Belay: 18 June 2011 (upgrade)

For those of you not in the PhD industry, a bit of explanation. When you register for a PhD programme it is normal to be registered as an MPhil student and then half way through your supposedly three year programme, your supervisors conduct a sort of mini-viva exam where they decide whether a) you’ve been working hard enough and b) whether you are likely to complete and so get them off the hook with the funding bodies and boss classes counting the number of never-finished PhDs. My upgrade panel is on Wednesday. I’ve sent them c60k words of literature review and methodology musings – much of which has appeared as rags ’n refuse here.

They also want a short presentation to kick things off. As anyone who has attended one of my Birkbeckmedia courses or Digital Charabanc workshops will tell you, I tend to busk my way through presentations. With this though I think a little more formality might be better. I’m not writing this presentation out because I’m nervous or intimidated (my supervisors are all cool and groovy people). Nor do I think a written/read presentation fits with the gravity of the situation. Rather I want to write it out in the same way as I see this site. I use writing as a way of getting things straight in my own head. If it’s straight in my head, it’s easier to deal with questions – and seeing as I’m working with Harman’s OOP, a philosophy that seems to rankle with some people, that might be useful.


From my understanding, an upgrade panel is a chance for you to see how far I’ve come and how far I have to go. For me too, this is an opportunity to take stock. As those of you who have been following my work online will know, I have been placing what I call ‘belay points’ as I have been writing. This point is slightly different because it is also a belay as far as the practice goes. In the next 10 mins or so, I want to explain and explore the way my practice and research fit together within the broader object-oriented philosophical framework.

Even before the AHRC stepped in with their surprising award, this project was about objects. As a photographer I am interested in what I now understand as, following Jane Bennett, vibrant material or, following Sherry Turkle, evocative objects. As a form of documentary photography I look to focus on objects with histories, presences and a power that goes beyond a semiotic representation. I looked to tell the story of the liminal spaces around the 2012 Fence through the objects embedded or discarded in those spaces.

As my project became an academic practice-research one, my starting point was taking my concern for objects into my photography. I began to conceptualise my work as object-oriented photography with an assemblage of objects – the ones I photographed, myself, my cameras, prints or digital files and… software and protocols. It was this that became the focus for the research questions.

In order to explore this photography as it operated in a distributed media space, I chose to explore one particular object – jpeg, the protocol that enables digital images to work with the logic of the Live Web: sharing, embedding, searching, linking. In order to understand this protocol as an object I developed a methodology built around connecting it with other objects in different apparatuses.

In order to explain this, I need to take a short diversion into the particular form of object-oriented philosophy I am working with not only in terms of theory but also practice.

Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy is distinct from others in the speculative realist ‘movement’ and indeed others like Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost and Tim Morton. A key distinction is Harman’s insistence not only on a flat ontology but on the actuality of objects that exceed their relations, qualities and accidents. Furthermore, for Harman, objects connect with each other within objects, not in some context, plasma or field of becoming. It is this framework of actual nested objects addressed within objects that enable me to understand the weird nature and work of jpeg as well as develop a practice-research methodology.

For Harman, there are two sorts of objects. Real Objects are inaccessible, following Heidegger, they ‘withdraw’ from access. We can never fully encounter them. The objects we encounter as Sensual Objects which, following Husserl, which are visible as long as we expand energy on them. When we stop paying attention to them, they disappear. This metaphysical distinction because it provides a way of understanding the way we encounter jpeg’s traces and even its moment of working but not the object itself. Enfolded in software it withdraws. As present in software and in camera (an interesting phrase) it does things as long as it remains in focus.

Contrary to some views of Harman, he does not deny relations. His argument is that we can understand the way objects relate at the level of objects rather than at the scale of a broader, more basic of more fundamental context, network or field. For Harman, the only way objects can connect is between these two poles. Real objects cannot connect with other real objects because they withdraw not just from human perception or the human object but from each other. Rather real objects connect with sensual objects, their images. The encounter between me an a tree has a unity. I can never encounter the whole, real tree. I encounter an image of it. Even if that tree is a hallucination, the encounter has a unity. It persists as long as I expand energy on it. That encounter has qualities, the particular sense perceptions of the tree in a particular light and moment. But that encounter is more than those qualities. For Harman, therefore, that encounter with its unity, its qualities and its excess means that we can see the i-tree encounter as an object. The relation happens within an object.

The important thing for Harman of course is that this applies to unhuman as well as human object-relations. To use his favourite example, When fire burns cotton, it does not have access to the colour or smell that we humans are able to detect in it. Inanimate objects do not make direct contact with one another any more than we do with them.

Mapping this framework onto my assemblage of objects I can conceptualise photography as a space of object connections where real and sensual objects connect within new objects – the sort of nested objects that we can find all over the social web. As my methodology I worked with three objects: the jpeg protocol, in-camera software and myself as a jpeg photographer. To use Harman’s matrix, we can map the way those objects connect:

The real Jpeg protocol object encounters the sensual in-camera software object within the ‘encoding object’. Reciprocally the real in-camera software object (that complex amalgam of software hardwired into the camera chips) encounters the sensual jpeg protocol – a particular image or instantiation of jpeg. At the moment of encoding light as data, a new object emerges.

The real photographer object encounters the sensual in-camera software object within the ‘photography-moment object’. I cannot access the full nature or presence of that object. I encounter a particular configuration or instantiation as I press the button. Similarly the real in-camera software object encounters an image of me, a particular aspect of me as jpeg-photographer. At the indecisive moment of jpeg imaging a new object emerges.

Harman’s framework develops into what he calls the fourfold, a way of accounting for ‘essence’, ‘space’, ‘time’ and ‘eidos’. I am looking into how that maps onto software, imaging and digital objects but what is clear even with the focus on the central real/sensusal poles is such an object-centred approach allows us to see protocol as weird yet powerful. It also allowed me to develop a particular practice-research methodology based on connecting objects.

I did this by ‘creating’ three scopic apparatuses, connecting in various ways the photographer-object, the in-camera software-object, jpeg and a number of analogue photographic objects.

The first apparatus (with jpeg) connected jpeg, in-camera and in-browser software and the photographer through a series of mash-ups that brought in distributed images of 2012 alongside my own. Here jpeg, software and the photographer-objects connected within distributed image-space objects, search-space objects and the digital archive-objects, objects we can see as owned and certainly controlled by corporate interests such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo.

The second apparatus (outside jpeg) connected film and non-software cameras and the photographer through the creation of a stereo photographic installation, a photographic production and consumption practice that could not be online.

The third apparatus (against jpeg) connected jpeg, another imaging protocol, in-camera and in-browser software and the photographer through the creation of digital photographic installation on a memory card and a series of photographic prints.

These three apparatuses allow me to explore the real and sensual jpeg objects. It was only through practice, through using and connecting jpeg that I could map its fourfold nature.

It is the experience of developing, using and analysing these apparatuses that will form my research findings and, true to my object-oriented philosophy and methodology, I will report those findings through an object, a ‘Black Box’ including  a memory card, a series of slides and a viewer together with a series of photographic prints.

Fanfare and unveiling… the Box.

These separate and actual objects, connect within the ‘molten core’ of the final object. Each element or object in the work serves a particular role and has a particular relationship to my practice-research.

The slide and stereo slide-objects are the traces of the second apparatus, the outside protocol imaging device. They are photographic objects: decisive moments, unique photo-works of a specific photographer-object.

The print-objects are the traces of the third apparatus, the against protocol imaging device. As prints of the processed but unsaved RAW files they too are photographic objects: decisive moments, unique photo-works of a specific photographer-object.

The memory card-object includes an html page with the mashup code-works, as well as a series of digital files (both RAW and jpeg). These files are the traces of my first and third apparatuses.

I chose to make my conclusions part of my practice. Not just an academic account of theoretically-informed knowledge gleaned from practice but an active player, an actant in the practice-research objects I work with and will hand in to be examined on. I chose to produce a work around Robert Frank’s The Americans. In many ways Frank’s photography appears to be the antithesis of what we might understand as an object-oriented approach. His photos are full of people and things, a correlationist collage of human and object. Surely the new objectivist work of the Bechers would fit better? Or maybe William Eggleston’s Guide? The reason I chose to use Frank was both personal and philosophical. Firstly, as a professional photographer, The Americans was seminal in my development as a photographer, in my understanding of the photograph and the photo-work. As a photographer one is brought up in the shadow of this text. The second reason to refract my own work and findings through The Americans was linked to my research questions around the nature and position of the photograph, the photographer and photography in a jpeg-scopic regime. Firstly, Frank’s images are of objects –  a flat ontology of objects, human, non-human. Secondly Frank’s book is an object. He designed it as such, as a particular narrative/stream. It was a photo-work not a series of images. It was and remains a nested object. Finally, The Americans is deeply rooted in a particular historical, cultural and technological moment but throughout the past 50 years it has connected and reconnected within other objects . My use of it connecting with it as a photographer and writer as well as the way I connect it with my own objects, forms a new series of objects.

I look to create written and photographic engagement with Frank as a way of engaging with what I have found about my position as a (jpeg) photographer, object-oriented (jpeg )photography and the (jpeg) photo-object. This photo/text work will be the coming together of practice and research, both a work in itself and an account of my research findings.

This needed to be in the Box.

I had considered creating a digital object. This would bring together the protocol imagings as well as my photo/text work or research findings. I knew I did not want to place this work online as a website or installation because one of the key themes of the work was the off-Net object. I looked at the potential of an individual digital object- an eBook or digital work on an iPad, and iPhone or a Kindle. I explored ePub open standards, PDF, Kindle AZW files, Adobe Digital Publishing folios and even Objective C or Android-authored Apps. All of these options were run through with their own issues of protocol and standards. All were their own spaces of objects within objects. But to add those objects to the mix (although of course they are inevitably part of the protocol ecology under investigation) would be lose focus. This box is about jpeg. It’s not about IoS or e-Ink or PDF or mobility. Alongside the slides and the prints I chose to simply include the jpeg/JFIF and RAW files on a memory card. Off-Net but easily on-Net by connecting to a computer or device (wirelessly or by USB) that can render some files visible and other unvisible, some part of the stream and search-space others not. The images like jpeg itself were platform agnostic, but deeply connected with those platforms.

As for the text, I chose to make that, like the images and Frank’s (paper) road movie and Benjamin’s Arcades Project index cards, as individual objects – as jpeg/JFIF and RAW files. Each protocol-encoded page of the work would, like the images be visible and unvisible. In addition they could be rendered as searchable via OCR or remain mute and unvisible on the SD card.

The box could not contain jpeg. It can contain the traces as well as the traces of where it cannot work – the slides and viewer/viewing experience.