How can new visual representation techniques and technologies inform our understanding of urban life in the Canadian arctic?

Visualizing Canada’s Urban North is a research collaboration between Lindsay Bell, Tori Foster, and Jesse Colin Jackson. We are pursuing a body of research-creation that informs our understanding of circumpolar urban life. Through the production of a series of visual texts – composite still and moving images derived from digital capture – the research tracks the consistencies and curiosities that define northern urban landscapes in several communities in Canada’s artic. The research illustrates the structures of use and occupation in northern urban environments that either connect or distinguish these spaces from their southern counterparts.

Research Context
In the last fifty years, northern Canada has moved from the periphery to the centre of national attention. Policy realignments, global interests in northern resources, climate change debates, and questions of arctic sovereignty have drawn our gaze northwards. Both at a distance and from within, our understanding of the environmental, sociopolitical, and economic concerns that define ‘the North’ are mediated by visual information.

While northern landscapes are often depicted as pristine and isolated, a range of external processes and pressures (e.g. military exercises, new shipping routes, mineral exploration) are producing northern locales that are increasingly part of the interconnected global world. This shift has contributed to the rapid urbanization of the north after the 1960’s, and to a striking disconnect between the public imaginary and the lived reality of northern life.

Visual technologies produce distinct ways of picturing the north, and define and delimit the terms of debate with respect to environmental, sociopolitical, and economic change. As most Canadians never travel north of the 60th parallel, circulated images of northern life are vital to how its challenges are understood.

Collaborative Team
Lindsay Bell (Memorial University of Newfoundland) is an anthropologist with over ten years of experience in circumpolar North America. Tori Foster (OCAD University) and Jesse Jackson (University of California, Irvine) are artist-researchers whose existing bodies of work explore novel representations of space and time in urban settings.

Project Description
Visualizing Canada’s Urban North will create visual information products that communicate underrepresented elements of northern urban life to the Canadian public. Blending theory from visual anthropology and political economy with innovative information visualization techniques developed in media art and design, the research investigates and expands the role that visual information plays in our understanding of Canadian arctic communities.

The research tracks the consistent patterns and anomalous curiosities that define the urban landscapes in several arctic communities, including Yellowknife, Iqaluit, and Hay River. In capturing the structures of occupation that either connect or distinguish these spaces from their southern counterparts, such as repeated built forms and patterns of movement, the research illustrates how these environments affect and define peoples’ sense of place and community. The data visualization techniques produced by this research also provide a useful platform for asking larger theoretical questions about the merits and challenges that new media representational strategies offer the social sciences.

Overlay Methods
Overlays are experimental methods that simultaneously capture the unique and reoccurring elements of a landscape. In diverging from standard documentary practice (whether photographic or ethnographic writing), these methods explore the analytic capacity provided by contemporary information visualization practices applied to issues in the social sciences. The Overlays proposed by Visualizing Canada’s Urban North are generative: they act as a visual platform from which to broaden existing public conversations about northern development.

Time Overlays are composite images that represent the experience of time at a specific site as a single still image product. Each composite is created through the compilation of a linear sequence of information derived from time-lapse photography. The composites are, at first glance, indistinguishable from conventional still photographs, but the information they contain represents the occupation of and interactions within a space over a length of time. The amount of time ranges from several minutes to several hours, depending on the subject matter. Each Time Overlay incorporates dynamic information from 16-32 instances, thus presenting, simultaneously, parallel experiential narratives: the actions of any featured protagonists do not account for the presence of neighbors in time. The method reveals the vitality of the space under scrutiny and creates surreal representations that begin to suggest its defining characteristics.

Space Overlays are composite images that represent the experience of repeated built forms found at multiple sites, again as a single still image product. This repetitive information might include tract housing, portable trailers, branded structures, sidewalks and roads, commercial and industrial equipment, parked vehicles, and other urban infrastructure specific to the north. Each composite is created through the transparent overlay of six to twelve photographs. Consistent elements reinforce each other through repetition, while inconsistencies, such as the surrounding environment and human subjects appear ghost-like. Space Overlays privilege ubiquitous forms of urbanity found throughout a single urban environment or across several urban environments. The method reveals how our visual world is organized around architectural anchors, by conflating the self-reinforcing narratives of repeated built forms with the unique circumstances of their occupation and of their surrounding environments.

Moving Overlays are composite video products that combine the qualities of the composite images described above. They can potentially conflate information from both space and time, though they most often focus on one or the other. For example, a time-focused overlay might describe the influence of an external mechanized event, such as the passing of a train, on the movement of people and vehicles. This type of event typically produces an undulating effect on the spaces’ inhabitants: activity in the space shifts from static to active in a repetitive rhythm, revealing both the archetypes and the outliers of pedestrian and vehicular movement.

Visualizing Canada’s Urban North is supported by the the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Centre for Information Visualization and Data Driven Design established by the Ontario Research Fund.

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