Methodology: section one

The Project

The project emerged from the collision of my theoretical work applying object-oriented, processual thinking to an understanding of software protocols with my photographic work around looking for a “network imag(in)ing aesthetic”[ref]This picks up on Vito Campanelli’s search for a web aestehtic{Campanelli 2010} and Victoria Vesna et al’s similar quest for a database aesthetic{Vesna 2007}. This is discussed in more detail in the Imag(in)ings Chapter.[/ref].

As I discuss in the Theory Chapter, I look to object-oriented philosophy and the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead as a way of theorising the operations and nature of things. Here an object is a vibrant process-actant ‘doing things in the world’, constituted by and constituting powerful alliances across industry, government and media. This was the way of seeing things I brought to bear when I looked through my camera viewfinder. I saw vibrant matter, objects as processes, and it was that I sought to imag(in)e.

As I discuss in the Practice Chapter, my creative work was driven by a concern as a professional photographer for a form of imag(in)ing appropriate to the network scopic regime. Going beyond a nostalgic desire for the scopic certainties of a mythic photographic time, this problematic  – this search for a  “network imag(in)ing aesthetic” was my practice, whether I was photographing vibrant matter around the 2012 Fence or the ‘Things of the Day’ I added to my website. As with protocol, the process was the key, not the product.

This theory-practice montage was the space of emergence where insights into digital imag(in)ing, alliances across the imaging industries and governmentality appeared. This sense of emergence and process as at the core of my methodology is subtly different to traditional accounts of practice-research.

Practice as, practice-led research and research-led practice

Graeme Sullivan’s Art Practice As Research (2010) carries the subtitle Inquiry in Visual Arts but his perspective can be seen as reaching beyond the purely visual arts[ref]Sullivan can be seen as located within the same discourse as Vic Burgin{Burgin 2006} and Desmond Bell{Bell 2008} in seeing practice-research as a political struggle for arts’ legitimacy. For him practice-research  emerged within an institutional and historical frame. He starts with an historical account of how art has always created new knowledge{Sullivan 2010@3-31} and when he gets onto the issue of contemporary discussions of practice-based and practice-led research, this is located in terms of responses to the OECD’s Frascati Manual  An internationally recognized guide for standards in research and development used to help develop policies and practices which includes a framework for defining research activity{%Sullivan 2010@74}.He continues this contextualisation by discussing the “academic art world”  {%Sullivan 2010@79-82} before presenting his own model. That model emerges from an account of practice-research as a political-economic and historical form located in particular material and professional relations.[/ref]. Sullivan locates his own perspective against the background of empiricist, hermeneutic and critical methodologies. Sullivan does not say these methods are invalid; he merely wants to argue that artists have something to add too. His project is to connect those approaches and methods together and position art practice as research, rather than as an outcome or a starting point. He visualises this relationship as a series of interlocking pieces. He places “art practice [as the] core around which inquiry unfolds” (p 102). Practice and critique are linked, intimately connected as two triangles forming a diamond “as theoretical issues are investigated through creating and critiquing” (p 106).

Through a series of increasingly complex visual figures Sullivan develops his metaphor[ref]There is of course a danger with visual metaphors, particularly when made concrete in illustrations. They inevitably collapse complex relations and can slip from a heuristic device to becoming a statement of equivalence. I repeat them here in order to clarify the writers’ positions and distinguish my own approach which I am conscious is also visual.[/ref] of the “braid, with its infolding and unfurling form that disengages and reconnects with core themes while continually moving into new spaces” (p 112).The final image has moved from a tangram-like two dimensional jigsaw to a more fractal-like, 3d, dynamic visualisation where, “irrespective of where visual arts research happens, the structure has similar qualities – it is simple, complex, and dynamic all at the same time” (p 113). Using imagery reminiscent of computer visualisations, the metaphor of the braid sees the core practice triangle connecting with interpretivist, empiricist and critical fragments, splitting, recombining and finally stabilising (Figure). Throughout this process, the visual arts practice ‘piece’ – while it may itself fragment into multiple practices, acts as the attractor pulling the complex system into a form of stability. Sullivan talks of practice as research but he could equally well talk of practice-based research. For him practice, in whatever fragmentary, complex and dynamic ways he pictures it, is at the heart of the system. It is practice that acts as attractor.

Hazel Smith and Roger Dean also go for a visual metaphor (Smith & Dean 2009). They draw a picture to imagine what they characterise as practice-led research and research-led practice. Their willingness to reverse the terms around the conjunction ‘led’ is important. Their diagram has separate zones for practice-led research and research-led practice within what they call an “iterative cyclic web”. They too see a dynamic process but where perhaps Sullivan pictures a folding/unfolding movement, here the image is one of the cycle: start-end-start with a ‘research phase’ and a ‘practice phase’ connected, repeated and ratcheting each other up as a project moves forward.

Smith and Dean’s account can sometimes sound almost functionalist: “idea generation leads to experiments, gathering of data and/or analysis of theory or criticism. This may be followed by the development or synthesis of material and can, in turn, lead to the testing of the theory, either empirically to by argument and comparison, with outputs at a number of possible stages”{%Smith 2009@21}. Their figure is certainly more linear than Sullivan’s but it is not a single movement. They position it in relation to Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome (2004) “in which any point can be linked to any other and there are ‘multiple entryways and exits’” (Smith & Dean 2009: 21). Around the edge of Smith and Dean’s core cycle, sub-cycles form. These “smaller circles indicate the way in which any stage in the process involves iteration” (p19). As one follow the process of evolution around the circle, new organisms form and develop or form and die off, feeding back into the broader ecosystem.

The hyphen

Both Sullivan and Smith and Dean make use of language and imagery derived from complexity theory which argues that the whole is more than the sum of the components. At large and small scales, systems have characteristics that are the same. They are ‘scale free’, ‘self similar’ or fractal. Within complex systems, small units, or ‘actants’ (whether atoms, neurones, ants, populations, share dealings, bits within a computer etc) interact in complex ways and generate particular states. These states or ‘attractors’ are poised on the ‘edge of chaos’[ref]Chaos here is used in the technical sense as a particular non-linear formation. Within complexity theory complex adaptive systems are poised on the edge of this non-linear chaos. For accessible introductions see{Johnson 2009}{Holland 1995}{Urry 2005}.[/ref]. The system settles but only temporarily. It is this movement where a system settles around an attractor only to be moved on to another (not necessarily higher) level of organisation, that has proved so attractive to those seeking to understand biological, economic and even cultural systems[ref]See for instance Manuel De Landa’s attempt to write a non-linear history{DeLanda 2000} where social structures (whether material or non-material, human or not) emerge from complex historical processes that cannot be traced to a founding essence or dynamic. Rather De Landa argues, ideas of social causality must include an understanding of the sort of feedback mechanisms that scientists find at work in chaotic and complex adaptive systems.[/ref]. For both Sullivan and Smith and Dean, the focus is on the attractor state. For Sullivan, practice acts an attractor, stabilising the complex, dynamic movements within research. For Smith and Dean, the swirls and eddies within the cycle of practice-research-practice also act as moments of stability, pauses in a field of complex processes but also sparks for new micro webs.

There is a form of continuity and coherence (holism) to both Sullivan and Smith and Dean’s pictures. Although Sullivan’s tangram shatters, it reforms. Although Smith and Dean’s circle has eddies, they are tied into a coherent ecosystem. A particular research question or idea, a particular practical experiment may shoot off from the project but it is soon brought back and woven into a complex meta-narrative as an attractor state.

My work however suggests that such a focus on coherence and holism undermines the dialectic power of practice-research in the productive clash of theory and practice[ref]Here there is another connection to Benjamin’s Arcades project where he talks of the dialectical image as a tool for understanding and writing history. See {BuckMorss 1989}.[/ref]. By focussing on moments of stability rather than processes, that productive collision – where the idea of things in process overlays the viewfinder, or where the failure to get beyond ‘the image’ highlights the becoming and perishing of the protocol object – is never faced. My work demanded a different conception of the practice-research system, one that could account for it as process and as one based on emergence. As a way of escaping what I saw as the problem of the conjunction (practice led practice based) however unstable it was drawn, I replace it with a hyphen: practice-research. The hyphen[ref] I am conscious that the hyphen is a loaded tool to use. Circular debates about its presence or absence for post(-)structuralists/colonialist/feminists et al are never far away and of course Latour is no fan of hyphens. He is clear: “There are four things that do not work with actor-network theory; the word actor, the word network, the word theory and the hyphen! Four nails in the coffin”{Latour 1999@15}. For him the hyphen prefigures a return to modernist oppositions. “It is an unfortunate reminder of the debate between agency and structure into which we never wanted to enter”{%Latour 1999@21}. A core aim of ANT is to explore how actors are enfolded in networks which are themselves the traces of actors in process, movement, translation and alliance. For Latour, the hyphen gets in the way. Rather than signaling a bridge it signifies a gap, a space, something to be connected. I would argue however that the connotations of a bridge and a gap/space that Latour seems to fear are exactly the point because it is in that space of emergence where the power of practice-research as a way of understanding complex systems of emergence and actants in movement becomes possible.[/ref] allows practice-research to embrace the fragment and failure that I was dealing with in the Laboratory – the fragmentary nature of the experiments and their failure to capture protocol as it withdrew from view or deliver a stable “network imag(in)ing aesthetic”.

My aim in establishing my experiments was not to establish an iterative process leading to the holy grail of an account of protocol nor create attractor states that would deliver knowledges. Rather it was to set in motion a process of emergence which could begin to unpick the enfolded relations and actor-networks that gave character to the digital image-object and the distributed scopic regime.

The hyphen embraces the fragment as a way of generating connections (networks). Just as Benjamin’s fragmentary writing of history in One Way Street (1997) and the Arcades Project (2002) used a form of montage to collide fragments in order to generate dialectic images, so an opening up, rather than closing down of the fragmentary moments and practices allows new sparks across the gap between practice and theory. The experiments as processes, were fragments – moments of practice-theory emergence and becoming. Their power lay not in being subsumed back into a meta-process but rather in being allowed and encouraged to collide, translate and connect.

Similarly, while Sullivan and Smith and Dean – along with many other writers on practice-research method – are not afraid of failure, positioning it as part of a longer-term (learning) process, they do not see it as at the core of the issue. I would want to argue  however that as well as being a bridge and a gap for fragments to spark across, the hyphen is also a space where neither practice nor theory works, where they fail, where they are left chasing protocol and its aesthetics rather than pinning it down at an (attractor) moment of stability. Failure is in some ways more important than success for an object-oriented practice-research project.

It is in the ‘failure’ to find jpeg, the way in which my experiments are always left with the traces rather than the ‘thing’, that the nature of protocol as process-actant becomes most apparent. If I had somehow managed to capture jpeg or imagine its aesthetic, the alliances and process within which it was enfolded would not have become so visible. It was in its process that its relations to search and social networking became clearer. It was in its becoming and perishing that its everyday enfolding in business practices and governmentality were brought to light. That process and perishing that meant my experiments ‘failed’ were the moments of emergence.

The hyphen symbolises emergence and the gap or failure. Where Sullivan and Smith and Dean certainly draw attention to process, their focus is on the moments of stability, the experiments or practices where an actant has achieved some form of stability or an attractor state has stabilised momentarily. However it is the spaces between those moments that are the most important. The hyphen draws attention to that space. It symbolises a connection but also a disjunction between practice and theory.

It was this conception of the hyphen, a willingness to embrace fragments and failure that formed the methodological basis for my laboratory.

The Olympic Arcades Laboratory

The Olympic Arcades Laboratory was the name I gave to the series of practice-research experiments I developed to explore the operations of protocol within the scopic regime. The idea was to create a space where theory and practice could meet, where a framework addressing protocol as an object-actant and a process could rub up against imaging practices looking for a network imag(in)ing aesthetic in an effort to generate new ways of understanding protocol in network and software in camera.

The name “laboratory” drew attention to the provisional nature of the experiments and a focus on process rather than product. “Arcades” was a reference to Benjamin’s fragmentary approach to writing history and his belief in the power of the rags ’n refuse of culture and society as a way into understanding processes, alliances and networks (Benjamin 2002). The ”Olympics” was a reference to the photographic project that started my interest in distributed imaging and protocol and the case study/raw material I used[ref]It is important to address how the 2012 Olympics fitted into my project and methodology. At one level the 2012 Olympics ran through the whole project. My images and imaging that started the project were around the physical space of the Games as it was being constructed in the East End of London. As it developed towards an exploration of the digital image-object, imaging and protocol, I used the distributed imag(in)ing of “2012” as the space to explore. At another level however it is important to say that this project was not about the Olympics, photography of the Olympics or even “imag(in)ing the Olympics”. The object in my laboratory was not 2012 but protocol. My research questions were both large and small scale. I was interested in the nature of a protocol-driven scopic regime and also the nature of the protocol-object. Of course these have implications for how the 2012 Olympics are represented and seen, but I was not looking to map those representations and effects. Nor did I examine the role of different sorts of photographer/imager – the official and unofficial, the accredited and the unaccredited, the journalist and the activist. Rather I explored the status of the scopic regime and the protocol-object at a particular moment: the period leading up to the 2012 Games. I chose 2012 as a focus for a number of reasons: it was temporally and spatially located; it embraced different forms of imager and imaging practices; and like protocol itself, it was embedded and enfolded in complex alliances. 2012 was a specific historical moment. In terms of the lead-up or the “Big Build” as it is called, the Games itself or the so-called “legacy”, 2012 was temporally located. The images and imaging practices around those events carried a time-stamp. It was possible to set limits within my experiments based on particular periods or historical moments. Similarly the Fence and the spaces of the site (specifically the East London site) provided a discrete set of images and imag(in)ing practices to work with – images and imaging practices within a particular local and geographic space. To have picked another historical moment (such as a General Election) would have been to open up to potentially global sets of images and imag(in)ing practices. Importantly, that specific geographical location of the 2012 site (and the imag(in)ing practices around it) also allowed me to explore protocol-driven imag(in)ing which went beyond “citizen journalism”. In order to explore the operations of protocol, I specifically wanted to work with images and imaging practices that were not necessarily consciously “photographs” or “journalism” (whether official or citizen). I wanted to explore the incidental, the domestic and local imag(in)ing from imagers who would not position themselves as journalists or perhaps even photographers. I wanted to trace the operations of protocol within the rags ‘n refuse of the distributed scopic regime[1]. By using 2012 I could define a specific geographical space and, using geolocative metadata, find images and imag(in)ing practices that were literally around 2012 but were not consciously part of the reporting or representing of the Olympic Games. My final reason for using 2012 as a focus was driven by the project’s overarching object-oriented approach. Following the framework I used, 2012 could be seen as an object – doing something in the world as a brand, an ideology but also as an actant in complex alliances with corporate, media and academic actors. From this perspective, 2012 emerged as a particular object as it was translated in and through different alliances: whether the work of Coca-Cola’s marketing team, the Press Association’s position as official UK Olympics News Agency or the work of Professor Andy Miah. The range of alliances and networks within which 2012 was enfolded meant the Olympics was a particular fertile field for addressing the nature and operation of objects.[/ref].

The laboratory was built around the idea of the hyphen insofar as it was designed to maximise the operation of fragments and open up the possibility of failure. The experiments were designed as processes (of imaging, network imaging and protocol imaging).These processes generated fragments of images, of moments of becoming that were encouraged to clash with concepts of object, actant and becoming. The experiments were designed to bring those fragments together to enable a form of emergence that yielded new insights or failures that in turn highlighted the nature and working of protocol.

The work of the laboratory can be divided (somewhat arbitrarily) into three sets of experiments: imaging “beyond protocol”; imagining “using protocol” and imag(in)ing “being protocol”. Although the latter experiment forms the major part of this project, the other experiments should not be seen as precursors, ratcheting up the practice-research in the iterative way that Smith and Dean propose (2009). As I have argued, my methodology rejects the idea of stable states (experiment #1 followed by experiment #2 followed by experiment #3) generating knowledges. Rather here the there experiments were enfolded. Experiment #1 imaging (the creation of photographs) was a core part of the ‘digital imag(in)ing apparatus), as was the network and distributed imaging space explored in experiments #2. As the practical experiments and the the theoretical concepts (actant, process) were enfolded, so the knowledge of jpeg’s alliances and nature emerged. The account of the three scales of operation should be read in that light.

My practice is around exploring the potential for a network imag(in)ing aesthetic, a way of imaging appropriate to a protocol-enfolded distributed scopic regime where imag(in)ings were decoupled from the punctum at the heart of the decisive moment and where imagers were deskilled and disintermediated from a professional authorial position and where imag(in)ing was flattened as a technosocial practice – where it failed to matter as art. Mine was not a fatalistic or even nostalgic practice. I did not bemoan these changes so much as seek to look for what practice could develop, what documentary or art forms were appropriate to that new space. As I identified protocol as a key driver of these shifts and this new regime, I looked to imag(in)e beyond protocol.