Imag(in)ing theory – a draft presentation

I am giving a paper at the Practicing Theory – ASCA International Workshop 2011 in Amsterdam next week. The paper is available here, but the organisers, thankfully, do not want people to read their papers but rather give a short presentation of their work and reflect on others’. This is my draft ‘talk’:

My work is somewhere between this (take picture) and this (demo viewer). This is a theoretical space, a practice space and a space of imaging and imagining.

I began with a photographic practice. I took and created images and explored new forms of imaging and imagining online, distributed, networked photography. As my paper tells the story I have been on a journey exploring what distributed imaging is practically and how to understand it theoretically. My work as a photographer and internet imager has been part of a wider shift in visual culture and visuality that following Martin Jay and others, I characterise as a scopic regime, a field of distributed image and imaging practices – sharing, linking, embedding, attaching, mashing.

It would of course be possible to address this regime through a number of theories – semiotic, psychoanalysis, theories of postmodernity or globalisation which would all produce their own methodologies. My theoretical approach similarly determined the methodological direction I chose.

My work is around the software protocols or standards that underpin our new scopic regime. Treating these protocols (particularly jpeg) as an ‘object’ following Graham Harman’s reading of Latour, we can see the jpeg compression protocol as an ‘actant’ doing things in the world: making images findable and viewable in browsers; making them small enough to be distributed and exchanged in mobile spaces; playing a part in Facebook’s face recognition business plans and Apple’s App store domination. For Latour, these are actant-alliances, the network relations that give any actant, material or immaterial, real or virtual its power.

I extend this object-oriented approach with a reading of Alfred North Whitehead who addressed objects as processes. For Whitehead, things in the world, human or not, are “events” single incidents of becoming.  These events are made up of “occasions’ quantum , discrete indivisible units of becoming that “become and perish”

Understanding the jpeg protocol from this processual perspective allows us to imagine it as a quantum occasion, a moment of becoming. Each moment of becoming, each process of encoding/decoding, each working of light into data, each compression is a quantum occasion. That is jpeg. The process is not what jpeg does, it is what it is. Jpeg withdraws from view because each quantum moment of becoming perishes, only to be taken up again by another instantiation of jpeg, another occasion.

Jpeg has a form of continuity in the documents of jpeg group, in the specifications and strategies of the imag(in)ing industries, in the alliances within which it is enfolded. But its ontological continuity comes from its quantum moments of becoming, its position as a process that becomes and then perishes only to become and perish with the next instantiation.

This approach demanded a methodology that could explore that process of becoming and perishing, the way in which – in Heidegger’s terms, the object withdrew from view. I needed a methodology that enabled me to get in and work with jpeg as process. Practice-Research as a complex-adaptive system offered such a way in.

Practice-Research as I try to understand it in the paper is a complex adaptive system of emergence. This differs from other accounts of practice-based research which imagine a cyclical connection between moments of practice and moments of research, moments of being, ratcheting up the process toward knowledge or accounts of practice as research where the two are braided with practice as the central attractor state. For me, the complex adaptive system of practice-research worked as a process of emergence – becoming and perishing rather than the attractors moments of being. This methodology demanded a practice similarly based around becoming rather than being.

I designed a series of experiments where it was the process (and often ‘failure’) that was important. My aim was not to create images or even mashups or objects. It was running the code or the apparatus that was important because it was in this process, this moment of becoming that jpeg began to reveal its workings and its position.

For me, it was only when my practical attempts to work with protocol failed, where the jpeg standard slipped behind the jpeg/JFIF image, that the sort of processes and alliances Whitehead and Latour talk about became apparent. It was only as I played with the “digital imaging pipeline” – the space between this (take picture) and this (demo viewer), that I could get to grips with jpeg as quantum-actant. My practice was an instantiation and imaging and imagining of the theory I was working with. As jpeg ‘withdrew from view’ yet simultaneously set network relations in motion, empowering web 2.0 businesses and technosocial relations in practice, its ontological status in theory became evident. As I watched the traces of its operation in the mashups and apparatuses I built become and perish like flashes of quantum life on a particle accelerator monitor, I was imaging and imagining Whitehead and Latour’s theory.

My most recent ‘experiment’ is a “digital imag(in)ing apparatus”, a scopic apparatus in the tradition of the camera obscura, the zoopraxiscope and the iPhone. It is designed to imagine jpeg as process actant, as occasion becoming and perishing but powerfully enfolded in corporate structures, governmental relations and what Matthew Fuller calls media ecologies.

The apparatus consists of off-the-shelf components, hardware and software connected together to allow jpeg to become, to encode light as data, enfold that data in the media assemblage and then perish. What is particular about my grandly named “digital imag(in)ing apparatus” is it runs in parallel with countless other “digital imag(in)ing apparatuses” in your pocket or bag, in the hands of fans at a gig, protestors on the streets or parents at a school sports day. These “digital imag(in)ing apparatuses” are more than the camera or the phone, each is the camera in alliance with the Wi-Fi network, the router, server and Web 2.0 services, the software and protocols of encoding, search and data mining. These imagers do not see themselves as “imagining theory” or using a “digital imag(in)ing apparatus” but they are. My “digital imag(in)ing apparatus” is only different insofar as it is also in alliance with academia.