Centre for Media Research




The digital switchover and RTE in Northern Ireland

Incompatible digital broadcast systems and a welter of contradictory information have left viewers of RTE and other Irish TV channels in Northern Ireland in an invidious position after the digital switchover on 24 October: either make do with limited or no service or pay out for additional equipment. Greg McLaughlin counts the cost and considers the implications of this failure of policy vision.

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In my previous post, My Digital Switchover Hell!, I vented my frustrations with the initial digital switchover on 12 October. The problem was the mismatch between the digital broadcast systems deployed by the UK and Ireland, which could leave viewers in Northern Ireland of RTE and other Irish TV channels with limited or no service after the final switchover on 24 October. As it happened, I was out of the country for that event and returned a week later in hope rather than expectation that things would have somehow resolved themselves. But no! My brand new, fully HD TV picked up the said channels ok but it was all sound and no picture with the error message: “Does not support video format”, i.e. the MPEG4 video compression system used in the Republic as opposed to the UK’s MPEG2 system.

Refusing to admit defeat, I called Jimmy at the local electrical store and told him the situation. “Ah”, he sighed like a weary helpline advisor, “you’ll need a box”.  He was talking about a Saorview box, which is the Irish equivalent of a Freeview box, essentially a video decoder.  “How much is that?” I asked fearfully. “For you my friend, only 60 quid!”  So off I go to Jimmy’s shop only to find that he had just sold the last box and was waiting for a new delivery. When would that be?  It might be come in later that day or the next morning. Failing that, sometime next week. But he took my phone number and promised to call me as soon as the next batch came in.

Now in my last post I referred to Mr Grumpy, the TV aerial man who told me I would probably need not only a box but, if worse came to worse, a new, more powerful aerial. And wouldn’t you know? There I was having my breakfast the other morning when he kicked down my front door and presented me with a box! I kid you not!!  Cost of box and installation? Ninety quid! But at least I didn’t need a fancy new aerial or wait for a call from Jimmy that I knew would never come.

So I am on the pig’s back now and looking insufferably smug. I can receive all available Irish TV channels, one or two of them in glorious HD (though Mr Grumpy told me that my TV was crap. “How much did you pay for it?” he asked me.  I think it was 250 quid. “Well that tells you something”, he said with a knowing wink.)  I guess that makes me what they might call around the CMR, “a digitally empowered viewer” along with all those living in border counties like me ma who receive the channels as “spillover” on Freeview or those, like some of my colleagues, who get them via Rupert Murdoch’s satellite service.  Some viewers in Belfast can receive a limited service via the Divis transmitter, i.e. RTE1, RTE2 and TG4 but in standard definition only. However, and I stand to be corrected here because the information I’m getting is very uncertain, anyone who receives Irish channels via Freeview or satellite will find that transmission of certain sports events will be blocked due to “rights issues”, e.g. live international football and Champions League. (Rupert Murdoch again!)

So far, so messy then. But whose fault is this? And what are the implications for the concept of “digital empowerment”?

Well, I’m not sure if we can talk in terms of “fault” as such. It seems that while most countries in the European Union have invested in the MPEG2 system with a view to roll out of MPEG4 at some unspecified point in the future, Ireland opted for the superior MPEG4 from the outset, which is fine for all license-paying viewers in the Republic but not so fine for viewers in Northern Ireland who in the analogue age were able to receive Irish channels as spill over, while thousands of viewers in the Republic of Ireland were able to receive UK channels via aerial or cable.

But if we can’t think of it as someone’s “fault”, we can think of it as a failure of policy vision because the problem should have been anticipated well in advance of the switchover. In 2008, RTE assured OfCom that it was working to ensure that its services would continue to be available to viewers in the North after the switchover in 2012. Two years later, in 2010, the British and Irish governments agreed a memorandum of understanding to this effect (McLaughlin, 2011; p.35). However, in each case, there seemed to be little or no consideration of what must have been the very evident incompatibility between the proposed digital broadcast systems. There was some hint in their respective public information campaigns that reception of Irish channels in Northern Ireland might be more complicated than first thought but this, again, was often vague, confusing or contradictory.

It took me months of frustration, exasperation and, ultimately, added expense, before coming to the point where I can now view all available Irish channels in digital. But at least I had access to the knowledge and resources required. There are other citizens out there who simply baffled and weary with it all and may well do without. Digital empowerment? I don’t think so.

PS:  Have you seen Johnny Giles in HD yet? It’s like realising for the first time that your granddad wears make up. Frightening.

Reference

Greg McLaughlin (2011) ‘Those post-devolution, falling revenues blues: a political economy of Northern Ireland’s news media’, in David Hutchinson and Hugh O’Donnell (Eds.) Centres and Peripheries: Metropolitan and Non-Metropolitan Journalism in the 21st Century. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press; pp.27-41.

What role for the media industry in the new Northern Ireland?

There should be more to the media industry than the pursuit of profit, argues Dr. Stephen Baker. Northern Ireland needs to start talking about the political and cultural significance of its local media.

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This year’s Belfast Media Festival (18th-19th October 2012) was preoccupied with markets, commercial opportunities and how to exploit them. Themed ‘Northern Ireland: Open For Business’, the festival reflected the growing entrepreneurial energy that exists in and around Northern Ireland’s nascent media industry.

Much is riding on the success of the creative media industries here. Belfast, like many other British cities, is post-industrial and the public sector that Northern Ireland has traditionally relied upon for employment is withering in the face of austerity.

It is in this context that the creative industries are emerging as ‘one of the fastest growing and increasingly important sectors of the economy’, according to the strategic action plan published by Department of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL) in 2008. Before the onset of the current economic crisis there were 2500 ‘creative enterprises’ in Northern Ireland, employing 34,600 people. For somewhere with a population of less than 2 million, that’s a significant proportion of the workforce.

If we’re talking about the creative media industries, specifically, then the figures are slightly less: an estimated 700 companies, employing 10,900 workers – smaller, but not insignificant. This all looks very promising but there are questions and issues that arise, not least regarding the quality of employment in the sector.

According to the Sector Skills Assessment for the Creative Media Industries in Northern Ireland, published in January last year (2011), there is an ‘oversupply of potential new entrants keen to enter an area commonly seen as glamorous and exciting’. As a consequence, the Skills Sector Assessment explains, there is a high level of voluntary or unpaid work undertaken in order to get a foot in the door and a first paid job: ‘more than two fifths (46%) of the NI Creative Media Industries workforce had undertaken unpaid work in order to get into the industry – a similar proportion to the UK average’.

Another deeply troubling issue for people looking to enter the creative media industries is that almost half of the workers (48%) within the sector in Northern Ireland are ‘freelancers’. When I asked BECTU, the media and entertainment union, what the single biggest issue facing its members, I was told without hesitation, freelance work.

Although freelancing is often presented as something desirable – allowing people to be flexible; freeing them from routine – the most obvious effect of not knowing where the next pay check is coming from is anxiety and stress. The other consequence is that workers are made vulnerable to exploitation, because no freelancer wants a reputation for being anything less than compliant. But another consequence, according to the Skills Sector Assessment, is that freelancers miss out on staff development and training opportunities, since employers are unlikely to invest time and money in up-skilling temporary staff.

There are other broader political and cultural issues that Northern Ireland’s creative media sector and policy makers need to consider.

For instance, historically speaking, it is no co-incidence that modern democracies emerged at the same time as the mass media. The rise of public opinion as a political force is intimately linked to the invention of the printing press and the ability to disseminate information to a wide readership. Democratic processes depend upon the transformation of readers and audiences into informed citizens. Without reliable information about the issues of the day, and without open public discussion, people are in no position to make democratic decisions at the polling booth or anywhere else for that matter. And the information and debate that citizen’s need to become properly enfranchised comes largely through the media. In the digital age this presents new democratic possibilities as well as challenges.

In Northern Ireland’s fledgling democracy the local media have a crucial role to play, not only laying out and explaining the issues of the day but also setting an agenda that doesn’t reduce politics here to sectarian head-counting, but begins to highlight the critical social and economic questions that regularly confront us.

This isn’t just the responsibility of news and current affairs. As my colleague, Greg McLaughlin, and I propose in our book, The Propaganda of Peace, democratic and political debate extends beyond the newsroom into film and television drama, public exhibitions and museums, and other forms of popular entertainment. Just as the heated exchanges between politicians on Hearts and Minds played a part in the formation of public opinion, so the situation comedy Give My Head Peace, with its satiric representation of Northern Ireland as one extended, dysfunctional family of loyalists and republicans, contributed in its own way to framing the debate about our collective political future.

Communication is pretty fundamental to humans. The formation of our political processes, our communities and our very identities depend upon how and what we communicate to one another. Today, quantitatively and qualitatively the contemporary media at our disposal presents us with extraordinary possibilities. Making a buck is just one of them.

 

Does New York show the way to the digital future for local museums?

Encouraging visitor engagement through digital innovation needn’t cost local museums the earth, and it’s crucial to their future, argues Oonagh Murphy.

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Earlier this year I was awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, which provided me with the opportunity to spend 5 weeks researching digital practice in New York at some of the best museums in the world. I met with senior staff from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met), Guggenheim, MoMA, Cooper-Hewitt, MAD Museum and The Whitney, and I got to attend some incredible events, such as The Met’s 3D Hackathon, co-hosted by Makerbot.

Met 3D Hackathon. Image credit: Makerbot on Flickr

The 3D Hackathon brought together artists and curators to test out the possibilities that 3D printing offers both the museum and artists. Not long ago 3D printers were the stuff of science fiction, but in recent years the technology has developed rapidly and you can now buy a desktop 3D printer for around £1200, while the software required to scan objects or develop 3D designs is open source (free).

What’s really exciting is that the very technology used by The Met to host this much talked about event is available right here on our doorsteps in Northern Ireland. Two new Fab Labs have opened in Derry and Belfast, and are crammed full of exciting new technologies such as 3D printers and both have the technicians that can teach anyone how to use them.

Fab Lab, is the shorter, cooler name for Fabrication Labs, a concept developed by MIT’s New Media Lab.

Fab Labs democratise rapid prototyping and allow anyone to turn an idea into reality. As 3D printing becomes more accessible, and more people get to access it, the uses of this technology will develop. Who knows what museums will be doing with 3D printers next year, let alone in 5 or 10 years time?

In this spirit, Newark Museum has gone one step further than The Met and set up their own MakerSpace, a fabrication lab of sorts, which was set up with a £10-£15,000 budget, in a small, unremarkable classroom.

Newark Museum’s first Makerspace programme saw underachieving kids from a local school visit the museum once a week for 14 weeks, during which they developed their own computer game, 3D printed their own controllers and using Arduino technology programmed buttons on these controllers to allow them to play the game they had created.

The next iteration of this programme will see the museum collection used as a departure point for game narratives; an approach in-line with the museum’s broader mission to bring art and science closer together. As the museum’s founder John Cotton Dana puts it:

“A good museum attracts, entertains, arouses curiosity, leads to questioning—and thus promotes learning.”

I am often told by staff from museums in Northern Ireland that they simply don’t have the time, resources or budgets to carry out digital research & development. On the other hand, digital R&D takes place in most of the big international museums in New York. This may not be a fair comparison. Admittedly museums in New York are for the most part bigger than museums in Northern Ireland. They have bigger collections. They have bigger gallery spaces. They have more staff and more money.  However during my trip it was encouraging to find that some of the most ground breaking, cutting edge digital research and development is being done on a shoe string budget, with technologies that even the smallest museums in Northern Ireland can access.

We live in an interactive, participatory web 2.0 world, in which visitors no longer want to simply read exhibition labels. They want to make, investigate, question and have fun, and the challenge for museums is how to respond to this contemporary culture whilst maintaining the academic integrity of their staff and collections. What’s going on at the Met and the Newark demonstrates that museums in Northern Ireland do not need vast resources to develop innovative approaches to digital engagement. What they need is vision; access to skills; and a management culture that fosters research and development. If museums in Northern Ireland can learn one thing from museums in New York then it has to be that they need to recognise the value of the journey not just the destination.

Museums have traditionally had an authorial and definitive voice in the presentation of art, science and the past. This move towards iterative and open development represents a massive cultural change for museums. There is no doubt that these are disruptive technologies, but perhaps museums need to recognise that if they want to maintain their cultural relevance and hold on to their funding, then they need face the harsh reality – disrupt or die.

For further case studies and analysis see my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Report

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Oonagh Murphy is a PhD student in the Centre for Media Research, and the Arts and Humanities Research Institute at the University of Ulster. She has spent the last two years researching digital practice in museums and developing a series of projects, including a Hack Day at the Ulster Museum; The Foursquare Mayor Chair, in collaboration with her supervisor Alan Hook. She also organised #ArtsNI, a series of digital events for those working within or with the cultural sector and is on the committee of the Museums Computer Group.

Oonagh is particularly interested in identifying management approaches and organisational cultures which facilitate digital innovation.

Tweet: @OonaghTweets                         Blog: oonaghmurphy.com

 

My Digital Switchover Hell!

A mild mannered academic is traumatised by the experience of digital switchover. Dr. Greg McLaughlin struggles with the rudiments of 21st century domestic entertainment… well, he would, wouldn’t he?

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So how was it for you, darling? I mean phase one of the digital switch over on 10 October; or “DSO” as my more techie, Media Arts colleagues like to call it. Well it was hell for me. You see, after following the instructions for retuning – good job I kept that helpful OfCom leaflet for the hard of learning! – I discovered to my horror (!!!) that the ITV and Channel Four stations had gone missing. After an afternoon of infuriating, futile trouble-shooting, I finally had to give-in and call out “an expert”; a particularly grumpy TV aerial installer whose first words to me were, “I could really do without this you know! This will cost you £7 at least!!”  After much fuss, rustling around in the attic and several retunes he finally solved the problem. Total cost: £30. Inflation eh?

So as you might appreciate, I’m really looking forward to doing it all again on 24 October at which point the Republic of Ireland will have its own switch over in one fell swoop…and with better high definition technology. But, as they like to say on Horizon, there is a problem!!  Apparently, the UK works on a lower spec, MPEG2 digital decoding system while Ireland and (probably) the rest of the world works on a higher spec, MPEG4 system.  So that lovely new, fully HD TV I bought recently (£250) in anticipation of digital TV heaven will be fine for receiving Freeview UK but  perhaps not so fine if I want to receive RTE and TG4. So what will I need to do to keep tuned into RTE2’s footie coverage with Bill and the Boys? And let’s not forget Masterchef Ireland!! (What are you cooking for us today, Dymphna? Well, Dylan, I’m doing spuds and turnips on a bed of crushed bacon and mushrooms with a blueberry jus!)  I’m sure as a serious media studies academic I’m missing more important news and current affairs programming there but I can’t think what.

Anyway, to answer this pressing question I carried out exhaustive research both on the interweb and by driving around the Coleraine area asking questions of the TV aerial industry. It was brilliant! I felt like one of those scientists on Horizon, except without the drives in the desert. The full report is available at our School Office for the digitally competent and at a price but I can reveal here to the less digitally cognisant that to solve my problem, I will have to wait and see what happens on the 24 October! I might be lucky and receive an overspill signal from Saorview (Irish Freeview for those who speak only Ulster Scots) via the transmitter in Moville, County Donegal. But I live in Coleraine and I’ve never been lucky in Coleraine.  So if I don’t receive RTE on or after 24 October, I will have to do two things: buy a new, digital rooftop aerial (costing thousands of pounds) and a MPEG4 receiver box (about a million pounds) plus pay my grumpy TV aerial installer to put it altogether for me and make it work (about 5 million pounds at his rates). But at least then I will receive the full suite of Irish digital stations, TV and radio!

Have you got a digital switch over experience/disaster to tell me about? Go on, you know you’re worth it!

The Jimmy Savile affair raises broader questions about children in the media

In light of the allegations that TV presenter, Jimmy Savile, abused young girls, Prof. Máire Messenger Davies takes a timely look at the issue of protecting children in the media.

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The other day, (Tuesday 9th October) I was interviewed on Radio Foyle about the latest rehash of selected research findings from psychologist Aric Sigman claiming that being exposed to TV and computer screens was harmful to developing children’s brains. I was interviewed because, in 1989, I wrote a still-cited book called Television is Good for Your Kids, (2nd edition 2001) which, like Sigman’s article, was certainly a selective account. But in this case, it was an account of some of the positive results that can be found in the research literature about children’s relationship with television. I acknowledged that my book was partial – and I did so to make this very point: that research literature on social topics can be mined selectively to support many different points of view. However, I based my book on evidence from my own research, as well as on others’, which Sigman has never done. He does not do original media research himself. Medical journalist Ben Goldacre has done an excellent job of unpicking just how unscientific Aric Sigman’s supposed “research” is and I don’t propose to better this.

The other reason I’ve taken to the blogosphere now is because, in parallel with this cynically-hatched media fuss about secondary research findings which aren’t new, there have been the shocking revelations about sexual abuse of young girls allegedly carried out by Sir Jimmy Savile while working for the BBC. The producer of Savile’s BBC show, Jim’ll Fix It, Roger Ordish, who worked on the show between 1975 and 1986, said on Channel 4 News on Monday 8th October that there were no child protection procedures in place at that time (the show ran from 1975 to 1994). Really?

That sent me back to a piece of research that I conducted for the Broadcasting Standards Commission, with my colleague, Nick Mosdell, at Cardiff University, in the 1990s. Published in 2001 by the BSC (now taken over by Ofcom) our report was called ‘Consenting Children?’ and it dealt with this very issue of the use, potential exploitation and abuse, of non-performing children in adult television programmes (i.e. children who weren’t actors – child actors have very strict employment protection). The report can be found on our CMR website here and on the Ofcom website, in its final published version here.

This research was commissioned by the BSC in response to a number of complaints they’d received about children being exploited and distressed in adult programming (a little girl bursting into tears when required to compete in a staring competition on C4’s TFI Friday, for example). We covered a lot of ground in this study – we did a content analysis of adult daytime programming to see how non-performing children were used (and they were, in all kinds of ways, including as adult comedy fodder); we interviewed children and their parents; and we reviewed the guidelines used in the 1990s by the BBC and ITC (Independent Television Commission, then responsible for regulating ITV).

ITC guidelines stipulated the consent of a parent or guardian, as well as the child, ‘with exceptions only for the least sensitive interview topics’.  We commented in our report that ‘Producers are expected to follow industry guidelines (the ITC and BBC codes) about the use and protection of children on television, but the mechanisms for ensuring that they are followed can depend on producers’ discretion’. (2001:9)  The BBC Guidelines that we consulted in 1999-2000 when we did our research, required consent from children to take part in any kind of programming, and they recommended producers to seek professional advice when in doubt. The guidelines stated:

The use of children in programmes often requires handling with great care: it can be difficult for programme-makers to strike a balance between competing interests – of the child, of the parent, and of the audience as a whole … programme-makers must have due regard for the welfare of children who take part in their programmes. (BBC Producers’ Guidelines, 1999, Chapter 14)

More recent BBC Editorial Guidelines (2005) state that:

In the course of our work, if we suspect a child may be at risk or we are alerted by a young person to a child welfare issue (including allegations against BBC staff) the situation must be referred immediately to the divisional manager with responsibility for the Child Protection Policy.(2005:89)

In our research, we contrasted the somewhat vague approach (‘producers’ discretion’) to child protection in adult programming, with the much stricter codes of practice used in children’s programming. We did a case study of the Carlton (ITV) game show Mad for It, which used a lot of children competing in games with each other, and which had a live child audience. We interviewed producers and sat in on behind-the-scenes planning and on the recording. We found that regulatory procedures for ensuring consent, parental approval, safety, audience feedback, welfare and active enjoyment were explicit, and routinely applied as part of the production process. We recommended in our report that these examples of general good practice in children’s programming should be applied in all programming. Although Jimmy Savile’s alleged abuse took place during many years prior to our research, there certainly would have been examples of good child protection practice within the BBC during his career that could have been followed for the many programmes he worked on involving children.  It would seem that they were not.

Lord Alf Dubs, chair of the BSC, said in his foreword to our report:

These issues become increasingly important as we move towards a more lightly regulated broadcasting environment. We must ensure … that those who are, or may be, vulnerable are offered adequate and appropriate protection. We hope that this report, … will stimulate the debate such subjects deserve. (2001:1)

The debate has been re-activated again, in the light of these even more serious allegations of child abuse within the entertainment industry. Let’s hope the debate will lead to appropriate action and regulation across the board – not just in broadcasting but in the hypocritically-sanctimonious tabloid press, who excoriate the BBC, but try to defend the Sun publishing a will-she-won’t-she countdown to Charlotte Church’s 16th birthday, the sexual age of consent.

Stella Dallas and a Belfast underpass

Dr. Conn Holohan, lecturer in Film & Digital Media at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway, ruminates on the suprising and intriguing connections that can be made between a Hollywood melodrama and the post-conflict city.

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One of the most exciting aspects of engaging in the act of criticism or ‘doing theory’ or simply being in an academic environment is the unexpected dialogues which occur between seemingly unrelated experiences. Thus, a chance encounter with some interesting piece of writing might cast a whole new light on the film that you watch on television that night. Or a simple conversation with colleagues over lunch might send your research on an unanticipated trajectory. In any given week one will inevitably be teaching a variety of different approaches to film studies whilst undertaking research on a specialist area of the subject and all these ideas can combine in wonderful or just confusing ways. This week, a class I taught on melodrama and a fantastic guest lecture by Robert Porter and Daniel Jewesbury on post-conflict Belfast seemed to resonate in just such an intriguing way.

In class we drew on Linda Williams essay on Stella Dallas, ‘Something Else Besides a Mother’ to discuss the thorny issue of perspective and pleasure in 1930s melodramas. Williams opens with a quote from the 1977 novel The Women’s Room in which a female character recounts her fascination with Stella Dallas‘ famous final scene. The film ends, of course, with Stella standing alone in a street, gazing through a window to the room where her beloved but estranged daughter is getting married.

As Williams points out, this is one of a long line of images of sacrificial motherhood in 1930s cinema, in which the mother is forced to give up everything, including the love of her child, for the sake of that child’s happiness. The apparent irony, of course, is that these films were primarily aimed at a female audience who seemed, like the character in the novel, to take pleasure in watching their own victimization. In order to analyse why this may be so, Williams contrasts the dominant ‘look’ of the classical cinema with the more complex modes of looking and identification solicited by a melodrama such as Stella Dallas.

Leaving aside the psychoanalytical terms which underpin William’s argument, we can find a succinct summary of the dominant way of looking in classical cinema in the famous photograph by Robert Doisneau, Un regard oblique:

The joke is an obvious one: the wife thinks she is directing her husband’s gaze towards some presumably refined piece of art, ignorant of the true direction of his lustful stare. Although the wife is seemingly at the centre of the picture, the joke, it is clear, is on her. We, the viewer, remain firmly on the side of the male in the scene as our gaze is drawn in the same direction as his, at his wife’s expense. The message is one which is repeated throughout the history of film; men look, women are there to be looked at (as Laura Mulvey famously pointed out). If a female character attempts to take control of the image, to make us see the world through her eyes, the film, like this photo, will eventually put her in her place.

To return to Stella Dallas, it would seem that in its final scene the viewer is allowed to see the world through Stella’s eyes, to share her maternal pride on seeing her daughter Laurel finally achieve the position in society that Stella has so long desired for her. Yet this position which we share with Stella is one of exclusion, locked outside the action, reinforcing the association of femininity with passive victimhood. This is the argument which many feminist critics have posed in relation to the film, yet it fails, as Williams argues, to account for the true complexity of this scene or for the undoubted pleasure that female audience members have taken in it.

Williams suggests that the dynamics of looking and identification are far more complex in Stella Dallas than the basic structure outlined in Un regard oblique. Unlike ‘male’ genres such as the western or detective film, the audience of melodramas such as this does not solely identify with a single fixed character or viewpoint. She points out how in many of the scenes in the film we begin by identifying with Stella’s viewpoint before switching perspectives midway through the scene. The most moving example is when both Stella and her daughter lie awake in a sleeper carriage listening to Laurel’s friends disparage Stella for being crass and vulgar. Both mother and daughter think that the other is asleep and has therefore been spared from hearing Stella being publicly shamed. It is only us, the audience, that is aware of the truth, and that sees through their individual responses the strength of their love for each other.

Even in the final scene, our identification with Stella is not so absolute as might first appear. Unlike her, we have been in the room where the marriage is taking place and are aware of the true feelings of the characters inside, including Laurel’s desire for her mother to be present. Furthermore, whilst Stella sees this as a moment of fulfillment, as Laurel achieves through marriage the kind of upper-class life which she could never have, we have seen enough of this lifestyle through the film to realise that it is not the source of happiness that Stella believes. Thus, Williams argues, instead of simple identification with any one character, what the audience experiences in this scene is an empathy with the desires and dreams of all the characters. We become, she suggests, a kind of ideal mother, rejecting the privileging of a single (male) viewpoint that we see in Un regard oblique, realising that such a privileging always occurs at the expense of another, excluded perspective.

So what has this to do with a Belfast underpass? In their wide-ranging talk Porter and Jewesbury proposed a number of theoretical and artistic ways of approaching and exploring the spaces of Belfast in a post-conflict era. One example which stuck with me was that of the Westlink underpass which were opened in 2008 and was designed to connect the motorways on all sides of the city.

They showed this artist’s vision (right) of how the underpass was intended to look on completion, a utopian image of the smooth flowing traffic which would enable the proper functioning of a modern, capitalist city. Unfortunately, on the day that the underpass opened, this happened:

The god’s eye image which the design presents us with fails to register the existence of an underground river which flooded the underpass completely within hours of its opening. Despite the ignorance of the planners, this local knowledge would swiftly assert its own claim on the smooth spaces of traffic flow. It is a striking image of a forgotten history making its own claim on the present and is echoed in Porter and Jewesbury’s description of the local community’s relationship to this new section of motorway. Despite the necessity of now crossing a three lane motorway, members of the community continue to walk the same route to the local shop that they always had before the road’s arrival. Once again, we see a clash between the detached eye of the planner and the perspective on the ground, where the motorway is merely an interruption on a long-trodden route. These local histories and behaviours do not simply vanish with the designs of city councils.

It strikes me that there is a parallel between Doisneau’s famous photograph, with its demand that we look in a certain manner, and the insistence of the planner on a fixed vision of the city. Similarly, like the multiple perspectives of Stella Dallas, the unexpected flood of a newly opened underpass reminds us that there is always another way of seeing.

This post was first published on Dr. Holohan’s blog, A Machine to Think With.