Iterative processes and learning to read (and write) our own work

Having had to work intensively on production of a book manuscript to a tight deadline over the past few weeks, I haven’t felt much like writing CRJ entries (beyond the routine). I have, though, been able to reflect on the development of my practice in process terms, and relate this to my plans for the FMP. In doing this, I have tried to develop a coherent and consistent approach to the development of my own practice, which is reflected in, and consistent with, the constituent components of my final project.

The approach I am developing is iterative in the sense that it evolves incrementally through interactions between theory (general and specifically related to the arts and photography), field (what other artists/photographers are doing, both as individuals and as ‘schools’), practice (what I am doing in terms of my own photography, and other artistic and academic work) and context (the macro and micro contexts within which I am working). With a bit of thought, I could probably represent this diagrammatically, but for the moment, there are a couple issues that I would like to explore.

The first question is where to start this process? My feeling is that it doesn’t matter, hence the title ‘learning to read (and write) our own work’. Reflection is a process of making sense of our work, relating it to theory (the concepts and frameworks available to us to make sense of and advance our work) and to the field (positioning our work in relation to other practitioners and transform how we view that work relationally). The sense we make of the work is also influenced by the contexts within which we do the work, and what is possible within those contexts, and how this might affect both what we do and how we interpret and describe it. Viewed in this way, our readings of our own work (and consequently, our readings of the work of others) is becoming incrementally more sophisticated and informed, and that in turn facilitates the iterative development of that work. This does not, of course, preclude quantum leaps (radical changes in how we understand and position what we do, or in the form of work that we produce, where we do the work, where and how we distribute the work and so on). We are not, however, just producing, circulating and reading our work, but also writing it – that is making our practices and interpretations explicit. This is a necessary part of a pedagogic process (‘showing our workings’), and also a constructive component of a wider process of producing and distributing our work as part of a community of practitioners. Whilst a clear sense of intent is necessary, it is not sufficient: that intent has to be positioned (principally, but not exclusively, in the field of photography) and it has to be capable of being realised in practice.

Secondly, there is the question of the relationship between this process of development of practice and the practice itself. In an attempt to avoid an overly deterministic approach to participatory photography, I have attempted to mirror the relational and iterative nature of the development of my practice in processes that I use in my project. This is a way of escaping from the restrictions of bringing an already prefigured project to participants, which necessarily objectifies participants and restricts their agency and ability to produce something that has both value to them and to the wider project. So having defined a broad focus for the project (community engagement with urban regeneration) and a conceptual base (drawing on post-humanism and new materialism, exploring the entanglement of the human and the non-human in spacetime, and oscillation between the analogue and the digital, and the embodied and the virtual), the specific focus of each component of the project and the forms of the outcomes in each component of the project emerge from following the same process (creation of an archive, digital image making, sorting/classifying/editing/relating, rephotographing, mixing/compositing/juxtaposing, narrating, curating/disseminating). How different the outcomes are from each component/setting is an open (empirical) question.

There’s a lot to be done on every front here (for instance, in clarifying the theoretical underpinning of the move between analogue and digital, in the specification of the process, in the identification and organisation of the settings and participants, in the archival work on each location and in the development of the skills necessary for every part of the process). I’ll address these in the coming posts, and index these posts to the key themes of the module.