Author Archive

Documentary Ontography: aka Nonfiction and Lists

This semester in our media undergraduate program I’m running a 12 week studio entitled Documentary Ontography: aka Nonfiction and Lists. (I’m riffing off Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology a lot at the moment.) I’m intending the studio to be problem based, come action learning, which will freak me and the students out till we get the learning culture embedded. I’m looking forward to it, and really don’t have a strong idea of where they’ll end up taking it.

It is situated somewhere amongst materialist media studies, lists, interactive documentary, posthumanism, and generative or procedural methods of making. I do know that I want to begin from (quite literally) this quote:

Let’s adopt ontography as a name for a general inscriptive strategy, one that uncovers the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity…. Like a medieval bestiary, ontography can take the form of a compendium, a record of things juxtaposed to demonstrate their overlap and imply interaction through collocation. The simplest approach to such recording is the list, a group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma. (Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to be a Thing p.38.)

I might use this quote as the basis of a textual exploded diagram (in much the way that Bogost discusses the exploded diagram as a type of ontograph) that the class builds over a couple of weeks, and let that model what we do, as well as find what directions the thinking and making might go. I want to teach them, beginning with this quote, how to read and think as if they were scientists. What sort of thing is this quote? What does it do? What can it do? What tests, experiments, questions, tasks, do we ask or use it for to try to find out what it is. And to understand that what it is, is what it does (like Bryant talks about his blue coffee but doing colourness, rather than being blue). It isn’t about right, or intent, a correct reading or even just meaning. It is making machines (including of them) to revel in and show the density of a world where they need to learn the humility of not being a radiant ego.

This, incidentally, is also why it is situated in documentary. Not that documentary doesn’t suffer from didacticism or auteurism, but nonfiction does provide an avenue that explicitly addresses the world, for fiction as best I can tell has absolutely no use outside of the explicitly and only human. (Which I guess means fiction can be thought of as either Bataillean excess, a glorious general luxury who’s point is precisely it’s uselessness, or as the epitome of our species’ vanity.)


This is straight cut and paste from the Australian Screen Production and Education Research Association call for papers for this year’s conference.

2015 ASPERA Conference 15-17th July
What’s This Space?
Screen Practice, audiences & education for the future decade.

The ASPERA conference is an annual opportunity for academics, filmmakers and postgraduate students to present and discuss their ideas, projects, teaching & research as they relate to the field of contemporary screen production.

The 12th Annual Conference of the Australian Screen Production Education & Research Association (ASPERA), will be held at Flinders University Victoria Square Campus on Wednesday 15th, Thursday 16th and Friday 17th July 2015.

The conference convenors invite papers, panels and topics for roundtable discussion, interactive workshops, poster presentations and micro talks (5 minute presentations) that address the following theme (with other ideas also being considered):

What’s This Space?
Screen practice, audiences and education for the future decade.

The spaces in which screen stories are viewed and the way in which we
consume them has, and is continuing to change rapidly. This years ASPERA conference will examine, discuss and explore the multiplicity of screens and the impact they have on production, education, screen communities and audiences in the 21st century. We invite you to consider how traditional creative screen practices are changing and being challenged by the range of screens we now engage with, the content we consume and the spaces in which this is undertaken. We will be publishing fully refereed conference proceedings again this year, via the ASPERA website.
Topics you may wish to address include:

  • The shape of the contemporary screen industries
  • Current screen practices
  • Spaces and screens
  • Documentary forms, narratives and distribution
  • Transmedia storytelling
  • Emerging screen funding models and distribution
  • Screen and digital media production pedagogy
  • Social media as a production platform
  • Participatory content production
  • Digital workflows
  • Mobile screens
  • Screen research through the PhD Film
  • Old and new collaborative practices

Participants are also encouraged to put forward proposals for exhibits, practical workshops or demonstrations. We look forward to talking to you about your requirements.

Important Deadlines:
Abstracts to be submitted by Friday 13th March 2015
Successful submissions will be notified by Monday 30th March 2015
Full draft paper for double blind peer review by Friday 1st May 2015

Submission guidelines:
All proposals must include the following information:
Name, title and affiliation of each author (please indicate student authors)
An extended abstract (500 words) describing the presentation, including
Illustrations or diagrams for installation as needed
Requirements for technical support (e.g. AV, space, electrical)
First author’s name and page numbers on all proposal pages


It’s a regular suburban train (unless, I imagine, you’re a train spotter) mid afternoon. School kids, retirees, and the odd Floridian creative class professional who has the luxury of some malleability of their work hours. Around me there is little talk, and much tap, swipe and slide as miniature screens receive, deliver, make, share, and distribute small kernels of news, status updates, personal messages and the other quotidian digital lived ephemera that is, for now, our daily lot.

The iPad is open on my lap. It’s off the grid, reservation, network, stream, or whatever almost right simile I might want to use as I wouldn’t pay for a Subscriber Identification Module, well more accurately it isn’t the module is it but the cost of network access that the module then — that is what I would not pay for. So it’s a bit mute as it lays there, the Kindle app open as I spend the rolling lulling train trip of an early afternoon (in this case as an academic enjoying the privilege of some flexibility of hours, and an insistence on my behalf to define my labour by its productivity and not hours expended) on the way to collect my youngest daughter from school. Bruno Latour stares cheekily up at me. Well, obviously, not Latour but any rate his Reassembling the Social, a book that I find playful, ludic (which is a fancy, more scholarly way of saying the same thing really, isn’t it?), irreverent, smart, clever (smart and clever nearly wins me over every time), inspiring, surprising, personal, personable, articulate, viscous–in–the–sense–of–a–thick–care–for–the–importance–of–description, I could go on.

There are ideas, provocations and levers in here I want to unfurl, use, apply. This, perhaps in concert with Bogost’s similarly ethereally thick Alien Phenomenology are the two recent things that have gifted the words and argument to the matters of concern that have interested and involved me these past many years. Matters of concern that emerge from the intersecting vectors of making things with computers, wanting to make new ways of making academic making with computers, that treat the computer as a peer, partner, collaborator in the production, gathering, dissemination, and making of some sort of humanities knowledge, and not just the computer but some idea of the network, perhaps externally via the Internet and the World Wide Web and internally in some other avatar of the sort of scale free nodal and crepuscular architecture that the Web might be.

Then there’s the writing. This writing and the larger problem of writing in general, not just the struggle of good writing but the more specific problem of academic writing. I have, in the past, written hypertext hypertextually — something I’ll return to — and have enjoyed, even flourished, in the ways it lets writing as an act and particular site of thinking build itself. (Writing academic hypertext, hypertextually, argument becomes a linked, hypertextual structure that more or less arises autopoetically.) This is a practice that is difficult to do in the academy partly because of the humanities surprising, and disappointing, conservatism when it comes to its self conception of scholarly writing, and also because there just aren’t many places that let you publish nonlinear academic writing.

Writing is a making, certainly in my experience as much a making as any sort of project or practice based research, and as some sort of some time critical theorist in the humanities writing is, in fact, my laboratory. Writing is then not where I dutifully report upon what I have discovered elsewhere, nor is it merely the record of what has been done (by me, or others — that’d be a glorified literature review) but is the site of an active thinking, of ideation as these vectors of concepts, arguments, possibilities, contradictions, associations, possibilities, certainties, confusions, errors, misreadings, rereadings, appropriations, quotation, and all the rest of it come to bear upon thought.

And Then

Yesterday I noted the deep management speak of my university wanting to say (I think) that a new director of an institute will manage the institute’s research, work with outside partners, and develop ways to make it clear how ‘design’ can benefit others. Then there’s MIT’s Media Lab Faculty Search.

Such a position description is literally impossible to imagine for anyone in an Australian university. Not for its vision, that’s simply whatever lies beyond impossible to imagine, but for it’s lack of managerialist criteria where if you do not specifically address (for instance), the ‘key selection criteria’ (which will always be listed, each replete in its own arcane higher-ed managerialist argot idiolect), regardless of how good your CV and everything else is, you can be confident of not getting an interview. We don’t only get Key Selection Criteria, but also Position Accountabilities and Organisational Accountabilities.

My position description has ten position accountabilities (they are helpfully numbered for me), four organisational accountabilities, and eight key selection criteria. (I’m always bemused that places like RMIT that want to regard themselves as ‘employers of choice’ are very good at explaining in detail my accountabilities to them, but are oddly mute in relation to what they might offer me.) My eight you ask:

1. Possess a record of teaching, research and/or professional achievement in the relevant program field, equivalent to level C promotion criteria.
2. Proven ability to lead and manage a complex work group, to establish an environment that encourages the integration of the discipline and maximises its contribution to RMIT University and the DSC College.
3. Demonstrated high level of interpersonal, communication and negotiating skills including the ability to consult with senior academic and professional colleagues, and external bodies, the ability to produce reports and to negotiate agreed directions, outcomes and targets within a collegial environment.
4. Ability to be an effective member of a management team within a matrix structure; develop and achieve shared goals and objectives.
5. Demonstrated ability to devise and develop academic curricula, and ability to teach in related disciplines.
6. Broad range of knowledge of the relevant discipline, and proven ability to draw upon the connections between industry and the academic discipline.
7. Demonstrated ability to use appropriate technology in a learning and teaching environment.
8. Ability to advise, encourage and assist students in relation to their learning objectives and career aspirations.

Note that none of these are about risk, innovation, experimentation, adventure, ethics. None are about the world that might happen to exist outside of RMIT. They are only about corporate competence, with some university specific words mixed in. The Media Lab’s faculty search brings me joy, optimism, and faith. Things worth hanging onto don’t you think?

Core Enabling – No, Not Apples

A recent email from a very senior staff member about a new appointment:

[they] will oversee the delivery of the Institute’s research programs, develop opportunities for translating the Institute’s research to end users and help develop a forward strategy for Design as a Core Enabling Capability Platform.

Ah, plain speaking universities. Where would we be without you?