The felt pen and the protocol

In his contribution to the catalogue for the ‘Making Things Public’ exhibition, Latour talks of “the thin felt pen used by draughtsmen to imagine new landscapes”. Here the draughtsman and his object do more than draw. The object does more than act as the channel for his ‘creativity’ or ‘message’. The pen is an active player in the creation of the work. The alliance between the pen-object and the draughtsman-object establishes both man (sic) and machine as active. The tool ‘does things’ not simply because it it is wielded by an artist but because it is enfolded in relations with that artist-object, the business of architecture, the studio, the contract commissioning the design and countless other black boxes within the actor-network.

And that alliance is creative, not just in the sense that the draughtsman might see his drawings or work as creative, but in the broader ontological sense captured in Latour’s use of the word ‘imagine’. The plans that emerge from the pen-draughtsman alliance do not just create an illusion or a picture but an imaginary. Whether the building is ever built or not the imaginary is in play, a new object and set of object relations has been set in motion. Drawing on Anderson and Taylor’s ideas of the imagined community which Lillie Chouliariki discusses in relation to spectatorship, imagining as a practice is deeply political, power-full and real. This is not a dream but the active construction of new relations and ways of seeing. It is not just that a plan for a new landscape creates a new visual sign or ideology or even that it is enfolded in the complex relations of planning, building, sustainability etc. The act of imag(in)ing with and through the pen-object brings into play (maybe even ‘existence’) a new imaginary that changes the network. All other imaginaries now inevitably relate to it. New alliances and translations are in play. New traces of power cross those relations. It is not possible to configure the semiotic, ideological, political landscape in quite the same way – even if the physical landscape is never changed by the imaginary.

“The standard used by photographers to imag(in)e 2012”. The jpeg protocol, like the felt pen is a tool, used by photographers, software designers and internet businesses. But like the pen it is an object, an active actant working in the actor-network of the new distributed scopic regime. It sets up the conditions of possibility for imaging and imagining (imag(in)ing) in terms of flexibility and interoperability. But is is not the passive tool of the imager, the programmer or the web service. Rather it is an active player in setting scopic practices, texts and relations in motion. The traces of those relations are imaginaries brought into play (maybe even ‘existence’) that change the network. The protocol should not be seen as (technologically) determining those imaginaries and relations because the protocol should not be caricatured as a ‘technology’. Rather it should be seen as a multi-dimensional object.