Photography not photographs: apparatus as event

As my work has developed from taking photographs, through developing photographic installations in the form of mash-ups and interfaces to building a “camera”, it has become clearer that my work is about photography not photographs. To take such a position as an analyst is one thing. To do so as an ‘artist’ is another. To say one is interested in studying the practice not the texts is legitimate. To say one’s practice is the imaging not the image is quote another.

What I would argue is that, in the vein of conceptual art, the practice of conceptualising photography or imag(in)ing can make a claim to be ‘art’. Again this is not a radical step. Within the field of practice-research, the practice (as opposed to the product) is seen as a valid object in itself. Curation, choreography, performance are as legitimate as the image or the text as creative works appropriate for assessment. I would argue however that these practices inevitably have a product. The product may not be the aim but it does not get in the way of the practice-research that leads up to it.

My argument is that when looking at jpeg as a process, an occasion, an object-actant that withdraws from view but is powerfully enfolded in alliances and scopic relations, the product does get in the way. To engage in a practice that produces images (mine or a montage of others) would be to not only to display jpeg/JFIFs or at least their realisation in ink or pixels, as in the work of Thomas Ruff (2009), but also to call on the practice-research to focus on images rather than processes of imaging. To produce an installation such as a mashup would be to  be to focus on the traces of protocol’s work of encoding and decoding and its role in sharing and searching but would also drive the practice-research into exploring where protocol works rather than where it breaks down, the limits of its alliances, the edges of its process and becoming. As I have sought to argue, it is when the black box is pushed to its limits that it breaks apart and the alliances and processes become most evident. Practice-research is about finding the moments of failure, of un-becoming perhaps, that can show the limits of protocol. To engage in a practice that issues in a product, no matter how dynamic or fluid, has implications for the research questions and so the  ‘answers’.

The issue then becomes what sort of practice-without-product can one engage in that enables that liminality, that can focus on the fragmentary and complex nature of processual objects and account for becoming in the nature of actant alliances? More concretely in terms of a practice-research PhD, particularly a funded one, what do I ‘hand in’? My recent thinking has been around the ‘scopic apparatus’ as a space of fragmentation, failure and complexity. This ‘apparatus’ has enabled me to push protocol to open up the questions of process, actants, becoming, alliances and enfoldings in play within our scopic regime. The process/practice of conceptualising the ‘apparatus’, building in the failures and fragmentations, has been the site of practice-research. But what happens if I ‘build’ and submit the apparatus?

Were I to build a camera in the traditional sense of constructing a box, perhaps adding a lens or a pinhole, maybe adding mirrors and gears – this would be deemed to be a creative or at least craft practice. Were I to update that and ‘circuit bend’ a digital device or hack and solder a gadget – that too would happily carry the label ‘creative’. Were I to fabricate an ‘installation’ where a visitor could experience an apparatus in the gallery or the community centre – there would be a ‘work’. Were I even to create a website that somehow foregrounded imaging (the sort of App I originally set out to build) – there would be a product-practice. Such apparatuses may make the moment of submission easier but, as products, they would drive the practice-research away from its focus on becoming, alliances, occasions and events.

The “digital imag(in)ing apparatus” I am exploring cannot be a ‘thing’. It is the hardware, software, network relations and processes. It is the gaps (the hyphen maybe) between those technologies and actants. When my digital camera, WiFi card, router, server, webpage assemblage is realised, when the button is pressed and jpeg and other software and protocols do their work, particular actant-network relations are set in process, a certain occasion “becomes and perishes” (Whitehead 1967: 204), jpeg flashes into life and alliance. It works (rendering visible) and fails (rendering unvisible).

I am engaged in two practices: the creation of the apparatus and its use. Both must be seen as processes-without-products. In the first practice, the envisioning and ‘creation’ of the apparatus, the practice, is the bringing together of off-the-shelf components – the camera, card, router, software, server, network etc. I am not doing anything new here. This actant-network already exists in countless configurations every time someone takes a photo and upload it to a social network for instance. My practice is simply envisioning it in a particular context (practice-research PhD). The important thing is the practice of envisioning or imag(in)ing, not the product established. The second practice is the running of the apparatus, not the technology it runs on or any image even montage it produces. It is in the envisioning and running that protocol’s status as event, as actant within networks, is made apparent. It is when the light-as -data is made visible and unvisble or when the network fails that protocol appears as most vivid. The products – any camera or image created are purely secondary.

The “digital imag(in)ing apparatus” is best thought of as an event. This is not a ‘performance’ (again with that emphasis on product) but a moment of becoming in a Whiteheadian sense. The important thing here is the emphasis on process, on becoming and on perishing. Running my “digital imag(in)ing apparatus”, or anyone else’s for that matter, is a moment of becoming, an instantiation of process (including jpeg as a process-object) that constitutes the scopic regime in a particular configuration. If one were to see the “digital imag(in)ing apparatus” as a thing, a product, then this process would be collapsed, the alliances flattened and the network stabilised. Protocol could withdraw from view and the alliances and processes (in relation to Google, Facebook, Apple et al) collapsed into a foundationalist or essentialist map. Where events, in their becoming and perishing, their process and failure, place the emphasis on heterogeneity, complexity and connection, products  (even practice-products) stress homogeneity and stability.

If I was happy to ‘hand in’ a device, an App, a website or even a plan for a performance, my practice-research would be about creating an object not an event. It would be about looking to pin down relations and map connections and effects. It would be establishing coherency not fragmentation, success not failure. It is only when protocol is pushed to failure that its alliances, becoming and power appear. It is this ‘failure’ that I argue is the power of practice-hyphen-research. It is the willingness of the practice-research method to embrace fragmentation, to privilege process over product, liminal failure over stable workings, that allows it to explore actant-networks and actant-event-objects that withdraw from view.

  • Ruff, T., 2009, Jpegs, Aperture Foundation, Inc, New York, NY.
  • Whitehead, A.N., 1967, Adventures Of Ideas, Free Press, New York.