When I first joined VCL last semester as a grad student team leader, I imagined myself using my digital background to quite literally make visualizations of cities. I thought I would be conceiving of models and georeferencing photographs, learning new coding languages, and making generative codes to develop non-existent vistas. The possibilities were endless. Yet as the past two semesters have gone by, I have grown further away from the conception of visualization which we feel most comfortable with.
Merriam-Webster defines visualization as: “the act or process of interpreting in visual terms or of putting into visible form.” It could be my foundation in Disability Studies, or my growing humanities focus, but the visual media which we usually define a city by has lost its universalist luster I once thought it had. No longer do I see a city by its walking paths and staircases. And technologic artifacts only define the city in their own moment. Simultaneously, data privacy and chamber pots are not mutually exclusive, both existing in the modern citizens mind. Where excrement was once thrown from windows, now hidden sensors carry out covert data-ops. Yet these digital cities are just as imaginary as those found in literature a thousand years ago. The city remains, and its only constant is the human mind which has created it out of nothing. It is that mind which seeks definition and conception through various means:
How does a city exist in memory? In law? In prayer? In nationalism?
How does a city persist? Decay? Grow violent? Grow peaceful?
The Visualizing Cities Lab has allowed me to explore these questions. And it has shown me that there truly are no answers. The VCL has created a freeform space where I can be a mentor to undergrads while they simultaneously teach me. The space’s only prescription has been ‘a deliverable’ and ‘a workshop.’ And with each in mind, I have forged ahead alongside students and faculty who are as eager for the intellectual play VCL offers as I am. Yet it has not just been the generative team sessions which have allowed my growth. Each week, workshops are presented on different methods of visualization. Some take on digital methods, while others have explored how an individual’s relationship to a city is coded through politics and law. My own exploration has been in the systems of knowledge production around cities, and the ways in which they reproduce their own inadequacies.
Just as confounding a paradox as a city can be, so has the Lab been due to its own historical moment. Existing exclusively via Zoom, it is neither a physical lab, nor in a city and it exists only in the barest minimum of visualization. Google Earth seems the most apt visualization for any city right now, giving further weight to the necessity of the conversations we are having. How do we know a city? How do we make a city? It can’t be the act of walking as Michel de Carteau would argue, for I think I have experienced a city without ever stepping foot in one. It can’t be the signifiers and sightlines which define a citizens viewshed, as Roland Barthes might say.
In this moment, I can only say – no, hope that a city is the relations of trust and collaboration which exist across space.
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