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.)