Methodology: an introduction


In the guise of a long-suffering PhD supervisor Latour tells his rhetorical student: “If I were you, I would abstain from frameworks altogether. Just describe the state of affairs at hand”{Latour 2004}. Following this lead, my “Methodology Chapter” seeks to present the approach I took to my research question by explaining how and why I developed my Laboratory and how this led to my particular approach to practice-research.

As I will come on to argue, I understand practice-research as a methodology based on emergence, the productive   clashing of practice and theory setting in motion particular research questions and knowledges. It is the coming together of imaging practice and theoretical imaginings around objects and processes, that allows me to explore the software “in camera” and the scopic/governmental alliances within which it is enfolded.

At one scale this is a methodological account, an account of a way of working appropriate to my research question and field. I will argue that to approach practice-research as an issue of emergence rather than as a cycle or a topological diagram allowed me to explore the complex enfoldings of practice and theory as a process rather than as a series of states.

At another scale this is a personal account. As I realised giving an early version of this chapter as a paper at the ASCA conference in Amsterdam in March 2011, as a professional photographer I am personally enfolded in the issues, problematics and alliances in play. My methodological approach acknowledges and works with that investment and my own sense of an ‘aesthetic problem’, the sense that “photography (fails to) matter as art as never before”, to reverse Michael Fried’s claim{Fried 2008}.

This chapter is in two broad sections. In the first I outline the research questions I was looking to explore and the theoretical frameworks (discussed in the Theory Chapter) I was using to frame that exploration. I then discuss two influential models of practice-research{Sullivan 2010}{Smith and Dean 2009} and why I chose to imag(in)e my methodology in a slightly different way.

Having established my research questions, frameworks and approach, I go on to “describe the state of affairs” of the project. The aim here is to lay out clearly what I did and why I did it, but also to explore the implications of my particular approach for an object-oriented approach to software, media archaeology and scopic governmentality. Mine is clearly a theoretically-informed project. A key concern throughout my work has been whether I could have explored the relations between jpeg and the current scopic regime from a purely theoretical position. Would a philosophical thesis have been as powerful as a practice-research one. As I outline the work of the “Olympic Arcades Laboratory” I look to answer that question by imagining a different project, one where I had not taken RAW/jpeg images, not built mashups and “digital imag(in)ing apparatuses”, where I had never looked to engineer a device that worked with jpeg as an object and a process.

I describe these two states of affairs in terms of three sets of experiments in the laboratory. Firstly I discuss my imaging of “vibrant matter’, the rags ’n refuse around 2012. Here I was looking to explore my sense of an aesthetic problematic in the scopic regime through an attempt to go “beyond protocol” to imag(in)e outside jpeg. My second set of experiments looked to deal with that problematic through “using protocol”. Rather than looking to go beyond protocol, I sought to push it to its limits and break open its black box through a series of mashups. My third set of experiments worked through “being protocol”, engineering a “digital imag(in)ing apparatus” built around jpeg  as a way of exploring the edges of protocol, where it works and fails, where the “beyond”, the unvisible is, what using (the becoming and perishing work of jpeg is)  means and what that can tell us about jpeg’s workings and power.

Although of course these three sets of experiments happened in a particular order (although often I moved backwards and forwards between them), I do not want to discuss them in terms of a linear cyclical development where practice ratchets up knowledge in each iteration. Rather I see these experiments as instantiations of practice-research, as emerging from a coming together of particular creative practices with particular theoretical understandings and particular ‘personal’ concerns.

Running alongside these three accounts is an alternative imagining, an account of a different project where the workings of protocol and its stake in the contemporary scopic regime was approached purely through theory. This account is not designed to prove that my practice-research approach is somehow better but rather to highlight that it is different.

When Latour’s student reacts in horror: “‘Just describe’. Sorry to ask: but is this not terribly naïve?”, the supervisor responds sagely: “To describe, to be attentive to the concrete states of affairs, to find the uniquely adequate account of a given situation – I have, myself, always found this incredibly demanding”{Latour 2004}. My (just) description of the state of affairs in my laboratory is designed to provide an account of a methodological approach appropriate to a research thesis but also itself to act as a space for an exploration of practice-research as a way of approaching actant-networks.

  • Fried, M., 2008, Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before, Yale University Press, New Haven.
  • Latour 2004, A Prologue In Form Of A Dialog Between A Student And His (Somewhat) Socratic Professor, in C Avgerou, C Ciborra & F Land (eds), The Social Study of Information and Communication Study, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 62-76.
  • Smith, H. & Dean, R.T. 2009, Introduction: Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice – Towards the Iterative Cyclic Web, in Smith & Dean (eds), Practice-Led Research, Research-Led Practice In The Creative Arts, Edinburgh Univ Pr, Edinburgh, pp. 1-40.
  • Sullivan, G., 2010, Art Practice As Research: Inquiry In Visual Arts, 2nd ed. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks [Calif.].