memorial Service in June 2017. There are still a number of copies sitting in my garage looking for a new owner. If anyone would like to buy one, (a potential Christmas present?) they are available to order here.

The description on the back of the book reads as follows:

"This is a collection of sermons, lectures and writings by Bob Jeffery, selected by his children from his considerable archive. We have chosen pieces that particularly caught our attention and that seem to retain relevance and resonance in the 21st Century."

I'm hoping to put together an e-book version as well that we can distribute; maybe a job for some downtime around the midwinter break!

There are a number of very kind and thoughtful tributes and obituaries for my dad out on the web - for example, Michael Sadgrove's sermon from the Memorial Service; and an extract from the book - the opening parable about the yoghurt plant - transcribed by someone who stumbled across it at a friend's house can be found here.

All of the papers relating to his theological research, a large number of sermons, and his work in the  ecumenical movement have been lodged with Gladstone's Library, so that researchers interested in the history and politics of the Church of England in the second half of the 20th century can access them - it will be interesting to see if any projects emerge that make reference to his work.

In the meantime, we are also thinking about what might be a suitable physical memorial for him and my mother - it's likely to be something embedded into the fabric of Tong Church, like a restored window, but we're not sure yet. Bob's grave is still unmarked (according to his wishes) and as he fades into the ground and into memory we'd like to ensure that there is still something left apart from all the words - the conversations, the encounters, the relationships (which perhaps, as Michael said, are possibly their biggest legacy) to mark their time with us.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A few words about my father

My father, Robert Jeffery, died on the morning of 21st December. It wasn't unexpected; he had spent the year in a slow deterioration, with lymphoma coursing through his body. In the end, it felt like a kind of deliverance; the last couple of weeks were really painful and hard to witness. But typically his mind was whirring almost until the last few days, working things out, dredging up hymns, poems, limericks and jokes from his huge reserves of knowledge and language. He entertained visitors and medical staff, joked about doing conjuring tricks with pills and cups, and we had to keep telling him to slow down, to rest, to conserve what little energy he had left. I'm not sure he quite realised how very ill he was until the final couple of weeks, and then there was something of a psychic battle in his mind as he faced the abyss and the great unknown of death. A few weeks ago he wrote a piece about dying which expressed equanimity and acceptance; but in the end that relinquishing of life is a tough thing to accede to, especially a life lived so full of people, meetings, conversations, writings, histories and places as my dad's.

Growing up in an ecclesiastical family, you're always aware of the wider community of churchgoers, parishioners and just endless people of all sorts coming through your life and in and out of your home. I leaned much about networks, power and hierarchies more generally by observing ministers and priests and bishops and all their apparatus of symbolism, ceremony and tradition which surrounded us, and the way in which Bob dealt with them. Bob had a huge respect for all those traditions but never gave into forms of saccharine piety, oversimplified doctrine, easy answers or smug pomposity which has so alienated so many people (myself included) from the church's work. And the end of his life is taking us on a tour of our childhood; the hospice where he died is in the parish of Headington, where he was the vicar from 1971-1978 ; the funeral will be in the rather more grandiose surroundings of Christ Church in Oxford, where he ended his career as the Sub-Dean; there will be a burial at Tong, where we lived while he was Archdeacon of Salop in the 1980s, and there will be a memorial service later in 2017 in Worcester Cathedral, where he was the Dean from 1987 -1996.  He was part of a post-war generation of radical, liberal clerics who focused more on making an almost secular, humanist, outward facing Christianity - of the idea of God's work, service and care for others in this world - than on any idea of the next. When we asked him "what happens after you die?", he would say "nothing". But there's something very profound about a deep, eternal, total 'nothing' - which also points to the sanctity of everyday life and the importance of deeply valuing and caring for other people.

As well as having all these titles, publications, services and sermons to his name he was also our dad. Everything changed for the family when my mother died very suddenly in 1995, followed by the swift passing of Bob's sister Clare - and in the middle of all this my son was born. We are now at the end of another 21 year cycle. Over the next few months as my brothers and sister sort out his belongings and affairs we will have to sift through all the remnants and fragments of our own lives, and all the artefacts of the generations before accumulated in his little flat in Cowley. We owe everything, in a way, to our parents. There is still much to do, plenty more to say and lots to celebrate.

Once we have all the details of the funeral arrangements I'll share them. In the meantime we are trying to have what will hopefully be a quiet and peaceful Christmas.