How does one go about understanding a city, a neighborhood, a square or a street? Approaches differ depending on a person’s disciplinary background, interest and inclinations. For those of us concerned with the spatial aspects of a city there are, to simplify this a bit, two basic approaches: a view from above vs. a view from down below.
Let me explain.
Michel de Certeau, noted French scholar wrote in his 1980 book "The Practice of Everyday Life" (my emphasis):
"The panorama-city is a 'theoretical' (that is, visual) simulacrum, in short a picture, whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices. The voyeur-god created by this fiction, who, like Schreber’s God, knows only cadavers, must disentangle himself from the murky intertwining daily behaviors and make himself alien to them. The ordinary practitioners of the city live 'down below,' below the threshold at which visibility begins. They walk – an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandermaenner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban 'text' they write without being able to read it."
"The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representation, it remains daily and indefinitely other."
"A migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city."
Thus, rather than being a voyeur looking from a distance, one needs to move below and observe people to be able to read the 'urban text.' Significantly he distinguishes between a 'planned' city vs. a 'migrational' city. I have found that this particular interpretation of what a city 'is' to be quite compatible with my own views and also shaping how I have developed a specific methodology that aims to capture these 'intersecting networks,' 'fragments' and the 'alteration of spaces.'"
In mapping one of Abu Dhabi’s "terrain vagues" — a space that lies outside the gaze of city planners — I am using a series of methods: behavioral mapping, time-lapse photography, and a mobility survey. My aim in all of these — with the help of assistants — is to become a scientist of sorts, meticulously recording behavior and taking stock of activities. I am intentionally trying to be a detached, external observer, minimizing my interference in the setting and spaces of Sector 13 (as much as that is realistically possible). I am of course cognizant that my mere presence influences and shapes what I am observing, but time — I hope — will enable me to become part of the features of this space, to turn into an invisible participant. Accordingly, Sector 13 is conceived as a field laboratory subjected to testing and measurement with the aid of various electronic and digital devices.
Time-lapse is a particularly useful method for capturing activities as they unfold over the course of a day. The end product is usually impressive showing a flurry of activities, the ebb and flow of a day’s rhythm etc. Yet to get there one has to follow a series of complex and precise steps.
I have decided that for this particular project two cameras (A & B) will be used — an aerial view vs. a street level view. The first requires a special tripod that can be extended to a height of at least 3 meters, and the second would be a regular device whose height would be at eye level. Once I settled on a locale within the space that I have selected for in depth observation (see my previous blog post) I needed to fix several parameters to ensure consistency between shooting periods (for practical reasons it is not feasible to shoot all sequences in one day, but it is done according to a schedule, taking place over four Fridays). These are: location within the space; height of tripod; camera angle. Location within the space is decided by physical features, drawing temporary markers on the ground, as well as taking photographs of the setup; the precise height of each tripod is determined by its specific extension units.
Perhaps the most difficult measure is camera angle; a regular tripod head would not suffice since the camera needs to be independently positioned using different movements. Therefore a 3-way tripod head is being used allowing for a precise positioning with specific measurement units, ensuring consistency between observation periods. The initial setup for the aerial shot was tested via a wireless connection linking the camera to a laptop computer enabling viewing of the observed scene.
Once all of this has been established, the actual time-lapse begins. Both cameras are equipped with a timer programmed to shoot every 5 seconds for an hour (a total of 720 frames); this is repeated for the next 2 hours so that one session covers 3 hours in total.
The process is not fault free. Indeed there were problems such as a delay in shooting for Camera A, resulting in a 9” time-lapse (for two time periods); cameras were initially set on different time zones (I was able to fix this in Adobe Lightroom [LR] which allows for changing of capture time). The exact location could not be established between time periods, so I had to resort to cropping in LR to maintain a smooth transition. And as luck would have it on my first day the camera fell partially damaging the lens (it still worked though, miraculously).
Once these frames were shot, they are imported into LR after they have been properly cropped in Photoshop. There, time is synchronized between Camera A & B, exposure and sharpness is changed to optimize the image and the sequence is exported as a video file. Eventually these clips will be combined into one continuous time-lapse movie in Final Cut. At the moment clips for individual time periods are processed and placed onto one frame combining footage from Camera A&B. A synchronized time-stamp for each clip should allow for comparisons and further analysis of both stationary and moving activities.
Overall a lengthy, time-consuming process made a bit easy through batch processing, the use of high-performance computers, lots of coffee and old-fashioned patience.
De Certeau’s poetic depiction of the urban text may get lost in all of these technicalities but it is hoped that the end result — coupled with the other methods, conversations and surveys done within the space — would capture the essence of this sector and provide an empirical record for its activities and people.