Long informed by spatial turns in the humanities, my research advances unique connections between geography and urbanism in the context of digital media studies, software studies, and media infrastructure. Questions of space figured prominently in my earliest graduate research at Western’s Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism, where I wrote on the spatial dimension of political subjectivity in works by Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Jacques Derrida. However, growing dissatisfied by textual analysis and hermetic thinking, I made the decision to pursue a PhD in Humanities at York to focus on articulations of European migration art and culture. Highlighting archival lieux des memoire including architecture, film, literature, and sculpture, my thesis situated new imaginaries of European “home” as a critical response to the upheavals of the 2008 financial crisis. Supported by my critical investigation of memorialization practices as read through the prism of critical race and ethnic studies, I argued that second generation migrants were best equipped to hold the institutions of European collective memory to account for the “translocal” specificity of diverse communities (El-Tayeb, 2011).
After graduating with my PhD and publishing along the way, I returned to my earlier interest in German media theory, creating a gateway into the various media-geographical entanglements between technology and cities. My first published work in this area looked at the affordances of digital media in relation to mapping representations and politics. In “The Geospatial Rhetoric of Asylum: Mapping Migration in Fortress Europe,” I exposed the impact of geospatial imaging technologies on relations between users, interfaces, and publics. I analyzed a German neo-fascist group’s publication of an online map containing precision information of Germany’s asylum houses. I uncovered how the group’s information gathering tactics reflected long contested relationships between maps, power, and the construction of identity. But I also made note of a suspicious alignment between anti-migrant sentiments and the map’s presumed objectivity, and I questioned the viability of making social justice demands through an appeal to facts. I addressed methodological, historical, and theoretical issues, such as the epistemic assumptions behind rejecting politically motivated maps as propaganda, the logistical and strategic novelties associated with crowdsourcing, and the narrative power of maps.
This work inspired me to examine a productive constellation between the fine arts, critical infrastructure, urbanization, and the cartographic representation of cities in digital culture. In “Geospatial Detritus: Mapping Urban Abandonment,” I explored how digital mapping visualizations help to transform abandoned cities into motors of sensory experience, sociality, and public initiative. Heralding the onset of “austerity urbanism” (Tonkiss, 2013), I situated artworks like Michael Heizer’s City as a watershed for resisting demands to mobilize a digital tourism industry of abandoned places. Later, in “Geolocating Popular Memory: Recorded Images of Hashima Island after Skyfall,” I described how the presence of Japan’s Hashima Island in a James Bond film spurred efforts by Google to produce images of the island’s built environment with the help of an experimental “Trekker” device. I then explored how this image archive directly motivated Japan to make a contested bid for UNESCO heritage status, thereby protecting the island as a site of technology and innovation from the industrialized Meiji period.
Altogether, these disparate research projects inspired me to develop a special journal issue on questions of Geospatial Memory, published by Media Theory in 2018. With a focus on aesthetic, cultural, historical, and archival objects, I compiled a volume of 17 contributors with the aim to explore how geospatial media helps to shape our current spatial orientation toward the everyday and to the past. The contributors and I found diverse, and often competing ways to infuse collective memory practices in the experiences, discourses, and technologies of geospatial media, whether through film and archival studies, psychogeography, urban studies, media archaeology, critical practices, or communication methods. The intellectual and editorial lessons of this project have supported me through my years of working as a professor in media and cultural studies at Trent. The experience has also informed my approach to working as a graduate supervisor on theses that move across the spectrum of the arts, media theory, and research-creation, and in my subsequent writings where I develop perspectives along the periphery of these subjects.
My current research has taken two separate but related directions. First, my writing over the last few months has narrowed on a crucial intersection between cities, infrastructure, and software. Using case studies, I evaluate subtle changes in the State apparatus following the widespread adoption of policing and surveillance tools by social networking companies. For example, in my analysis of Citizen App, the U.S.-based crime reporter tool, I determined how patterns of user interaction influence the behaviour of police in American cities and the public attitudes thereof. I show how user-facing digital tools accelerate the gentrification of communities and affect patterns of cultural exchange between stratified groups. While such apps reveal a dependency between State-initiated tactics of responsibilization and algorithmic codes, I claim that they further expose a deep structural connection between social networking apps, which are disseminated through retail markets and privately designed, and the infrastructural supports that are needed to sustain urban life. My aim in the next two years is to develop further case studies toward a monograph on these issues.
Second, I am committed to developing exciting new models for collaborative research and critical practice in the humanities. Supported thus far by internal grants and awards, my co-applicant Dr. Jill Didur (Concordia) and I have proposed a multi-year project to preserve born-digital artworks that explore issues of land claims, mobility challenges in conflict zones, and anticolonial struggles. Together with collaborators focused on locative artworks that engage GPS, sensors, and mobile devices, our aim is to support a team dedicated to building remediations of completed works that have been either forgotten or rendered precarious, whether through a lack of sustained funding, versioning and planned obsolescence, or disuse. By extrapolating on the politics of locations and its intersection with critical practices in the arts, we emphasize the importance of securing digital artwork that highlights both contentious and contemporary political issues, effectively serving as a guide for social justice resolutions in the present. Projects such as this one reveals my commitment to initiate collaborative scholarship in the humanities; to advance debates regarding the status and sustainability of research-creation in the field of Digital Humanities; and to avoid losing sight of our field’s unique mindfulness toward rhetoric and language and its positive impact on shaping the public good in a technologized world.