(I like Dominic Wilcox’s comment about quiet kids and what goes on in their heads). These are a form of ontography where you make machines that are lists because you bring together things in odd ways and reveal other connections and relations between them. (And around 4 minutes where he wants to be able to talk/hear animals, that’s just beautiful.)
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 cup 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.)
The pics and text of my conference presentation, Flat Archives or Promiscuity Abound, which is more about relational media and engines than much else, is now on academia.edu.
This afternoon A, madly loom bandzing ms 7.y.o. myself and two friends made the short trip over the ridges to the deep middle of the Yarra Valley. The vineyard, gallery, gourmet slither of the middle. The main intent was to have a look at the current show|s at TarraWarra, with a side diversion for coffee and sweet treats at the Harvest Foodstore in Healsville. Misty drizzle mizzly drive with stoic sheep arse to the breeze in aspirational paddocks. Muzzled light, yellowing musk vineyards, Healsville trees turning to the winter, verdant dampness.
Jenny Watson’s Spring (1989). Big, really bloody big, on either unprimed linen or very lightly primed linen. The horse, the girl, spring scattered as letters across the canvas. All ground.
Jenny Watson. Spring. 1989.
oil, collage, beads, rabbit skin glue, material on canvas
Looking at this painting is a carnal act. That might be too strong. But the blue of the sky, the individual strokes, the way the paint and the linen have addressed each other. The crudity of the lines yet sill expressing a confidence and certainty, so not hesitant, unsure, naive or uninformed but with all the swerve of knowing the authority of these strokes and lines. (When I saw Toulouse–Lautrec’s works in the flesh in Paris and Albi my understanding of him was transformed. Lines that were vectors of their own intent that happened to also be people and rooms.) So if not carnal then it is the stuff of this painting, its materials, and the way they have been used, what they are doing as paint linen beads rabbit skin glue material brush stroke blue orange green red s p r i n g that is what matters. Then I read the blurb, safe there to the side pristine proper black on that dull Cartesian white. And it informs us readers (not lookers with our carnal hungry haptic eyes) that:
Misses the point, doesn’t it? This explanation, which makes no attempt to engage discuss think with why how the, well, very material thingness of this painting, almost runs from it. At best we get the mention of some “broad horizontal brushstrokes”. This explanation could be of almost any painting of a girl on a horse, couldn’t it? And if it could as well apply to any painting of a girl on a horse how is it about this painting of a girl on a horse?
In this curatorial commentary the joy of the image as an enacting of things (let’s not repeat the litany again) is either thought to be obvious – after all its in the picture right alongside – or, possibly, too unpronounceable and describable and so we do that clever thing we do as good post somethings. We reduce this field of picture and surface and texture and things (rabbit skin glue anyone?) to what it represents, to what it is about. But surely this is not what this painting is about? This description is what it shows, by doing something else (by being a painting first?).
Perhaps I am missing the point here? I love painting, and this painting is about, well, being a painting (as all painting is in some manner) and out of that something else might arise, and here perhaps the girl and the horse being alone in the ground of field of brown might have been the prompt for the opportunity for the painting to do things. Just as a song or a dance or a poem might also be a response to a girl on a horse alone. But to then go past what this song or dance or poem is to reduce it to what it is about?
There is a risk (and as a university teacher of apparently smart students this is a very real risk) here that meaning becomes the index and measure of the work. “What does it mean?” And if you can’t rein it into the babel tower of language, then, well, we’re at a loss of what just to do with it. Or about it. There is an equivalence that is being suggested here, that the painting is what it means (as this blurb almost sort of does) and this is to subsume what is outside of meaning and language (where meaning is understand as what can be said, written, described within words) into the province of language. A sort of grand gesture of communicative colonisation.
I really liked the show. And I enjoyed seeing this painting and reading the blurb because it really make concrete for me a lot of the material I’ve been covering with honours students in our media objects lab. The stark distance and difference between what sort of thing the painting is, and what it does, is literally alien to this ‘explanation’ which, quite literally, pays no regard to anything particular about the painting except what it represents. Short circuit to meaning. I mean, if the painter just wanted to deal with what the blurb says, why paint? Why not write, sing, pen a poem? It’s a painting. That matters. Most. It flees ontology for not so much epistemology as a variety of epistemphilia.
A common scenario witnessed this week in classes with media students. They add stuff to a new project in Korsakow, add keywords, do lots of building, and then go to save their project. The program doesn’t like that. I’ve written an explanation for them that most (the majority) won’t read, let alone understand. The problem here is thinking that the digital is supposed to be friction free (I blame Apple of iOS for this), that it is immaterial and, well, should be designed and made so that I don’t have to know anything about it, or what I’m doing. Digital natives my arse. Just because you can drive a car doesn’t mean your a mechanic, and just because you can use seven programs at once and know all the best shortcuts in Final Cut/Premiere/Photoshop/gMail you’re not digitally native. You need to think like the machine (like a good mechanic), and you can’t do that if you haven’t got a clue about the machine. It’s a thing. It does stuff. Real thing. Real stuff. Not virtual. Not immaterial. (Which is the cardinal sin that the NFBs big arse ‘capturing reality‘ has made, but that’s for another day.)
labs, this week
Launch Korsakow. “Ok…”, drag some video in.
“Mmmm, Ok, that wasn’t so bad.”
Double click. “SNU editor? Whatever.”
Make some changes, add some keywords, link to an interface, and a thumbnail (“What’s the drama with this?, this is easy”). Repeat.
“Cool. Oh, better save the work.” File, Save.
It’s all gone. “F$#kn rubbish piece of software.”
If you don’t want this experience then open Korsakow, and SAVE THE PROJECT BEFORE you add media, and you’ll be good. (Subject to good housekeeping.)
If you want to know why, continue reading (you are asking the software to do something impossible).
When you drag or insert media into your Korsakow project you are not putting the video ‘in to’ Korsakow. Korsakow just remembers an address of where your video is and so when you do an export it uses this address to go and find the video, and then transcode it when you export (publish) your film. This address is called an alias, and Korsakow relies on an alias, which is in effect a link to the real file, to find it.
Lots of programs use aliases as a way to have multiple copies of a file without actually having multiple copies of the file (incredibly useful when working with video), and it’s built into the Finder of OS X (File – Make alias, aka Command L). That’s pretty straight forward. Korsakow does this so that it doesn’t have to swallow video, which introduces all sorts of storage and data problems which would make the program slower (since it has to process all that video) and less agile (as keeping the media outside of the program makes it much easier to change the media as you go).
How do aliases work? By addresses and paths. All the files on your computer, much like everything on the Web, has a file path, which is its address. On a modern Mac this begins with / and then is a series of folder names and eventually a file, so a word doc in my user account on my computer might have the path /Users/amiles/Documents/somewriting.docx (That example isn’t strictly accurate but it will do.) This is its address.
Now we saw that Korsakow needs to know and remember the address of where your video is when you add it (which is why you don’t change the names of files, folders, or where they are on your computer after you add them to Korsakow unless you want export hell). I imagine it does this in the simplest way, which is to remember where these media files are in relation to where it is. On computers we call this a relative address. In other words if it knows it is here, and the video files are in a folder called ‘media’ next to it there, then Korsakow only needs to know an address that says ‘media’ to be able to find those videos. Now the program could me made to remember a full path, all way to the top of your computer, but then if you moved your project to another computer all these addresses and paths would break. By remembering where the media is relative to where the program file is makes it easy to move the project to other computers.
These relative addresses on a computer are just like personal directions you give someone in the street. When asked how to get from Carlton to Brunswick you don’t tell someone to first go to the Melbourne General Post Office, you say go up there, turn left, then right, etc – these are directions relative to where you currently are.)
Can you see the problem? If you haven’t yet saved your Korsakow project file (the file that ends in .krw that stores all these aliases) then how can it know where it is? And if it doesn’t know where it is how can it then find a way to where the video is? Now yes, just crashing is basically a bug. But it is happening because you’re asking a program to do something impossible – to think about the relative address to somewhere else without first telling it where it is. The fault here is with us, not it.
Students are currently using Vine or Instagram (predominantly) as their medium of choice for filming in our smuggled in Korsakow based subject. We get them to make a lot of quick, sketch video work, largely so that they can produce a viable media library, to provoke them to question their implicit model of media monumentality as their default position for making anything on video, and to get them to think quickly and critically about what makes a good shot a good shot by doing a lot of them.
A common problem, which is the same as the ten fonts in the brochure and the twenty two edit effects in the iMovie clip problem, is that even where the video clip is only going to be six seconds long (Vine) they clutter it up. This happens in two ways.
The first way is that they get worried or are unsure about what their clip is about. This is unnecessary as they are given a quite specific brief (e.g. ‘light’) that while open, also grounds it. So they will film a light (for example), but then move their camera in, out, around. As if six seconds of watching the light shimmer as the CCD and compression plays with it is not enough. So we talk about one clip equals one idea. If it is about light, and the movement doesn’t contribute to how it is about light, then it just gets in the way, it reveals an insecurity in the material and the practice.
The second way is what might be called the ‘representational fallacy’. This is where they feel obliged to have to explain everything. Even for six seconds. If they start close, and it is not immediately evident what we are looking at, then the camera will pull back, or there will be the Vine equivalent of a wide shot, so that we now know what it is. Or the reverse. Start wide, then go close. If there are several shots, a list, then there will be a closing shot that reveals what this is a list of. It is like there is an obligation to explain, account for, that ambiguity or even just abstraction, the simple pleasure of what the brief glimpse is for itself is not sufficient. The collapse of a possible poetry of the image into the rationalisation of explanation. This is the dark side of Bataille’s restricted economy where there is the logic of the bookkeeper’s double ledger so that what is spent on one side must be recovered on the other. It is a variety of epistemphilia.
Becoming increasingly interested in these remix works as a particular sort of videographic ontography. And it’s Christopher Walken, a compelling svelte force of affect, desire, and power.
The materialist philosophies that I am looking at with honours students to describe themselves as ‘practical philosophy’. Happy to admit I always wondered what that meant, partly because I couldn’t quite get what a practical philosophy would be (after all it all seemed to be about ideas), and also it seemed if it was ‘practical’ in the sense of ‘doing something’ then was it no longer philosophy.
Our three weeks and my current third reading of Alien Phenomenology combined with other things (see the list below) has helped me clarify this a lot. Practical philosophy in this context is a philosophy that is about doing things, not just thinking about them. Sort of obvious. It might involve primarily ideas, but they are ideas as instruments or tools that are valued for how they can be applied in ways outside of just thinking within or about themselves to other things. So, without this sounding fey or naive, a lot of critical theory expends a lot of energy demonstrating what it is, and then proving that it works. Along they way they sometimes provide a (constrained and often overwhelmingly narrow) account for the way of the world. This account arises from, returns to, revolves around the ideational. The world here risks (and often becomes), little more than abstract proof of the legitimacy of the theory, and so the world is returned to the theory, unchanged, and of course there is then little ability, or recourse, to affect the world. Such work may change my understanding, which is of profound importance (after all what else is education?) but everything remains situated within my use of a theory to account for my understanding of the world, now differently. Here world is subject to thought, thought is primary and it is thought that confers all sorts of things upon the world (sense, meaning, structure).
Much like the way some people consider children, and certainly how we once thought of indigenous Australians, animals, ‘nature’, and in ancient Greece those non citizens called slaves. In these cases we are a centre that grants ourselves the autonomy and authority to confer whatever significance we deem matters to these other things. It is regal, solar, and, as we now see, anthropomorphic. The world = what we as humans make of it, and that is what the world is. That’s just an idealised form of cognitive, perceptual and intellectual colonialism.
This is also a way to think about how the ‘new materialism’ and the ‘post humanities’ approach the linguistic turn. The linguistic turn is based on the rise of semiotics, and then structuralism and subsequently post structuralism, as a dominant theoretical model (narratology, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and so a lot of feminist theory, post colonial studies, queer theory, and so on). Meaning trumps materiality, and meaning is treated as a) human, so b) constructed by us, and c) since constructed subjected to external other ‘meanings’ (forces, powers, which have been given various titles such as hegemony, ideology, patriarchy, colonialism and so on). The new materialism is not wishing to discount these, though it does seem to suggest that most have reached an impasse as they can’t account for the material (and today the material has come to matter, if for no other reason than our physical environment is now understood to matter in fundamentally different ways than before), but it does very forcefully want to return to the things that language and meaning can’t do, as well as recognise and explore the nature of things as things quite a part from the point of view provided by linguistic meaning.
Hence, in Bogost, this interest in theories and ideas that do, and the fascination with things as actants (to use Latour’s term), where things are any thing (ideas, objects, forces, of whatever scale and order) and they do stuff, quite independently of what we think they’re for, and what we think they might mean.
Now, the nub of this for our research is quite simple. Most humanities research looks at what things mean, and leaves it at that. This means it struggles to look at anything that falls outside of this quite small sense of ‘meaning’, and more significantly it means we tend to produce work that reports on what things mean, but we are not well versed or skilled in making things that do. If I want people to rethink what video is and could be, I can write about it theoretically (as I do), and I can make things that do things in and with video (as I have done). If I start from theory and then make I run the risk of domesticating what things do within the umbrella of already given meanings. So the task, and it seems rather large, is to make things that do in a way that embraces their ability to do. And to then see what happens. Or what it is.
Perhaps, and this remains a very open question, if I want to make work that changes how people think about something then the way to do this is not to show what things mean, and suggest they should mean something else, or if we change the thing then it might mean something different, but to begin from what things do rather than what they mean. If I’m a cinematographer and I decide that what a camera does is draw with light (Astruc perhaps) then that offers a very different set of practises and possibilities than if I decide that what a camera does is re-present what I can see, or if I decide it is a machine looking (Vertov) which is special because it sees what I cannot, then that too offers and creates quite a different practice.
Here lies one of the things I’m finally working through in relation to digital practice and theory, particularly in the context of interactive documentary. When we make digitally we are engaged with what things can do, in this post humanities sense (anyone who makes stuff gets the very real and deep materiality of what we work with, even digital code, and it’s a significant critique of the academy that a sentence like that even needs to be written). When the academy comes along we try to see what it means. So we corral, define, shove and poke, fitting it largely into already existing linguistically policed boundary objects. But the first step, the properly critical moment, is to first learn what it can do, and from there, whatever it might be, worry about meaning. And to be clear, ‘interactivity’ (a term wheeled out with all appropriate reverence and tautological completeness, though rarely if ever, in itself engaged with – just what sort of thing is interactivity in itself?) is not what these things can do.
One of the examples that was shown in class to think about some stuff was The Johnny Cash Project and MIT’s Moments of Innovation. Put the two together and what taxonomies occlude becomes manifest, for The Johnny Cash project is at least participatory, interactive, remix, and relies on data visualisation. And at least two of these terms are not about “representation and technology“, at least in terms of documentary representation and digital technology.
Specifities matter much more than generalisations. I think we need to get busy with specificities.
Today’s discussion about taxonomy and classification and analysis of interactive documentaries, and my weird botany example. In botany we have species. Species are different types of plants, so for example we have over 700 species of gum tree in Australia. What defines a gum tree as belonging to one species or another generally consists of differences amongst bark, leaves, and most importantly flowers and gum nuts – the reproductive parts. Historically someone comes along, reckons that plant there is new, grabs a specimen, writes a very detailed description of it, and that becomes the benchmark for that species. Once another one is sufficiently different, it is a new species. What counts as ‘sufficiently different’ is, though, a point of debate. What the debate is doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is debated because there is not this simple ‘flick’ or ‘difference’ between species, but that there will always be examples where an individual will have some of the qualities of one, and some of the qualities of others. It is a graduated scale, analogue, not discrete and digital. Now, what matters is not whether this is a new species or not, what matters is to recognise that gum trees all vary and so what matters for speciation is the extent of the variation, not the fact of variation.
All classification schemes have to do this and have this problem. They have to invent a boundary via a rule that says ‘these qualities or attributes mean you are a part of this group’, and so by definition if you don’t have these then you’re either out, or in another group. (In modernism you were out, excluded, the lesser of the validated half,in post-structuralism you were not excluded, but different, and the world was thought to be about the politics and understanding and policing and epistemology of these boundaries.) Where that boundary sits is always an argument informed by varieties of power (whether this be politics, authority, evidence), so it isn’t neutral and also must mean that classification is never just about what we are classifying. A plus though is that such a system creates for us an understanding of the world where things exist in particular categories, whether gum trees, dogs, gender, bodies, or interactive documentaries.
The risk and danger then with a taxonomy is that when you build your system what you take to be the ‘specimen’ becomes a centre, and distance from this centre comes to define difference, but why is that specimen (that particular documentary) the centre rather than another one? Similarly, what comes to matter is how that documentary is like what the taxonomy identifies, which risks not seeing, or noticing all the ways in which that particular documentary has other qualities, attributes and abilities too. It creates a world of boxes, when the world itself (let alone the much smaller universe of interactive documentaries) does not actually consist of discrete boxes. (Of course everyone who uses these classifications will tell you that the world is complicated and messy, but, well, this is useful as a method and what else can we do?) It might be useful as a method, but a method, not the method. As I said today a more interesting approach, certainly right now, is to look at works and systems and software platforms and services individually and specifically in relation to what they are. Where ‘what they are’ is code for what they can do and what they do do. Not what they mean, that comes after, but what they do.
Why? Well as I outlined in the symposium, if I look at a person I can use large scale things (taxonomies) to make some crude assumptions, but that’s not a good way to understand who that person is. To understand the person I need to pay attention to them, to what they do, and then I can worry about or try and work out what that might mean (for you me). If I don’t then I fall into large categories that at best become stereotypes. The difference is significant and lets me build things (arguments, ideas, even taxonomies) from the bottom up. What things do is right now more interesting than what things mean, if only because when we go straight to what they mean we risk missing, not being able to see, what the things are – which surely is the point of classifying them in the first place. This happens largely because what they mean is not the same thing as what something does, mainly because meaning is such an anthropomorphic (and language centric) conceit. The method I’m proposing is to begin from the understanding that everything varies, and to make that a first principle, rather than identifying what things have in common and making that a beginning. It’s about recognising a world of difference, change, movement, and variation and that taxonomies are (false) moments of imagined stillness. In a media world currently defined by change, surely we need to develop methods that address this, rather than methods that seek the solace of stasis?
By the way, that picture at the top of this post? It’s a gum tree branch that fell on my car while out bushwalking one day in the Grampians. This is one of the things that gum trees can do, which is quite a different thing to what a gum tree, even that gum tree by that car park, means.