Belay: 20 March 2011

Belay: 20 March 2011 (For other belays and the idea behind them, see here).

I am exploring the relationship between the jpeg compression protocol and the new photographic and imaging practices of sharing, publishing, streaming, archiving and remixing online, by understanding jpeg as an object setting in motion ways of seeing, imaging and imagining (or imag(in)ing as I call it), just as other scopic apparatuses from the camera obscura to the most modern medical imaging tools have done. In particular I focus on how jpeg is implicated in the creation and exploitation of social digital archives that are enfolded in powerful material governmental relations.

These research questions arise from practice-research. Through a series of imaging experiments with protocol I have failed to pin down protocol but rather have been left with the trails of the issues, the traces of its operation and relations but not jpeg itself. I can find dot jpeg not jpeg. Jpeg withdraws from view but at the same time appears in multiple connections across the scopic/computational/governmental regime. My practice has become imag(in)ing a digital imag(in)ing apparatus which explores this withdrawl and connection.

The apparatus is built around the idea of the “digital imaging pipeline”, a conception of how digital imaging works that engineers use to design and produce hardware and software. The apparatus (so named to locate it within an assemblage of past, present and future scopic and imag(in)ing devices that my media archaeology looks to trace) is best thought of as itself enfolded. It is tempting to use the metaphor of an onion but to do so would perhaps be to invite conceptions of depth, essence and foundation. It is an enfolded topology of software and hardware: a camera, its CCD, the ‘in camera’ software including jpeg, a WiFi-enabled memory card, a WiFi  router and network, a web server and a web page.

Images taken with the apparatus are encoded as RAW and jpeg/JFIF files and directly uploaded to a server where anyone can see and/or download them… or not. Because if she tries to open/view an image that has been enabled by jpeg’s becoming and perishing as it encodes light as data, the image will open in the browser. The imag(in)ing will be render visible. If she clicks on that image’s sister RAW file (a software encoded record of exactly the same light), the image will not render. The browser will not “recognise” the format. Usually it will opt out of the visualising pipeline and offer to save the file. The imag(in)ing is unvisible.

My digital imag(in)ing device not show protocol – nor could it. As with all objects, it withdraws from view and all relations.. What it can do is show the gap where it works, its absence (in RAW imag(in)ing) as a way of highlighting its process nature. It is only when presented with its absence in an unvisible RAW file, that its nature becomes apparent. What it does show is the relations within which protocol works and through which it derives its power. As a jpeg/JFIF comes into view in a browser or on the camera screen or in the invitation from Flickr, Facebook or Twitter to upload, so jpeg’s fundamental enfolding with web 2.0 businesses and imaging industries becomes clear.

A further component to the apparatus disrupts those enfoldings. As a website directory, the files uploaded from the apparatus could be indexed and searched by software spiders from Google etc. Each imag(in)ing (RAW and jpeg/JFIF) could be catalogued, cached, archived and enfolded into data-mining businesses. I added a ‘Metapmorphosis’ script to my server that rewrote the name of the jpeg/JFIF files at regular intervals. This means firstly that there is a chance that someone clicking on a jpeg/JFIF filename will not see the imag(in)ing rendered because the link between name and visible data file has been broken in between the rendering of the directory listing and the request for the file. It also means that any attempt to pull my visible imag(in)ings into archives, search databases or indexes or datamines would fail as the search result/database entry would point toward a non-existint imag(in)ing… unless of course those search indexes and datamines worked with RAW, which on the whole they did not. A second ‘Cinderella’ script wiped the directory every night at midnight. Of course this does not wipe the imag(in)ings which could have been downloaded or cached during the day. What it does is to further disturb the ready connection between imag(in)ing and archive that jpeg enabled and social imaging/networking businesses depended on.

I look to account for the nature and working of the jpeg protocol through object-oriented philosophy as developed by Graham Harman. This non-relational ontology (OOO) argues that there is nothing outside the object. Objects withdraw from view (cf Heidegger), they are never fully present – just as jpeg is only ‘visible’ in its traces. At the same time, objects connect – as jpeg does across the distributed scopic regime. Rather than talking of relations between objects, as Latour and Whitehead do, OOO imag(in)es objects forming connections in the ‘molten heart’ of new objects at the same ontological level. Here jpeg connects with my WiFi card, in camera software, the iPad, Google’s search algorithm and Facebook’s datamining strategy etc. within new objects: the governmental database object, the Web 2.0 bubble object, the citizen media object, the wirelessness object (cf Mackenzie). These are not at a different level, as context, structure or network. They are other ‘actual’ objects within a flat ontology. My argument is that this approach allows us not only to map the computational/governmental topology more powerfully, but also open up what Galloway and Thacker call the Exploit – topologies of resistance. Furthermore, from a photographic perspective, it allows us to develop a practice that is not afraid of the suffusion of image-objects or feels the need to mimic fine art’s range and size (cf Fried). Rather it allows for a flat object-oriented imaging practice.

My project is not a discussion of philosophy but rather what happens when you treat protocol as an object.

An object-oriented approach allows us to approach and map jpeg without recourse to a foundationalist or essentialist position that would see it as the source of scopic effects or power relations. Rather it can be addressed as enfolded in archival, governmental relations because of its nature as an actant-process.

My project will appear as a thesis and the apparatus.

The thesis will consist of:

  • a ”theory chapter”. An outline of the object-oriented approach I am taking in terms of understanding protocol.
  • a “literature review” where I will concentrate on Alexander Galloway (and Eugene Thacker)’s discussion of protocol, tracing its relations to the development of software studies and accounts of the network and WiFi. I will also discuss that part of software studies and film studies that focuses specifically on standards and codecs. The second theme of the review will focus on media archaeological accounts of the ‘scopic apparatus’. The aim here will not be to engage with the debates about  periodisation but rather draw out the emerging concern for the material apparatus/object as an instantiation of forces and power. In particular I will focus on Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work on mechanisms. This review will work from an OOO perspective, providing an object-oriented critique and reading of existing perspectives on protocol and scopic apparatuses. Interwoven with this will be OOO readings of relevant creative works.
  • a “methodology chapter” will why the project needed to work from a practice-research perspective rather than as a purely theoretical one.
  • an “imag(in)ings chapter”. I use the neologisim “imag(in)ing” to draw attention to the enfolding I see between imaginary media, imagining and imaging. This chapter explores those connections through a discussion of digital data-space – Google, Facebook et al’s collection (and creation) of digital detritus – as a space of imaging and governmental imagining.
  • a “technical appendix” where I outline the technical position of jpeg within the “digital imaging pipeline”.

Alongside and interwoven with this thesis will be the “digital imag(in)ing apparatus”. This will consist of a series of visualisations or imag(in)ings including:

  • my images/imaginings of vibrant 2012 matter.
  • blueprints for and imag(in)ings of the “digital imag(in)ing apparatus”.