Surfaces (Week 5 Reflection)

This week provided the space to plan and map out activities for the remaining weeks of this module and relate this work to the development of the FMP. An outline of activities is given as a roadmap here. In terms of methodology, it has provided the opportunity to relate the exploration of different image making strategies in the first part of the module to forthcoming exploration of modes of presentation of work and engagement of audience, and consider how this relates to conceptual and theoretical development. The aim is to achieve a degree of coherence and consistency between these dimensions of practice: each must inform the other. Over this week, the major development in this respect is coming to view this as an iterative process, and then attempting to mirror this process in the way that I work with participants in the project. In terms of methodology, this has led to a more detailed mapping out of process of working with different groups, which can lead to variation in the focus of the work with each group and different forms of output at the end of the process. This is reflected in the sequence of workshops planned from each group (sketched out here). What provides coherence is an underlying conceptual framework and a broad focus on the exploration of the exploration of the experience of change in the social, cultural, built and natural environment brought about by regeneration projects. I’ll explore specific aspects of this in posts over the coming weeks. In terms of photography over the next few weeks, I want to test out elements of the process, which will entail both technical and aesthetic challenges.

Deepwater @ theprintspace, July 2019

I also had the opportunity to visit the Deepwater exhibition (graduation show for the Falmouth MA Photography programme, held at therprintspace Gallery in Spitalfields), which was useful in seeing how my project work (one image) will appear in relation to other work from the degree programme.

Roadmap for Weeks 5 to 11

Title: re.generation

An inter-generational collaborative exploration of community engagement with urban regeneration and responses to local changes in the built and natural environment.

Keywords: urban, regeneration, heritage, environment, community, interdisciplinary, collaborative.

Methods/methodology: collaborative image making to build a collective understanding of individual and community experience of regeneration through visual exploration and expression; participant image making and assisted portraits; collection and analysis of narratives, documents and artefacts.

Preliminary work (Week Five). Workshop with Lewis Bush on investigative techniques, background research on current regeneration projects in Barking and Dagenham, meeting with Barking and Dagenham Heritage Preservation Group (BDHPG), arrangements for image making and anticipated form and presentation of outcomes.

Week 6: Bookbinding workshop 1 at London Centre for Book Arts. Archive work at Valence House (historic images of town centre and riverside areas). Collection of planning documents and developer literature. Image making at Thames Ward Community Project (TWCP) residents summit, and making contacts for subsequent work. Meetings with the headteachers of schools involved to arrange project work in September.

Week 7: Bookbinding workshop 2 at London Centre for Book Arts. Set up participant image making activity with BDHPG. Preliminary portrait work. Printing of work for Arles.

Week 8: Arles meet up and portfolio review. Review of BDHPG participant images and identification of places for rephotographing. Portraits made. Narratives discussed. Response to feedback received.

Week 9: Bookbinding workshop 3 at London Centre for Book Arts. Re- photography done. Composites made and discussed with participants.

Week 10: Selection and printing of images. Design of booklet/archive. Design of exhibition/installation

Week 11: Production of booklet/archive dummy. Production of installation/exhibition material.

Outcomes. Participants images relating to redevelopment of the area, how this relates to their lived experience and how it relates to their aspirations. Assisted portraits of participants. Composites from rephotographs and archive photographs. Accompanying participant narratives, documents and images. Book dummy and installation (or online presentation). Explore possible pop-up exhibition in the Barking Hotel (threatened with demolition in the redevelopment of the town centre).

Relationship with FMP. This will act as preliminary for work my FMP as described in research proposal and updated in my CRJ. The work will be extended by subsequent work in schools and other community groups. The work done in this module will enable my approach to be tested.

Strategies of Freedom (Week 4 Reflection)

It’s been a busy week, with the collaborative zine activity to complete and the 24 hour ‘Hands Off!’ activity. Plus exhibitions in Sydney, 30 hours in the air crossing continents, and guest lectures and webinars. The feedback I have received on my work and plans for the FMP have been reassuring, and I feel confident that I am well prepared for that (as long as I can get all the preliminary work done in the next two weeks, which will be tricky with a book manuscript to deliver, and an introduction to write, in 10 days time). There are also sensitive political issues to address. My major concern is determining the focus for my WIP portfolio for this module, and this will be the focus for my one-to-one tutorial with Cemre on Monday.

Anthony Luvera’s presentation was insightful. Luvera sees his work as a direct descendant of the participatory and critical photography of the Camerawork/Half Moon/Cockpit era (I knew Jo Spence, did my darkroom work at Camerawork and worked for many years with the Director of the Cockpit from that period, so know this work, and its political context and orientation, well). He places equal emphasis on the process of production and the outcomes. His presentation raised interesting issues about the ethics of participatory photography (especially in relation to the regulation of social research, and differences in ethical expectations, for instance in managing risks to the participants), and about authorship (on which he was resolute about the importance of including appropriate attribution to artist in co-authored work, for instance, assisted portraits). Having moved from using photography as an educator, both in classrooms and in the training of teachers, to placing greater emphasis on my own work as a photographer/artist, it was good to be able to position my previous work and my current practice in relation to what Luvera and others are doing. The question of authorship and attribution wasn’t quite resolved for me, and I have to think more about how I attribute work appropriately in the FMP project.

Through his journal ‘Photography for Whom‘ he intends to make visible some of the cultural history of participatory photography; it might be productive to submit a paper which explores the relationship between the fields of photography and education in the development of this work, and the impact of the different forms of institutionalisation of practice, and careers, between these fields. The point he raised about the impersonal nature of the literature and other material available to the providers and recipients of social care, and the inaccessibility of these services, is very important, and his project ‘Frequently Asked Questions‘ is an imaginative, critical and effective way of addressing this.

The zine activity was interesting, and reinforced the importance of clear communication, sense of direction and responsibility in any collaborative project. The resulting zine is successful, in the sense that the images and intent are interesting and consistent, and the final online booklet works well. The activity does, for me, raise questions about the extent to which the spirit of the zine (cheap, lo-fi, accessible, counter-cultural, from and for the community etc) has been lost, or diluted, and the distinction between the zine and the photo-book eroded (again, worth re-visiting Simon Norfolk’s (2019) view of photo-books as indulgent vanity). The final booklet can be found here.

The reflection brief asks for statements about personal practice and methodology, which I think I have addressed elsewhere. In terms of moving my project forward, the next couple of weeks will involve getting approval and making arrangements with key stakeholders, and refining the form the activities will take and working towards achieving the practical competence required (for instance, in the use of the 5×4 in the field, and processing in ecologically low impact ways).

Looking at Luvera’s current working practices has also encouraged me to look at tethering in making assisted portraits. The 24hr activity has opened up two other forms of image that could be used in my FMP (Google satellite images and electronic microscope images). The workshop with Lewis Bush on Saturday should also help me work through what kind of documents and other data I should include in presentation of the FMP (and in the process).

References

Norfolk, S. 2019. Interviewed by Ben Smith. A Small Voice [podcast], 107, 12th June 2019.

AI image production

artificial face

This image of ‘a person who does not exist’ is created by two adversarial AI systems – one creates faces and the other detects flaws (ie. it looks for faces it detects to  be artificial). Working together they refine the collective ability of the system to produce artificial faces. You can see the system in operation here.

Info on how it works is here  and there is an article about the use of these faces in social media here.

The images themselves are produced without direct human intervention. The systems are, however, produced by humans, and the images are created from other images, some of which have been created by humans (and others by capture systems such as CCTV).

Increasingly deep learning AI systems are being trained using images, such as the deep convolutional neural network platform DeepMind, which learns through ‘observation’ of massive collections of images. Humans are, of course, involved in this, not just in the creation of the systems, but also in originating (some) or the images and being the subjects of (some) of the images. As MacKensie and Munster (2019) point out, not only do images we post on platforms such as Facebook feed into these collections, but the image capture chips on the devices we use (such as smart phones) prepare the images we make for this process (of image data extraction).

‘The A11 Bionic released in 2017, iPhone 8’s chip, is optimized for image and video signal processing with a 64-bit and 6-core processor. But it is also optimized to work for machine learning using Apple’s CoreML platform. This ‘platform’ (in a localized sense) enhances image and facial recognition among its raft of AI capabilities, which also include object detection and natural language processing.’ (p.13)

These devices are perhaps more accurately viewed not as cameras, but as image sensors that produce data in a chain of operations in the formation of AI neural networks. It’s not that humans are not involved in the making of images that is changing, but rather how we are involved and what is ultimately created in the process of image/data production when we ‘take a picture’ with these kinds of digital devices.

It was interesting to do this task (seeking ‘non-human’ sources of images) alongside listening to Simon Norfolk’s reflections on the redundancy and poverty of contemporary photographic practice (and education) in his interview with Ben Smith (A Small Voice podcast, 12th June 2019). Both reinforce the need to adopt a relational view of photography, which acknowledges differences between the fields in which photographic images are made, circulated, deployed and consumed, and manner in which what we consider photography to be (and to be able to do) is transformed as we move between contexts and domains of practice. I’ll pick up the issues raised in the Norfolk interview, and relate these to my own project and practice, in a subsequent post.

References

MacKenzie, A. & Munster, A. 2019. Platform Seeing: Image Ensembles and Their Invisualities. Theory, Culture & Society. Advance online publication [https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276419847508]

Norfolk, S. 2019. Interviewed by Ben Smith. A Small Voice [podcast], 107, 12th June 2019.

Alternative image making methods: above and below.

This work was produced as part of the Week 4 activity Hands Off!: ‘you have 24 hours to produce a mini-series of five images relating to your research project, without using apparatus that is familiar to you’. My project, which address community engagement with urban regeneration, has recently taken on an environmental dimension. This is provoked by an emotional response to the ecological violence of large scale urban development projects and engagement with work on the relationship between mental well-being and the built and natural environment (the ‘neuropolis’ – see Fitzgerald et al, 2018) and different understandings of the relationship between communities and the land held in Aboriginal cultures (see Pascoe, 2014). Buttrose (2019), in her curatorial notes to an exhibition exploring the transformation of the Australian landscape, observes that ‘throughout ‘Material Place’ there is a recurring motif of ‘zooming in and out’ suggesting that both macroscopic and microscopic viewpoints need to be captured concurrently to understand the complexity of the world today’. So, in this challenge I have combined two image making strategies that I haven’t used before: (i) screenshots from Google satellite of the areas I am exploring, made on Wednesday morning; (ii) iPhone digital microscope images of organic material collected from these sites on the same day. I have presented these as diptychs.

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Andrew Brown, Gascoigne Estate Diptych #1, 2019
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Andrew Brown, Gascoigne Estate Diptych #2, 2019
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Andrew Brown, Riverside Estate Diptych #1, 2019
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Andrew Brown, Riverside Estate Diptych #2, 2019
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Andrew Brown, Thamesview Estate Diptych #1, 2019

I am not sure where I’ll take this. I’ve always liked the Boyle family work (see Boyle, 1970), and it would be good to do something like that which engages directly with the ground/land (they chose sites randomly). My desk is covered in bugs. I’ve done some quick channel mixing of images from the same site, just to see how it looks – a couple of examples below.

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Andrew Brown, Gascoigne Estate Macro/Micro Composite #1, 2019
Thamesview_small.jpg
Andrew Brown, Thamesview Estate Macro/Micro Composite #1, 2019

References

Boyle, M. 1970. ‘Journey to the Surface of the Earth’. Online at http://www.boylefamily.co.uk/boyle/texts/index.html [accessed 26.06.19]

Buttrose, E. 2019. Material Place: Reconsidering Australian Landscapes [Curatorial notes]. UNSW Galleries, Sydney. 21.06.19-07.09.19

Fitzgerald, D., Rose, N. and Singh, I. 2018. ‘Living Well in the Neuropolis’, The Sociological Review, 64: 221–237.

Pascoe, B. 2014. Dark Emu. Broome, Western Australia: Magabala Books.

Collaboration or Participation? (Week 3 Reflection)

As others have indicated in the Week 3 discussion, our orientation to collaboration relates not only to our photographic practice, but also to our life-experiences, our place in the contexts we are exploring and our personal dispositions. My project, and wider practice, is inherently collaborative, and I view the participants in the work as co-investigators (with all the challenging issues that this brings). Over the course of this module, I have refined the approach I am taking and produced, what I hope is, an achievable design for the FMP. I discussed this with Cemre in the webinar, and she made a helpful suggestion about the use of The Newspaper Club for zine style publication (the broadsheet format is similar to the form used by Simon Roberts in the Election Project).

I have posted numerous examples of collaborative work over the past year in the discussion groups and in my CRJ. In addition to work related to my FMP, collaborative work has included: workshops with postgraduate urban planning students and working in the field with them to explore communities undergoing change; working alongside undergraduate students exploring object based learning with art galleries and museums; collaborative portraiture with community groups in redevelopment areas leading to a pop-up exhibition; the creation of an image bank with a development activist group; engagement with community archives in creation of composite images; mentoring projects using photovoice type approaches with young adult offenders.

Coming from an education and social science background, I share many of the influences cited by Wendy Ewald (Ewald and Gottesman, 2014; Ewald and Luvera, 2013) and in the work on the collaborative turn in photography by Daniel Palmer (2013). In exploring photovoice style approaches (Wang and Burris, 1997; Fitzgibbon and Stengel, 2018) I have come to share the reservations of researchers such as Sinha & Back (2014), who are critical of the tendency of this work to position participants as subjects rather than co-investigators (and recognise the subsequent ethical issues that arise from this). Whilst the distinction made by Chalfen (2011) between projects and studies is useful, I have commented elsewhere on the need to look again at the ethical dimensions of project style work in the light of changing social, cultural and technological circumstances. I have been concerned by the ethical looseness of a number of photographic projects we have discussed (for instance, by Susan Meiselas, in which informal contracts are implied that cannot be honoured, see Garnett and Meiselas, 2007) and about the readiness of some photographers to declare themselves as the (unproblematic) mediators of other peoples ‘stories’ (with the associated dangers of mis-recognition, homogenisation and symbolic violence that this brings; working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and artists recently has further heightened my awareness of this). It’s not that motives and commitments are being questioned here, nor that we should cease doing this kind of work, but that there are difficult ethical , epistemological and ontological issues to be addressed, which may, indeed, enrich the work that we do, for instance, in understanding and engaging with the knowledges of indigenous people (see, for instance, Pascoe, 2014), and locally and globally contextualising cultural, economic and political struggles.

Why am I tending towards collaborative photographic work whilst many others are more introspective in their approach? In part this is to do with my familiarity with and commitment to social and educational change, and my confidence in working in these settings. It is also to do with my general disposition to and interest in social interaction – I like being with, interacting with and learning about other people and their lifeworlds; in my social research this has led me to interview-based and participant observational forms of research, rather than the survey and the archive. It also has to do with my relationship with photography, which started in front of the camera as a child model, and as James has observed, these commercial settings are by necessity team efforts, with a complex division of labour and requiring participants to work together (though this is, of course, not always achieved in practice). Photography for me has always been a collaborative, collective and public activity.

In terms of the focus of this part of the course, it leads me not to deeper consideration of participatory and collaborative approaches (that is ongoing anyway in the development of my project), but rather to explore the potential of more introspective (and reflexive) forms of practice. It has also deepened my commitment to exploring, in a rigorous way, what is distinctive about photographic, and more broadly visual arts and arts more generally, approaches in advancing our understanding, and how this can enrich truly interdisciplinary exploration of the complex and pressing challenges that face us locally and globally.

References

Chalfen, R. 2011. ‘Differentiating Practices of Participatory Visual Media Production’, in Margolis, E. and Pauwels, L. (eds) The SAGE handbook of visual research methods. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE, pp. 186–200.

Ewald, W. and Gottesman, E. 2014. We’re Talking about Life and Culture, Aperture, Issue 214, Spring 2014, 86–93.

Ewald, W. and Luvera, A. 2013. Tools for Sharing: Wendy Ewald in Conversation with Anthony Luvera, Photovoice, 20, 48–59.

Fitzgibbon, W. and Stengel, C. M. 2018. ‘Women’s voices made visible: Photovoice in visual criminology’, Punishment and Society, 20(4), pp. 411–431.

Garnett, J. and Meiselas, S. 2007. On the Rights of Molotov Man: Appropriation and the art of context. Harper’s Magazine, February 2007: 53-58.

Palmer, D. 2013. A collaborative turn in contemporary photography? Photographies, 6(1), 117–125.

Pascoe, B. 2014. Dark Emu. Broome, Western Australia: Magabala Books.

Sinha, S. and Back, L. 2014 ‘Making methods sociable: Dialogue, ethics and authorship in qualitative research’, Qualitative Research, 14(4), pp. 473–487.

Wang, C. and Burris, M. A. (1997) ‘Photovoice: Concept, Methodology, and Use for Participatory Needs Assessment’, Health Education & Behavior. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 24(3), 369–387.

(re)mixing (Week 2 Reflection)

Not having reliable internet access while traveling in Northern Queensland has been frustrating this week. I have had to withdraw from the webinar and have not been able to participate in the guest presentations, so feedback on the development of my project has been limited. I have, though, been able to follow up the exchange of messages with Ricard Martinez, and think about how I could incorporate something of his approach into my project (for instance, the use of community walks around an area). I have also been able to reflect on the ethical dimensions of the ‘Joywar’ exchanges, which has helped me to think through the ethical issues that might be raised by my study, and consider how I might address these.

Ricard Martinez, Pont Vell, Lleida, mayo, 2016.

The exchange with Ricard made me aware of the (re)mixing dimensions of my own work, and the manner in which I can bring together archival images (which I have started to do with the erase series) and other visual forms (for instance, maps and data visualizations). I can also incorporate images produced by others (for instance, developer images, as I have through photographs of hoardings in Barking) into my work. This is certainly a form of mixing, and the variations on this by adjusting filters (and the combination of these images in the animations produced) could constitute various re-mixes. There is also a degree of remixing (as a form of transformation) going on as I move from analogue to digital (and back again). In thinking about the display, whilst Ricard did not have experience of projection, he reminded me of Shimon Attie’s projection work in Berlin.

Shimon Attie, Linienstrasse 137: Slide projection of police raid on former Jewish residents, 1920, Berlin, 1992, color photograph and on-location installation

The effect of projecting archival images on buildings is similar in some ways to the mixing of archival with contemporary images in my erase series.

Andrew Brown, erase #1, 2019.

I could explore the possibility of projection work at the decommissioned powerstation at Barking Riverside, or another of the locations offered by filmlbbd.

The B-Building: a former power station dating back to 1939 and decommissioned in 1976 .

Reading around art methodology has helped me to resolve differences between my own (social science inflected) view of methodology, and the manner in which this term is used in relation to photographic practice. Both entail the achievement of a consistency of approach which is based on a set of explicit principles and informed by theory and practice within the field of work. They also require careful consideration of the appropriateness of methods used, and the opportunities and limitations placed on practice by the context and focus of the project or study. Just how explicitly this is stated in the outcomes of a project clearly varies between artistic practice and social research (artists’ statements give a sense of orientation and position in the field, whereas accounts of the outcomes of social research would require more detailed explication of the relationship between theory, methodology, design, methods and analysis). In the development of my FMP, I now have to move from a general methodological position, which has emerged alongside the development of my photographic practice over the previous modules, to reassess my project proposal and produce a project design which is achievable in the time available.

‘Joywar’ and ethical practice

Like Len and some others in the group, photography is not a primary economic activity for me, so I am happy to see my work used, even for the commercial benefit of others, with a strong preference for some form of attribution. I would, though, be very unhappy to see my work used to deceive or misinform (this was discussed in detail in Positions and Practice, so no need to reprise that here).

In contributing to the ‘Joywar’ debate I want to pick up on a statement made by Meiselas to justify her initial (legally aggressive) action against Garnett. Meiselas (Garnett and Meiselas, 2007) states that:

‘No one can “control” art, of course, but it is important to me – in fact, it is central to my work – that I do what I can to respect the individuality of the people I photograph, all of whom exist in specific times and places’ (p.56).

She subsequently reinforces this by asserting that:

‘We owe this debt of specificity [of context] not just to one another but to our subjects, with whom we have an implicit contract’ (p.58).

I want to question the extent to which the terms of this implicit contract can ever be met, and therefore, whether it is sustainable for Meiselas, or any other journalist/artist, to make this integral to their practice. If we cannot control, as Meiselas recognises, what others do with the images we make, it would appear that we are very limited in the extent to which we can honour this contract, or, indeed, protect ‘subjects’ (perhaps, more respectfully, participants) from any potential harm that might come to them in the circulation of their image, either in its initial, repurposed or remixed form. This is increasingly problematic with the deployment of AI enhanced facial recognition systems. In gaining the confidence of participants in photographic work, it is increasingly important, then, to make them aware of the potential consequences of participation, and the measures that are being taken by the photographer to reduce the risk of harm. In the case of ‘Molotov Man’, it would appear that minimal effort has been made to manage this risk, and unlikely that this would have been raised with Pablo Arauz at the time (or subsequently). Whilst Meiselas might aspire to show respect for the participant in this way, the implicit contract seems unrealizable and disingenuous. Maybe better to (explicitly) acknowledge, and make clear to participants, that being photographed (particularly by a well-known and high profile photographer) brings risks, and amongst these is the risk that someone might appropriate and/or recontextualize the image and use it for a totally different purpose. This, of course, would make certain forms of photographic practice untenable (a debate for another day). Graham Smith, whose photographs of his own working class community in Middlesborough were the result of a close relationship and trust between him and members of the community, stopped taking photographs after some of his images were used by The Daily Telegraph to denigrate and disparage working class communities (he became an art picture framer – an archive of his photographs, however, with his own hand written notes on the back, is held by the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, and well worth looking at).

Graham Smith, Who She Wanted and What She Got, South Bank, Middlesbrough, 1982

The photograph objectifies its subject (whatever the expressed intention of the photographer), and the resulting (decontextualized, portable and transmissible) image is commodified, circulated, traded and reconfigured. Institutions, communities and individuals take various ethical positions and make ethically informed decisions in relation to this process, which shapes what is and is not possible and thus shapes their practice. In Meiselas’s case, there is a disjunction between her positioning and her practice (in relation to what is possible: her commitment to the communities is clear and admirable).

In academic social research, expectations regarding ethical practice are distinctly different (a function of the institutionalization of research), not least in being more explicitly expressed and enforced, and somewhat more demanding than expressions of ‘respect’ and ‘implicit contracts’. To gain formal ethical approval, a research proposal would have to elucidate the ways in which risk of harm to participants is minimized. In most cases, this would involve gaining the informed consent of participants and the anonymization of participants in the recording of data and reporting of outcomes. This is clearly problematic in photographic work. Fitzgibbon and Stengel (2018), for instance, in their paper on a study of female drug users and sex workers, which uses a Photovoice style method involving discussion of photographs made by participants, uses pseudonyms and features only photographs where individuals cannot be recognized.

Figure 2. ‘Don’t inject dope, because you’ll be taken by the police’. Figure taken by Chicks Day employee Bora. From Fitzgibbon and Stengel (2018).

This almost automatic demand for anonymity of participants is questioned, for instance Sinha and Back (2014) raise the issue of truly collaborative research where, ethically, participants would be seen as co-creators of knowledge, and, arguably, should be recognized as co-authors in publication, and therefore identified (but in full knowledge of the potential risks, and gains, of identification). However, the approval of participants to be recognized and identified is not enough. They may not be aware of the potential for harm, and therefore any consents has to be informed (which entails making them fully aware of the consequences, which includes the ‘remixing’ and re-contextualization of their image).

My question here is whether, given the increasing use of images as data, AI enhanced capability to recognize people and link data, and the ubiquity of remixing of images, we should now question, or at least modify, Chalfen’s (2011) distinction between projects and studies. Whilst the rigour and explicitness in collection and analysis of data (whatever form that takes) demanded by the academic study may not hold for the project, the potential risks to the participants are similar, and need to be managed, ethically and practically, which, in turn, will transform what we can and cannot do in the creation and circulation of images.

References

Chalfen, R. 2011. ‘Differentiating Practices of Participatory Visual Media Production’, in Margolis, E. and Pauwels, L. (eds) The SAGE handbook of visual research methods. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE, pp. 186–200.

Fitzgibbon, W. and Stengel, C. M. 2018. ‘Women’s voices made visible: Photovoice in visual criminology’, Punishment and Society, 20(4), pp. 411–431.

Garnett, J. and Meiselas, S. 2007. On the Rights of Molotov Man: Appropriation and the art of context. Harper’s Magazine, February 2007: 53-58.

Sinha, S. and Back, L. 2014 ‘Making methods sociable: Dialogue, ethics and authorship in qualitative research’, Qualitative Research, 14(4), pp. 473–487.

Methodology (Week 1 Reflection)

I am taking methodology to mean, in this context, the general approach taken to my work. This is influenced by how I, conceptually, think about the contexts I am exploring (theory) and how I conceive of and position my practice (field). In turn, methodology influences the design of particular projects (in the light of the contexts and purposes of the project) and the selection of particular methods. In this sense, methodology sits between (and thus shapes and is shaped by) theory and practice. In my current work, I am exploring the relationship between time, place and communities as they experience the process of urban regeneration. This involves the exploration of different notions of time/space and the entanglement of human activity and identity with the natural and the built environment. Whilst other work exploring similar contexts has focused on either the lived experiences of residents or the nature of the changes taking place in the built environment, I am focusing on the dynamic relationship between these. I am not attempting to ‘tell the stories’ of others (either the residents or the developers), but rather to counterpose constructed histories with codified presents and imagined futures. I attempt to create an array of alternative narratives, and offer the viewer the opportunity to explore relationships between these.

In order to do this, my approach is to collect and organise archival images, planning documents, maps and data to be juxtaposed with my own images of and from within communities and the places they inhabit. These juxtapositions produce fictions that are intended to engage viewers and provoke questions about our humanistic aspirations (including aspirations for equity, prosperity and social justice) and our place in the natural world (as it has been and how it might be), for instance, through the ways that we inscribe and are inscribed by the objects and environment around us. Methodologically, my work is constructive (it is making not finding meaning), relational (it emphasises the contextual and interactional character of meaning) and heuristic (it is a tool for making meaning, not a form of representation). 

This week I presented a selection of images from my WIP portfolio in a webinar and also exchanged ideas with Ricard Martinez, who presented his work as a guest speaker. The feedback confirmed to me that there is potential in the channel mixing work, but that the aim of this work, in exploring the interactions between organic material, everyday activity and emerging futures, needs to be clear. There are clear resonances between my own work and Ricard’s, though our approaches, and resulting images, are very different. I am taken by the way in which he leads tours through the areas he is exploring and works with participants in making their own images. I would like to try something similar around Barking Riverside, Thamesview, Creekmouth and other areas undergoing change, focussing on the built environment, the social and cultural environment and the natural environment (and the interaction between these). The Bow Centre or Gascogne Estate might also be good for trying out this approach. Responses at the webinar were also positive, but the desire to ‘tell stories’ was raised, and I need to resist being drawn into production of work which retreads what has already been done in other contexts, and away from the relational nature of the work, which is fundamental to me (and for the theory that informs my practice). Cemre noted that the images conveyed to her a sense of decay. This may be related to the selection of the images. I do not want to present an apocalyptic vision, so I do need to think clearly about how these particular images sit alongside other images and artefacts. I should also revisit the use of colour. The complexity of the images invokes a sense of chaos, and that they are in black and white perhaps reinforces the sense of decay and foreboding. The return to the natural (post-human) that is being explored might involve the decay (or at least, the transformation) of the built environment, but this is not, in any absolute sense, a more general process of decay (though some engagement with the concept of entropy might be necessary here).

The next steps in advancing the project are (i) continue to explore the production of composites, to get a clearer idea of what kinds of images produce what effects; (ii) continue to explore modes of presentation, including projection, light boxes and printing on a range of different materials; (iii) collect documents and archival material for the contexts being explored, including maps, planning documents, developer literature and brochures and photographs (upcoming research workshop with Lewis Bush should help with this); (iv) experiment with the juxtaposition of images, artefacts, sound and text, with the WIP portfolio for this module and the output of the FMP in mind; (v) identify a context for, and plan, possible ‘tour’ type activities (for instance, with the Bow Centre citizen science group).

Ruscha books at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Ruscha books in the Art Gallery of New South Wales Study Room

I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon looking at nine of Ed Ruscha’s books with Deborah Jones (prints and drawings room coordinator) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales Study Room. Whilst the holding is well-presented online (with key information on each item and reproductions of all the images), it really makes a difference to see the books themselves.

Pages from ‘Twentysix Gasoline Stations’

The books vary dramatically in terms of format and quality of production (for instance, paper, type of binding, image reproduction), which reinforces the observation by Di Piero (2012: 49) that ‘for Ruscha, a book can be an icon, an archive, a technology, an action zone, an artistic support, a motif.’ The contrast between, for instance, the 1963 Twentysix Gasoline Stations and the 1967 Thirtyfour Parking Lots is marked. The latter is a larger format with glossy paper and higher quality images (produced for Ruscha rather than by Ruscha). Whilst the former presents a kind of narrative (a three day journey with a distinct ‘end’), the impact of the latter is in the patterns in the aerial photographs of the deserted parking lots, and the juxtaposition of these. Royal Road Test (1967) presents other contrasts, both in form (spiral bound, text, full-bleed images, jointly authored) and content (a quasi-forensic report).

Pages from ‘Royal Road Test’

Looking at the books also reinforces Dziewior’s (2012) observation that there is a distinct rhythm to Ruscha’s books, particularly in the use of blank pages. Nine Swimming Pools is peppered with blank pages (varying from two to six pages), and Colored People and A Few Palm Trees, smaller format than the other books with glossy covers, have nothing but blank pages for the second half of each book. Thirtyfour Parking Lots has photographs of different proportions, including panoramic shots (taken to its extreme in the 7.5 metre, accordion folded Every Building on the Sunset Strip). And at the end of Thirtyfour Parking Lots there is one of Ruscha’s jokes, with a panoramic shot going beyond the constraints of the page and onto a tab. Deborah remarked that Ruscha is ‘cheeky’, which seems about right.

Pages from ‘Thirtyfour Parking Lots’

The splicing of images in Every Building on the Sunset Strip is crude, with a number of partial frames and disjunctions. Initially, I thought that, as with other Ruscha works (except Royal Road Test) there were no human figures (which I take to be a comment on Los Angeles life and the dominance of the car), but there are a couple of people sitting on a bench in one frame, and a couple of figures entering a shopping mall. It was great to unfold the whole thing (which is composed of a number of sections glued together), though we didn’t have a 7.5 metre stretch to lay it out flat.

Pages from ‘Every Building on Sunset Strip’
Ed Ruscha, Every Building on Sunset Strip, 1966

I have revised two of my books for this activity to add in blank pages in line with the associated Ruscha books. If I had time to make further books, I think I would do something entitled ‘Small World’ or ‘Big Country’ which, inspired by Megan’s instagram comment, documented the ‘big’ objects (like the ‘Big Pineapple’ and the ‘Big Prawn’ which have sprung up along the Pacific Highway, using images from Google maps.

Big Prawn, West Ballina (image from Google Streetview).
Anonymised Prawn, West Ballina (image from Google Streetview).

Final note: the copy of ‘Colored People’ had the price paid in a secondhand bookshop in London . £1.

References

Di Piero, W.S. 2012. ‘The sand is in the vaseline’. In Reading Ed Ruscha, edited by Y. Dziewior and K. Bregenz. Köln: Kunsthaus Bregenz. 46-53.

Dziewior, Y. 2012. ‘Reading Ed Ruscha’. In Reading Ed Ruscha, edited by Y. Dziewior and K. Bregenz. Köln: Kunsthaus Bregenz. 18-25.

Ruscha Books in Art Gallery of New South Wales holding

Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963
Various Small Fires, 1964
Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966
Thirtyfour Parking Lots, 1967
Royal Road Test, 1967
Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, 1968
Real Estate Opportunities, 1970
A Few Palm Trees, 1971
Colored People, 1972