I have become increasingly fascinated by the “affective atmospheres” of late modernity, connecting with the study of light, sound, and other facets to the multi-sensory study of urban space. The post-humanist challange to the idea of the bounded human subject opens up new lines of reflection and analysis. I am interested in emerging fields of conceptual dialogue between historical materialism and affect theory.
A botanical transect is an embodied methodology par excellence: the systematic recording of plant life involves not just training the eye to notice small details, using sophisticated forms of pattern recognition, but also the use of other sensory clues such as smell to help identify specific plants, haptic interactions with leaves to explore their surface textures, and an awareness of small variations in light and shade, to produce an “incidental sensorium” that is open to the unexpected. I explore some of these issues in my essay “Queering the transect” and I am also writing a longer essay about walking methodologies and the urban sensorium.
It is striking that most of the significant theoretical work in relation to the Anthropocene has only engaged indirectly with the urban arena. There are parallels here with the first wave of political ecology literature in the 1980s that focused predominantly on a rural or global South context. The Anthropocene debate has had an uncertain articulation with urbanization beyond the identification of specific empirical parameters or material traces. I have begun to explore these issues with a paper on urban biodiversity and will be developing these ideas further in my next book where I consider the role of “urban refugia” in relation to the sixth mass extinction.
I have a longstanding interest in public health, urban epidemiology, and corporeal geographies. I initially explored these themes in relation to the development of modern cities through the provision of water infrastructure and other basic services. I have also developed the question of disease in relation to the resurgence of tuberculosis, the history of malaria, and the presence of complex boundary phenomena such as multiple-chemical sensitivity. In my current work on urban nature I am interested in expanded conceptions of other-than-human geographies that extend to zoonoses and neglected facets of urban entomology.
There is significant scope for a critically reworked political ecology, in combination with new insights into the independent agency of nature, to explore evolving relationships between human health and the urban environment. Although existing studies within environmental history and other fields have emphasized the role of infrastructure networks and other measures against the threat of water-borne disease these insights can be extended to other socio-ecological and epidemiological dimensions of urban space.
I am interested in the use of film as a research methodology. Documentary filmmaking can be conceived as a series of choices where a putative “reality” — or at least a cinematic semblance of the real — becomes framed, deciphered, represented, and ultimately enters an intertextual and fluid domain of meaning. A documentary faces a series of constraints in terms of how to convey its purpose, how to indicate varying degrees of verisimilitude, and how to connect with diverse audiences. With my first film Liquid City (2007) I explored cultural and political dimensions to water and urban infrastructure in Mumbai with a particular emphasis on the use of interviews interspersed with everyday life and urban landscapes. My most recent film Natura Urbana (2017) also uses interviews but draws on extensive archival footage to develop a historical document in its own right.
This on-going strand of work has involved a close engagement with developments in film studies, art history, literary theory, and related disciplines. I have been exploring cinematic landscapes in films such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), Werner Herzog’s Lessons in Darkness (1992), and Hiroshi Teshigehara’s Suna no Onna (1964). I have also been writing essays on artists who work with nature and landscape such as Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, and Ulrike Mohr. I plan to write a book on Cinematic landscapes that links insights from art history and cultural geography to the study of film but which extends the European focus of some of this earlier work to cinematic developments in east Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.
My work on cyborg urbanization has been both an exploration of the material experience of urban space – our reliance on complex technological networks for survival – but also an engagement with metaphors in urban discourse. I think our choice of words is important: too many contemporary urban metaphors are either warmed-over nineteenth-century concepts or a pot-pourri of the latest scientific ideas used for rhetorical effect. I want to use the cyborg concept as a way of exploring not only the vulnerability of the human body but also ways of re-thinking what is meant by the public realm as a shared set of interests. I have recently extended my work on corporeal themes to light, sound, and the affective atmospheres of late modernity.
I have long been fascinated by “wastelands” since my early forays into London’s so-called “bomb sites”. A focus on spontaneous forms of urban nature transcends the merely speculative or utilitarian potentialities of ostensibly empty spaces. Within urban ecology significant attention has been devoted to wastelands as “ecological refugia” or islands of bio-diversity. These spontaneous ecologies can serve as “accidental laboratories” for cultural and scientific curiosity.
This area of work has involved research into the development of sanitation, urban water supply and urban environmental politics in Britain, France, Germany, Nigeria, India, and the United States. Key outcomes from this work are the books Concrete and clay: reworking nature in New York City (The MIT Press, 2002) and The fabric of space: water, modernity, and the urban imagination (The MIT Press, 2014). Concrete and clay examines five interrelated aspects to New York’s urban environment: the building of a modern water supply system; the creation and meaning of public space; the construction of landscaped roads; the grassroots environmental politics of the ghetto; and the contemporary politics of pollution. With my book The fabric of space I turn to cultural and historical dimensions to water and human society through a series of developments in Paris, Berlin, Lagos, Mumbai, Los Angeles, and London.