a first Report

My work is a practice-research PhD. While no-one seems overly clear about what practice-research is, I am working with a bit of Ian Bogost and Alien Phenomenology, with a bit of Mark Amerika and remixthebook and a dash of object-oriented photography. What I will be handing in will be a series of JPEG-enabled eBooks and images, mashups and.. well we’ll see – oh and a thesis. In the sure and certain knowledge that the examiners will want a report on the practice, I’m working The Report. Herewith a first draft for anyone interested or willing to comment:


The aim of my practice was to take what I have argued theoretically in Chapter X into my photography and test its validity and power as a framework for understanding JPEG as an object with governmental implications.

If an object-oriented account of JPEG has any validity, I should be able to see the fourfold nature of JPEG as I engaging in JPEG imaging. My photography with the RAW/JPEG apparatus and my imaging with the Mashup showed just such a character to JPEG. Through my process of building and using these apparatuses I came across the issues that Harman describes.

To return to each of the points in turn:

JPEG: the sensual object

My project is about JPEG. I have discussed how protocols, codecs and standards have been overlooked in discussions of software and digital objects and in creative practice. I set out to analyse its nature, its work and its governmental implications… but I could not reach it. Unlike a software package I could not unwrap it and disassemble it. Unlike a programming language I could not find its limits or its structure. Unlike hardware I could not take it apart or circuit bend it.

I could find the documentation for developers to use to implement it. I could track down its birthplace and the actor networks in which it developed but the totality escaped me. As John Miano puts it: “the inner workings of JPEG compression remain something of a black art”{Miano 1999@35}. His choice of words is instructive. He talks of “JPEG compression” not “JPEG”. The thing itself withdraws.

As a practice-research project I looked to work (and create) with my object. But as a photographer I was always left working with its effects – the JFIF or EXIF image files. At best, as a Photoshop artist saving my work, I was left working with a particular instantiation of it.

The apparatuses outlined here were my attempt to, if not reach JPEG, at least come close, bracket out the swirl of other objects as well as accidents and qualities within which it seemed to hide.

With that said, as a photographer and a (practice) researcher I did encounter JPEG. It existed for me conceptually, even ideologically. I had received requests from editors for “a JPEG”, “a higher quality JPEG”. I had judged new cameras on their capability to render colour balanced, noise-free JPEGs and memory cards on their capacity to stores JPEGs. The word JPEG as synonym for JFIF or EXIF image may have been technically inaccurate but that did not make it any less powerful or hegemonic.

The sensual dimension to the JPEG object, the particular profiles or accidents, that while at their core JPEG, shift and change in each encounter, was clearest as I envisaged my apparatuses. As I wrote the Javascript code and called on the server scripts to render images I experienced more than the concept, I met a dimension of the object. As I set the parameters on the camera or in Photoshop, I encountered a particular instantiation of JPEG. That sense of different adumbrations were the basis for the mashup reloading new image or my taking a series of pictures.

What became apparent as I built ad used my apparatuses was that the simple division between real and sensual was not sufficient. To merely state that JPEG was mysterious or elusive, out of reach as protocol rather than simply software was not sufficient. As I explored the encounters that were happening as I created the mashup or images what became clear was that even the JPEG that I did encounter had dimensions.

Depending on the balance of light and shade in the scene I captured, JPEG compressed differently – balancing the colour and the tonal range according to a different profile. This was apparent as I looked at the JPEG preview on the camera screen, on the iPad and in the save as dialog box in Photoshop or Aperture. It was not that there was different JPEGs but certainly different profiles.

These sensual qualities were not the whole story however. Although my camera and image editing ‘darkroom’ showed different profiles and instantiations of JPEG there were real qualities to that JPEG that I worked with.

Despite the numerous and varied profiles of JPEG that I had encountered as I (or my Javascript) took, created and worked with images, as I uploaded JPEG and RAW-encoded files as well as PNG screengrabs to the Web there appeared a unity. Flickr, Instagram, Google recognised the data as standard-encoded. It was usable, interoperable and visible. Beneath the encrusted qualities, accidents and profiles there were real qualities that enabled the upload and display to work – or in the case of RAW, not to work.

JPEG: the real object

While I worked with the sensual dimension to JPEG, accessed and used it various sensual quality profiles and built my project around its real qualities as a recognisable standard, my creative and research work depended on JPEG being real.

It would be this dimension to JPEG that I would be looking to explore in terms of governmentality, the infinite archive and digital detritus.

If there was more to JPEG than the sensual accidents and profile that I and other objects encountered, then it must have a presence and existence when I (or any other object) stopped paying attention to it.

My mashup apparatus depended on this. The service I used to screengrab image searches and encode them as image files to be sent back to my installation existed regardless of whether I or anyone or anything else called it to run. Similarly Save As in Photoshop or the in-camera software before or after I pressed the button had the JPEG on hand (present at hand). Whether I or any other object boot up those systems and access the sensual JPEG is a separate issue. My apparatuses and my practices depend on something real, if forever withdrawn.

What became particularly apparent as I imaged was that JPEG not only withdrew from me but from other objects in my apparatuses. When I pressed the shutter button and set the digital imaging pipeline in play or loaded my webpage I did not reach the totality of JPEG, but neither did any of the other objects. The silicon chip in the camera or the hard drive on which Photoshop ran, the Javascript call or the Google algorithm accessed a dimension of JPEG – all that was needed to do their work. They had to encounter an instantiation in order to render search results. They had to encounter a profile in order to be able to render a file.

If they had encountered real qualities such as “Huffman Coding” or “Discrete Cosine Transform” they would have been useless. It is particular Huffman tables, particular transforms that make the compression and the encoding possible.

JPEG and Time

The ‘time’ at work in my apparatuses was not linear. It demanded a different understanding of how time worked in my imaging. Instantiations, runnings, calls and encodings were at the heart of the project.  What became apparent though was that ‘moments’ (decisive or otherwise) were a matter of objects and their qualities.

When I pressed the button then and then again, when the page loaded now and then now, different objects were created – different web pages or different image of course but also different profiles of JPEG. Different qualities were accessed as new light hit the sensor or new data flowed through the archives to be encoded through JPEG as visible images.

This relationship between time and photography, as a matter of rather than external to objects, appeared in particular as the my apparatuses worked. My mashup collapsed and telescoped different times from and for different imagers. what appeared as a stream of images, a cinema style linear trail of frames, was in reality a Benjamin-style montage of instantiations. Encodings from different times, re-presented in different times to different human or unhuman viewers. The mashup foregrounded issues of time, memory, past and pasts that have intrigued photographers and critics from Barthes, through Sontag to Manovich. To use the mashup was to see time as, not merely through, objects and object relations.

Time as as matter of objects was also apparent in my other apparatus. As I pressed the button and the hard/software mesh set to work encoding light-as-data, the different protocols wrote metadata into the files following the EXIF standard. A key element of that metadata, particularly in terms of JPEG’s relation to governmentality, is the time stamp. Each encoding is defined in time. I can search my own or the infinite archives for timed images, decisive moments. My Mashup can range its earches according to time. But here time is located at the scale of the object. It is not in relation to anything else. It may appear as a date and time on a human calendar and clock but this is merely an accessible rendering of a stamp relative to the internal workings of the device and the data and time set within. This time stamp is a matter of object instantiations, relations between the sensual object and its qualities or accidents.

JPEG and Space

My imaging was at one level about space, the liminal spaces around the 2012 Fence, the forbidden areas beyond, the new spaces of online relationships and shared imaging and imagining, the emerging spaces of media creataion and consumptuion.

Imaging at the Fence with a camera or a GPS-sensitive phone, at home through the mashup on my computer or in the coffee shop through my iPad or phone opened up questions of space. What became apparent though was that traditional ways of conceptualising space were inadequate for these practices.

A clear example was imaging with an augmented reality browser. Here different spaces were quite literally overlaid. Corporate logos or information held on a server somewhere or images taken in a different place (and time) appeared on the screen and, as I screengrabbed in my image. Like time in a mashup, space collapsed and telescoped. This highlighted the spatial implications of JPEG in terms of its ‘location’ on a Flickr server waiting to take my PNG screengrab and encode it as a JPEG on my Flickr page.

That tension between the real object and its sensual qualities also became apparent in the mashup. Seen as a window or viewfinder for imaging, the mashup makes clear the complexities of that tension. To load the webpage was to set in motion an instantiation of JPEG-encoding and decoding on a server elsewhere and in the browser on the device. Regardless of what the images contained, multiple spaces were being created in and through the real, inaccessible JPEG protocol and its accessible sensual qualities.

JPEG and eidos

The eidos of an object is intellectually accessible. This tension between the sensual object and the real qualities that delimit it became clear as I developed my apparatuses. It was this tension around which I built my two cameras. It was this sense of something distinct about JPEG that I could approach through categorical intuition that formed the basis of the RAW/JPEG and JPEG/WebP ideas. These depend on real qualities approachable intellectually as I designed and built the apparatuses, but still withdrawn phenomenologically.

As I, and indeed other objects, worked with the Discrete Cosine Transform, Colour Transforms or markers on one ‘side’ of my apparatus, that tension became clear. I was no nearer to JPEG but there was something real about the sensual JPEG I was working with. DCT et al were not illusory or accidental they were real.

As I chose the settings on my camera or in Photoshop I was accessing the JPEG object and through my choices intellectually approaching the real qualities that make it what it is. I was no nearer to accessing the real JPEG or even the real totality of DCT or Huffman Coding but the process of categorical intuition as I selected ‘quality settings’ through save-as dialogues, I became aware of an edios to JPEG.

JPEG and essence

This project is about JPEG, a Quixotic quest for the essence of the protocol at the heart of my and, I would argue social, imaging. Essence has bad connotations. Its chain of associations include such folk devils as reductionism, determinism, last instance and truth. Harman’s argument is that one can still understand objects as having essences – ontological fundamentals – but that can be drawn in terms of objects and tensions within objects that mean that essence does not necessarily mean telos.

As I built and used apparatuses to explore and trace what JPEG was, that essence-as-tension appeared if such is the right word for those dimensions of objects that are necessarily withdrawn. The elusive totality of JPEG that set in motion the time, space, accidents and instantiations referred to above, and the qualities that make it the object it was within my apparatuses were clearly present. There was something there that kept social imaging working and my RAW camera distinct form my JPEG camera. There were real algorithms and mathematical transforms that compressed light-as-data. They may have been unreachable but they were there to enable the electrical charges generated as I pressed the button to eventually become coloured pixels I could see as ‘2012’. The tension between these poles of the object had to be there as I worked or none of my experiments or devices would ever have left the sensual drawing board.

JPEG and fusion

What Harman discusses as relations of fusion between the withdrawn real objects and its sensual and real qualities, what we understand as space and essence, appeared in my JPEG (and non-JPEG) imaging.

Throughout my development of my apparatuses, authoring of my eBooks and mashups as well as imaging itself, the real JPEG withdrew from my access and also from all the other objects in play.

My mashup apparatus however revealed that the real, withdrawn JPEG was in relation with its qualities that did emerge into access. The mashup’s stream of JPEG-encoded imaginings betrayed essential qualities of JPEG – Huffman and DCT algorithms for instance that ensured the stream was images not ‘could not load’ icons.

The essence of JPEG as well as the weird sense of space in which it works appeared as matters of fusion, the holding together of whatever the actual JPEG is, what makes it particular and unique and what of that emerges into view. The mashup doesn’t simply mash code together or data streams, it mashes dimensions of the object.

The mashup’s ‘allure’, arises through the fusion of the accessible sensual qualities (apparent in the stream) with the inaccessible JPEG that made them possible. The stream of imag(in)ings is ‘caused’ by the fusion of that inaccessible JPEG with its essential features, its real qualities, the algorithms, codings and transforms that make it work.

JPEG and fission

In my practice, the relations between the protocol sensual object we encounter and its particular, sparkling features its instantiations (SQ), as well as with its eidetic real qualities (RQ) are characterised by fission.

The gap between the sensual protocol I encountered as I imaged and the particular runnings or encoding encrusted on its surface appeared clearly as I used RAW and JPEG simultaneously. Each moment of instantiation, each set of sensual qualities was particular even in the same moment. Encoding light through RAW and through JPEG as I pressed the button highlighted the tension, the fragility of the connection. To repeat Harman: “the object is briefly exposed as unified kernel dangling its qualities like marionettes”{Harman 2011c@103).

Uploading and using JPEG-encoded data to the Web or as the basis for my eBook highlighted the transient qualities, the ephemeral accidents I (intellectually) pared away as I designed my apparatuses. Trying to upload and use RAW and WebP-encoded data showed the fragility of those tensions. Not only did time within my apparatuses appear as a matter of fission as the camera encoded light-as-dual-data, but the eidos of JPEG, its character I could theoretically approach, was a matter of fracture – qualities stripped from the sensual object.

Using my RAW/JPEG apparatus as well as the WebP/JPEG eBook, opened up the tensions and made them apparent as characterised by fission.

JPEG and connections

Harman’s account of how objects connect, his framework for understand relations as matters of objects not external to them, was similarly apparent in my practice. The eBook objects and their location on and off-network appeared as practices not in some field of becoming, potentiality or relationality (ANT’s network) but as connecting within other objects.

My OOPh book’s presence within the mesh of social imaging actants was a matter of objects. It connected with Facebook’s algorithms, patents, servers and power supply and an unknown viewer’s iPad within objects: a particular Social Graph object, a server farm object, Apple’s proprietary strategy-object. The governmental relations in play (which I discuss in the next chapter) were a matter of objects connecting through a mediating object.

Specifically in terms of JPEG, the only way I could work with the protocol was by connecting it with other objects within my apparatus-objects. Whether one was looking to address its real or sensual dimensions, the only way to explore it was to connect it with the real or sensual dimensions of the light-object, the photographer-object or the javascript-object etc. But those connections had to take place within objects. They could not float free. Imaging demanded real locations, objects to image and imagine with. Thus those connections happened within my material apparatuses but also within immaterial objects like Facebook’s Social Graph.

What was apparent in my practice was that imaging apparatuses were object-oriented in the sense of being made out of objects but also that they could not be built without those connections taking place within objects. Latour’s plasma, the actant-network was not external to objects but internal. My mashup was an object not a network. More importantly perhaps Facebook’s Social Graph was an object not a field. It had a reality, unity, presence and governmental power that was object-oriented. At still another scale, the social imaging mesh was a matter of objects. It was itself an object, if of a hyperobject character, with its own real and sensual dimensions.


My aim in this project was to take Harman’s quadruple object framework into practice and see how it facilitated my imaging and my understanding of the nature and workings of JPEG.

By approaching JPEG as an object and then building and using apparatuses through objects, I found that objects, even ‘weird’ ones like JPEG, did have real and sensual dimensions, that the relations between those dimensions were tensions characterised by fission and fusion and that while particular and discreet, objects did connect, relate if you will, but within other objects.

While I hold that an object-oriented, quadruple account of JPEG provides not only an imaging but also an analytical methodology, it is important to show how an account of JPEG based around relationality, processuality and potentiality fails to account for my experience in practice.

I certainly found evidence of relations. Wherever I worked with JPEG I found the sort of connections that ANT draws attention to. Black boxes opened, relations expanded across the technosocial mesh of social imaging. What I did not find was these relations as outside objects. My apparatuses, the space of Facebook, my iPad were the sites of those relations and connections but they too were objects. They had a unity a multi-dimensional character, withdrawn and sensual dimensions. In Morton’s terms they two were ‘strange strangers’. They could not be practically or analytically separated or distinguished from the other objects. Different scales maybe but not different ontological realities.

At first sight my practice seemed to show that the JPEG object has a processural nature. After all it was apparent in its running or instantiations. What became apparent though was that the running was a matter of jumps and new objects not the smooth movement of a continuing process. Just as the evidence of my apparatuses within the mesh shows that objects connect, so the different JPEG encodings within the mashup appeared as new objects. Each screengrab JFIF pulled in, each frame in the stream as a result of JPEG’s running was an object but so was the specific JPEG arrangement that gave rise to it. The dynamic form and content of the mashup process was a matter of specific, discrete objects not the flow of process. A processural account of the JPEG object could not account for the specific discrete operations of encoding in the apparatuses. Once again it is not that there is no ‘process’ but rather than this must be understood as a matter of objects.

Again an account of object potentiality would seem to offer value. After all, as I discuss in terms of governmentality, JPEG, like Galloway’s TCP/IP – while seemingly a neutral standard – is run through with relations of power. Surely this is the character of objects that they harbour a potential that is realised in particular governmental situations and spaces, such as the Social Graph. This is of course where Harman and Bryant part company. It is clearly not a problem for Bryant to hold to an object-oriented ontology and still entertain the idea that objects hold something back. Harman differs and my practice bears him out.

As I discuss above, Harman holds that objects do not hold anything back. There is no reserve. They are always and irredeemably present and actual. This is clear from my practice. JPEG is fully actualised in the apparatuses. Even when it is absent (in the RAW or WebP encoding dimensions), it is fully actualised as an absent object. If it was holding anything back, harbouring future effects the instantiations and connections could not happen. JPEG’s essence and eidos are actual in the present imaging and imagining. Governmental rationality as a matter of objects is actual now in JPEG’s relations and running. The only things the objects I worked with held back was their withdrawn real nature.

My practice-research has shown that Harman’s framework of a quadruple object that exceeds relations, approaches process as a matter of new objects and is actually powerful in its presence offers a coherent, powerful and also creative account of JPEG.